Real-time cricket writer who keeps the spirit of the game
I don’t get out much. I work from home and, generally, I sleep at home too. I seem to have lived the life of a butterfly in reverse, a few decade of delicate and delicious socialising, followed by a quite decade in my cocoon.
I’m not the only person who doesn’t get out much, mind, there’s quite a few, and in the northern hemisphere they often gather around the Guardian campfire and comment on the cricket as it happens on the OBO (over-by-over report).
Truth be told, the Guardian’s OBO isn’t just about what’s happening out on the pitch, it is like a potted philosophy of everything, with a particular preference for wit and that peculiar form of gloom that seems to descend over English cricket supporters even if they are six hundred runs ahead with two days to bowl the opposition out.
As one Englishman commented on day five of the Second Ash’s Test earlier this year (when England had Australia in all sorts of trouble): “What is it with the English mentality? Before any major sporting competition we have this blind faith that we are going to win, but when it comes to squeaky bum time we always fear the worst. If the boot was on the other foot I doubt there would be a single Australian thinking they could lose this.”
Notwithstanding the fact that so many OBO comments are amusing to read, this is another probable reason why I sit down with the enemy when there is an Ashes series playing: the inveterate pessimism of English cricket supporters is a continual source of optimism. In any case it’s not really as serious as all that, enemies and such, proof of which might be found in the fact that Australian supporters’ comments often get posted without attracting negative responses from the overwhelming English majority (they are overwhelming, they are English, and they are the majority).
I first tuned in and turned on to the OBO on the first day of the First Test at Lord’s in 2005. From memory, England bowled Australia out before tea. English workmen were marching triumphantly up and down their office corridors, but the triumph was short lived, and at stumps the English batsmen had capitulated like a 20th Century French army.
I’m not sure if this is exactly how it played out, but one man who would know is The Guardian’s resident OBO guardian, Rob Smyth, who appears to have an autistic ability to remember every ball bowled in a test match since English players fashioned themselves after Australian bushrangers.
Rob describes his winning form of recall thus: “It’s a combination of a weird memory and feeding that memory - I do watch a lot of old DVDs, partly because I remember where my life was based on the action I’m watching (Rio Ferdinand signed for Manchester United the day after I split up with the love of my life, for example; I first saw my niece the day Liverpool hammered Arsenal 4-0 in 2000 and so on), so it’s like re-reading a diary. None of it really came because of the journalism.”
In fact, like most sports writers, Rob studied criminology at university and then became a civil servant. Today he could be acting out a scene from Yes Minister if he hadn’t chanced upon a copy of Wisden Cricket Monthly and saw an offer of work-experience for people who wanted to write about cricket. The rest, as they say, is his story, and today Rob works freelance for the Guardian, covering both the cricket and the football - sometimes both in a single afternoon.
The Guardian OBO is now an institution in its own right. It can get a million hits on a single day during an Ash’s test. In fact, the 2005 Ashes coverage was so popular that the entire love-gloom-despair-euphoria was immortalised in hard copy form and published as a book: Is It Cowardly To Pray For Rain. I’ve not read the book but, if it’s not been severely edited, I guess I’m in there somewhere up the front, warning the English that it’s going to be a long summer, and not to get too carried away after two sessions of play on the first day of the first test. In the short term I was quite right, and just a few hours after posting that comment England supporters had sunk their collective shoulders. In the long term, well, you probably know what happened.
The reason the OBO is so brilliant is because the cricket is only half the entertainment. It’s somehow metamorphosed into a general fat-chew over an afternoon, and anything from Freudian dream analysis to Laurel and Hardy comedy clips are discussed. The majority of comments still relate to the cricket, however, and holding it all together are the Andy Bull and Smyth.
The OBO itself derived from the MBMs (minute-by-minute football reports). As Rob explains, “They were fairly dry: the interactive element started in around 2000/2001 when Sean Ingle, who was covering the football, mentioned in passing that he had a cold. A few people worked out his Guardian email address and sent in proposed cures. Then a week later MBM went on a “what-did-you-have-for-lunch riff” and it all started from there. The OBOs started soon after in a similar format, and have evolved almost imperceptibly ever since.”
As well as reporting the cricket live on the Internet, Rob has written for other publications like GQ Style, New Statesman and Intelligent Life, and he will soon have his voluminous cricketing knowledge transferred to hard copy form - he is currently working on a book called “The Spirit of Cricket”. Rather than telling you what it’s about, I reckon you should try and have a guess. What is the Spirit of Cricket, then?
I never start an OBO report without… a damn fine cuppa coffee. (Or the first thing that falls out of the free coffee machine if I’m late, which I am 99.94 per cent of the time.)
I plan to write a book about cricket that… redefines the phrase ‘toilet book’.
Being an English cricket supporter is a bit like... being in a cross between The Truman Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Because… it’s an endearing but abject farce, so much so that it has to be staged. Right?
A criminologist is someone who… knows Martin McCague’s Test bowling average.
If I had stayed in the civil service I would probably… be desperately sending emails to the OBO, none of which would get published.
People often ask me if my job is… fun.
And I tell them… no.
I used to think that… England would be the best cricket team in the world at some point in my lifetime.
But now I realise…. fifth is the new first.
The worst thing about living in London is…. the constant peer pressure to go out drinking.
But I don’t mind…. the amazing range of beers.
Flintoff steered a paddle-boat through the St Lucia night around the time that I… woke up in a pool of my own drool.
English cricket players think the OBO is…. a murder weapon in Cluedo.
The weirdest OBO comment I’ve ever got was…. unshakeably optimistic about England’s chances.
The golden rule of OBO reporting is…. take advantage of the drinks breaks, otherwise you’ll be crossing your legs like there’s no tomorrow towards the end of a session, especially if you’ve been mainlining coffee for two hours.
Many people don’t realise that I…. am a huge, diabolical nerd.
Because…. I present such a watertight façade of urban chic in public, eh? Oh.
I would never, ever… play the “I have never” game.
But I’d love to… do some of the things people admit to doing in the “I have never” game. Some of these people have held hands with the opposite sex!
If I were going to ask myself one question in a interview it would be…. why the long face?
And my answer would be…. have you seen the England score?
The Spirit of Cricket by Rob Smyth will be released in the UK by Elliott & Thompson in May 2010
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