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Boxing Clever

Lawrence Booth, who had to learn it the hard way, on a few of the dos and don’ts of press-box etiquette, in an article originally published in Wisden Cricket Quarterly, The Nightwatchman

The memory still makes me wince. But we’ll come to that in a tick.

It was late June 2000 and a warm Friday afternoon at Lord’s. West Indies were in town, strong enough in those days to merit a five-Test series and attract full houses. I was in the media centre, living my own little dream, which was watching cricket and getting paid by Wisden Cricket Monthly (WCM) for the hardship. It felt almost incidental that a cracking story was developing out in the middle; the thrill of the journalistic yarn was yet to infect me. No: I was at the cricket, the sun was shining, and all was right with the world.

Except it wasn’t. Not yet, anyway. England had lost the first Test at Edgbaston inside three days to a side that included Brian Lara, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Jimmy Adams, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. This was no great shock: West Indies had not lost a Test series to England since 1969 – six days before man landed on the moon and six years before I was born. All I had ever known was blackwashes, wrist-banded high-fives and post-colonial guilt. And I had made my peace with it all.

Now, in the second Test, with the Duncan Fletcher juggernaut stuck in neutral, England had scraped together 134 in reply to West Indies’ 267. The No 11 Matthew Hoggard had made 12 not out on his debut, raising disproportionate cheers with an apologetic lunge at Ambrose that had somehow turned into an on-drive. England supporters were doing what they knew best, seeking the punchlines in gallows humour. Soon it would be 2-0 with three to play. Here, I thought, we go again.

And yet… England had other ideas, as they occasionally did in those days when the odds looked hopeless. Sherwin Campbell cut Andy Caddick to third man, where Darren Gough took a superb catch (6 for 1). Wavell Hinds was given out caught at short leg off Caddick (few cared that he hadn’t touched it: 6 for 2). And opener Adrian Griffith was caught behind off Gough (10 for 3). Still, the lead was 143. There was no reason to get carried away.

Then it happened.

With the total on 24, Lara slashed Caddick to point, where Dominic Cork clung on, before hurling the ball high into the air in a moment of release that spread instantly around Lord’s. Up in the media centre, I may have picked up the vibe. I leapt from my seat.

Hello. My name is  Lawrence Booth. I am 25 (or I was). And I leap from seats.

My excuse was that I had been sitting in the front row, shielding my eyes from the sun. This conferred a certain detachment from colleagues behind me. But as I glanced round, I realised my error. No one else had budged an inch. Some scribbled a note. One may have glanced in my direction. (What was that look? Curiosity? Pity? Derision?) I had broken one of the golden rules of the press box. No cheering, clapping, oohing, aahing, petting or diving, especially at the Nursery End.

I watched the rest of West Indies’ collapse to 54 with a studied reverence. England would go on to win a classic by two wickets, take the series 3-1, and triumph that winter in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. I’d like to think that my inner pundit had kicked in as I leapt from the seat at the very moment the Fletcher era cranked into gear. But no, I was being a fan – in the press box. Like I say, I still wince a little.

First things first. I mainly love the press box. I have made good friends there, and enjoy the humour, the company, the sense of a common purpose. It has been the place where I’ve been lucky enough to turn a passion into a career. The view is usually bird’s-eye good, the food more than we deserve, and the deadline’s adrenaline rush a pick-me-up. Press boxes everywhere: thank you (except for the freezing tent in Horsham).

But spend any time in one – especially in England – and you will find it hard not to absorb at least some of the button-uppedness, the determination that, however exciting the cricket, you will not register so much as a scintilla of pleasure so help you God!

It quickly became apparent that the greatest insult one could hurl at a professional journalist was to call them – no, brand them – a ”fan with a laptop”. See, you were there to report on the England cricket team, not to cheer them on. “What do you think this is?” as Allan Border once enquired of Robin Smith. “A fucking tea party?”

And yet the only sense this made was on a pragmatic level. Hadn’t I become a cricket journalist because I loved cricket? And what on earth were you doing in a cricket press box if you didn’t love cricket? The pragmatism made sense, sure: there was a job to do, and who wants to be known as unprofessional? But on an emotional level – the level at which we all fall for sport – it made no sense at all.

I would wrestle with the contradiction. Did art critics feel obliged to feign indifference at the latest Picasso retrospective? Did their theatre-going colleagues suffer a pang of guilt when they enjoyed Hamlet? And were travel journalists expected to go easy on the hyperbole as they lapped up another long weekend in the Cinque Terre? Yet here I was, the fan with the laptop, flouting the golden rule which demanded an emotional disconnect. Welcome, then, to the press box.

In the years that have followed, I’ve realised that my Lord’s a-leaping was only the start of it. Press box etiquette, like all other forms, is built around a list of unwritten rules. You ignore them at your peril. And, this being England, the rules are so tacit you need a PhD in mind-reading to decode them. There are exceptions: when England beat Australia by two runs at Edgbaston in 2005, bedlam briefly ensued before decorum returned. The whole process took about five seconds. Generally, though, the rules expect to be observed. And generally they are.

My old WCM editor, Tim de Lisle, once wrote of the importance to English cricket of the nouns “nudge” and “nod”: aspiring international cricketers would give the selectors a nudge with a plucky 40 in a televised Sunday League game, and the selectors might then feel moved to give them the nod for the following week’s latest must-win Test. It was all about understatement and imperceptibility, like trying to catch the eye of the barman without alerting fellow drinkers. A nudge and a nod: anything else was just showing off.

Because perhaps the worst crime in the press box is to forge a reputation – of any description – too early in one’s career. Mud can stick. For all I know, there are seasoned journos who still think of me as the idiot who jumped out of his seat when Cork caught Lara. I can offer little by way of a retort.

Similarly, one eminent English cricket writer (much to his own amusement, I should stress) is still dogged by the bacon-roll incident, a shameful episode in which he helped himself to, yes, a bacon roll during a tour of Pakistan. The bacon roll was part of a special plate of bacon rolls, ordered in by British hacks who were missing their home comforts. Unwittingly, this particular journalist was now condemning a colleague who had pre-booked his bacon roll, and had been very much looking forward to it, to a whole day of un-bacon-roll-ness.

It was, as Talleyrand said of one Napoleon blunder too far, “worse than a crime: it was a mistake”. And blagging – or the perception of blagging – is high up the list of press-box mistakes. Of course, these things are relative. We’re not talking major blagging: a snippet of info here, a phone number there. But, for goodness’ sake, make sure you return the favour!

Blaggers are easily spotted; word travels fast. So and so has a weakness against the short ball. Wotsisface crumbles under pressure. Thingamijig never brings his own Playfair. When, in 2001, I reported on my first County Championship match, in the old press box at Derby, I innocently asked a local sage: “How long was the County Ground known as the Baseball Ground.” He replied: “It wasn’t.” Until then, I never realised they had tumbleweed in Derby.

And so I decided to make sure I could always return the favour. Like most new hacks, I had few contacts, which meant little inside knowledge and next to no immediate chance of a scoop. But I was diligent, and in those pre-web days I kept a book in which I wrote down every county cricketer’s individual scores and bowling analyses. The book became an insurance policy. Now I could trade rather than blag. Gradually I elbowed my way in.

But there was a balance to be struck. Cricket journalists appreciate help. What they do not appreciate is a smartarse. My book was compiled quietly, apologetically. The press box can be a minimalist place. Think of the old-fashioned gentleman’s third, the university degree attained with the minimum of visible effort. The book had to exist in a perpetual state of self-mockery, or not exist at all.

Again we arrive at a contradiction. Because cricket is only a sport, the press box agrees not to take it too seriously. But – and here’s the key – we agree only among ourselves. Within journalism’s wider circles, cricket writers secretly long to be taken as seriously as their news or political colleagues (hell, even as seriously as their fashion colleagues would do). We reside, we know, in the toy department. Yet we aspire to adulthood. To show an awareness of this intractable problem is to join the club.

If this all sounds confusing, then that’s probably because it is. For all its friendship, life in the press box can be one big confusion. In what other trade, for example, would you spend weeks on end working cheek by jowl with colleagues who double up as rivals? This is not so much a can of worms as a nest of hornets. And every so often it gets poked, to devastating effect.

One cricket writer, years ago, developed a reputation for glancing at others’ stories on their laptops. Fed up with the habit, two of them laid a trap. They both tapped out the same bogus tale, then retired downstairs for a coffee, leaving their screens tantalisingly ajar.

And so, next morning, readers of the first edition of one of the national tabloids were treated to a story so ridiculous it gave off the ring of truth: Mick Jagger was about to buy Yorkshire CCC, a piece of fiction now enhanced by bona fide quotes from a stunned but evidently delighted Yorkshire chairman. When the journalist was finally let in on the secret, there was still enough time to scrap the story from later editions – but not before the Yorkshire Post had picked up the original fabrication and splashed the happy news.

There but for the grace of God, you might think – and the press box is full of such temptations. The trick is to keep them out of harm’s way. Foolish is the hack with a scoop who advertises his swag. And it’s up to his or her rivals (mainly his, alas – of which more later) to detect the warning signs. These can vary, but may include the following: prolonged absence from seat; furtive phonecalls in corner, usually hidden behind cupped hand; purposeful gait quickly dissolving into self-conscious air of insouciance; and, most tellingly, failure to respond to messages on Twitter or Facebook.

You can’t very well ask the suspect-with-the-scoop to let you in on the secret, for this would betray an insecurity that does not sit well in the land of nudge and nod. But you might choose to dance around it: “What have your desk asked you for today, then?” At this point, your only hope is to gain a little insight into the extent to which you will be made to look a fool when the first editions of the national papers land on sports desks that evening. “Oh, just the usual rubbish,” will come the answer. “Anyway, better crack on!”

At this point, the alarm bells should be ringing. Hacks like to chat, but often when they’re trying to unearth something or test out a theory or are just plain bored. Clipped conversations suggest they have work to do. Best to call your own office and tell them to keep an eye out for the first editions. At least you are conveying your awareness of being scooped, which is only marginally less of a crime than being scooped in the first place. You are losing a fiver, not a tenner. There will be days, you convince yourself, when you claw it back.

Then there’s the eavesdrop. Show me a journalist who hasn’t tuned in to a colleague’s private conversation and I’ll show you a bare-faced liar. Here, though, the lines become blurred. Because if you choose to conduct an important conversation over the phone in a room crammed full of people whose job it is to find things out, you may think the walls have every right to have ears.

The miracle, then, is that by and large everyone rubs along, which is crucial when the tea-time queue for cake threatens to lose its shape. Examples of animosity are rare enough to have earned their own pseudo-acronym: PBIs – press-box incidents. PBIs look like trifles to the outside world. In the press box itself, five weeks into a seven-week back-and-forth between Dhaka and Chittagong, they can be blown out of proportion.

On one trip, a colleague found he could rile another by taking photos of the top of his shorts every time he bent over and revealed a splendid cleavage. The first occasion went down badly. The second qualified as a PBI. There wasn’t a third.

At an otherwise uneventful county game, sparks flew for no apparent reason. Chap A asked a question of Chap B, only for Chap C to supply the answer. Chap A chose to take offence. Harsh words ensued, and Chap A soon found himself squaring up to Chap C. This was faintly comical, because Chap C’s natural height advantage of a foot was now exacerbated by his position on a higher step than Chap A, who appeared to be raging into Chap C’s midriff. Quite what was going on out in the middle no one could rightly say. Breaking one of the first rules of journalism, the journalists had become the story (go on, call this entire piece hypocritical if you must…).

If I recall, there was a woman or two in the box that day – which is about the usual ratio. Perhaps a more even split would have taken the edge off the willy-waving; it would certainly have lessened the odds of it happening in the first place. For press box etiquette changes when women are around. It can be hard to put your finger on the change, and I’m wary of slipping into stereotypes that say more about me than about the press box. But I’m sure a softening occurs when even one woman sets foot in this male domain.

For a start, the curse-quotient drops, as if women’s ears are more easily offended than men’s (this is, in itself, deeply patronising). And the men, though they may not care to admit it, start to behave differently with each other – like when it snows in London and strangers swap smiles in the street.

There should be more women in the press box – and not just for reasons of equality. Without them, the mood can resemble a travelling boarding school; with them, there is a greater sense of reality, maybe even a degree of civilising. There is certainly less machismo in the air, which is always useful when cricket hacks are aggressively convincing other cricket hacks that the exclusive they all missed isn’t really an exclusive at all.

Feminists might say I’m assessing women here only in terms of the effect they have on the men. To this I regretfully plead guilty, pausing only to cite mitigation: male cricket journalists spend so much time with other male cricket journalists that their perspective can become skewed.

So what is press box etiquette when it comes to women? Deep down, we all know it shouldn’t be a question we even need to consider. But if they want to leap from their seat, that’s fine by me…

Click here to read a free sample of more from the second edition of The Nightwatchman and follow @NightwatchmanXI

Lawrence Booth is editor of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack and a cricket writer for the Daily Mail. 

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