Starting out

THE young England cricketers stand around chattering nervously, like kids waiting for their teacher at a zebra crossing; afraid to move, not sure what their next step should be. Gatwick is always a confusing place and, as the England squad wait for their afternoon plane to Hyderabad by way of Dubai there is even more hustle and bustle than usual.

Still, these athletes are clearly special passengers. No trolleys to push, no luggage to leave behind, no squealing kids to act as a distraction. They have a common purpose, they must know by now just how important is their trip to India for the one-day series and now, compared with those days 30 years ago when I was joining an England party for the first time there is a sense that everyone knows why they are on their way for 11 days training and acclimatisation before the first of five one-day games.

They will find Hyderabad hot, even though the temperatures in London and the south east of Britain have topped 30 degrees in the past few days. It will also be dry and dusty and the sweat will leave streaks down their faces as they prepare for their first net, their first fielding practice, their first training session. Those few knew to India will be upset by the crowds, by the persistence of their fans, by the noise. Oh, yes, the noise is very special.

All those years ago I thought my first trip with England was bizarre. Two days earlier I had interviewed the manager Doug Insole. "Be very careful," he said in his London stock brokers' office. "Don't write anything I won't like. I am a great friend of your paper's owner."

"You're threatening me," I said. "Just advising you," he countered. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to report this threat to my head of department," I said. "Take my advice," Insole concluded after this unpleasant dialogue had rattled back and forth for several minutes. I can't remember, 30 years on, what I wrote; only that my sports editor went through every word; and there appeared to be no reaction.

As I waited for the call to board Bob Willis, captain and changeable sort of guy, came up and said, hand extended: "I hear you are Ted. We've never met but I hope you have a good tour." I had interviewed him too a week earlier and came to the conclusion that all cricket people thought themselves too grand to remember a journalist. On the way out to Australia - spread across 24 hours of course - I had substantial conversations with several players. Two days later they were ignoring me. Funny, I thought. Then I heard they had been warned about me because no-one knew me, I was a tabloid reporter and "has been sent out to make trouble."

Nothing was further from the truth. When I spoke to Ian Botham he seemed cordial enough and he was the centre of what they called trouble at that time. Too big to be hurt by the likes of me I guess and it was five years before I wrote something he did not like about his last overseas tour with a headline, written in London, "Good riddance" and we had a nasty, short-lived row and got on much better from that moment.

Yesterday there was no Botham figure, no brooding captain like Willis, no Duke of Buckingham type like Insole. Midway through the tour, I heard years later, he had told another reporter that the players were taking drugs. "They wouldn't dare," snapped that reporter - who more properly belonged in the 18th century - but it was the start of all the troubles afflicted England for the next 15 years.

There will be none of those troubles in India. Graeme Swann, telling his Twitter tribe he had nicked someone's breakfast, was the nearest mischief maker. These cricketers have too much pay, prestige and privilege to lose to go for drugs, or to make trouble or to head ostentatiously for a bar with former girl friends as the England Rugby players did.

Cricket has grown up, putting trouble makers - like me they might say - out of business while they concentrate on building their reputation as world leaders. Good.

Published: 3rd October 2011

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