It was the summer of 1986 when two wide-eyed, (relatively) young and hopeful hacks were let loose on the England cricket circuit. Not long up from the sticks, luckily they had a couple of things in their favour: a three-page ‘document’, closely typed on an old Olivetti, entitled “How a Test match fortnight works” and the company, for three internationals apiece, of that guide’s author.
Mark ‘Stanley’ Baldwin and I have re-read Terry Cooper’s words of wisdom on a good many occasions over the past 30-odd years, enjoying yet again his colourful turns of phrase and reminding ourselves how different the game of cricket reporting was before mobile phones, laptops and social media changed everyone’s world.
But what neither of us would ever want to alter, I know, is the experience of having had TC as our mentor - both in the press box and, arguably even more enlightening, out of it - during that international season of ‘86.
Cooper was made for agency work. And, more particularly, he was in his element ad-libbing copy over the phone at a time when the Press Association served dozens upon dozens of evening papers, regularly updating and renewing stories from the dreaded ‘0430’ through to 3 in the afternoon - or maybe even later if it was a really “zonking day’s play”.
As someone who frankly dreaded going through to ‘Copy’ without at least a few words scribbled down, I was in awe of Terry’s confidence in being able to pick up the phone and start describing what he had just seen - and what it meant to the game - almost before the bail had hit the ground.
As far as I know, Coops did not win many, if any, awards for his cricket writing. And it was quite possibly the same in rugby. But I fancy if all the sports journalists in all the world had been lined up in individual boxes in, let’s say, 1990 and told to dictate running copy, with regular leads, on the action unfolding before them - without the aid of TV replays, radio commentary or assistance from colleagues - then Terry’s efforts would have been marked a lot nearer top than bottom. And maybe even top had he been allowed a couple of glasses of red for company.
Mind, he did occasionally take the ad-libbing skill a bit too far. I happened to be in the PA office, at 85 Fleet Street, one winter’s afternoon when TC was asked by the sports editor to produce a warts and all profile of England rugby’s Will Carling.
“Terry, there’s no-one in the business who knows more about Carling than you do - you’ve watched him since he was little more than a kid, interviewed him dozens of times, spoken to everyone who’s ever had anything to do with him. Give me everything you’ve got, every dot and comma, as many words as you like - the definitive Carling profile.”
“Okay. Put me over to Copy, will you.”
Terry did his share of office stints, as everyone had to at PA, but that certainly wasn’t his natural environment. I struggle to picture him at 85 Fleet Street, but the image of him in the front row of the old press box at Lord’s, with Dave Field, of Extel, alongside is pin sharp in my mind’s eye.
I dare say the pair of them are there right now with Smudger in the Mail seat in the corner and Crash and Pricey sat just behind the agency boys. With a bit of luck, the sponsor’s rep will be along soon with a tray of drinks to lubricate the throat before the lunch lead has to be dictated. Oh yes, here they come now.
Cheers Coops. It was a pleasure. And an education.
TERRY COOPER by Mark Baldwin
Well, TC, what can I say? You were the best of colleagues, and the perfect mentor to Toff and I when we joined PA (or The Joke Factory, as you called it).
By the time you guided me through the second half of that summer of ‘86, which featured England’s 1-0 series defeat to New Zealand - whose off spinner, John Bracewell, responded to one of your searching questions at an after-play press conference, to general hilarity: “Gee, mate, you’re a bit of a shit-stirrer, aren’t you?” - I had already had the pleasure of reporting several of England’s Five Nations matches as your ‘No 2’.
Indeed, we used to chuckle for years afterwards at my response to your very first ‘on-the-whistle’ instruction to me at Twickenham. You had just finished your run of play copy (‘cuffed’ on an open line to 85 Fleet Street) and were dashing off to conduct in your inimitable style the press conferences with the coaches and captains of England and Ireland. (There were no media relations officers in those days so, when England were the hosts, you just did it simply because everyone expected you to do it).
“Just give the desk a quick nightlead, will you? Wrap it all up. Say, eight pars or so... 300 words??”
Dutifully, and keen to show that I had indeed learned at the Western Daily Press that I could write to order under pressure, I constructed a concise and, if I may say so, perfectly-executed 300-worder on what had been a dramatic international in which Dean Richards had scored a hat-trick of tries from No 8 for England.
Feeling somewhat smug, after dictating my copy, I awaited Coops’ return to the press room, only for him to burst back through the doors ten or fifteen minutes later with the immortal words: “What the hell are you doing? The desk tell me you’ve only filed 300 - for goodness sake (or words to that effect) get some more over!”
“But, TC, you said to do 300!” I bleated, pathetically. “You said eight pars.”
“Did I? Well, I didn’t mean it. After a match like that, just let it run...”
Coops, I can still picture you now hiding your red wine glass under the front desk at the old Lord’s press box, so that Nelson Fairley (the PA sports editor) couldn’t see you with a drink in your hand if the TV cameras were to intrude through the pulled-up windows of the box at the back of the Warner Stand, wiping your fourth finger across your mouth in delectation at another goodly drop, and I recall especially the ever-present mischievous glint in your eyes behind those dark-rimmed glasses.
To be proposed as a Cricket Writers’ Club member, as I was, by Terry Cooper, and seconded by Peter Smith, was a true honour. Wherever you are now, TC, enjoy the Black Fish.