Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Peaking


Turn your back for a week and it all happens. Whilst I’ve been successfully dodging showers in the Peak District in between a couple of great weekends in God’s Own County, sport has been spilling over into front page news again.

As we were driving up the A1(M) somewhere near Doncaster last Saturday, the Pietersen text and twitter tales were still rumbling on. This man is a headline grabber par excellence. At the time, I was willing Jonny Bairstow towards his maiden test ton. My phone, with its cricket app jammed open, was slipping out of my sweaty palms and I was explaining to Mrs A about Jonny’s father, David and his tragic suicide, and just how much this hundred might mean to the family and to the general cricket loving population. I watched Bairstow senior play on many occasions. I can still recall the shock of hearing about his death in 1998. I was on a Tenerifan holiday enjoying 90 degrees of heat that did nothing to melt the chill that swept through me.

After some uncertain efforts earlier in the Summer against the Windies, Jonny Bairstow had acquired a misplaced reputation for unease against bouncers. Recalled here to replace Pietersen, he faced the inevitable chin music reception hosted by Stein, Morkel and co. Geoff Boycott’s was commenting on TMS that Friday evening. His voice was cracked with emotion as he tried hard to stay level-headed about Bairstow’s chances. “He’s a fine lad. He’s got quality. His Dad was one of my best mates and then he did that silly, silly thing…”.

Bairstow was proving critics wrong left, right and centre under the heaviest of pressure and the most searching examination. But he could not bear my urgings from the inside a Zafira some 200 miles away. He fell for a superb 95. Not the Lord’s 100 and naming on the honours board that sentiment demanded, but nevertheless an innings of sufficient class, resolution and style to guarantee a run in the team. Pietersen, on the other hand remains a supreme talent but with character flaws deeper than the Marianas Trench. Betraying the trust of your captain and teammates to the opposition is about as bad as it gets. Cricket isn’t football quite yet. 

We pulled off the A1(M) and grabbed lunch in a Little Chef. It was like stepping back in time. I’d forgotten how bad these places were. Plastic chairs, slow service, crap food. Daughter No 1 commented that our hapless waitress looked like Peter Kay. So we ordered garlic bread and cheese cake, just to be on the safe side.

After visiting my Dad and brother where we watched England struggle to a small innings lead, we headed over to Scarborough for a couple of nights. This resort on the surface seems as popular as ever, even though the reality is one of slow decline. Too many run down buildings, hotels and shops that hark back to a high water mark of Edwardian splendour. It’s a story typical of many traditional seaside resorts.


But the sweep of South Bay remains magnificent, especially that evening when low golden sunshine reflected back an oily sea and picked out the Norman castle commanding the headland and over to the lighthouse beyond the harbour wall. A scene largely unchanged throughout the town’s glory years. And being touched by tradition, we met up with the folks for a family meal. A spanking hot Thai medley in a restaurant by the cricket ground.

As England laboured against a solid South African top order the next day, we met up with the extended family for lunch at Claughton on the old Scarborough to Whitby road. The Queen came to Claughton this Spring on her Jubilee tour. She had a drink in the village pub. I hope she and had a pint of Timothy Taylor Landlord. Splendid stuff. And then we visited Ravenscar where one of the finest views of the north east coast is to be discovered. The Raven Hall hotel was once envisaged as the centrepiece of a new Victorian resort high on this spare cliff top. Roads were laid out, drains installed, a brick works built. But nobody came. Only a handful of plots were sold. Over by the remains of the station platform it is possible to pick out the pattern of streets that would have formed the nucleus of the town. The development company finally went bust in 1908. The station closed in the 1950’s. And now there are a few houses, a tea shop, and a hotel with that view. But don’t you just love the ambition of those Victorians?

Atkinson Clan (courtesy of Uncle Roland)
Ravenscar
I had to depart back home at this point for a job interview the next day. Yes, in the middle of my holiday. Long story, don’t feel you have to ask. Inevitably the train was late getting me back to Berko. But it meant that I got my presentation finished and I was clued up and sharp for the interview. However, that delay was nothing compared to the one the next morning. A derailment at Bletchley meant there were no trains heading into the Smoke at all. No chance of meeting my scheduled appointment. I even taxied over to Chesham in the hope of a Metropolitan Line tube to town. But it was all too late. My prospective employers rang to say, effectively, “Don’t bother”. Who could blame them? I was wretched and enraged. Julie and Callum were joining us in the Peaks and I was still scaldingly touchy when they graciously came to pick me up. I’m sorry to say I rather selfishly unloaded. Julie’s ears were bleeding by the time I navigated us off the wrong roundabout junction in Chesterfield when that large Audi 4x4 narrowly missed slamming into the near-side door. I noted that the driver’s eyebrows were even more knitted than mine at that point and he was mouthing a few expletives I hadn’t yet used. I was starting the feel better…

England had made a decent fist of overhauling the Proteas’ demanding target of 346. Bairstow had ignited a fire with his 54 from 47 balls, alongside Trott who made a stout 63. Prior, Broad and Swann had then taken up the cudgels. Prior was superb, rattling the opposition for a good few minutes after tea, with Swann heaving some magnificent sixes over long leg. But his demise sparked the rapid end of the game. I’d rather see England go down in flames in this particular situation. A draw would have meant nothing. They had been well beaten by a very strong team who deserve their newly acquired No1 Test Team ranking. England have lost ground ince last year. The Pietersen saga cannot have helped.

Once at our well-appointed pine lodge, nestling in a park 600 feet above Matlock, I recovered some equilibrium. Mrs A was already there and the girls had busily allocated bedrooms, bathrooms and sports equipment. Yes, this was to be an activity break. So in between bouts of crazy golf, insane table-tennis and tomfool hot tubbery, I managed to get some study in for the Ebor meeting. My only wins came on International Day. I’ve followed Thought Worthy to distraction this season, having been convinced that his close 2nd to Imperial Monarch back in the Derby trial through ankle-deep Sandown mud was worth more than the form book had so far showed. He ran with credit in the Derby, and there was less than a length between him, Noble Mission and Thomas Chippendale next time out. Those three were re-opposing here in the Great Voltigeur. Main Sequence brought the best form, but the 9-1 still looked like a value play in this tight renewal of the Great Voltigeur. Without bold front-running tactics from Buick, the sectionals seem to suggest (for those that buy into them) that Thought Worthy would have been lucky to hold on with a more even pace. I’ll take that. Dermot Weld’s Olympiad rounded off a good day for me in the 2m handicap. 

Of course the headline grabber at York was Frankel. We are now running out of superlatives. Racing two furlongs further than in any of his other outings was absolutely no hindrance. He has too much pace. The Arc in October, another two furlongs up in trip, is not beyond the pale if rumblings in the market are to be believed. But that's a very precarious position to take. Timeform awarded him the highest timefigure of the 21st century. Everyone else called him simply the best horse of all time. It was tremendous to see Sir Henry Cecil make it to the track for the first time since Royal Ascot. He paid considered and thoughtful respects to the northern racegoers.

The rest of the week was energetically expended down dale, up hill, across tennis court, in swimming pool and astride Norton superbikes (in the games room). 

Two Dales
The Roaches 
Heights of Abraham
I also had plenty of time to pick out a string of losers in the remaining days of the Ebor meeting. So only a smidgeon of profit on the week. I missed some of the racing, but Dubai Prince, Rosdhu Queen and Blaine impressed me. And surely The Fugue will win again.

We returned to Yorkshire at the weekend and celebrated my Dad’s 75th birthday with a meal at The White Swan, surely one of the finest pubs in North Yorkshire. Though there are many with strong claims. (I feel a blog post coming on…).  And we also got out to Bempton Cliffs for a walk down to Flamborough and back in beautiful crystal clear air revealing a horizon so sharp you could cut your finger on it.
Bempton
Flamborough
During the weekend I’d had chance to digest the third piece of headline-grabbing sports news: the fall from grace of Lance Armstrong. This has been a long time coming. Allegations of drug misuse have dogged him for years. Critics have alluded to the use of his LiveStrong charity and furious fundraising as smokescreens and diversions. Finally the persistence and tenacity of the US Doping Agency caught up with him. Armstrong declined to defend in court the allegations of persistent EPO abuse. Not quite an admission of guilt, but enough to see him immediately stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. Somehow the denouement came about very quickly. It wasn’t so long ago that Daughter No 2 used Lance Armstrong as an example of a sporting hero because of the way he beat cancer and then went on to compete at the highest level. That much is still true. Armstrong’s legacy is a complicated beast. For instance, Bradley Wiggins, the most strident of anti-drugs competitors, has remarked that Armstrong massively broadened the appeal of road racing and brought thousands out to watch the races. But of course, none of that justifies cheating.

I’m back home now. Shaking the Peak dust from my leisure wear and ready to engage nose with grindstone. Just one more back-page-transcending sports event to report on. The Paralympic Torch comes through Berkhamsted late tonight in its 24 hour relay from Stoke Mandeville to the Olympic Stadium. We are looking forward to cheering it through. 


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