Saturday, December 24, 2011

My favourite Boxing Day

My favourite Boxing Day Test memory is from 1981, when the West Indies were the coolest team on the planet (that Windies team is still the coolest cricket team I’ve ever known). In the drive-you-crazy heat of Brisbane, we would always have a huge Boxing Day party, of which I saw very little. I had to jostle with adults for a seat to watch the first ball but soon they’d drift away, and only drift back in and out in ones or twos throughout the day, on the way to the fridge, or to share some time in front of the floor fan. For 35  minutes, as the players went to lunch and the boats set sail on a harbour I’d never seen, I’d grab the adults and we’d play some backyard cricket, ending five minutes before resumption for a quick cool down in the pool before a return to the sofa and the greeting from Richie Benaud.

 I’d watch the first ball of every Boxing Day Test and believe then that I would always remember them, like FA Cup final goals. I don’t though, but I do remember Australia collapsing to 3-8 and 4-25 against  Holding, Roberts, Croft and Garner. Too old to still believe in the bogeyman, these four were the scariest mofos I could imagine.

When you talk of Kim Hughes too much is made of his tearful exit as captain against the Windies; not enough of his century on Boxing Day ’81, one of the great BDT knocks.

As good as that innings was, the drama that made that day stand out for me was still to come. As the adults drifted back in for the final half an hour, Lillee and Alderman ripped through the top order. By the time Lillee was charging in for the final ball of the day, the Windies were 3-10 – our celebrations were well underway. The last ball, Lillee with shirt gaping open at the collar, gold chains jangling, charging in to Viv Richards, chomping furiously on his gum, and it’s just outside off and dragged into the stumps. Viv looks back down the wicket in shock, maybe the only time he seemed mortal to the teenage me, Lillee is off with fist pumping.

That’s mine, what about yours?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Football family feuds: Over in a flash but the stink will linger

The “football family” might be a big one but it’s never been a particularly happy one. Two enthralling spats in an eventful week; one arising out of the desire to sell a book, the other, well, who except Robbie knows why?

Robbie Slater’s emotional attack on new Melbourne Victory Director of football Francis Awaritefe came from left field, with considerable force, and left us wondering “what was the point?”

Meanwhile Les Murray’s claims that Socceroos captain Lucas Neill revolted against the tactics of his coach Pim Verbeek in the World Cup seeped out in publicity for Murray’s latest book. With Neill breaking off his holiday in Las Vegas to declare himself “astonished” and “angry” and threaten legal action to clear his name the result is excellent publicity for publishers Hardie Grant.

On reflection, Murray might one day wish a bit less was made of the claims, based, he told interviewers, on a reliable yet unnamed source. Stinks (as they call disputes like this in the rugby league world) tend to linger and it will be intriguing to see if this one - between the sports head of Australia’s favourite football station and the leader of the national team – ever completely clears.

What makes this more compelling than the every day “he says, he says” incident involving reporter and athlete is that in the case of Murray and Neill there is a much closer balance of respect and power than usual.

If I had written this type of story without a named source and the player denied it, the fans would be in no doubt at all. The story would die flat and the only consequence would be unseen: The player would never talk to me or perhaps my publication again. This scenario is not rare.

But Murray’s involvement escalates the drama and consequences. More a football icon than journalist, a month ago he won a fans poll as the Australian game’s best blogger. And his station, while not boasting the games of Fox, is no doubt our most respected by football fans. No matter, fans can not accept Les would just make something like this up; at best he’s spot on and the players are hiding it; at worst he’s been misled.

Neill is not universally loved – no player ever is without spending the majority of his time and a sizeable chunk of money polishing his brand with an army of PR flacks. But the story doesn’t quite add up. Murray has earned his esteem, but so too has Neill.

This incident had a lot of echoes of Robbie Slater’s ugly spat with Harry Kewell in August last year. Along with saying Kewell’s time had come to quit the Socceroos, 100 percent opinion, Slater broadcast allegations that a fellow player of Kewell’s had sworn at him during a team dinner in South Africa. Kewell denied it and no source came forth to support Slater.

Slater is paid for opinions and doesn’t hold back. In the Kewell case he was providing unsourced news as well. The pair had a heated row on air, moderated by Simon Hill  . It was wonderful train wreck for us to watch but one which will cloud the former teammates’ relationship evermore.

Kewell is a big fish for a big mouth pundit to land. In a game increasingly overrun by robots or insiders afraid of FFA sanctions, we need strong opinions. But I can’t comprehend Slater’s attack on Awaritefe, a well liked, respected and intelligent football man. A former Socceroo, albeit briefly, with a business degree and a keen eye for the sport who has plenty to give the A-League and Melbourne Victory.

Slater and Awaritefe are playing contemporaries, although not always on the same patch. I wondered if there had been a stray elbow between them way back when, or some on field bust up. Some history or reason for the touch up. Impeccable sources – trust me – say there’s no such back story to justify the tone of Slater's opinion.

Unlike the Murray-Neill story, I haven’t been struck by a balance of respect between Slater and Awaritefe (who has opted to stay out of the issue). Franny is a prolific member of the twittersphere and to follow the views of fans there this is an issue as one sided as Australia’s first match at the 2010 World Cup. It is also one that has died a quick public death, although, in the way of these “family” disputes things is unlikely to be forgotten, just left to seethe below the surface.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Respect, Ricky

Right around the time Ricky Ponting became Australian captain, Inside Cricket took up the mantle of national cricket magazine, hiring me as editor to relaunch from Inside Edge, a publication which had, in the early days of the new century become increasingly devoted to long retired players. Trying to break the mag's cult of Keith Miller (how many times could you publish that quote "pressure? pressure is a Messerschmidt up the arse"?) , and launching at the end of Steve Waugh's steely-eyed reign, the idea was to celebrate the bright new things - the power of Gilly, run machine Ricky, Leapin' Brett Lee and Warney, of course.
Yet one of the first things I did as an editor almost ended our magazine before it got into double figures. Footballers have always been prepared to have a giggle at themselves. The culture is one of good natured banter. In cricket sledging is a weapon and even the mildest taunts are enough to forge long running hatred. I know this now, almost too late.
In late 2004 the most popular show on TV, the MasterChef du jour, was Queer Eye for The Straight Guy. Clearly rubbbish, epically trashy but great TV. I brought it to the pages of Inside Cricket's first season in a feature called Clear Eye For the Cricket Guy. In it we took those notoriously daggy images of cricketers on tour, wearing bum bags and old polos and XXX sun visors as they walked around the Taj Mahal, and using the combined powers of photoshop and the piercing wit of then Men's Style editor Peter Holder, we gave the stars a new look. Gilly as G-Love, complete with massive 10 gallon hat, rhinestones and enough bling to buy an IPL team was a personal favourite.
Ricky? We dressed him up in a hot yellow pant suit wth matching man bag. Heck, we lacerated Justin Langer at the same time. We were funny, geddit? Except we weren't. The abusive letters and emails started coming in, but they were easy to shrug off. What happened next wasn't.
We had a big interview agreed and lined up with Ricky the day the edition was released. His manager, not the same one as now, rang to cancel, and to do a bit more besides. The message: Ricky had the second most respected job in the country (after, presumably, John Howard) and we had gravely insulted him. He. Will. Never. Talk. To. You. Again... Worse was to follow. They denied it but we found out elsewhere - Ricky told the Australian team not to talk to us. And they didn't. Not Brett Lee. Not Jason Gillespie. Not anyone until Peter Young, one of the country's best sports adminstrators, made everything ok between us. For a while I was helming a mag where the only 11 people in the country you could put on a cover wouldn't talk to us. Even now, when I'm struggling for ideas, the other guys on the mag suggest I bring back Clear Eye and I shudder.
I think Ricky came into the job unsure and unsecure, after a line of strong leaders before him, and despite some painful losses he has slowly but certainly lost that insecurity to become a fine leader. The defeats have made him stronger.
Maybe he just got used to petty attempts at so called humour, or maybe he realised respect is not something you can jump up and down and demand through your manager, rather something bestowed upon you by others based on your body of work. And what a body of work it is, especially with the bat and often under staggering Messerschmidt up your arse type pressure.
Ricky Ponting started talking to us again soon after Peter's intervention. They all did. Dizzy went back to being funny and Brett the gentleman he'd always been before. Ponting has always been helpful and giving of his time and energy to Australia's only regular cricket magazine, regardless of our early misjudgment. We've grown up together.
You get the feeling that the Australian captaincy is mask he'll be happy to remove. Last year we had some images of him at a sponsors' launch, kicking back with a gaming console, his face free of the tension of today's announcement at the SCG or the closing stages of the World Cup disappointment. He looked 17 again. If he can bring that face back to the cricket field, who can say how long he will go on.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Lucas and the baby

Did something I'd never done before last week. Our magazine had been waiting to hear back from Australia captain Lucas for a pre-Asia Cup interview. He was meant to call 'the other guy' but had been caught up. About 6pm I'm standing in the kitchen with baby slop going everywhere, her face, the floor, deep down into the creases of the high chair.Nearby two boys are at war, the din like the dying moments of the Manchester derby...
The phone rings and it's a private number. I must have been distracted because I hardly ever answer those.
"Hi Tony it's Lucas N, is now a good time?" I made a flash judgement, literally minutes of research had indicated the man is sharing his life with twins under three... I'd never done it before... "Ah no actually, I'm just feeding the baby, could you call back in 15?"... "Ah yeah sure, do you want longer?" It was a nervous 15 minutes spent staring at the avocado enciusted mug of a 10 month old while Billy Bragg lyrics jolted around my head.... "Once upon a time at home I sat beside the telephone, waiting for someone to call me through, when at last it didn't ring I knew it wasn't you."
I imagined the player telling his agent and the whole careful negotiation falling to the floor with chunks of half chewed meatballs. The nearby war broke into a moment of golden truce. Baby R scoffed her last. And the phone rang. Nice bloke, that Lucas.I'm not sure a 25-year-old without a kid would have bothered ringing back. It was something I'd never done before and I don't think I'd do it again.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Andrew Lloyd's 1990 win, is it still our favourite Com Games moment?

Early in 2006, ABC Grandstand polled its listeners and came up with a list of Australia's top 25 sporting moments. At 25th was the only Commonwealth Games entrant on the list - Andrew Lloyd's remarkable 5000m victory in 1990. I saw the race and then, later in 2006 spoke to Lloyd about it. He was stunned that so many people were inspired by his come from nowhere victory. With the Games approaching again and Lloyd's story being told in a TV ad to promote them, I thought I'd give the story a re-run here.

Lloyd's Lap Of Honour Is Still An Inspiration

Sunday February 26, 2006

Andrew Lloyd tells Tony Harper about Australia's favourite Commonwealth Games moment.

ANDREW Lloyd is still being run off his feet. Now it's the challenge of twin boys nearing their terrible twos that soaks up the energy of the 47-year-old. Sixteen years ago, it was the twin Kenyan terrors of Olympic champion John Ngugi and world record-holder Yobes Ondieki, conquered on the way to one of the most remarkable wins seen on an athletics track.
How Lloyd overcame these champions, and several more besides, in the 5000-metre final at the 1990 Commonwealth Games roused a nation. There remain, much to Lloyd's eternal surprise, many who were inspired by his incredible final lap and lunge for gold.
"I still get people coming up in the street now, saying 'That's the best race I've ever seen'," he says.
ABC radio's Grandstand recently compiled a fans' choice of the 25 most memorable Australian sporting events. Never mind Kieren Perkins's 1500m world record, Cathy Freeman's flag-waving celebrations or the collected works of Ian Thorpe.
The only Commonwealth Games performance considered worthy was Lloyd's race in Auckland.
At first, Lloyd didn't understand the fuss. Sure, it was a performance of great sporting courage. But he had shown greater reserves in recovering from the death of his first wife Lynn in a car accident five years before.
It wasn't until Lloyd watched a replay of his run that he got it.
"I had no idea I was that far back and how hard I came home," he says. "Watching the replay, I thought: 'I wouldn't have put a million dollars on myself to make up that distance'. I was gobsmacked."
It was a strange race of thrills and spills. Ngugi was first down, hitting the track on the second lap but bouncing up and breaking away.
Ondieki tumbled on lap five and that effectively ended his challenge. Lloyd had settled in the third pack at the rear.
"It wasn't until four laps out that we started making inroads on the second group and we went past them two laps out," he says. "With a lap to go, Ngugi had about 40-50 metres on us, which is a fair way."
With 150m left, Lloyd had the rest beaten and Ngugi was moving as if he was jogging in a swimming pool.
"I thought I wasn't going to make it but I squeezed past him a metre before the finish," Lloyd says. "He had no time to respond."
The tiny margin of victory, the passion that went into it and Lloyd's triumph over injury and tragedy made an irresistible package.
"I must have captured a lot of people's imaginations," he says. "But I think the people calling the race on TV made it seem more dramatic - they were falling out of their seats."
Television loves a good redemption tale, and Lloyd's was a beauty. Five years before his defining race, he was driving through Braidwood when his life took a disastrous detour.
"We had a head-on with a truck," he says. "It went around the corner on the wrong side and tore the roof off the car. I was driving and was pinned to the steering wheel.
"My good friend, Nick de Castella [Rob's brother] was sitting next to me and he had minor injuries.
"My wife was sitting behind me and she . . . she didn't make it. That was a real heart-stopper."
Lloyd was born to run, so he put distance between him and the worst day of his life. There were countless kilometres and six knee operations in the next five years.
Yet, with a lap of the final to go, Lloyd remained a million miles from the place he needed to be. Then it came, that lung-busting, majestic lap.
"I felt great relief," he says. "I'd come back from the accident and had to start from scratch. I'd been told I'd never race again. And it brought closure from the accident."
Lloyd, who has a new knee, has slowed down but his love of racing never waned. "I'm still jogging, still doing the odd marathon and still running the City to Surf," he says. "I was in the top 200 last year."
Now he's running after his boys, Jackson and Cooper, at their home at Grays Point. You can hear it down the phone line, that crazy cacophony of a two-year-old boy - times two.
One day, instead of a Wiggles DVD, their old man might put in a tape of his greatest race. They'll wonder how. They'll be gobsmacked.