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!
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…….