Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Didn't I tell you?


If he can do it, so can Mr Beardy Terrorist.

Mind you, I'm looking forward to the thought that the Blairs might be strip-searched and interrogated when they fly back from Barbados...


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The (hopeless) state we're in


I haven't blogged properly for ages, which is unforgiveable especially considering the news over the last week or so.

It's not that I don't have an opinion about the recent terror scare. I was booked on a flight from Glasgow to Gatwick the morning all the fun started. Already worried that I was way over the baggage allowance, I wasn't looking forward to turning up at the airport with a big metal case containing a video camera, plus a three-foot long shoulder-slung tripod case, plus my overnight bag and trying to persuade the check-in attendant to let me take them all on board whilst at the same time persuading him/her that there was nothing sinister about my intentions. My colleague with whom I was travelling, on learning of the security situation, announced that she was too scared to fly home. My attitude in such circumstances is that lightning is unlikely to strike twice, and Glasgow-Gatwick is probably one of the lower-risk flights (compared, say, to Heathrow-JFK). But her fear prevailed over my bravura and, coupled with the check-in issue, I was persuaded to undertake a (surprisingly pleasant) Virgin train journey back south.

When I woke up that morning and heard the news, my immediate reaction (like NoseMonkey) was "oh, come on". If planes had been blown out of the sky, if Canary Wharf or wherever had come tumbling into dust, if there had been running gun battles at Stansted, I might have been convinced immediately. But the sudden news that a 'plot' had been 'revealed' and that the stable door was rapidly being shut across airports all round the country (even those airports where no horse had been sighted) made me instantly suspicious that this was yet another eye-catching government initiative to rouse us sleepy British citizens from our complacency and drive us into wide-eyed, Labour-voting screaming terror.

If this seems uncharitable, let's remember how many times this government has cried wolf. The terrorist shot on the underground turns out to be not a terrorist at all. The government and police spend a few days assassinating his character (he was an illegal immigrant, he jumped the barrier when challenged, er... well, you just had to look at him, he must have been up to something) before revealing that there was nothing to be concerned about at all, except the death of an innocent man at the hand of over-zealous law enforcers (remember that phrase 'over-zealous', we'll be coming back to it). Then a raid on houses in Forest Gate results in dangerous terrorists being put out of action - or not, just an unfortunate man being shot in the leg (was it?) because he was committing the heinous act of living in his own home and being in possession of a Muslim-sounding name. And I haven't mentioned the 'ricin plot' which got a jolly good going-over in the media before it was quietly revealed that there was no ricin, no possibility of ricin, and nothing at all to get worried about. But the World Cup had probably begun by that point, so people had stopped noticing.

As for 'over-zealous', let's go back to those stable doors. The list of forbidden items being read out on the news made me wonder if, in my sleep, I'd slipped out of this dimension into a comical Orwell-inspired fantasy world in which basically everything is forbidden unless there is specific instruction otherwise. No water bottles, no spectacles cases, no books, no jars of baby food, no mobile phones, no tissues (is that right? To be honest, you could just make up a list of forbidden objects, it would be equally implausible). If you're carrying milk for your baby, you have to taste it in front of them. I was half expecting the newsreader to stop mid-sentence, wink, and say, "naaaah, 's all right, I'm just 'avin' a laugh, ain't I?"

Why was the response so absurd? First, it created a huge amount of unnecessary work for security personnel at the airports, frisking and searching passengers who were clearly innocent of anything beyond parking infringements. Second, it caused delays and damage to the airline industry which could not be sustained in the long-term (which is why the regulations have now been relaxed). Third, any security arrangement put in place can be circumvented with enough time and imagination. Unless they were proposing that the next stage be forcing passengers to strip and board planes naked, there was no future for the hand luggage restrictions. Fourth, it created the impression that masses of terrorists were still on the run; strangely, a few days on, with no new arrests made, we're not hearing anything about that now, even though the restrictions have only just been lifted.

I don't - for the moment - doubt that there was a plot. I don't doubt that the security services acted before any harm was done. If all this is indeed the case then they are to be commended for bringing about a successful end to the conspiracy before anyone was killed or even so much as hurt. I do doubt, however, that the timing of the arrests had nothing to do with the Home Secretary's speech to Demos in which he suggested that freedom of expression and movement is going to have to take a back seat indefinitely, in view of the virtual inevitability of another terrorist attack (how prescient of him). I also doubt that it was necessary to throw the country's airports into chaos, imposing risible security checks on harmless objects carried by law-abiding folk, making the whole thing look like a grown man chasing a wasp with a rolled-up newspaper before it's even stung him.

Anyway, one bit of good news: anyone who's come here from NoseMonkey's comments will be relieved to hear that BA have promised me a full refund on my flight.

Much more good stuff on this at the usual places, ie Chicken Yoghurt, Bloggerheads, Bruce Schneier, Diamond Geezer, Rachel, and especially Craig Murray.


Sunday, August 13, 2006

Third Test: England win by 167 runs



I know it's approaching a week after the event, but I've spent the last few days filming and travelling around the country (and out of it, if you consider Scotland to be a separate entity as many do). Anyway, this victory means that England have won the series and reclaimed their position at No. 2 in the world Test Match rankings. Which makes sense, because England almost certainly are the second best Test side in the world - and, this winter, may be found to be the best. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Go on, click 'More'. Go on!

As my taxi arrived to take me to Euston for the Birmingham train, Mohammed Sami went for a run so suicidal it would have made the organisers of Dignitas flinch, and Pakistan lost their seventh wicket - which was pretty much game over. At the beginning of the final day, however, I felt it was England who were on the back foot. Having conceded a lead in the first innings, despite what had looked like a pretty hefty first-innings score, they posted 345 in the second innings, led from the front by captain Andrew Strauss who brought up his tenth Test century (more on this in a bit). Pakistan had been set a total of 323 runs to win, on a pitch which seemed to contain no surprises and with three of the world's best batsmen in their side (plus a couple of others with decent records). Hoggard was rumoured to be carrying an injury, Harmison's devastating form of Old Trafford had once again retired to the back of his mind, Sajid Mahmood was showing no indication that his continuous selection was justified and only Monty Panesar suggested any threat to the strong Pakistani line-up. Despite the size of the target (even these days, anything over 200 is deemed to be a hard ask for the fourth innings) I felt Pakistan had the strength in batting to make it and defy the records - so many records have been broken in the last five or so years, after all.

As it happened, Panesar was every bit as threatening as his earlier form had promised and bowled incredibly tightly and accurately. But the real star was the previously hopeless Sajid Mahmood, who defied the "traitor" taunts of the enormous contingent of Pakistan supporters in the crowd (these people are British - what's wrong with them? It's only a bloody game! Even if it is the best of all possible games...), and grabbed four wickets of batsmen who might have been his team-mates had his dad not upped sticks and came to Britain in the sixties. It was his best performance in an England shirt by miles, and must give him a guaranteed place on the plane to Australia (where he may find the bouncy wickets to his taste, even though his questionable accuracy will equally be a feast for the Australian batsmen).

England had three other shining lights in the match. Ian Bell scored his third hundred in successive Tests, a feat matched by such greats as Bradman, Hammond, Sobers, Richards, Compton and Sutcliffe, not to mention many of his more imposing contemporaries such as Ponting and Dravid. What was all the more impressive was the manner in which he scored them - fluid, competent, chanceless, rarely looking ill at ease. The No. 6 spot - previously unquestioningly belonging to Flintoff - looks like a surer bet in his hands which means the six batsmen four bowlers option must be strongly tempting for England.

Chris Read had a miserable start to his Test career. Not with the gloves - his keeping was usually flawless - but with the bat. He failed to pass 20 in his first set of matches, and once famously ducked a yorker. Dropped (with dreadful timing) by the selectors for his poor form, he went back to county cricket to work on his batting. On the strength of this match, the work has paid off. His first Test fifty bolstered the English lower order in the second innings and ensured a defendable total. He dismissed five Pakistani batsmen in the match, including the last to fall - Inzamam dancing (as only Inzamam can) down the wicket, missing Panesar's deceptive delivery, and hearing Read tap the bails off with the ball. I'm sorry to see Geraint Jones dropped, and feel the manner of his falling could also have been handled much better by the selectors - who display a lack of empathy that would make a Cyberman blush - but if Read's fine form continues, the order will be strengthened by his inclusion.

What can one say about Andrew Strauss? In thirty Test matches, he has scored ten centuries. That's a rate of one every three matches - only Bradman, Headley and Walcott have a better rate in Test history. That Strauss's average is still below 50 is indicative of his frequent inability to get a good start - but, once he gets past fifty, the road to a hundred seems free and open every time. His Test average has actually improved since he took over the captaincy. What's more, with England in a potentially difficult position on the last day he maintained his calm and authority and, with the help of some excellent bowling and a good helping of luck (which all good captains need), he steered his side to victory. He is genuine captain material. With Vaughan unlikely to play international cricket again, and with Flintoff barely able to recover in time for the Ashes (and with question marks over his ability to pull his side out of trouble when things are going badly), surely it is the time for the ECB to appoint Strauss the official, no-questions-asked, not-waiting-for-anyone-to-come-back-and-take-over England captain.

So to the Oval, where Pakistan's best bowler looks likely to play, having recovered from his injury and where the playing field will be more level (apart from that little dip behind the wicket at the Pavilion End of the pitch). The toss - and the weather - will probably be as strong a factor in the result as any performance by the players. England have announced an unchanged squad today. My money's on the draw, but the great thing about cricket is that anything can happen.