Saturday, 24 September 2016


One of the few remaining reasons to buy newspapers is to indulge in reading literate and measured reactions to events of the previous day. This motivation is especially precarious for devotees of sport, who can watch events live, bombarded by replay, analysis, and interview. Of course, listening to the interviewer who, having watched the entire event, and having had time to consider the biggest and most challenging ideas it threw up, and then asks, inevitably, 'how did it/you feel?' 'what was going through your head?' or the existential classic 'can you describe for us your feelings' is, in itself, a reason to increase the number of papers you take.

So imagine my feelings this morning when I turned to Ali Martin's lead story in the Guardian sports section: Middlesex's triumph over Yorkshire in the county cricket championship, and read this:

     Toby Roland-Jones spoke of an unbelievable feeling after his stunning hat-trick completed a rollercoaster final-day victory over Yorkshire that meant Middlesex claimed their first County Championship for 23 years and deny both their opponents and Somerset the crown.

Middlesex won the title, in a thriller, and your lede is 'Toby Roland-Jones spoke'? Middlesex don't get a look-in until after Yorkshire? 'Unbelievable', 'stunning' 'roller-coaster'? Three cliches in the first 14 words? And there's nothing wrong with a paragraph-long lede sentence, but if you're going to essay one, you ought to at least have some awareness of the concept in English of parallel construction: if Middlesex 'claimed' the title they also 'denied', not 'deny' both.

It gets worse. Hoping for some drama, some setting, some feeling, I moved on to the second paragraph:

     Set a contrived target of 240 runs to win in 40 overs Yorkshire were bowled out for 178 with just 28 balls of the match remaining, in what was not just a nerve-shredding run chase for both teams involved but Somerset too, who were watching from Taunton in the hope that a draw might deliver a first title in their history.

Where do you start? Obviously, there's none of whatever feeling might have been at Lords, Middlesex's home ground and of course cricket's HQ.  The stating of the target (contrived? how and why?) misses the key point, which we will get to after the next paragraph, but which involves the tension. Why 'balls of the match remaining'? 'Of the match' is redundant, because of what else could the 28 balls remain? 'nerve-shredding'? At least he didn't say 'literally nerve-shredding'. 'A' first title in their history? How about 'the first title'? I doubt there were multiple titles on offer. Sloppy writing also creates a factual error: Somerset were hoping for (not that) a draw which would (not might), deliver the title.  And remember our old friend parallel construction? If the run chase were nerve-shredding for both teams 'involved' (as opposed to both teams), it was for Somerset too. The way the sentence reads, you'd be forgiven for thinking a team called 'Somerset too' were watching from Taunton. More:

    Roland-Jones, whose hat-trick was spread across two overs, ending with No11 Ryan Sidebottom being bowled around his legs, finished with figures of six for 54, with Middlesex going on to spray the champagne for the 13th championship in their history and 11th outright.

Again, it's awkward and laborious, with the final clause larding on a couple of more numbers the writer felt had to be included before any description. But what about the tension? It's hinted at in the previous paragraph, but you have to work out the numbers to see that Roland-Jones' hat-trick began with 31 balls remaining, and Yorkshire's tail-enders chasing 63 runs. Even a Yank like me can figure out not only the tension, but the pressure on the batsmen, and the opening that would create for a bowler. Credit Roland-Jones for taking care of business in the most emphatic style. Credit him somewhere.

There follows in the story paragraph after paragraph of anodyne quotes, from Roland-Jones, from his captain James Franklin, from the Yorkshire coach Jason Gillespie. We learn absolutely nothing about the match from any of them, except perhaps that Roland-Jones feared injury when his teammates piled onto him after the win, or that Gillespie, unusually for an Australian, 'hates losing'.

One of the joys of cricket used to be following the game through the prose of writers who gave its expansive setting its full due and more. I don't know if the new generation has no appreciation of such things, or whether their writing skills have been honed on twitter. I don't know if the Guardian had no subs available to rewrite the grammar, nor a sports editor to suggest getting the drama into the lede.

I do feel certain, however, that the format of newspaper sports coverage is changing quickly. The idea of bringing the reader to the match is long buried, the idea of letting the reader 'see' something he might not have seen on television is dying. What is left is the art of recreating for the newspaper reader what he may have already seen on television, or been unlucky enough to miss, in all it's anodyne glory.  Can you tell me how you felt when you got to the end of that article?

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