John Etheridge is the main man in the Currant Bun, aka The Sun. The Chief Cricket Correspondent of Britain's largest selling daily newspaper has been an influential voice for a number of years, and we caught up with him as he had a particularly tough assignment in Antigua covering the England team. John follows a long line of cricket journos who have appeared on the Stump such as Steve James, Mike Selvey and George Dobell, and regular readers to these pages will know that their tales give us some fantastic copy. More often the interviewer than the interviewee, John gives us some outstanding stories in this superb piece on life as a cricket correspondent over the last thirty or so years. Read on as the man with the same initials as John Edrich talks us through Ray Illingworth's love letters, Kevin Pietersen bad mouthing team mates in Australia and many more hilarious cricket anecdotes in this brilliant interview.
TMS: John, as the cricket correspondent in the largest selling paper in the UK, a man who has broken many stories in world cricket in recent years and been an integral part of the cricket media fraternity, it must be a massive privilege for you to be interviewed by the Middle Stump?
JE: I feel truly humbled.
TMS: You’ve followed us for a while now on Twitter haven’t you? What do you think of the site?
JE: I’d be lying if I said I’ve read everything avidly. But new voices with fresh ideas are always to be encouraged. You will discover, though, if you have not already, that blogs and the internet mean it has never been easier to have words published – and never more difficult to be paid for them! (tell us about it - Ed)
I do also get slightly miffed when non-journalists describe themselves as journalists. This is a proper trade which requires specialist skills, experience, training and legal expertise among other things. I wouldn’t claim to be an insurance broker or a fireman – so people should not claim to be journalists, unless they really are.
My all-time favourite piece of advice to young journalists came from Paul Jiggins, my colleague at the Sun, who said: ‘Fuck off, there aren’t enough jobs to go round as it is!’
TMS: How did you start in cricket journalism?
JE: I was a bit of a teenage cricket nerd and used to score matches off the TV. In 1977, I wrote to Bill Frindall, enclosing some of my work and offering assistance. Remarkably, he said ‘yes.’ So I used to travel during the school summer holidays to Bill’s flat in Finchley and help fill in his various charts and ledgers. This was all pre-computers, of course. I think my first day there was the day that Elvis died. I went to the Ashes Test at the Oval and met all the Test Match Special commentators. Arlott, Johnners, McGilvray, Don Mosey. All of them. On the fall of each wicket, I’d ‘phone the details through to the Sun. So perhaps I was always destined to work for them.
Bill put me in touch with the legendary Reg Hayter, who ran a sports reporting agency in Fleet Street. I worked for a week during the first half-term of my A levels and loved it so much that I left school. Reg offered me the job full-time. I made tea, answered the ‘phone and ran the post. The first call I ever took was from Denis Compton, who called me ‘old boy.’
Hayters was a great training ground for sports journalists. My contemporaries included Martin Samuel, Mike Calvin, Richard Keys, Tony Roche and Mark Irwin, who have all worked for TV or national papers for many years.
Reg gave youngsters a chance if they showed enthusiasm and aptitude. Within months, I was writing for national papers and broadcasting on the radio. I stayed with Reg for several years before joining the Sun, initially as a football reporter and then rugby union correspondent. But cricket was always my thing.
|Stewie...Tiffin School alumni along with John|
TMS: Did you ever don the whites yourself?
JE: I played with Alec Stewart at Tiffin School in Kingston-upon-Thames. He was (still is, strangely) a couple of years younger but was promoted to the First XI and Second XI because he was rather good. We batted together – there is a scoreboard somewhere to prove it. Club-wise, I turned out for Surbiton British Legion (who were better than they sound) but haven’t played regular cricket for 20 years or more. I’ve scored a few centuries in my time and have tended to be captain when the press rustle together a team on tour.
TMS: Travelling around to Australia and then the Caribbean, it must be a tough old life as a cricket journalist isn’t it?
JE: It’s great, of course. Just brilliant. But the people we leave behind have it tougher. Months on your own with husband/father away requires a lot of independence and strength.
TMS: We understand that you had to depart Australia pretty sharpish towards the end of the one day series due to you having visa problems. Was this a pain in the arse or a relief not to have to cover any more defeats?
JE: I left within hours of England’s only international win of the tour. As nice as it was to get home early and see the family, I really wanted to finish the tour. That was the job I had been sent to do. There were three of us – Paul Newman of the Mail and Dean Wilson of the Mirror were the others – and we tried everything. I even tweeted the Aussie Prime Minister. But, in the end, we were met with total intransigence. Our visa was for 90 days (and we had the correct visa) and the tour lasted 100. Australia has a reputation for being relaxed – ‘no worries, mate’ and all that – but, in fact, is a country suffocated by rules and regulations.
TMS: Talking of Australia, obviously stuff went on out there which we (the public) haven’t been privy to. With eight million backroom staff plus all the players how come this wasn’t leaked out in any shape or any form?
JE: You mean KP? I spoke to a lot of people and it seems clear that, once the Ashes were lost, he reverted to some of his bad old habits. We printed some of it in the paper. Undermining Flower, Cook and Prior – he fell out with Prior in a big way – that sort of stuff. I’m told he bad-mouthed Michael Carberry in front of other players and management. I was told he also, very publicly, brought forward his flight home to a day when the Sydney Test was still scheduled to be taking place. So he was effectively announcing that the game would finish early and he couldn’t wait to get home. I can’t vouch for the veracity of every story – but there were plenty of people happy to brief against KP. Cook felt especially betrayed because he was the man who pushed for his return in 2012 and, of course, KP is not as good as he was.
Most of the incidents are inconsequential in isolation but become an issue when there are dozens or even hundreds of irritations. I think they had just had enough of Kevin. But he will be missed by journalists because he was always good copy. We don’t want a faceless England team.
|Watch your back Carbs...|
TMS: How bad was it having to share a press box with the likes of Malcolm Conn out there?
JE: Connman is a mate, actually. He’s become a bit of a caricature with his Pommie-baiting and loves playing up to the image. I don’t actually think he is the most rabidly anti-English journalist among the Aussie corps. I can think of at least one who gains more pleasure from seeing England lose. Malcolm is also a sharp operator. He gets stories, which is what our job is about.
TMS: What was your view of the Aussie press out there and their stance on the likes of Stuart Broad? We thought it was shite journalism.
JE: It certainly got the Brisbane Courier-Mail noticed. For a few days, they were being name-checked all over the world so, in that sense, their campaign was a triumph. As you recall, they blanked out Stuart Broad’s face and called him ‘the 27-year-old England medium-pacer.’ It all went back to his refusal to walk at Trent Bridge last summer. In fairness to Broad, he handled it brilliantly and never rose to the bait. He earned some grudging respect from the Aussie fans.
TMS: Are the tabloid press going to miss KP in an England shirt?
JE: Definitely. Kevin is very articulate when he wants to engage and is easily England’s most famous player. He’s given us some cracking stuff over the years. My last proper interview with Kevin was before the Brisbane Test (his 100th Test) and he spoke openly, honestly and engagingly to three of the UK daily papers. If I ring the office with a Pietersen story, they are always interested so his demise doesn’t help our chances of getting big space for cricket in a tabloid. But other high-profile players will emerge. I think we could have some fun with Ben Stokes in the coming years. He’s super-talented with a bit of an edge.
TMS: Which other players have been ‘gold dust’ for you guys? A lot of them are so well media trained it is just boring now isn’t it?
JE: Swanny was always good – he’d normally go through his repertoire of jokes at press conferences. He has been our columnist for a few years and is a good fit for the Sun. Matt Prior and Stuart Broad are articulate and speak with honesty. Cooky tries really hard, is improving and is the nicest bloke in history. But he is not a natural public speaker – he holds the record of 39 uses of the word ‘obviously’ in an 11-minute press conference. Ian Bell prefaces most answers with ‘yes, no, definitely.’ Work that one out.
|Obviously and Yes, No, Definitely|
TMS: The press like a drink don’t they? So why is the Press stand at Edgbaston alcohol free? A misnomer?
JE: Is it? Didn’t know that. We used to be served booze at lunch time during Test matches. Then there was ‘black fish.’ This was when the Cornhill people came round at about 5pm with another glass of wine. It was so called because John Arlott saw two red wine bottles lurking at the bottom of a giant ice bucket and said: ‘They look like a couple of black fish.’ Booze in the press box during play finished about ten years ago.
TMS: Who can put the most away out of the press pack? And who falls over after a couple?
JE: I have a slight stammer when I’m sober. I can barely speak when I’m drunk. It’s words beginning with vowels – so the surname Etheridge is a problem. I remember being at a swanky, black-tie function with my wife and somebody asked my name. I had to ask her to tell this bemused couple. Paul Newman famously got so drunk on the beach in St.Kitts that myself and Richard Gibson (another lightweight, by the way) had to put him to bed. I washed his face – he had sand in every orifice. Paul was a bit sheepish the next day because all the players had been there.
TMS: Worst dressed cricket journalist, Mike Atherton apart?
JE: Athers is a shocker. I once saw him at the reception desk of a hotel in Antigua with his swimming shorts on inside-out. His gusset was showing and everything.
TMS: We also understand that you guys are fed extremely well. Best grub on the circuit?
JE: Edgbaston for volume, Lord’s for variety. But Old Trafford is emerging as a strong contender. The new press box is superb.
TMS: Favourite other cricket writers?
JE: Alan Lee of the Times (now their horse racing correspondent) is the best all-rounder cricket journalist I’ve known. He got stories and wrote with style and authority. A mistake many writers make is trying to be too clever. Readers are put off by smart-arses using words they’ve gleaned from a thesaurus. So my advice would be to write within yourself. News is our hard currency – so I rate Nick Hoult of the Telegraph and Paul Newman of the Mail. They’ve scooped me many times. But there are few mugs – they don’t tend to survive on national newspapers.
TMS: Favourite player?
JE: John Edrich was my favourite growing up. I suppose the similar name had something to do with it. Want another story? My pet name for my wife is ‘Inny’ and, when Edrich became England’s batting coach in the 1990s under Ray Illingworth, she sent me a fax at a hotel in Kimberley, South Africa. It read: ‘Dear John. I love you, I miss you, I really want to kiss you…all my love, Inny.’ But the concierge took it to Edrich’s room instead of Etheridge’s. For three days, John actually thought the England supremo – he’d read ‘Inny’ as ‘Illy’ – was making improper suggestions.
|Edrich sidles up behind Illy this time as Boycs and Dolly look on|
TMS: Favourite tour covered?
JE: It would have to be England’s Ashes win in 2010-11. Australia is great because the Ashes is the pinnacle of our sport and of course I love West Indies because of the beaches, lifestyle and time difference. You’re finished by 7pm (which is midnight in the UK) because it is too late to get anything in the paper. That’s changing, though, because of the demands of newspaper websites, which never close.
TMS: Best knock by an English player you have seen?
JE: Graham Gooch’s 154 not out against West Indies at Headingley in 1991.
TMS: Quickest bowler you have seen?
JE: I’d be surprised if anybody has bowled faster than Shoaib Akhtar when he was at his injury-free peak. He rang me in my hotel room once and called me ‘baby.’ He seemed perplexed that I was a man. The fastest single spell was by Devon Malcolm against Australia at the Oval in 1993. Some big-name Aussies were backing away.
TMS: Best sledge you have heard?
JE: Graham Otway, formerly of Today, was a great press box character. He is the star of dozens of stories. Once, when in Sharjah, he wrote an article for the Sunday Times about Dougie Brown. He rang the desk and asked: ‘Have you got my Brown stuff?’
‘Yes, mate,’ came the reply, ‘we’ve been getting it for years.’
TMS: Favourite grounds in the world and UK to work from and why?
TMS: Lord’s because of its class and history and because you meet so many mates there. I loved the now-defunct Recreation Ground in Antigua. With Chickie pumping out the music and Gravy dancing, the atmosphere was unrivalled. I saw both of Brian Lara’s world records there.
|The Rec, St John's, Antigua...home of Chicky and Gravy|
TMS: Favourite cricketing anecdote?
JE: Gosh, there are thousands. I’ll tell one against myself. David Norrie, once of the News of the World, is a big mate and he warned me on January 28, 1998 that the pitch at Sabina Park, Jamaica, was rutted and I should write a story about it.
I replied: ‘Take it from me, Norrie, nobody gives a fuck about pitch stories.’
Next day, when the match was abandoned after ten overs because the pitch was too dangerous, it is fair to say a lot of people were giving a fuck about the pitch story.
TMS: Should cricket (such as T20) be on free to air tv in the UK?
JE: The Big Bash on free-to-air Channel 10 in Australia this winter was brilliant. So it’s a thought. But somebody has to bid for it to happen. The rival to Sky’s monopoly is likely to come from BT rather than the Beeb or Channel 4.
TMS: We do a lot of work with the charity Melanoma UK. What do you think of them and the work they do educating young cricketers against skin cancer and being exposed to the sun for long periods of time?
JE: Just look at the skin of old Aussie cricketers – in virtually every case, their faces are seriously damaged. I remember seeing the legendary Keith Miller shortly before he died – and half his ear was missing because of skin cancer. That should be a warning to any cricketer. Andy Flower and David Saker have had surgery for melanomas. So did Michael Bevan a few years ago. Anyway, the alabaster-skinned Nicole Kidman will tell you that suntans are not cool these days. Stay protected, it goes without saying.
TMS: Best three youngsters coming through in England at present?
JE: Sam Robson is an easy one – expect him to open England’s batting in the Tests this summer. I like Scott Borthwick’s spirit, although he needs to land more of his leg-breaks. Jos Buttler is not really a youngster but he has real X Factor, the use the modern cliché.
|The UK's worst dressed jouno 'giving a fuck' about the Sabina Park pitch|
TMS: What does the future hold for you and for the England team?
JE: I’ll keep soldiering on until I get a tap on the shoulder. England will probably endure a year or two of only modest success and some struggles. I’d be surprised if we challenged at the World Twenty20 and next year’s World Cup. I expect the home Ashes series of 2015 to be very spicy with England desperate for revenge and keen to use the crowds in the way the Aussies have done.
TMS: John, thanks for this, you have been a star and we owe you a beer or three…
And with that we left John to his Tequila Sunrise around the pool. What a top bloke!