The voice of BBC cricket gears up for a big summer by discussing Gary Lineker, David Cameron and more with Christopher Jackson
Briefly having forgotten why I have come to Rutland, I look up from my newspaper thinking someone’s turned the radio on. But no: standing in the hallway, that’s actually Jonathan Agnew – the voice of cricket – commiserating with the staff of Hambleton Hall about the weather.
In the bar area, Aggers – as he’s universally known – rearranges his considerable height into an armchair and is immediately enthusiastic. ‘It’s cricket’s big year,’ he says. It certainly is. The fact that England is hosting the World Cup is exciting in itself, but also – a little amazingly – Eoin Morgan’s team began the tournament as No 1 in the world.
‘There’s no doubt they have the ability to win it,’ says Aggers. After that, captaincy duties will pass from Morgan to Joe Root for the Ashes; the first match is at Edgbaston on 1-5 August. ‘I’m hoping England do well in the World Cup and the enthusiasm spills over into the Ashes, and we get new people loving the game,’ says Aggers.
As relaxed as he is, he hasn’t had a great few months. The Caribbean tour was hampered for Agnew – and for cricket fans – when Rupert Murdoch’s TalkSport bought the radio rights. ‘We could only do two minutes an hour. Now we need to remind people what they missed in the winter – because they did miss it.’
There’s a quiet confidence there. He’s obviously a kind man, and during our three-hour lunch his gentleness never slips. Yet his good nature exists alongside a certain feistiness.
‘I’m a fast bowler, and fast bowlers are competitive, aggressive people when they’re on the field,’ he says. ‘People forget that before I was a commentator I was a fast bowler – and it’s still there. On social media, I give it back. I may bumble along in a conversational way on the radio.’
One flashpoint came last December, when Agnew reacted to the Remain-ish tweets of BBC football front-man Gary Lineker, sparking a minor Twitterspat. Agnew restates his point: ‘We’re meant to be impartial and for me that’s the end of it.
I don’t think people who work for the BBC should be out there running political campaigns. I’ve known Gary a long time, I like him: he’s a big cricket fan.’ (A few weeks after our chat, Agnew indulged in rather stronger language while berating a fellow journalist, earning him a rebuke from the BBC.)
The 59-year-old’s strength of feeling is an aspect of his passion for the central organisation in his life. ‘The BBC is all sorts of things. It can constrain you and constrict you but also it does empower you too. The BBC is a very special thing. Sometimes people have a go at it, and it deserves it, but they’ll miss it when it’s gone, crikey.’ Is that imminent? ‘It might just be a news app one day.
Many forget that Agnew was himself a Test cricketer, with three England caps to his name. Indeed, in the Caribbean over the winter Viv Richards was still complaining about an lbw dismissal at the hands of Aggers (‘he says it wasn’t out’).
Though his Test career wasn’t wholly successful – ‘I never felt I really belonged’ – the appeal of Aggers is that he straddles the ex-players with their access to the inner circle – the Boycotts, Vaughans, and Tufnells – and the passionate armchair commentators, like the late Christopher Martin-Jenkins. ‘Christopher spoke from the amateur’s heart rather than from the cynical brain,’ he recalls. Not that more former playing legends wouldn’t be welcome. ‘Sky might be freeing up a few people after this summer: Botham and Gower,’ he suggests.
As our starters come, the conversation meanders pleasantly down the years past the 2005 Ashes (‘We’ll never have anything like that again’) to his mentor in the commentary box. Brian Johnston (‘he was like a grandad to me’).
Among recent players, Agnew is close with Sir Alastair Cook, and even helped him draft his resignation statement after his penultimate Test. That leads on to more serious topics, such as England’s perennial failure to find decent opening Test batsmen – a sign of the depletion of the county game. ‘I was sat next to Alastair in the West Indies, and I said, “What’s going to happen when you bang out these hundreds and Ed Smith calls you up?” He said, “Never say never.”’ That sounds like it might almost be a scoop, but Aggers moves to shut it down. ‘But he had to be pushed to say that. I don’t think he’ll play again – that farewell that he had…’ Agnew orders the fillet of brill.
Anecdotes flow. On Stephen Fry: ‘The first time I saw him was at Headingley. Stephen said, “I’ve got a good idea. If I were captain I’d instruct my batsmen to go out there without any pads. It would make the Australians angry, and they’d watch the ball more carefully.”’ Politics is a passion for Agnew – in fact, he’s an underestimated political interviewer. It’s not uncommon for politicians to be genteelly skewered on TMS by Aggers precisely when expecting an easy ride.
One such was David Cameron. ‘It was during the 2011 riots, when Cameron had been on holiday,’ Agnew recalls. ‘No 10 approached us for him to come on at tea at the Oval – I assume to have a nice radio audience. So I phone Nick Robinson up – Nick’s my man – and I say, “Right, come on. Help me out here.” So I gave him the Paxman treatment, all about his holiday and why he wasn’t there. I saw him a few years later and he said, “You were tough on me!”’
He’s also interviewed Theresa May, who has long touted cricket as her chief interest outside politics. What was she like? ‘The prime minister walks in with all these flunkeys. The first thing she said was, “How’s your wife?” [Emma, who is recovering from breast cancer.] So she’d been well briefed, but she didn’t reveal her cricketing hand, which was a shame.’
Aggers continues: ‘She’d just come back from the Trump hand-holding visit and I said, “At what moment did you realise this was a ghastly situation?” She said, “Well, I went round the corner and there were photographers.” She added, “He was only doing it because I was going down some steps.” I said, “So he’s a gentleman, then?” There was a long pause.’ He smiles mischievously: ‘She bought a cake in at Headingley when Boycott was there. Apparently he held on to her tupperware. And I said, “Oh right – typical Yorkshireman, not surprising he held on to it.” Two weeks later I got a call from my producer, who’d been on the phone to Downing Street. Apparently Boycott sent some personalised tupperware to Theresa May. Pursuing his knighthood, I think!’
Is Aggers himself in the running for a knighthood? ‘Definitely not,’ he says, pointing out he is already the proud owner of an MBE. What was the day like? ‘It was Prince William. I’d come across him before at Windsor [for a cricket match]. Harry came on to bowl and this bloke knocked one to mid-on – the easiest catch you’ve ever seen – and William dropped it. Hilarity all round.’ Aggers pauses. ‘When I got to the palace, I relayed this story to one of the ushers, and this chap went off chuckling. When I approached William, he said, “What were you saying to that lot? Were you laughing about my cricket?” I said, “I only told the truth!” But he did over two hours speaking to everyone for a minute without a pause. It was a great effort.’
There’s a trace of melancholy about Aggers, attributable, I suspect, to his wife’s recent battle with cancer. ‘Look after yourself,’ he says kindly, shaking hands as he walks out – off to walk the dogs and cook for his wife.
This article first appeared in issue 69 of Spear’s magazine, available on newsstands now. Click here to buy and subscribe.
Photography: David Harrison