Here’s a date for the diary: if you’re in south London on 11 April, head for the Oval. It’s going to be nippy for sure, certainly a four-sweater day, and it might even be snowing, but you can count on the free coffee Surrey generously lays on for members, not forgetting a few pastries as well. More than that, though, you should be able to see a real copper-bottomed English knight of the realm strapping on his pads. With a bit of luck Sir Alastair Cook should have said cheerio to his lambs and be playing in the County Championship for Essex in what must be his gazillionth season of first-class cricket.
If ever a man deserved his gong it’s Sir Chef. And come April and a handful of spectators in a largely deserted Oval, it will be a far cry from that golden September Monday last year when 25,000 cricket fans saluted Cook with an endless roll of standing ovations and tears. I was there and still have the ticket stub. Sad, eh? It was almost better watching it again on the end-of-year TV highlights shows. Only on TV could you really see the full scale of love and admiration for the Chef, a man for whom nobody — apart from Kevin Pietersen — ever had a bad word.
We now have a full XI of chaps knighted for services to cricket, though two of them, a bloke called Frederick Toone and the great Neville Cardus, never played first-class cricket and were knighted for services to the game beyond the boundary. The question of who out of our XI cricketing knights would open the batting can keep you going for days: I’d go for Hobbs and Hutton, with Cook coming in at No. 3. A strong start, and necessary too: we wouldn’t have Sir Beefy coming in at No. 7 because he got his ‘K’ for services to charity. But God bless, Sir Chef, and see you in the April chills.
Lovers of karma will take great pleasure in the fact that Chef bowed out against an outstanding Indian team, with a very misleading 4-1 series win. India are a superb side, brilliantly led, and now they’ve just caned the Aussies. The Australian bowling attack is the same as the one that destroyed England last winter, so full marks to the Indian batsmen.
Tim Paine, the Aussie skipper, is a likeable guy, with a strong line in banter like all good wicket-keepers. But if you are going to get lippy, it’s best not to do it when you’re being put to the sword. Paine was picked up on the stump mic asking his opposite number, the preposterously youthful Rishabh Pant: ‘You babysit? I’ll take the wife to the movies one night, you’ll look after the kids?’ Not Wildean maybe, but quite funny, though not such a good idea to one of the best young batsmen in the world who a few days later flayed the flagging Australian bowlers for a record 159.
Has the FA Cup lost some sparkle? Back in the day when every club picked their strongest team, Final Day itself was the highlight of the year, a 12-hour festival of TV, beer and crisps, accompanied by appalling game shows like Cup Final Celebrity Squares and a walk round the Wembley turf, all flares and brass bands.
If anything, clubs picked stronger teams for the FA Cup than for First Division matches. Now even the clubs in the middle and at the bottom of the table field weakened teams. The biggest teams, however, don’t play that game: Manchester City and Spurs picked strong teams and duly got big wins. Even Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had some of his best players lining up for United against hard-working Reading: Sanchez, Lukaku, Mata, Rashford. Only Liverpool among the big guns decided to field their kindergarten and paid the price against a promoted Wolves side who can claim to be one of the teams of the season. They are backed by Chinese billions so watch out. Only the strong survive.