News Blog

A More-than-useful Outfit

30th July 2022

New Zealand were too streetwise and professional and, quite clearly, more skilful. Scotland batted first and made a modest total and New Zealand easily reached the target by mid-afternoon. It was a pleasant half day in the sunshine in the company of a couple of friends from Milngavie, but the result was never in doubt and, by tea time, we were in one of the pubs near Haymarket station watching the soccer play-off match from Wembley between Watford and Bolton Wanderers, from which the former emerged to take that season’s final promotion place into the Premiership”.

[An Ordinary Spectator, page 272].

These are difficult times for Cricket Scotland, the sport’s governing body north of the border. Last Sunday, its Board resigned en masse in advance of the publication the following day of an independent report, commissioned by Sports Scotland, which concluded that the body was “institutionally racist”. This was an unfortunate prelude to my long-anticipated visit – with friends – to the attractive Grange cricket ground in Edinburgh yesterday for the second of two T20 games between Scotland and New Zealand. However, this is likely to be my only attendance at a cricket match this year and so I shall concentrate on the action on the field.

The two encounters are of some significance for both sides, given their participation in the T20 World Cup in Australia in October/November. New Zealand’s preparation for the tournament has already included the three matches played in Ireland last week (along with three 50-over One Day Internationals) with more to come in the Netherlands and the West Indies next month before they host a T20 Tri-Series involving Pakistan and Bangladesh.

For Scotland, the build-up to the World Cup has been somewhat different. The matches against New Zealand constitute this year’s only games in this format prior to meeting the West Indies in their opening Group B fixture of the tournament in Hobart. Instead, their efforts have been focused on the 7-team ICC Cricket World Cup League 2 – a long drawn-out competition played over 3½ years – from which the top three sides will go through to the (50 over) 2023 World Cup Qualifier tournament in Zimbabwe next summer. (Scotland are currently well-placed at second in the table behind Oman with a large number of games in hand).

I had seen Scotland play New Zealand at the Grange before. The extract from An Ordinary Spectator – given above – reported on the Group fixture in the 1999 World Cup. Given the sides’ current rankings in T20 cricket – New Zealand 5th, Scotland 16th – there was obviously some risk of a similar mismatch. (New Zealand had won the first fixture on Wednesday by 68 runs).

And, indeed, this is what transpired. New Zealand registered 103 in their first 10 overs and 151 in their second to post a total of 254 for 5, their record score in a T20 fixture. The core of the innings was an impressive 83 by Mark Chapman, which was supplemented by a series of belligerent innings from the middle-order, notably Michael Bracewell, whose 61 from 25 deliveries came after he had been dropped – a straightforward chance – before he had opened his account.

The Scotland captain, Richie Berrington, marshalled his troops with some imagination, changing the bowling after virtually every over, and Mark Watt took three fine catches in the outfield. However, the dominant features of the New Zealand innings were the cleanliness of the batsmen’s striking – there were a total of 18 sixes in the innings, most of which cleared the boundaries by some margin – allied to the skilful placement of the strokes along the ground.

Incidentally, the T20 format of the game does seem to have dispensed with the traditional concept of a batsman “playing himself in”. Finn Allen, the New Zealand opener who had scored a century in the previous fixture, deposited his first ball into the trees behind us at long-on (though he was dismissed four deliveries later).

The Scotland supporters’ spirits were raised when George Munsey struck three fine off-side boundaries in the first over of the reply. However, he was out shortly afterwards, one of two wickets in the over bowled by Jimmy Neesham, whom I had seen playing in my last cricket-spectating encounter – for the Welsh Fire in “The Hundred” at Headingley last summer (“Cricket-Watching Resumed: Part 2”, 28th July 2021). When a run out then reduced Scotland to 37 for 4 in the fifth over, the game was effectively done and dusted. There was some resistance from Chris Greaves, who made 37, but the Scotland innings drifted to its conclusion at 152 for 9. A win for New Zealand by 102 runs.

I trust that Cricket Scotland will have judged that the occasion had been a success. An entertaining match had been watched by a capacity crowd – a diverse capacity crowd, note – that had fully respected the efforts of both sides. I sensed that, whilst most might have been disappointed at the margin of Scotland’s defeat, they would also have recognised that their opponents were a more-than-useful outfit (which will be strengthened even further for the World Cup by the likes of Kane Williamson, Martin Guptill and Trent Boult).

Afterwards, we walked along the path next to the Water of Leith and then up into the city centre. Our conversation drifted – the attractiveness of the housing in this formerly industrial part of town, the health of another of our friends, the short-listed candidates for the Conservative Party leadership… Normal life, really – in which an afternoon in the warm sunshine watching the cricket had been a very pleasant part.

Match Programmes

29th June 2022

“We might easily scoff at the naivety or crassness of some of the adverting lines and programme notes of half a century ago. That is not my intention… Rather, it is to make the serious point that the match programmes of the 1960s were products of their times. They reflected – and were influenced by – the cultural norms of the era”.

[The Rugby League Journal, Spring
2014, reproduced in Still An Ordinary Spectator, page 70].

It is now exactly one year since I resumed my sports-watching career – at the Ukraine versus Sweden Euro2020 match at Hampden Park in Glasgow – following the various lockdowns and cancellations necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic. During this time, I have been to about a dozen different types of event. These have ranged from the relatively small scale (amateur rugby league and women’s football) through to national tournaments (cycling and badminton) and international competition (World Championship Boxing as well as Euro2020).

One noticeable feature of the spectator “experience” over this period has struck me: the reduced availability of printed match programmes.

The paper-based souvenir of the event has not been totally absent: a traditional scorecard at the Yorkshire/Surrey 50-over One Day Cup cricket match; the 1-page typed team sheets at the Hunslet/Keighley and Edinburgh Eagles/York Acorn rugby league games and the 4-page summary sheet of teams, fixtures and Club President’s welcome for the West of Scotland/Howe of Fife rugby union fixture. There was also a Euro2020 tournament brochure available at Hampden.

But that’s all. There were no printed match or tournament programmes available at the much-hyped Northern Superchargers/Welsh Fire cricket encounters (men’s and women’s) in “The Hundred” at Headingley, the Glasgow City/Servette match in the UEFA Women’s Champions League at the Broadwood Stadium in Cumbernauld, the Scottish Badminton tournament at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow, the world title boxing bout between Josh Taylor and Jack Catterall at the OVO Hydro or the Edinburgh Academical/Currie Chieftains rugby union match at Raeburn Place in the Scottish Premiership.

I can understand some of the reasons for this. In the period immediately following the relaxation of Covid-19 rules, there was an understandable reluctance amongst many to be exposed to the handling of materials with which they were not familiar. This was – and, to some extent, still is – the era of hand-sanitising and the reluctance to touch.

Another factor is that the technology has continued to move on apace: a growing proportion of us – though not everyone, it has to be said – satisfy our immediate information requirements by accessing the phone or the tablet or the watch. Interestingly, when I enquired about match programmes at both the Scottish Badminton tournament and the Edinburgh/Currie rugby match, I was referred to the screens on the walls inside the Emirates Arena and the clubhouse at Raeburn Place, respectively.

In addition, the absence of paper match programmes is consistent with the powerful zeitgeist of reducing the consumption of the earth’s resources, albeit that wood-based products are not finite as the raw material can be harvested. And, not least, not having to produce programmes represents a saving in the costs and time required in the preparation for the match or tournament by the hosts.

Of these reasons, the post-Covid rationale is obviously a new factor that was not present before the pandemic. The others represent the continuation of underlying trends that had been evident for some time. Still, I think the reduced availability of the match programme is a shame – again for several reasons.

First of all – notwithstanding the technical alternatives – it is a readily accessible source of information. When attending a sports fixture, I like to know the names of the individual participants in front of me – even the one-page team-sheet will suffice in that respect – and if this is supplemented by some background material (biographical details, a league table, a fixture list…) so much the better.

The provision of information is principally an immediate requirement: something I need on the day. The second benefit of the match programme is of a medium or longer-term nature: it provides (along with the paper match ticket, another disappearing feature) a souvenir for future reference.

It is here that I think the promotors of sports events are missing a trick, particularly for those events at which they are seeking to attract “new” audiences. Two of those listed above stand out: the Hundred cricket fixtures at Headingley (which, as noted, included a women’s match) and the UEFA Women’s Champions League game in Cumbernauld. These events will have been witnessed by a significant number of spectators who were attending such fixtures for the first time – and who, from my casual observation of both these occasions, will have enjoyed the experience – but who had nothing to show for it afterwards (unless they were persuaded to invest in a highly priced replica shirt, of course).

This second reason merges over time into a third, which is more specialised and about which I have written before (“Windows Into the Past” and “The Parksider” in the Spring 2014 and Summer 2019 editions, respectively, of the Rugby League Journal). It is the value of match programmes as social records in their own right: as reference points for future cultural historians.

In the former article, I noted the naïve request in the Bradford Northern Supporters Club Notes in a match programme for a fixture in 1966: “We are appealing once again for young ladies to put forward their names for Miss Bradford Northern. Last season the entries were very disappointing to say the least”. A year earlier, the Warrington programme welcomed the two Hull wingers: “Barry and Clive Sullivan are coloured boys from Cardiff’s Tiger Bay”. [It should actually have been “Brian and
Clive Sullivan…”]. There are other examples on which I could draw, but the key point – emphasised in the quote at the beginning of this essay – is that they reflected the cultural norms of the era and stand as part of the record of that time.

The final reason is a more personal one, indeed more selfish. It reflects the interest of the sports participant himself or herself by recognising that there is a pleasure to be gained by seeing one’s own name in the printed list of the players on show.

In my case, the modesty of my playing career(s) has produced a relatively small sample – a schools’ rugby fixture and a few club cricket games – but the relevant match programmes are dutifully (and proudly) stored with the remainder of my collection. Not that the details were always correct. One of the scorecards for a Saltaire CC match in the Bradford League in 1975 refers to one “Jack Rigg”. No-one had ever called me by that name up to that point – but “Jack” it was for my team-mates for the rest of the season.

I readily acknowledge – not for the first time – that I am heading against the general direction of travel. It’s partly a generational thing, I suspect: a realisation that that which was comfortable and familiar in the days (and years) past is now falling prey to the changes – technological, social, economic – that govern the world around us. Indeed, I have been here relatively recently on a related theme (“Batsmen and Batters”, October 2021).

In the case of match programmes, there is perhaps one consolation. The great writer Mark Twain is supposed to have said: “Buy land. They’re not making it anymore”. As far as I am aware, Twain was not a trained economist, but he was canny enough to recognise that, when the supply of a commodity is fixed or reduced, a rise in demand will lead to an increased price. Who knows what will happen to the demand for old match programmes – as investments or as historical records – as general wear and tear (and casual disposal) reduces the stock and the supply of replacements dries up? I would be wise to hang on to my collection, I think.

Five Steps to WG Grace 

13th April 2022

In my student summers of the mid-1970s, I played three half-seasons for Saltaire CC in the Bradford League. In the first of these, when we were in the First Division, I opened the batting in the away fixture at Bowling Old Lane CC.

The opposition’s opening bowler was Harold Rhodes – ex Derbyshire and England – by then in his late 30s, but still a formidable proposition. It was a seamer’s wicket. I battled for an hour and made 12; it is one of the innings of which I am most proud.

Although Rhodes had made his first-class debut in 1953, it was three years later that he took his maiden “five-for” in Yorkshire’s second innings at Chesterfield to snatch a 6-run victory for the home side. The Yorkshire captain that season was Mr WHH Sutcliffe – son of the great Herbert – the penultimate amateur skipper of the White Rose county.

Billy Sutcliffe averaged a modest 26 runs per innings in his 10 year first-class career, but he did make a big hundred – 181 – against Kent at Canterbury in 1952. His partner in a 201-run stand for the fourth wicket was someone whose career average turned out to be somewhat higher, aided by his own score of 120 in Yorkshire’s innings victory: Len Hutton.

Hutton made his debut for Yorkshire as a 17 year-old in 1934. In July of that year, against Gloucestershire at Bristol, he made 39 in the first innings and was run out for nought in the second (a fate he had also suffered in his very first match at Fenner’s against Cambridge University two months earlier). In the opposition’s ranks was the 51 year-old Charlie Parker, who retired the following year as Gloucestershire’s all-time wicket-taker – a record he still holds – his left-arm spin claiming 3,170 victims at under 20 apiece over 32 years. Parker took five of these wickets in Yorkshire’s second innings to set his side up for a nine-wicket win.

Over 30 years earlier – in 1903 – when Parker played for Gloucestershire in a first-class match against London County at the Crystal Palace Park, he was unable to prevent one of the opposition batsmen scoring 150 in the first innings, the same player having earlier taken six Gloucestershire wickets. This was WG Grace no less – then aged 54 – who, not surprisingly, was the central figure (secretary, manager and captain) in the London set-up during its short lifespan as a first-class entity (from 1900 to 1904).

Grace began his career with Gloucestershire in 1870. Six years later, he registered 318 not out against Yorkshire at Cheltenham College. Until 2004 (when it was overhauled by Craig Spearman), this stood as the highest individual score for the county. It remains the highest against their opponents.

The daisy chain reaches from the mid-1970s to the mid-1870s. My journey back to WG Grace has taken five steps. It has picked up a club cricketer, a county stalwart, amateur captain(s), test-match players, all-time greats…

It is a history of the game.

Shane Warne

8th March 2022

“We returned to our seats just as the Australians were taking the field for the afternoon session. They did so through a guard of honour made at the boundary edge by a group of disabled cricketers, dressed in their whites, who had given a demonstration of their skills on the outfield during the break. This was a courageous group – including some blind and some with missing limbs – and they formed two lines to welcome the Australians as Gilchrist led his team on to the ground. Most of the Australians jogged or walked straight through the disabled players’ tunnel, clearly focusing on their immediate tasks when play resumed, though Gilchrist held out a large wicketkeeping glove to the player at the end of one of the lines. The last player out was Shane Warne, who stopped and went slowly along one of the lines, shaking hands with everyone in it. I found this incredibly moving. Good on you, mate, I thought”.

[An Ordinary Spectator,
page 295]

Shane Warne died on Friday at the age of 52. I saw him play for Australia at Headingley in the Ashes Test matches of 1993, 1997 and 2001 and in a World Cup group match against South Africa in 1999.

In An Ordinary Spectator, I noted that, in the one-day match, South Africa’s sizeable total would have been even larger had it not been for Warne’s “impressively tight and controlled bowling” in the middle of the innings – he took 2 for 33 from 10 overs, by far the most economical bowling on the day. Australia had to win the match to stay in the competition, which they duly did thanks to a century by the captain Steve Waugh (and an infamous dropped catch by Herschelle Gibbs). Australia won the World Cup by defeating Pakistan at Lord’s a week later.

It’s probably true to say that Headingley was not Warne’s happiest Test match hunting ground. He took a total of 3 wickets there – which was 3 more than the runs he scored in his two innings. No matter. The 2001 Test is principally remembered for Mark Butcher’s match-winning innings of 173 not out for England on the final day. However, for me, the most striking memory from this match – noted above – is from the end of the lunch break on the Saturday.

145 Test Matches. 708 Test Match Wickets. 3,145 Test Match Runs. 125 Test Match Catches.

Shane Warne 1969-2022. RIP.

Plan B

7th March 2022

It had been some time since I had seen a match in the Scottish Professional Football League (Annan Athletic vs Elgin City in January 2020) and even longer since a game in the Scottish Premiership (Hearts vs St Mirren in November 2019), so on Saturday I travelled to Easter Road in Edinburgh for the encounter between two clubs – Hibernian and St Johnstone – that I had not previously viewed in the flesh.

The Scottish league season is three-quarters of the way through. At the start of play, Hibs were in 5th place in the league table and one of no fewer than six teams covered by only four points between 4th and 9th. With only 4 matches to play before the “split” into the top and bottom 6s (for the last 5 games), there was clearly an intense battle to secure a place in the upper tier and, possibly, a qualification for one of next season’s European competitions.

St Johnstone were not part of that group. Following last year’s success in securing both the Scottish Cup and the Scottish League Cup, this season has been a disappointment. The side began the day second from bottom in the table, some 7 points adrift of third-from-bottom Aberdeen. Their main objective for the remainder of the season would appear to be avoiding ending up right at the foot of the table (in the place occupied by Dundee, one point behind with a game in hand), which would bring automatic relegation. Second-from-bottom would secure a hazardous play-off tie against one of the Championship sides.

On the train journey across from Glasgow to Edinburgh, the other seats at my table and all four seats at the one across the aisle were taken by a group of St Johnstone supporters: young lads, perhaps aged 15 to 17 or 18. Their chosen beverages included alcoholic and energy drinks and they were loud and, at times, uncouth, but the aggression of the main protagonists was directed at others within the group, rather than outsiders such as me. Towards the end of the journey, when I engaged those seated at my table in conversation, we had a pleasant chat about football and sport in general. The lad opposite me said that he didn’t know much about cricket, but was aware that a famous cricketer (Shane Warne) had died the day before. He was also impressed that Hibernian had priced his ticket at just £5: good for the club, I agreed, if it were seeking to boost attendance by younger supporters.

My intention had been to secure my entrance to the match at a visit to the ticket office just outside the ground. To my surprise, it was locked when I tried the door. On enquiring with a nearby steward, I was told that the game had sold out. It was not just the Under 18s who were paying £5 for a ticket; apart from those in the hospitality boxes, everybody was. After walking to the other end of the ground, I asked another steward whether there were any returned tickets on sale. “You could try the ticket office”, she replied. I knew then that my anticipated afternoon of watching Hibernian vs St Johnstone would have to wait for another day.

Of course, I do have a track record for attempted sports-watching that has gone slightly awry. The washed-out days at cricket matches are understandable. Less so, perhaps, attempting to watch a rugby union fixture in Bristol at the wrong ground, with the game already having been postponed, and with the added bonus of risking life and limb to cross a busy highway in the process (as reported in Still An Ordinary Spectator).

Fortunately, on Saturday, there was still time for a Plan B. And a good one it was too. A £10 taxi ride took me across the city from Easter Road to Inverleith in plenty of time before the match between Edinburgh Academical and the Currie Chieftains in the Scottish Premiership – rugby union (sponsored by Tennent’s) rather than football (sponsored by Cinch).

I had been meaning to visit Raeburn Place for some time. As I have reported before – “The First Rugby International”, 27th March 2021 – the ground has a unique place in the history of the sport as it was the venue for the Scotland vs England encounter in 1871 that commenced the 150-plus years of international rugby. I had previously been informed that there was a stone monument in the grounds to commemorate the event. What better opportunity to seek it out.

I made enquiries about this in the clubhouse before the game when I button-holed one of the club’s members, who turned out to be Paul Arnold, the captain of the Third XV. He introduced me to the club secretary, John Wright. Like me, John is an exiled Yorkshireman – in his case, from Bradford – and we had a great discussion about the fierce club rugby that was played in that county in the 1970s. Paul told me that he wasn’t exactly sure where the monument was, but, from our vantage point on the balcony of the impressive clubhouse, he pointed out the general area on the far side of the grounds that he thought to be the most likely.

I have to say that, although both Paul and John were in demand from other club members in the remaining minutes before the kick-off, they were both hugely supportive in their responses to the slightly odd request made by a complete stranger. I was left with the strong impression of a welcoming and friendly rugby club.

For both sides, the match was the last one in the regular Premiership season prior to the Top-4 play-offs. As Currie had already emphatically secured the top spot and, likewise, the home side were already guaranteed of at least 4th position, it might have been supposed that this was something of a dead rubber.

That was certainly not the case. There was a full commitment from both teams with the visitors taking the early initiative, when a powerful forward surge brought a try for Gregor Nelson. The Accies responded when a long flat pass from fly-half Vincent Hart put the second-row forward Struan Whittaker on a try-scoring run, only for Currie to retake the lead and head into half-time up by 12-7. Thereafter, Currie were always in control of the match, taking leads of 19-7 and 24-10 before two late home tries narrowed the final score to 24-20. The forward battle was an interesting one: Currie had by far the better of the line-outs until late in the game, whereas the Accies’ ascendancy in the scrum became more pronounced as the second half progressed. I thought that the game’s most influential player was the Currie flank forward and captain Fergus Scott who, in addition to his tackling stint, provided regular examples of skilful link play in his handling of the ball.

I must admit to having missed Currie’s third try early in the second half. At that stage, I was some distance from the pitch on the far side of the Edinburgh Academical sports ground searching for a stone monument in the general area that Paul Arnold had suggested. I met with success. The writing – in upper case – on the stone is not easy to discern, but I can confirm that it reads:

1871 1971

TO COMMEMORATE THE FIRST

INTERNATIONAL MATCH IN THE

WORLD UNDER RUGBY RULES

PLAYED AT RAEBURN PLACE

EDINBURGH IN 1871 BETWEEN

SCOTLAND & ENGLAND

The monument is currently at the edge of a large pile of rubble on which, on this occasion, a group of small children were playing. I do hope that, at some stage, it might be recovered and given its proper prominence nearer to the clubhouse so that the Raeburn Place site can combine the modernity of its splendid clubhouse with this reference to its rich history.

The result of the Edinburgh Academical-Currie match means that the final placings of the (rugby union) Premiership’s Top-4 have been decided. One of the semi-finals in three weeks’ time will be hosted by Currie at their Malleny Park home ground in Balerno – when the visitors will be Edinburgh Academical FC.

Meanwhile, as the rugby match was coming to a close, Hibernian and St Johnstone were playing out a 0-0 draw at Easter Road. The lads from Perth would probably have been pleased with the outcome, although Dundee’s draw at Motherwell means that it is status quo at the foot of the (football) Premiership table.

Southpaws

28th February 2022

I had had some previous experience of being a sports spectator at boxing events – the Oxford versus Cambridge Varsity Boxing Matches of 1977 and 1979 to be precise, as reported in An Ordinary Spectator – but that had been a long time ago and, of course, those contests featured amateur combatants. Last Saturday evening was somewhat different: Josh Taylor versus Jack Catterall at the OVO Hydro in Glasgow.

This was a fight for the Super Lightweight World Championship with Taylor’s WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO titles – acquired at various times over the last three years – all on the line. In other words – cutting through the alphabet soup – the winner would be the undisputed world champion at the weight limit of 140 pounds (10 stones or 63.5 kg). It was the first time that all 4 versions of a championship title had been at stake at a fight in Britain.

Although Catterall was the more experienced professional boxer – and unbeaten in 26 fights over 10 years – Taylor was the clear pre-bout favourite. On the morning of the fight, the bookmakers’ odds on his win were 14 to 1 on, compared with the challenger’s price of 13 to 2 against: a marked difference for a two-horse race. Moreover, Taylor – also undefeated in an 18-bout professional career since winning a gold medal (in the Hydro) at the 2014 Commonwealth Games – had the anticipated advantage of a vociferous home support, given his Prestonpans birthplace. Catterall, from Chorley in Lancashire, knew that he was entering hostile territory.

The Taylor-Catterall fight was one of no fewer than 11 on the card. The first bout was in the early evening, but the main protagonists were not scheduled to “ringwalk” until 10pm – as determined by the satellite television schedule, of course. Moreover, in what I gather is the normal way, the final details of the running order on the undercard were not announced until Saturday morning, apart from the Featherweight contest between Roseisy Ramirez of Cuba and the Irishman, Eric Donovan.

I took up my seat – an excellent view from the front row of the second tier – at about half past five, by which time the first fight had already taken place. Although there were perhaps only a couple of hundred spectators in the arena at that time – like me, no doubt, determined to get full value for money (in my case for a £60 ticket and £22.44 in other charges) – it was noticeable that the noise level was already high, principally in support of the Irish Super Welterweight, Keiron Molloy, who won his first professional fight in the second round. I asked myself what the volume would be like for the main contest, when the Hydro’s full 11,000+ capacity – many lubricated by a lengthy session of beer consumption – was in place.

The dramatis personae of the undercard performed in front of us: a combination of the inexperienced taking their first steps on the professional ladder and the occasional journeyman pugilist. This contrast was evident in the Cruiserweight contest between Scott Forest, also in his first professional fight, and Erik Nazaryan, a veteran from Georgia with a 49 per cent success rate from 57 previous contests: the former won when his opponent retired in the second round.

There was certainly a variety in the fights on offer. There were impressive wins for Bilal Fawaz and John Docherty, respectively a Middleweight and Super Middleweight, the latter with the only straight knock-out of the evening in overcoming Jordan Grant. In the only women’s contest, Ebonie Jones, in her second professional fight, and the 40 year-old Effy Kathopouli stood toe-to-toe and slogged it out for 6 rounds: the draw was a fair result, I thought.

Later, two Glaswegians, Nick Campbell and Jay McFarlane, disputed the Scottish Heavyweight title that had lain vacant for over 70 years. Campbell seemed to take control in the 6th round with a succession of head shots that, somehow, McFarlane – at just under 20 stones and attired in a kilt – managed to walk through. McFarlane then launched a spirited counter-attack to the accompanying support of the growing numbers in the crowd. However, when Campbell launched another fusillade in the next round – and McFarlane again remained upright – the referee stepped in to end the contest. The general consensus around me was that this had not been before time.

The main supporting bout was the Ramirez/Donovan contest. The Cuban is highly regarded as a candidate for further honours and, after an evenly fought start, the fight ended with a technical knock-out in the third round, when the Irishman was pinned on the ropes and succumbed to a crushing body punch. This was the second occasion on which a shot to the body – rather than the head – had ended the fight. The Czech boxer Jaroslav Hriadel suffered the same fate against the well-supported Kurt Walker from Northern Ireland and was clearly in some pain afterwards.

All major sporting occasions have their own rituals and, of course, Saturday evening’s events at the Hydro were no exception. The arena was in constant darkness – I couldn’t read my notes in front of me – but the ring was clearly illuminated by the overhead lighting with other beams of light flashing across the ringside seats. The boxers made their individual entrances down the walkway to the ring accompanied by the music of their choice. Not surprisingly, Eye of the Tiger (from Rocky III) featured a couple of times, though I was more impressed by Ebonie Jones’s choice of Nancy Sinatra singing These Boots are Made for Walking.

All the contestants on the undercard seemed to adhere to the sport’s acknowledged codes of conduct. There was a uniform touching of gloves at the start of each fight and, occasionally, at the end of a round. The defeated boxers congratulated their victorious opponents. Of course, the vanquished were then faced with the return journey back up the walkway to the changing room: a lonely walk with their own thoughts, I would guess, though each was chaperoned by a member of the security staff. Thankfully, on this occasion, all were able to walk back unaided, albeit with clouded heads (Grant and McFarlane) or aching ribs (Donovan and Hriadel).

I made an effort to focus on each of the undercard’s defeated fighters as they made their way back up the walkway. I wondered about the circumstances of the individual journeys that had brought Malam Varela from Portugal, Miroslav Serban from Kromeriz in the Czech Republic and Damian Esquisabel from Santander in Spain – amongst others – to this place at this time. All three of these particular fighters are now in their early 30s. In their preparation for their appearance at the Hydro – and their casual dismissal by a chattering crowd impatient for the main event – they had endured the training, the sacrifices and the pain of a brutal and unforgiving sport. With their stars apparently on the wane, what would their futures bring?

The arena was nearly full by the time of the Ramirez/Donovan contest. When this finished earlier than scheduled, there were about 25 minutes to fill before the Taylor/Catterall showdown. It was not wasted. This was party time in Saturday evening Glasgow and the house DJ knew his market: Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, the 1970s Euro disco Yes Sir, I can Boogie (now appropriated by the Tartan Army of Scottish football supporters) and Queen’s Radio Ga Ga as well as a couple of club anthems with which, I must confess, I was not entirely familiar. Interestingly, he also played the Oasis track Don’t Look Back in Anger, which I thought might have been deemed provocative, given the band’s shared regional roots with Josh Taylor’s challenger. But that was looking for subtleties that didn’t exist. The singing and dancing revellers belted out the song with gusto.

The musical interlude ended with Amy Macdonald leading a rousing rendition of Flower of Scotland. Again, I wondered about the subtext. I’m sure I was not the only one to register that to have “sent him homeward tae think again” might be applied more immediately to Jack Catterall and his supporters, rather than a long-dead English king. I have to say, though, that – aside from the occasional isolated exhortation for Taylor to smash the English bastard – there was no great sense of a Scotland/England conflict, and nor had there been in the week-long pre-match hype on the television sports news channel. One of my neighbours told me that Taylor has a sizeable support base in England.

And so to the main event. Catterall entered the arena to widespread – and predictable – booing, apart from the cheers of a group of supporters on the far side from me. Taylor was preceded by an entourage that proudly hoisted the four championship belts that he possessed. My earlier question was answered shortly afterwards. When the MC came to make the formal announcement of Taylor’s name to the crowd, his words were drowned out by the huge roar.

Here – as an aside – I must own up to another confession. When I was very young and occasionally watching the boxing highlights on television, I did wonder for some time why so many boxers came from Southport. Perhaps it was Harry Carpenter’s diction in presenting the action on the BBC’s Sportsview. The word is southpaw, of course, and it refers to the fighter leading with his right hand and with his right foot forward. I had a wry smile when I saw both Taylor and Catterall take up this stance.

It was evident from the first bell that, contrary to what was implied by the pre-match odds, these were two evenly matched fighters. Whatever his status as the underdog, Catterall was certainly not intimidated by either his opponent or his surroundings. Neither man gained control in the early rounds as the contest regressed into a scrappy affair with little fluid movement and a great deal of holding and grappling. I thought that Catterall decisively took the 6th round, the end of which marked the mid-point of the bout’s scheduled duration. I also sensed that Taylor’s supporters around me were becoming worried at his lack of clear dominance and the prospect of an adverse outcome. This concern was then amplified in the 7th when Taylor was cut below the right eye and the following round, when he was temporarily floored.

Both boxers incurred the wrath of the referee: Catterall was publicly warned for excessive holding in the 10th round and then, at the end of the 11th, Taylor was similarly penalised for striking his opponent after the bell. At the end of contest, both my immediate neighbours – a middle-aged man attending with his adult daughter and a younger man celebrating a mate’s birthday – were distinctly pessimistic about Taylor’s chances of getting the judges’ verdict.

It was a split decision – 2-1 – which, in his announcement of the result, the MC knew how to exploit for its full dramatic effect. The first scorecard was read out in Catterall’s favour and the second for Taylor. The marks of the third judge were announced, followed by “… and still undisputed…”. As at the beginning, so at the end: the crowd’s roar drowned out the rest of the MC’s proclamation.

It was a roar of triumph, but also – I suspect – an expression of relief. As it turned out, my neighbours’ assessments had been fully in tune with most independent analysts, including those who had maintained their running blogs throughout the contest. The Sky Sports blog stated that Taylor had been “outskilled and outmanoeuvred by Catterall, who has been relentlessly good” and that the judges’ verdict was “unbelievable” and “absolutely staggering” and the MainOnline called it “a truly shocking decision”, whilst the Irish Times diplomatically suggested that “not everyone will be happy with that result”.

The furore has continued since the end of the fight. Yesterday, Sir Lindsay Hoyle tweeted his opinion that “it was a disgraceful decision… the result is a travesty of justice”.

I was aware that Sir Lindsay is a keen follower of sport (notably rugby league), but I did wonder why the Speaker of the House of Commons – no less – should take such a public interest in the judges’ controversial decision. However, it did not take me long to determine why he should move away from his usual position of strict neutrality. Sir Lindsay Hoyle has been the Member of Parliament for Chorley since 1997.

The Eagles and the Acorn

17th January 2022

The first round of the 2022 Rugby League Challenge Cup – or the Betfred Challenge Cup, to reflect its gambling industry sponsorship – was played this weekend. 14 ties were contested, involving amateur clubs, with the winners joining 10 of the semi-professional League 1 sides in the next round. The Championship and Super League clubs will enter later in the competition with the final scheduled for the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium at the end of May.

The Edinburgh Eagles versus York Acorn RLC tie was played in the spacious grounds of the Royal High School in the suburb of Barnton in Scotland’s capital city. Beforehand, I had wondered if it might be something of a mismatch. Whilst the Eagles had a distinguished pedigree of Challenge Cup participation, their qualification was through virtue of winning the 5-team Scottish National League in 2021. By contrast, the visitors will play this season in the highest tier of the amateur game in England – the Premier Division of the National Conference League – having won promotion last year.

The early passages of play suggested that my concerns were justified, as the Eagles were 0-10 down after 5 minutes. With their first set of possession, York engineered a three-man overlap on the right-hand side to run in a straightforward try. Then, when they next had the ball, some accurate passing and determined running produced a second try near the Eagles’ posts. At that stage, it looked as if York had a clear advantage in the speed of their play-the-balls and the ease with which their confident passing was stretching the Eagles’ defence.

However, the home side did not capitulate and indeed, for the remainder of the first half, the play was much more evenly balanced. A neat grubber kick by half-back Alex Williams led to confusion in the York rearguard and a try for Roserutabua Tawanayavulala, and it was only just before the interval that York scored again to give themselves some breathing space with a 16-6 half-time lead.

The match was watched by a few dozen spectators, mainly on the clubhouse side of the ground. I viewed the action from the grass bank than ran alongside the opposite touchline, on which I was able to move with the play as it ebbed and flowed. I did take a time-out to sit on a concrete step near one of the corner flags for my lunchtime snack – it had been a 1.30pm kick-off – and was rewarded when this third York try was registered right in front of me.

The game took an unexpected turn in the opening minutes of the second half, when the Eagles scored two converted tries to take the lead at 18-16. The first of these followed a sweeping move involving 5 or 6 players and then a long run by Orisi Waibuta over a combined distance of about 80 yards: a brilliant try, which I suspect won’t be bettered by many others in this year’s Challenge Cup competition.

As the try-scorers’ names indicate, the Eagles’ cause was aided by the presence in their match squad of several Fijians – members of the British Army, I was informed by one of the home officials – who brought a distinct physicality to their running and tackling. It seemed to me that, at that stage, the York side was somewhat rattled and, no doubt, also rather perplexed after the flying start that they had made to the game.

But it was now the visitors’ turn to re-group. With the bustling prop forward Adam Endersby leading the way, they manoeuvred themselves into position to score a couple of short range tries against a tiring defence, aided by the Eagles conceding repeat sets of possession following a couple of needless penalties. This time, as the daylight faded, the lead that York Acorn built up was not to be overturned. They came away with a victory by 38 points to 24, the reward for which will be a home tie in the second round against the London-based Wests Warriors.

It was an afternoon well spent. The match was played without scrums (as a continued Covid precaution) and, given the considerable additional demands that this places on players’ fitness, I thought that both sides did well to maintain their levels of energetic commitment for the game’s full duration. It was soundly refereed, the official maintaining a zealous (but appropriate) approach to any tackle involving contact with the head. And it also seemed to be played in a good spirit, the only bout of brief fisticuffs occurring right at the very end, when, for some reason, the red mist seemed to descend on three or four players following the final tackle.

As noted, the journey’s end for this season’s Rugby League Challenge Cup – its 125th anniversary year, as it happens – will be at Tottenham, rather than the usual Wembley (where the final will return to in 2023). For most followers of the competition, that journey began – metaphorically at least – at the weekend at the grounds of amateur clubs across the heartlands of the sport: Leigh, Castleford, Hull et al. For a select few of us, it began at the Royal High School in Edinburgh.

Cricketing Role Model

27th December 2021

Ray Illingworth, who died last Friday at the age of 89, was my most significant cricketing role model. Here, I draw on a couple of short passages from An Ordinary Spectator to describe the impact that he had on this impressionable young cricketer in his early teens.

At the time of the 1968 Headingley Roses match, I was thirteen:

“The match… followed a similar pattern to the corresponding game of two years earlier. Yorkshire bowled Lancashire out cheaply and then built up a big first innings lead, this time to win by an innings. For me, the striking thing about the Yorkshire innings was how, after a couple of the front-line batsmen had made big scores… the middle order also weighed in with some heavy scoring.

Ray Illingworth was a key figure here: the test match off spinner who could come in at number eight, as he did on this occasion, and play shots like a number three or four. I had the same impressed reaction to his dual skills, with bat and ball, as I had had with Ken Taylor’s ability to play more than one sport at a high level.

Illingworth’s case was closer to home, however: my position in the [school] under 13s team was as an off-spinning batsman who also captained the side. I was not to know at that time – although, like everybody else, I did not have long to wait – that Illingworth’s prowess as a captain would also be revealed”.

Illingworth’s departure from Yorkshire to Leicestershire later that summer was given due prominence in the Yorkshire Post, which was apparently content to give near-equal weight to world geopolitics and the machinations of the county cricket club in presenting the main news stories. The front page headlines for the 21st August edition were “4.00am: Russians invade Czechoslovakia” and “Illingworth can go, says Mr Sellers”. (The timing of the pronouncement by the chairman of the Yorkshire CCC selection committee was not given).

In August of the following summer, the 37 year-old Illingworth captained his new county against Yorkshire in a John Player Sunday League match at Scarborough.

“I watched Illingworth closely. He batted at number 7 and made a quickfire 30. He bowled when he thought it was the right time and the Yorkshire batsmen would not score heavily off him. He positioned himself in the field so that he was not called on to do any acrobatic fielding. He switched his other bowlers cleverly and moved his fielders around so that the favoured scoring shots of the Yorkshire batsmen were cut off.

Through his leadership, Leicestershire were always in control of the match and they won without being seriously threatened. Illingworth was the epitome of a professional cricketer, schooled in the Bradford League and the hard Yorkshire changing room of the 1950s, and, to me looking on from the stand, it showed”.

Elsewhere in An Ordinary Spectator, when I report on my recollections of watching Bobby Moore play an immaculate game for West Ham United against Leeds United in a League Cup tie at Elland Road in October 1971, I note the parallel characteristics of the contemporary leaders in England’s premier sports:

“…both captains of their country; both with a mastery of their respective sport’s essential skills; both in full control on the field of play…”

Ray Illingworth and Bobby Moore. Did we realise at the time how lucky we were?

Raymond Illingworth 1932-2021. RIP

Reversal of Fortune

5th December 2021

Having won all their first 11 fixtures, Lasswade RFC are the clear leaders of the Tennent’s National League Division 3 – the fourth tier of amateur rugby union in Scotland – and are firm favourites to take the league title. The battle for the second promotion place is being closely fought, however, with four clubs – West of Scotland, Berwick, Howe of Fife and Hillhead-Jordanhill – currently in the mix. Yesterday, I went to Burnbrae to watch West of Scotland play Howe of Fife: second versus fourth at the start of play.

I had wondered about the sustainability of West’s league position and not only because their nearest challengers all had games in hand. Some of their 7 wins had come in high-scoring matches, in which they had impressively come out on top (38-28, 31-24, 38-32), but their 4 defeats had been in matches against the other sides in the top 5, when they had conceded a total of 227 points. In the reverse fixture in September, Howe of Fife had beaten them 82-10.

In the re-match, West could not have made a better start. At the first ruck, a charged down kick led to a five-metre scrum from which the captain, Scott Cochrane, forced his way over the try-line. Howe responded with an impressive try of their own mid-way through the first half, courtesy of their skilful and speedy back division, but a second West try and a penalty goal gave the home side a 17-5 lead as the game entered its final quarter of an hour.

At that point, it looked as if the West pack had given them the upper hand. They had the advantage in the set scrums and, following the lead of Cochrane and his second-row partner Gareth Reid, were able consistently to make good ground with the well-rehearsed catch-and-drive at the line-out. These tactics were ideally suited to the conditions: the ground was heavy following a prolonged period of wet weather though, thankfully, the rain held off during the match itself.

However, the contest was then turned on its head. Howe registered two tries in five minutes – one of which was converted – to draw level at 17-17. Apart from the occasional dropped pass, the visitors’ backs remained a significant threat, none more so than the teenage full-back, Gregor Smith – a consistently dangerous runner in broken field – whose 70-yard break ultimately led to his side’s levelling score. The momentum of play running strongly in their favour, Howe must have sensed the win.

But it was not to be. The West forwards re-asserted their control and laid siege to the Howe try-line for most of the remainder of the game. The defence held out until the final play of the match – the electronic clock, showing that the 80 minutes were up, was shining brightly on the scoreboard – when a cynical offside in front of the Howe posts led to a yellow card for the perpetrator and a straightforward penalty kick for West to take the honours. A reversal of fortune, indeed, after events in September.

It turned out to have been a very good round of matches for West. The respective games involving Lasswade and Berwick were postponed and Hillhead-Jordanhill managed only a losing bonus point. West have consolidated their second place in the league table, therefore, though there is much of the season’s rugby still to be played.

West of Scotland versus Howe of Fife was the first rugby union match I had been to see since Otley played Caldy 21 months ago (“Let’s Keep It Up, Otley”, 6th February 2020). The weather was cold and damp, though there was a brief period when the late afternoon sun seemed to illuminate the trees down the main road to the left of the clubhouse. I had a full (and dry) view from the top of the main stand. The players were committed and disciplined, cheered on by their respective bands of supporters and guided by a sympathetic referee (Rob McHenry). It was an enjoyable afternoon of Scottish club rugby.

Twins’ Success at the Emirates Arena

29th November 2021

The Scottish Open Badminton Championship has a proud history. The tournament dates from 1907 and is the third-oldest in the world, the All-England Badminton Championship having been established in 1899. Yesterday, I attended this year’s Finals Day at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow.

The early years of the tournament were dominated by the Englishman, George Alan Thomas (the 7th Baronet Thomas), who won a total of 28 titles – including the Men’s Singles on 11 occasions – in the period to 1926. (He was also a British chess champion and a lawn tennis quarter-finalist at Wimbledon). The men’s title did not leave England or Ireland until 1951, when Eddy B Choong of Malaysia was the first overseas winner.

The only Scottish winner of the Men’s Singles has been Robert McCoig, who took the title 4 times in the 10 years to 1968. However, local success has been seen more recently in other events. The reigning Men’s Doubles champions – from 2019, as last year’s tournament was cancelled due to Covid-19 – were Alexander Dunn and Adam Hall, whilst Kirsty Gilmour won the Women’s Singles in 2017 and 2018.

Although it is part of the European Tour, the Scottish Open does not have the scale of prize-money – and therefore drawing power – available to higher ranking tournaments around the world. However, this does not diminish the competitiveness – and unpredictability – of the tournament. In the Men’s Singles event, in which two of the seeds dropped out before the tournament began, the other six had World Tour Rankings (WTR) between 28 and 63, but only two of these reached their allotted places in the quarter-finals and neither of these progressed any further. Across the 5 events as a whole, the 20 semi-final places were taken by 9 seeded and 11 unseeded competitors with 11 countries being represented.

The tournament took place over four days, the first two of which had crowded – and efficiently organised – itineraries. 176 matches were played on five adjacent courts on Thursday and Friday – from 9.00am until late in the evening – in order to reduce the 216 singles or doubles entrants in the 5 competitions down to the 40 who would contest Saturday’s quarter-finals. (The Badminton World Federation website – www.bwfbadminton.com – was an excellent source of information on the tournament’s progress and there was also full coverage on YouTube).

In the Women’s Singles, the number 1 seed was Kirsty Gilmour – 19th in the WTR – but she dropped out of the event after only two points in her first-round tie. The beneficiary of her misfortune was Wen Chi Hsu of Chinese Taipei, who then did not drop a game on her way to taking the title, her win yesterday being over Line Højmark Kjærsfeld of Denmark, who was the number 2 seed (and 18th in the WTR).

The Men’s Singles final was between two Malaysians – Ng Tze Yong and Soong Joo Ven – neither of whom had conceded a game in their four earlier matches. It was the former who, 70 years on, followed in the footsteps of his compatriot Eddy B Choong. I was struck by the powerful leaping smashes of both men, though the match lost some of its rhythm in the second game as a result of the frequent stoppages to sweep parts of the court following a stumble by one or other of the players. For some reason, this seemed to occur far more frequently in this match than any of the others.

There was domestic interest in two of the Doubles finals: the English pair Callum Hemming and Jessica Pugh were in the Mixed Doubles and the Glaswegian twins Christopher and Matthew Grimley in the Men’s Doubles. Both pairings were successful. For the Scots, the decisive moment came when they saved a game point in their first game against the Malaysians Junaidi Arif and Haikal Muhammed; the next two points gave them the game 22-20 and a lead that they did not relinquish. (Unfortunately, The Herald – a national newspaper based in Glasgow – could not find room in today’s 16-page sports section to report on the locals’ success nor those of any of the other title winners).

Needless to say, the home victory was enthusiastically received by the spectators in the Arena (apart, perhaps, from the small group to our right displaying the Malaysian flag for the distant camera). Even in this match, however, the crowd was quietly respectful of the play on both sides of the net with the lengthy rallies prompting deserved rounds of polite applause interspersed with the occasional lone “Come on boys” directed at the home favourites.

None of the first 4 finals went to a third (and deciding) game and my reading of the form book – albeit as a badminton spectating novice – suggested that Women’s Doubles final might also only require two games. Not only were the Canadian pair of Rachel Honderich and Kristen Tsai the number 1 seeds, but they had been relatively untroubled in their four wins earlier in the event, registering their 168 points against only 89 conceded. This indeed turned out to be the case. Their opponents Anna Ching Yik Cheong and Teoh Mei Xing (also of Malaysia) put up a brave fight, but the Canadians were very impressive, both players showing both power – particularly the tall Honderich from the back of the court – and subtlety.

On the Saturday, the average duration of the quarter-final and semi-final matches (excluding one in which a competitor retired injured) was 41 minutes, the range extending from 22 minutes to one hour 8 minutes. There is little time for rest and recuperation – mainly a short break once 11 points had been scored in a game and a two-minute interval at the end of a game. The players must therefore combine the speed and agility required for the flurries of rapid action with the tactical nous to manoeuvre their opponents around the court and the stamina of middle-distance runners. (In the case of another Dane, Amalie Schulz, this might be long-distance runner: she played – and won – four matches on the Friday).

The high tempo with which the matches were conducted was firmly encouraged by the umpires. On one occasion, a player was stopped from going to the courtside to wipe his face with a towel and there were other instances when either the server or receiver was told to get ready more quickly. It was noticeable, however, that, on the few occasions when the players were unhappy with line calls, there was absolutely no dissent or disrespect shown towards the officials. The decisive calling and signalling of the line judges no doubt played a part in this.

As with all such occasions, the apprentice spectator quickly becomes familiar with the rituals and routines: the umpire’s formal introduction of the players to the spectators; the short yells of some (though not all) of the doubles players – a call and response, it sometimes seemed to me – immediately before and/or after a point; the short lifespan (a few points usually) of the shuttlecocks prior to a player politely asking the umpire’s permission to take a new one from the courtside stock…

To these could be added the ceremony of this particular Finals Day: the players’ entrance into an arena temporarily cast in semi-darkness; the parade of the winners and runners-up (accompanied by Scotland the Brave) to collect their trophies and medals; and, poignantly in these Covid-related times, the finalists’ presentations of those medals to themselves or each other.

About midway through the afternoon, on my return from a coffee break, I asked the friendly steward registering the number of spectators on her hand-counter what her current total was. The answer was just over 300. The day’s events drew to a halt just before a quarter to five. As I left the Emirates Arena, I therefore joined the early leavers from the Celtic-Aberdeen soccer match that had kicked off at 3.00pm and was drawing to a close no more than 200 yards away at Celtic Park. I realised that the attendance at that game would have been over 50,000.

I knew that I had had an interesting and enjoyable afternoon; I hoped they had too.

Of course, we always need to be careful when interpreting headline numbers. The attendance inside the Emirates Arena might have been below the 500 or so that the organisers had perhaps been hoping for. But, as noted, the 2021 Scottish Open Badminton Finals Day is available in its entirety on YouTube. And by mid-day today – 24 hours after the start of the first match – it had registered 181,000 views.