An Interview with Jonathan Agnew
Two of cricket’s greatest characters are back on the road in 2018, as Jonathan Agnew and Geoff Boycott bring their ‘Evening With…’ shows to Yorkshire venues. Karl Hornsey spoke to ‘Aggers’ and discussed the recent Ashes tour, the joys of Test Match Special, his enduring relationship with ‘Boycs’, as well as being compared to Alan Partridge…
As much as this interview is about the forthcoming tour, I have to first mention the Ashes. Was England’s defeat all a bit predictable from your point of view?
Yes I think it was. What I was particularly disappointed with was that England didn’t make the most of the lifeline they were given in Adelaide in the Second Test. It was unusual to have a day-night match, the first time in an Ashes series, perfect weather conditions for England’s bowlers to dominate the game, and of course England only really played half a match, so that was disappointing. Brisbane you kind of expect and Perth, but there’s no reason England couldn’t have been only 2-1 behind after the first three matches. I don’t think it’s been quite the trouncing of the last tour to Australia, but nonetheless still pretty poor.
Is it quite difficult for you to be impartial and honest when you know some of the players as well as you do?
That’s part of the challenge – you have to be impartial and that’s the challenge of doing the job. It’s something that people out in ‘social media land’ don’t understand. They can just criticise anonymously, not putting their name to any of the stuff they write, yet criticise us for having to be a little more measured in what we write. Not least because we have to put our names to it. You have to be careful what you say, you have to get it right and you do have to have a relationship with the players.
Generally you’ve just got to be fair – and I think most people accept fair criticism. Stuart Broad for example, I’ve known since he was a kid, and I said at the start of this tour that I think he’s possibly past his best. That’s not an easy thing to say about somebody you’ve seen growing up, but I think I’ve been proved right and this tour has shown that he is struggling. As long as you’re honest and the person you’re talking about respects what you say then you’re OK.
Is it strange to be back in England so early, joining the masses listening to TMS instead of commentating on it?
It is strange to be back, yes. When Emma (Mrs Aggers) was diagnosed with breast cancer I didn’t think I’d be able to go to Australia at all and everything has been about trying to get her through the chemo and come to terms with the shock of it. So when she had this incredible scan in early October that said the tumour had gone, we were then able to review it. The three-week break has been good, but it was very strange to come back with the tour still going on. I did feel it during the Perth Test. It’s my eighth Ashes tour and it’s my job, so I wanted to get out there and do the best job possible. People like listening to TMS, and that’s all very nice, but there are many more things than cricket to worry about and getting Emma right has been the most important.
It kind of puts cricket into perspective I guess, especially when players are talking about it being war, or life and death, and all that nonsense.
That’s what annoys me about all that absolute piffle (the pre-Ashes hype of certain Australian players to try to goad England). I get so cross about that nonsense. It’s not life or death playing cricket.
Do you have to go back to Australia to answer any charges of jaywalking or are you in the clear?
No, the summons hasn’t arrived yet! I’m hoping it will go away. It was a strange one. What was funny, was that the next day I had a message from Alastair Cook saying he’d just been asked the best question ever. He’d been asked what he thought about Jonathan Agnew being done for jaywalking. So he replied as long as it was before the 12am watershed then he didn’t mind. Then about an hour later I walked into an airport and there was Stuart Broad surrounded by camera crews. He looked at me and very solemnly said into the camera: ‘Yes, he’s let his country down and he’s being sent back home’. So they had a bit of fun with it, but it’s the regulations over there and even if there’s nothing on the roads at quarter to one in the morning you still have rules on crossing the road in Australia.
Is it a little bit different in the TMS team now that Blowers has gone, leaving you as the sort of senior citizen, if you don’t me putting it that way?
Well Henry was one of those who came and went in the commentary box and only did three or four matches in the summer, and it worked better for him that way. So we haven’t really got used to it yet, but it’s a bit of a shock when you realise you’re the most senior member. That’s all a bit odd and I’ll have to start getting used to it. There’s always been someone much older than me as the sort of lead commentator – Blowers, CMJ, Brian Johnston, and that mantle has now fallen to me. I’m very proud to be doing it. I think it’s an important position as the senior man and with that comes responsibility. But we will miss Blowers because of the brilliant way which he brings cricket to life with his enthusiasm and energy, and you can’t possibly replace him.
Your forthcoming tour ‘An Evening with Aggers and Boycott’ is relatively short. Is that as much as you can take of Geoffrey before you need a break?
I think it was set up on the basis that I would be doing a full Ashes tour of Australia. No, Geoffrey and I have always had a very friendly, respectful relationship and that goes back to when we were playing against each other. He’s 20 years older than me I should think, but we always got on well and had a good rapport on the field, and I’ve always enjoyed working with him. Somehow the odd couple, the public schoolboy and the son of a Yorkshire miner, just sort of clicked and that does come through respect.
I respect Geoffrey massively as a cricketer and hugely as a broadcaster, taking that expert summariser role in a new direction completely, being forthright and opinionated, and that’s what you want in that role. He gives it as he sees it and not everyone will agree with that, but he’s usually right and that’s why I enjoy working with him. He’s got a good sense of humour and allows me to wind him up of course, which I did famously last summer. He took that very well, but he’d gone on and on about his 100th 100 that I thought it was time to strike a blow back. The tour has been labelled as the ‘100th 100 Tour’, so we’ll have some fun with that.
Are you living in fear of reprisals for this tour?
Well it will have to be a good one. I’ve done this job for a long time and I know how to smell a rat, so it will need to be good.
Does Geoffrey get a different reception when you tour in Yorkshire as opposed to the rest of the country?
I think he does. When I was growing up as a schoolboy, that was the Boycott-era of the Yorkshire committee wrangling and the time of him opting out of his England career. I was at school with a real devout Yorkshire fan who I used to tease terribly. He was a Boycott supporter, so I would have fun at his expense. It’s funny now to be a friend of Geoffrey now and he’s been a part of my life one way or another for a long time.
I think that whole era for Yorkshire cricket was very interesting. He will now say that he should never have been captain. I remember him saying that on stage at a theatre in York. It was one of those theatres where you can’t see the audience at all. You can hear them, but not see them, and I always remember Geoffrey saying he should never have been captain of Yorkshire, and I could just sort of feel this brooding mass of people with the same shocked reaction as me. What an extraordinary admission that was.
Geoffrey talking about Yorkshire is, I think, one of the most interesting parts of the show. Yorkshire cricket, what it was like in that dressing room where they all seemed to hate each other, with the likes of Brian Close trying to hold these strong individuals together. I just think that if anyone has an interest in Yorkshire cricket, they will find that passage of it really interesting. Geoffrey isn’t someone nowadays for not owning up to mistakes. In fact he does so all the time and, let’s be honest, he’s made a few, as we all have. But rather than just denying them he will now talk about them, which is really interesting to listen to.
Those years of division came at a cost to him and to the club and to the young players trying to make their way under his captaincy. I think his legacy to some extent still goes on – you’re either pro-Boycott or you’re not. If you’re not a Boycott fan that shouldn’t put you off coming to the show because you will see a different side of him, perhaps a much more likeable side, as well as a lot of explanation about what went on. I challenge him. I like him of course, but I don’t let him get away with anything, so even those who are anti-Boycott will find the evening quite enlightening.
I’m hoping to come along to the evening at Hull City Hall. Do you remember ever playing cricket at The Circle in Hull?
I do yes. I played a Sunday League match there. Geoffrey played too, so it was a long time ago, and I’ve also been on stage at the theatre in Hull. I did a night there with Tuffers in front of a lovely crowd.
I also saw you a few years ago at Pocklington with Mike Gatting and Graham Gooch. If you could choose anyone to do ‘An Evening With’, past or present from the cricketing world, who would it be?
It would be WG Grace. He was an extraordinary man and I would love to have had an hour or so on stage with him, asking him questions about his life, his attitude to cricket and everything else. On the one hand you’ve got this extraordinarily generous man, but on the other, very ambitious and driven with a huge ego, so I think it would have to be WG Grace.
Are there any plans to do some more ‘An Evening With’ shows? I know you’re also touring with Bumble and Tuffers.
Well, it was Geoffrey and I that started these evenings off, several years ago, though we haven’t done that many in Yorkshire, so we’re also doing Halifax and York, as well as Hull. What I like about these evenings is that you get to see a different side to the person that you’re with that you wouldn’t ordinarily see, and also that the people are there because they want to be. It’s not like speaking after a dinner or something. A theatre provides a really intimate experience, which is like nothing else.
Again going back to Emma, I’ve had incredible support from people in the theatres who have given a huge round of applause when I’ve mentioned her, and once actually, in Birmingham, she was in the audience, which was an incredible experience. Theatre is a great place to work and on this tour, whichever side of the fence you’re on with regards to Geoffrey, you’ll see a different side to him.
Just one final thing that I noticed on your website, which made me chuckle, was the comparison between you and Alan Partridge.
Ah yes. Somebody said that (Agnew is the man Alan Partridge aspires to be) about me after a ‘one-man’ show of mine and I wasn’t sure if they were being polite or not. So I put it out there on Twitter asking whether it was a compliment or not, and after that I came to the conclusion that it probably was, and that’s very flattering. I love that show and having worked on local radio it really resonates with me, as I think we’ve all worked with those sort of characters over the years. So after some consideration I’ve taken it as a compliment!