Christmas-crime with the Test match loafers: a festive fable of murder, mystery and unusual hashtags (Part Two)

PART TWO

The Sofa was in shock, but the show must go on, as they say. While forensic experts were drawing a chalk outline around the prone and very stationary Ben – for it was quickly apparent that this was no natural demise – Dan pressed on, no easy task when Lizzy, Soph and Henna were sitting on the spare sofa at the back of the room, hoodies up, sniffling into their hankies like a trio of Scottish Widows. Camilla, our saucy, student Sri Lankan tweetheart, sunny of nature and heavy of bosom, emailed in to express her anguish before returning to her physics dissertation.

 Harwood, standing in the doorway, immediately suggested that it must have been a gang-related killing, for these streets of Nunhead were mean, very very mean, but Ben was white, very very white and it seemed unlikely he was caught up in inner-city black-on-black gun crime.

Spitfire Sarah thought Harwood might just have had one Red Stripe too many. Henna misconstrued Harwood’s words and, wiping her tears on her I Love Henna T-shirt, took him to task for implying it might be the work of “brown” people.

The sunnily-dispositioned Spitfire Sarah, official photographer for Kent County Cricket Club and unofficial photographer for the Sofa, helpfully took a few shots of the crime scene in case it might aid the investigation. Sofa Scouser Gary asked her if she would be putting them up on her website for use in her caption competition.

Other Sofa workers tried to busy themselves, fearful that suspicion might fall on them. Miles, actor, comedian and occasional contributor, tried to steer the discussion in an entirely different direction and mostly succeeded. As England began to pile on the runs, conversation moved from random large objects that could be viewed around the globe – the World’s Greatest Ball of Twine in Kansas, the World’s Largest Cravat in Croatia (Suave’s ears pricked up at this), Camilla’s breasts – to obscure museums: the Pencil Museum in Keswick was the listeners’ favourite.

But Miles topped them all with the Museum Hotel in Wellington, which had a giant model of the New Zealand prime minister made of toast. And not just any old toast, but toast grilled to a variety of settings: there was crispy toast and soggy toast, and there was burnt toast and raw toast….

 “… Isn’t raw toast just bread?” The Bear wondered aloud, sort of rhetorically. He was kind of nervous about the police presence.

 What was without doubt, though, was that Ben was toast, whether of the crispy, soggy, burnt or raw variety. But who could have wanted him out of the way? Sofa-ites began to regard each other warily. It was true that Tom and Ben had not always seen eye-to-eye on business matters but did the soft and sentimental Sofa producer really have it in his bones to execute a Mafia-style hit? What about Hendo? Hendo, whose middle age was spreading itself like a rapidly replicating virus around his core, was known to be jealous of Ben’s youth, his cyclist’s thighs and the washboard stomach that barely quivered no matter how many smart restaurants he frequented during the week. He couldn’t be ruled out

And what about Soph? Had she blamed Ben for the disappearance of the bottle of vintage champagne that had gone missing from her fridge on Christmas night?

Over the next couple of days, as England built an unassailable lead at the G, the theories began to proliferate. Ben had been the victim of a professional hit ordered by Craig, the head of the Melbourne-based internet cricket betting service that sponsored us, after the banker’s canny picks had rendered him almost penniless; Ben had been the victim of Dan’s desperate attempts to ensure the Sofa’s long-term financial future after our Glorious Leader had learned of an enormous life insurance package on his head. Even Henna’s brownies and Soph’s fabada failed to escape scrutiny; they were taken away for laboratory analysis – not because the cops believed they’d been injected with deadly toxins but because they looked bloody delicious and they wanted the recipes.

 J-Rod, interviewed by the Victorian police because he was in Australia, suggested the crime was sexually motivated, but with J-Rod everything was sexually motivated.

When he was briefly taken into custody, Shivam LM, the secretary of his fan club, started a protest movement to draw attention to his plight: ‘Free the Cricketwithballs One’.

Even our esteemed tweeters were put under surveillance. The ever loyal Nestlé Boy, the very first tweeter to pick up the Sofa torch and run with it after being made redundant just before the 2009 Ashes, found himself the subject of a stakeout by Epping police. He was known to do little now but lie on his own settee watching cricket, tennis and golf and listening to the Sofa. So after four days of no activity they gave up, the only flutter of excitement coming when he was forced to his feet to answer the door to a neighbour who’d brought him over his regular Sunday roast; in the quiet and reclusive existence his life had become, it might well have been the only way he knew what day it was.

Andy in Brum was next on the detectives’ radar. He had done a couple of recces from the Midlands, ostensibly to take in the Sofa atmosphere, but now we began to think he might have had a more sinister motive. Had he grown enraged by Ben’s refusal to read out all his tweets, forcing him to angrily hashtag everything #benwontreadthisout?

We even began to wonder about Pryke in Munich, the jingle-meister who had put together our popular Ben Hilfenhaus and Ravi Bopara tunes. Like Ravi Bopara, he had not been seen or heard from for some time and this was unusual. And was it not Ben who had sneaked up to the toilet cubicle in which a drunken Prykie had fallen asleep after the Sofa/Taverners match, put his mobile phone on its camera setting, held it up above the door and recorded for posterity the image of the Yorkshireman, keks around his ankles, comatose on the pot? If that wasn’t incitement to murder, what on earth was?

But the police, it transpired, were working on another, and quite frankly, rather far-fetched theory. Mistaken identity. They believed that the true target may have been Suave, hypothesizing that he had been stalked to Nunhead by a love-struck Finnish sniper he’d befriended at the end of a hard day’s work south of Helsinki. Suave was no snob when it came to drinking partners, but in the snowy wastelands of Salo – translated, the name of the Finnish town in which he was carrying out important IT improvements meant “backwoods”, and with a population density of only 27 per square kilometer it really was – you couldn’t afford to be too choosy. It emerged though that the sniper, who’d taken out 400 people with his rifle during mercenary spells in Bosnia and Iraq, was just as keen on boys as killing, and while you couldn’t blame him for his attraction to probably the most dapper IT specialist Salo had ever seen, Suave was keen on girls; when he felt a trigger-happy hand loitering around his thigh, it was time for him to make his excuses and leave.

 But when we pointed out that any sniper who had mistaken the hulking shape of Ben crumpled under a duvet for that of the far more wiry Suave would struggle to get too many more commissions, the police admitted defeat and stroppily closed the investigation.

***********

But then two strange things happened. First a man in his early twenties came forward claiming he had been held hostage by the Sofa when they were short-staffed during the India/New Zealand series, falling asleep after a few too many drinks at the Sofa’s house-warming party and waking to find himself strapped to a swivel chair and forced into a prolonged period of ball-by-ball commentary.

However, under detailed questioning from Manny, he admitted that he had returned to the address the following weekend, when there was no party. Was this the action of a man who didn’t like cricket, Manny wanted to know? Was this the action of a man forced to commentate against his will. Case dismissed.

Second, a media that had remained ambivalent about the Sofa’s minor successes – when the BBC and ITV had sent round teams to cover the reaction to England’s 2010/11 Ashes victory their footage had ended on the cutting-room floor – suddenly began to camp out on our doorstep. We supposed suspected murder had that effect. Notes were passed under doors requesting interviews with the main protagonists, but Dan and Ralphie couldn’t agree on whether we should sell our story to the Guardian or the Telegraph while Manny favoured the Times. Hendo, knowing times were tough for journalists starting out on their careers, suggested giving it to the intern at the free Peckham Rye RumourMonger (Nunhead edition).

Eventually, though, we opted to hand the exclusive to Spin magazine, which devoted a whole issue to the story. Lizzy, its new multi-media manager, alerted her 14 million twitter followers and all the nationals reproduced it as Duncan had written it, almost word for word. George sued under copyright legislation and settled out of court, keeping a third of an eye-watering payout and handing another third to the Sofa, securing the future of both enterprises for some time to come.

 But while the story we gave to Spin was a good one – it wasn’t the true one. And how could it have been, for only three people knew what really happened. Only now was everyone else about to find out.

 **********

 The 2014/15 Ashes had been another successful one for England, who had retained the urn for the third successive time by the time the series had got to Melbourne, and another successful one for the Sofa, now the commentary service of choice for the vast majority of cricket lovers, many of whom listened to it by way of Apple’s newly-released Eye Pod – a tiny electronic device implanted behind the retina which automatically synchronized Sky’s TV coverage with the Sofa’s words of wisdom.

The legend of the Death on the Sofa (all right, it was technically Death on the Stairs but Dan had allowed it to be termed that for publicity purposes after signing up Max Clifford) may have helped listening figures but so had the few new professional tweaks the show had been given, chief among them Aatif’s new-found mastery of English, which had opened up whole new markets.

 Statistical genius Howe-Zat had become a regular at the new studio/offices, now accommodated in a suite which took up the whole of a floor at the Savoy, and acquired a cult status that Bill Frindall and Benedict on Sky could have only dreamed of.

With only Sydney to go, Dan and Tom left the show in the old hands of The Bear – with a direct line to Room Service, a happier Bear there never had been – and J-Rod, who had decided against traveling to his native land to write a fourth volume on Australia’s Ashes defeats. We thought they had gone on holiday with their long-suffering partners and looked forward to seeing them in familiar surroundings in a fortnight or so.

 But the next time we saw them they were in anything but familiar surroundings. The camera bulbs flashed, the dancing girls danced and the extremely famous Bollywood singer sang. And in between them all, behind a bank of microphones detailing the various media outlets that were broadcasting this live – CNN, Zee TV, Fox Australia, CBeebies – were two bespectacled gentlemen, unmistakeable bespectacled gentlemen, with enormous grins on their faces.

The man with the most enormous of the enormous grins on his face began to speak. “It’s very bright in here,” he said, in a voice we recognized but which was not his. “Very very bright indeed.” We waited, transfixed, for more. “And it’s a very very bright future that I predict for this man….” continued Dan, for it was he in case you hadn’t guessed, as he swept his arm theatrically in the direction of the wings of the venue. The TV cameras turned, surprised, and, through the mist of dried ice, and to a great fanfare, recorded the stride of a great colossus, attired head-to-toe in the traditional male Indian dress of a dhoti in purest white silk. Many of us gasped audibly while the others broke into great, shoulder-shrugging sobs as Dan, milking the moment for all it was worth, added: “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the owner of the 24th IPL franchise, the TMSofa Samurais, Mister…..Benedict……Culllllllllleeennnnn.”

 

*******

The party we had that night was something else. Catherine, Dan’s long-suffering partner, allowed us to take over the flat in Tooting Bec where it had all begun in 2009. Everyone came: Aatif, fresh from his stint as MC on Friday Night at the Apollo, Henna with an entourage of admirers, Sofa Scouser Gary after seeing off the final proofs in his new job at the London Review of Books, Soph with a platter of goodies and and Lizzy in a new pair of expensive shoes, Manny in a barrister’s wig (we’d told him it was fancy dress), Ralphie showing off his medal after coaching his coxless eight to victory at Henley, Zoob from an organ recital at the Royal Albert Hall and J-Rod from the premiere of his second zombie movie in Leicester Square, Suave from Finland, via Billericay, Liverpool Street and the Northern Line, Spitfire Sarah with her 400mm lens and endearing giggle, top Aussie techie Beggy G clutching one of Hendo’s books – for he was the only one who had ever read any of Hendo’s books – Harwood with a barrel of Red Stripe and of course, me, Hendo, to whom the real facts of Ben’s “death” – and hence this tale which I am now relating – had been confided over the phone from ICC headquarters in Dubai.

Ben, I learned from several thousand miles away, had come up with the plan himself. No stranger to the finest cuisine that London had to offer by night or day, it was hatched after a visit with some banking clients to the most expensive Japanese restaurant in the Square Mile. There, he was goaded by his companions to display his “Master of the Universe” credentials by sampling the Puffer Fish, the Russian roulette of seafood that can only be prepared by the most experienced and specially trained chefs, who know how to remove the deadly toxins the creature contains.

While Ben lived to eat another day, the experience planted in his mind a ruse to save the Sofa from ruin, while bringing forward the day when he might fulfil his stated dream to own and select his own cricket team in an IPL auction. For, the minutest dose of the Puffer Fish toxin does not kill, but merely paralyses for a couple of hours, while giving the appearance of death. Unbeknown to all but Ben, Dan and Tom, Ben had not arrived at the Sofa pissed but took on the appearance of inebriation after adding a tiny drop of the poison to one of Henna’s brownies. By the time police had completed their preliminary enquiries and Ben was delivered to the morgue, he was almost fully functioning again – and made his escape, fleeing past the refrigerated remains of many who had truly ceased to be before flying out to the Far East that very night, where he laid low for a considerable time. Of course, all the authorities involved in his safe transportation and storage were extremely embarrassed to have lost a body and the healthcare trust, in discussions with a cooperative coroner charitable chief of police, hushed it up.

 But his “death” had the intended consequences. It got Test Match Sofa on the front pages, and, in the course of time, the Sofa and he benefited – for it was to him that the final third of the copyright money went thanks to the help of some creative accounting types, a couple of offshore jurisdictions and a man with a boat with a very false bottom. Ben even had enough cash to slip down to Australia for a couple of the Ashes Tests, where he mingled anonymously among the Barmy Army.

I could barely believe it when Dan provided the details. The incredulity must have sounded in my voice. But gradually, eventually, the Sofa’s Glorious Leader won my confidence over and from then on I was a bundle of impatience to get back to the party to share the story with the others. That wasn’t easy because Dan was on a roll. And when Dan’s on a roll he’s a very difficult man to bring to a halt. Eventually though, I managed to get a word in edge-ways. And as Tom had said to his verbose associate at the end of many a long Sofa day, I commented: “Don’t you think it’s about time we wrapped up?”

“OK,” he replied, finally becalmed. “But before you go, just remember one thing.”

“What’s that? I asked.

“Goodnight, God Bless, and be, be, be, be nice to everybody.”

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Christmas-crime with the Test Match Loafers: A festive fable of murder, mystery and unusual hashtags

Disclaimer: Some of the following actually happened; most of it did not. And some of it that did happen often happened to someone else. That’s journalistic licence for you!

 

PART ONE

Hendo yawned, Manny harrumphed and the lungs of Dan, Nigel the Bear, and Lizzy wheezed in unison as they sucked in their addictive noxious substances for possibly the twentieth time that day. It was only then that we realized that the cardinal sin of broadcasting had been broken: silence on air. Soph reacted first, emerging from a wistful daydream about J-Rod, our absent but amiable Australian perve-ball, and was about to step into the breech with another well-timed rant about Freddie Flintoff’s tax-domiciled status when she was forestalled by Henna, lovely, gorgeous, soft-spoken Henna, a latecomer to the Test Match Sofa team who had enthralled, enraptured and excited listeners and veteran commentators alike in her few short weeks of involvement. Even though we had spent the summer hollering for her beloved Pakistan, we forgave her for failing the Tebbit test and shouting the odds for Australia. “Shall I read some tweets?” she asked in a voice that would have melted a snowman in an igloo.

Dan showed due leadership, draining the dregs of a double whiskey before inviting, in his deeply authoritative BBC tones, Henna to continue. It was Golden Strawb, the Sofa’s  medieval history correspondent and a political blogger of some renown, with more information about the ninth-century monk Roger the Bugger, which was a name, not an inducement to sordid action. That was the thing about the Sofa: the cricket could always be hijacked by something even more compelling than Alastair Cook’s difficulties with the full ball outside off stump.

“It was actually Robert the Bugger,” Henna informed us, courtesy of Strawb.

“No relation to Gerald the Fat?” queried Harwood, not, since Hendo had cruelly undermined his commentary confidence in the summer with some quite unnecessary piss-taking, a man usually drawn into extended conversation when the situation didn’t call for the street talk of Denmark Hill or a smattering of patois from the South Pacific.

Then Aatif let out a blood-curdling scream: an England wicket had gone. And Aatif was not a man to let any wicket go quietly. Henna, delighted, dexterously lined up a jingle.

“Gone, gone, gone….”

“We’re in dis-a-fucking-ray,” moaned Nigel, whose resemblance to the Hoffmeister Bear grew exponentially with each swig of his lager. We weren’t really. England had just lost a first wicket but this had become Nigel’s catchphrase and had to be used at any conceivable opportunity. Especially after we put it on a T-shirt..

“Can I just say…?” said Sofa Scouser Gary before he was cut off by the rest of the room. Allow Gary to “just say” and it was difficult to judge when you might next wrestle control of the microphone. He had a blog known as the Tooting Trumpet and like Billy Cowper, the Barmy Army’s own hornblower, his interventions were not always universally welcomed. Sometimes they were wise, as wise as an owl who’d completed a doctorate in the philosophy of wisdom, but occasionally they were bollocks but spoken with such splendid certainty that it made the rest of us splendidly uncertain.

Of course, Gary wasn’t the only one to talk bollocks on the Sofa. In fact, if you didn’t talk bollocks on the Sofa you wouldn’t be doing your duty. It was a rite of passage and only after you had talked the most enormous amount of bollocks that anyone could remember being talked could you consider yourself a true citizen of the Sofa. The Aborigines went walkabout, we talked bollocks.

Then Suave turned up, the suavest man in Essex, resplendent in cravat and stripey blazer and straight off the plane from Finland, the train from Billericay, the tube from Liverpool Street and the bus from Peckham Rye. The journey had taken him more than three weeks and if anyone had ever shown more fortitude and determination in getting to the Sofa’s home in Nunhead, we had yet to meet him.

This was really beginning to feel a lot like a Sofa Christmas. Soph distributed goblets of mulled wine among the assembled masses before turning on her heels, one hand swiftly unleashing her scarlet locks from its bun, like Rapunzel in the children’s fairytale, and hurrying to the kitchen to magic up a feast of fabada from the festive leftovers.

The Hound of Nunhead howled, Cook stroked a ball through mid-wicket at the G, and all was well with the world.

*********

Suddenly, the front doorbell sounded from beneath Henna’s chair beside the sound console.

It was Ralphie and Dev.

Ralphie, the rower from Cornwall whose rugged handsomeness belied his upbringing in the inbreeding capital of Europe, and Dev, a man who had looked Angus Fraser squarely in the eye and not squinted. With two runs needed for the unlikeliest of Sofa victories off the last ball of their inaugural match against the Lord’s Taverners (Middlesex division) in September, the former England bowler had used all his years of experience to end his delivery an intimidating foot from the batsman. Towering over Dev, the 6ft 4in paceman had expelled in his direction a potent mixture of menace and cheese and pickle sandwiches. “It’s just you and me big man,” he had breathed.

Talking of big men, just a few footfalls behind the pair was banker Ben, owner of probably the biggest bonus in Borough, and all three were welcomed into the bosom of Sofa Towers with much backslapping and bonhomie.

While Henna retreated to the Green Room in search of her fetching yellow pyjamas, Lizzy took the opportunity to slip into the producer’s chair, and found the most surreal of tweeters, Chasing Willow, had been in touch. Chasing Willow had a curious profile: a Muscovite by birth, she had been abducted at an early age by Romany gypsies who had led her on a lengthy passage across the Russian Steppes, the South Korean peninsula, the Dutch lowlands, and the German valleys, teaching her each language en route, before depositing her in Southern California, from where she had somehow developed an intense interest in cricket.

We liked the subversive nature of Chasing Willow’s handle; everyone knows that in cricket you chase leather, not willow – the willow has propelled the leather into movement, not the other way round – but we were sure this was not the result of a terrible American misunderstanding but indicative of  Chasers’ kooky sense of humour.

It also helped that she was extraordinarily beautiful, which pushed her tweets straight to the top of the queue, although a room populated largely by men of advancing years would have also looked with a degree of longing on Anne Widdecombe after sufficient alcohol and sleep-deprivation.

Jonathan Trott, meanwhile, was loping to the wicket to the accompaniment of Lizzy  punching keys on the computer in a desperate attempt to locate his jingle. Shortly after he had scratched his guard, looked around at the field, scratched his guard again, read a chapter of Ulysses, and then shouldered arms to Ben Hilfenhaus’s first delivery, all impeccably related to the Test Match Sofa audience by Zoob, she found it.

“Oh Peter Moores get out of here/

Warney you’re my best friend./

 I’m married to Girls Aloud don’t you know, I am….”

“Wrong,” the Sofa mocked affectionately.

Lizzy was in a tizzy. “Sorry,” she said, uncrossing her frankly awesome pins and frantically fingering the screen for Trott’s, not KP’s, ditty.  It was a perfectly understandable mistake, for Lizzy was the world’s busiest woman  mother, hockey player, and Enigma code-breaker  and had not slept for 18 years. Hendo fell into a narcoleptic coma just looking at her.

But Zoob cut in, unimpressed, over the top of the song. He was a concert pianist, an amazing achievement for someone who had been hand-reared by wallabies, and knew a dodgy tune when he heard it. “Did I tell you that Ben Hilfenhaus was a bricklayer before he took up cricket professionally?” he said in his knowing way, thumbing through a pile of notes that made an Argos catalogue look flimsy.

Sadly for Zoob he didn’t need to. We’d already discussed the fact several times, which was usually the case with Zoob’s notes. Preparation prevents poor performance was a mantra that seemed to have been adopted by the England cricket team of late but it was really only on loan from Zoob, who kept a string quartet captive in the basement of his house in rural Sussex in case a request for Brahms’s piano quintet in F minor came in at short notice.

Henna nipped back in to offer the growing crowd a selection of her home-made brownies, which Ben, fresh from an eight-course banquet including fresh rutting stag shot that morning on his father’s estate, greedily snuffled down before they even reached the table. Hendo grazed morosely on the pain au chocolate he had brought himself, and loosened his belt. He had really wanted one of Henna’s brownies.

Zoob’s ball-by-ball commentary stint was at an end and it was time for Dan, who took back prime position on the Sofa, roll-up in one hand, left-wing rant in the other, the ghost of Richie Benude (as Aatif called him) ready to be channeled through him. “It’s very dark out there, very dark indeed,” he intoned in finest Richie, the finest Richie you could find this side of Kato. Kato, though, was the Richie master. No Richie canvas was properly depicted without Kato’s brush; the legendary commentator was obviously something of an obsession for the legendary geography teacher. If he’d written a romantic novel, its leading man would have been Richie; if he’d strummed a few improvised bars on his acoustic guitar, it would have morphed into a love ballad for Richie: it was fair to say that had Kato secured a spot on Celebrity Mastermind, Richie would have been his specialist subject. When Kato was around, even Dan had to admit defeat and revert to his Bill Lawry.

Or Brucie. Or Steven Gerrard. Or Idi Amin. Dan was a man of many parts, most of them not him, and did not need much encouragement to make them heard. Dutch Australian? Check. UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon? Check. French maid? Probably, if you’d asked him.

As the newcomers arrived, one elder of the Sofa prepared to go. It was more like an international airport terminal than an internet cricket commentary service. Manny had done his time, talking, berating, intimidating as only a qualified barrister can do. These days, m’lud, Manny, a walking Wisden who had memorised the statistics from all 31 unbeaten first-class games of the 1948 Australian Invincibles – ask him and he could probably tell you when, where and against whom Ernie Toshack bowled 17 overs without conceding a run  preferred to play judge, jury and executioner in front of an HD telly in a lounge in south-east London. Few players, past or present, escaped his condemnation.

They probably breathed a sigh of relief when he slipped out in the early hours to return to house-husbandry duties in deepest West Norwood and they were no longer subject to his very cross examination.

******

In the Green Room, Tom was getting stuck into the highlights, simultaneously tweeting and retweeting every mention of the Sofa he could find and repeating to himself until he was utterly convinced: “We’re reaching the tipping point. We’re reaching the tipping point.”

The tipping point of course was the juncture at which the Sofa would go global, perhaps interplanetary – the thousands would become tens of thousands, the tens of thousands hundreds of thousands. No, it was already global, if too thinly spread. We had listeners in shipyards in South Korea, on cruise ships in the Caribbean and, according to internet intelligence, deep inside the Kremlin. Between August and mid-October, when our broadcasts had taken in the Pakistan match-fixing scandal, and India’s series against Australia, our figures were even mysteriously boosted by 33 in the Atacama desert of Chile but one day they vanished as inexplicably as they had appeared.

“We’re reaching the tipping point, we’re reaching the tipping point,” Tom continued to incant as he rocked back and forward in his chair in front of his sound editing equipment. It was agonising to see him like this – a man who had given 18 months of his life to building the project from its meagre beginnings at the start of the 2009 Ashes and could now sniff success deep in his sinuses.  

We admired his persistence, but worried that he was losing touch with reality. Indeed Tom might, we feared, have been close to his own tipping point.

*****

Back in Broadcasting Suite One – the Sofa front room  we were beginning to realize that Ben had turned up pissed. It could have been the way he toppled headfirst over the back of the sofa and began to slobber – “oh, that’s a cock botherer”, Dan shouted as a ball from Siddle nipped back and slapped into Cook’s nether regions, although he might equally have been referring to the proximity of Ben’s face to his own family jewels – or it could have been the way he groaned, picked up a blanket and waddled off to sleep at the foot of the landing stairs, the bottom step an appropriately rigid pillow for this most hard-headed of businessmen to rest his hard head upon.

It was the last time that he would be seen alive.

To be continued…….

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Coming soon to this blog

  • CHRISTMAS-CRIME WITH THE TEST MATCH LOAFERS:
  • A Festive Fable of Murder, Mystery and Unusual Hashtags
  • (A Test Match Sofa satire in two parts)
  • Part One will appear here on Wed January 19
  • Part Two will appear here on Thu January 20

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Ashes update: Why now is the time for heads to remain very much attached to their bodies

An ancient Central American people known as the Olmecs were the first civilization to use sap from a tree to make rubber. And, probably, the first to use it for sport, at least 1,000 years before American businessman Charles Goodyear and British counterpart John Dunlop caught on and turned it into tyres, therefore laying the groundwork for Formula One.

The Olmecs had a more immediate use for the substance, mixing it with latex and the juice of the morning glory plant to create a bouncy ball around a solid core, which they used to play a sacred game called ulama. The rules of this game called for players to propel the ball through a hoop placed high in a wall without using hands or feet.

Although such a task itself sets the mind a-boggling, it was the treatment of the losing team that really makes you think: they were often sacrificed to the gods, their heads detached from their bodies to provide material for the next generation of balls. No Duke or Kookabura arguments here then.

What has this got to to with the current Ashes series you might ask? And you have a right to. The answer, which we have admittedly come to in a roundabout and laborious way, is that following England’s surprise capitulation at Perth, there is much talk about necks being on the chopping block.

Certainly, after I had spent 45 minutes digging my car out of the snow on Saturday night - almost as long as England’s five remaining wickets lasted on the fourth morning at the Waca – and then spent a couple of deflated hours discussing the failure with those Test Match Sofa colleagues that had also made it through the latest ice age for a minimum of entertainment, I too was of the mind that a head or two might be required to roll to enhance the team’s thought processes.

But, on greater reflection, it’s my view that the two culprits most likely to hear the sound of axeman sharpening his implement upon a piece of stone should be spared.

Paul Collingwood has failed to prove a reliable No5 so far, but you always feel the ginger general will rouse himself to play at least one back to the wall innings in a series; while Steven Finn, the other lamb potentially for the slaughter, would be unlucky indeed to pay the price for rather profligate bowling – he is the leading wicket taker in the series and has a better strike rate than James Anderson.

Besides, Finn reminds me of Brett Lee: no, he’s not as fast and his action isn’t as smooth, but like the Australian now retired from Test cricket, he does seem to have an uncanny knack of picking up wickets even when he isn’t bowling particularly well. I don’t buy the argument that he is knackered – he’s 21 for God’s sake and has bowled 22 fewer overs than Anderson and eight fewer than Stuart Broad and Chris Tremlett combined.

Is the kilogramme-challenged Tim Bresnan likely to fare any better if Melbourne has one of its occasional spells of fiercely warm weather?

No, what better time to show confidence in the Middlesex seamer, and show Australia that he won’t be hit out of the attack, than when a few journalists and pundits are calling for his skin?

***On another note, an interesting snippet of information has made its way to Reverse Sweep’s lughole and it will be music to the ears of those who regarded England’s submission in Perth as having a direct correlation with the arrival of the team WAGS. A source not a million miles from the England camp passes on the nugget that there are two distinct WAGS camps – and one does very much not get on with the other. The Christmas party should pass without incident then!

***On another note, are professional sportsmen ever going to run out of new and yet extraordinarily grotesque ways of describing their craft? Alastair Cook was the latest to fall into the trap of talking cricketing gobbledygook when he suggested that England had not been outclassed at  Perth, nor upstaged. No, our erudite Essex man was certain that we had been “outskilled”. Not nice.

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ASHES 2010/11: A Fragile Economy: The Rebuilding of Brittle Johnson

There was much made of Mitchell Johnson’s psychological state after he was left out of the Australia team for the second Test against England in Adelaide. Well, if he was, and is, as a broad range of pundits agreed, so mentally fragile, then the rest of us should probably be sectioned, strapped to a dolley by a butch porter straight out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and have delivered to the temporal lobe a bruising dose of electro-convulsive therapy.

In one sense those pundits had every reason to presume that what was coming out of his mind was not calibrated with what was going in, but they were wrong in tracing it to one wayward performance at Brisbane, where the supposed firebrand of the home team’s attack disappeared for 170 runs from 44 overs in which he was barely able to set a trap for a potential victim let alone snare one and take it home for grilling on the Mitchell family barbecue.

It was more the panicky response of the Australian selectors, desperate for a scapegoat after a lacklustre performance by the team at one of their strongholds, that had the press pack poking about for the really dark stuff amid Mitchell’s grey matter.

First, there were rumours that he was to be left out of the squad for the Adelaide Oval altogether, then that he had been dropped – or rested, you choose how you perceive it – from the final XI; then he was paraded in front of a press conference to explain his situation, the assumption being that he would be directed to remedial work in the nets or discharged to regain confidence in Shield cricket in Western Australia. Instead he was wheeled out as twelfth man midway through the second Test where, barring a spot of nimble footwork and upper body athleticism to pull off the unexpected dismissal of one of England’s run-greedy batsman, it was impossible for him to improve his standing.

Exposed, in the midst of his misery on the long-on boundary, to the prying eyes of 40,000 spectators at the ground and millions more watching on television this lost soul of an Australian sportsman appeared to be the cricketing equivalent of a hungry ghost.

That would be enough to knock the toothy grin off even the most stoic of sporting faces.

But far from running sobbing to the funny farm, the toothy grin remained firmly fixed as the focal point of the Mitchell visage and redemption remained firmly fixed in that much-maligned mind.

For the truth is that Johnson, an easy target perhaps because of the simpleness of his smile, perhaps because of the troublesome aesthetics of his action and perhaps, more tellingly, because of the smothering mothering that is so regularly played out in public, is not so much a casualty of mental fragility as one of technical fragility.

Statistics  may not always support your argument as readily as you would like, but even a hurried perusal of Johnson’s figures lend at least some vindication to the view that his every bowling breakdown is repaired swiftly by his internal RAC.

The evidence m’lud: in his fourth Test, against India in Sydney, match figures of two for 181 and an associated strike rate of a wicket every 144 balls, gave way to returns of five for 144 and six for 159, at respective strike rates of 46 and 53, at Perth and Adelaide; subsequently bowling that brought him five wickets in total at a cost of more than 250 in Tests against the West Indies in Jamaica and Antigua were somewhat offset by figures of five for 113 at Kensington Oval.

More remarkably, returns of four for 165 and one for 106, with respective strike rates of 66 and 276, against India in Delhi and Nagpur in October and November 2008, were counterbalanced by figures of nine for 69 and five for 85 against New Zealand and 11 for 159 in the first match of the home series against South Africa only weeks later. When Sydney and Melbourne brought much slimmer pickings, Johnson got back on his pick-up truck to take eight for 137 as the two teams crossed continents to South Africa.

Most consequential, though, for England fans, who laughed him out of Lord’s last year on the back of a lamentable return of three for 200 from 38.4 overs and an only slightly improved two for 92 at Edgbaston, was his response in Leeds, where his pace and bounce ripped out the home side to give him six for 99 and put the destination of the Ashes in serious doubt.

Now, it appears, he has done the same at Perth, admittedly one of his better stamping grounds, figures of eight for 66 with, conceivably, five more England wickets to be added to that tally, helping to put the rigours of Brisbane and Adelaide behind him.

Yet if pace and bounce were his allies in that towering victory of 2009 at Headingley, it has been the rediscovery of the late swing that we were told was so pivotal to Australia’s series victory in South Africa – and which, I confess, I had, until the first innings at the Waca, failed to acknowledge was truly a part of his armoury – that has re-established him as one of the key figures of this Ashes winter.

That he was able to put the ball on a length and line to begin with, rather than spraying it wide of Brad Haddin on too many occasions, must have convinced him that the mechanics of his technique, so often unwieldy, were in improved working order.

From that base, he began to swing the ball viciously, and terrifyingly late, to dismiss the cream of the England batting. And yet it dipped and swerved not from an orthodox seam position and with little regard for the position of the shiny side of the ball. That must have confused the tourists, who watched a ball, delivered regularly with a cross seam, wobble awkwardly before jagging back in in defiance of at least a few of the laws of the physics.

It signaled that it was time for Mitchell to come off the anti-depressants and enough to leave England addressing their own issues of mental health.

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Ashes update: Essential reading for depressed Australians

Remember when you last won the Ashes. This is what it felt like for English supporters there. You may now identify with it: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1905411081/ref=s9_simz_gw_s1_p14_i1?pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_s=center-1&pf_rd_r=1C1CW2SZ6T4YNBVYA8T5&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=467198433&pf_rd_i=468294

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Ashes update: Lock up your pedalos, England have won!

….and well-urned, in the end!

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