Word Magazine: The Empire Strikes Back

A 2009 article from Word Magazine with Neil and Thomas.


Neil Hannon’s new side project celebrates the sepia-toned glory days of England’s cricketing past. Your spin doctor: Steve Jelbert.

As Duckworth and Lewis chat at their publicist’s north London office a mere overthrow from Lord’s, a steady stream of fans - mainly Anglo-Asian family groups - are heading to cricket’s most hallowed ground to see an XI nominated by a retired Australian superstar take on the champions of the Indian Premier League. Which was this year held in South Africa, naturally. It’s just another day in cricket world.

Why shouldn’t two Irishmen write an entire album inspired by the sport? Duckworth is Dubliner Thomas Walsh, presiding spirit of underrated powerpoppers Pugwash, and Lewis is Neil Hannon of Divine Comedy repute.

Taking a name from the statistical formula for setting targets in rain-reduced matches (on the grounds that it’s “wonderfully psychedelic sounding”), what started out as a faintly prankish high concept has been widely acclaimed. Even the high tables of the English establishment have welcomed them.

“Already we’ve got more than enough tales of grandeur and the MCC. The Times invited us to a dinner at the pavilion at Lord’s,” says Hannon. He reels off a list of fellow guests - the great and the good such as England spinner Graham Swann, Sir Tim Rice, Christopher Martin-Jenkins, playwright Ronald Harwood, Mike Atherton, comedy’s Frank Skinner, capital’s Mervyn King, even a couple of unspecified Lords.

“I’m getting that seating plan to show me dad,” says Walsh. An already surreal evening is well and truly capped when Hannon’s impromptu bowling lesson from Swann is interrupted by the news of Michael Jackson’s death.

A few days later The Duckworth Lewis Method make their full live debut on Ashes Eve in one of the corporate suites at south London’s own cricketing mecca, The Oval, home of Surrey since 1846. The invited audience includes familiar faces such as comic actors Paul Putner, Matt Berry and Kevin Eldon. (The comedy connection runs deep. The pair met at writer Graham Linehan’s wedding; Hannon famously wrote the theme tune for his classic Father Ted, while Walsh knows comedians like the rest of us know jokes). Sadly, Athers and Warney are no-shows, possibly tucked up in bed in preparation for the Big Show.

The show is just as charming as the album. In fact it is the album, played in sequence. Hannon sports a huge brimmed hat more suited to a slip fielder. The man next to me bursts out laughing when the title of Test Match Special is sung in perfect harmony. An encore of Booker T and the MG’s Soul Limbo, the enduring theme of the televised game, couldn’t have been more ragged if played by well-known athletes, in gloves. It’s all great fun. Clearly more storied sporting venues should host shows.

The Duckworth Lewis Method is a cracking record too, as multifarious as its inspiration, and lovingly packaged. The compact disc itself is a suitably scuffed ball, the cover shows an early ground scene by day (rah!) and night (boo!) and sepia-toned images of long-forgotten matches fill the booklet. The music is equally considered, conjuring images of birdsong at the boundary, straw hats and fishpaste sandwiches, and sometimes invoking The Kinks, XTC and particularly ELO (ELOBW anyone?) Less bucolic are songs such as The Age Of Revolution, Danger Mouse on a sticky wicket, or saucy stomp The Sweet Spot, which sounds like Josh Homme experimenting with willow and leather. “We made sure the tracks we ended up with might appeal to people who weren’t dangerously obsessed with cricket,” explains Walsh.

Particularly striking is Hannon’s Jiggery Pokery, the album’s only outright concession to low comedy at the piano. Sung from the point of view of former England captain Mike Gatting about his (and our) introduction to the bogan genius of Australia’s Shane Warne, it’s an instant classic, just like the ball that bamboozled Gatting. Its author is less certain. “It makes me think of Richard Stilgoe and Pebble Mill At One, not things I’m entirely comfortable with,” he worries.

His colleague offers reassurance. “If you do something for the right reasons, people will really react to it,” says Walsh, “You wouldn’t have put that on a Divine Comedy record. It shows you wanted to make music like that but you’d have stopped yourself.” Hannon concedes the point. “Once you’ve been doing it for years you tend to second-guess the audience and you edit yourself.”

The DLM, though, is all theirs, a one-off. Walsh invited Hannon to appear on an Irish all-star Christmas record “In the style of Roy Wood”. Because, of course, Xmas records are actually made in the cricket season they discovered a mutual taste for the game. The idea of a collaboration devoted to the subject proved irresistible. Word soon spread.

“We did a photoshoot with the Irish team before the 2007 World Cup before we had even started writing the thing,” admits a shame-face Hannon. Yet the DLM album has coincided neatly with an Ashes summer. The timing has been immaculate, albeit entirely accidental. Unlike Kraftwerk, whose Tour De France Soundtracks appeared two months late for the race’s 2003 centenary celebrations.

Yet for a former part of the British Empire, Ireland is largely wicket-free and neither man grew up in cricketing circles. Walsh’s sports-loving father bought him a cricket set. His gentle offering Flatten The Hay literally describes his childhood games. Further north, Hannon, who admits to noticing nothing but music until he was 18, went to a school where rowing was the big thing (presumably The Strokes went somewhere similar). It was hay fever that kept him inside long enough in summer to catch the cricket bug.

The pair make an unlikely partnership. Hannon remains slight and dashing, more Tendulkar than Flintoff, while the bearded Walsh casts more of an umpirical figure. But their views on the game are shared.

“We’re Test Match people, but I’ve recently been addicted to the fresh cream cake of Twenty20 rather than the stale Ryvita of the five-day Test,2 confesses Walsh.
“No, it’s more of a five-course mean with its attendant subtleties,” parries Hannon.

As for their favourite players, they gravitate to the naughty boys - the Bothams, Warnes, Flintoffs. “Botham did look like he’d fallen out of a deckchair and gone on the pitch sometimes,” says Walsh.

Hannon has a penchant for the subtler technique, claiming to be “incredibly spin orientated” and saluting Warne and Muralitharan as masters of the art. Walsh still rates Bob Willis, on the reasonable grounds that as a boy he could imitate his arm movement.

Both are nostalgic for the days when players had initials rather than forenames, and Sundays during Tests saw no play. Inevitably they mistrust contemporary sporting professionalism. Walsh fondly recalls an old photo of ELO (he loves ELO) drinking with a select group of pros after a tournament. “The faces on them!” he says, pulling a drunken one. “They were probably playing the next day, band and tennis players both.”

There is a message behind The Duckworth Lewis Method that goes beyond mere nostalgia for childhood and simpler times though. Hannon considers the game’s enduring appeal. “This might sound terribly arsey but cricket, and Test cricket especially, goes against the incredibly fast-paced nature of modern life. It’s meditative. You have to switch yourself off for a while. It’s its own little crazy world with all these arcane rules and phrases,” he ponders, “But that shouldn’t put people off. People seem so scared of anything that seems pointless these days. But sometimes pointless things are the best things.”

Could there be a better reason for making, or hearing, a record?

Wit And Wisden
Arcane cricketing folklore buried deep in the Duckworth Lewis CD

The Duckworth Lewis Method

Statisticians Tony Lewis and Frank Duckworth devised their vaunted “method” in 2001 to create targets for rain-interrupted limited-overs matches. Duckworth’s best-known work outside the world of cricket is the starkly titled International Nuclear Event Scale. If you need it, it may be too late.

Meeting Mr Miandad

Hannon and Walsh struggled to conjure up some “me and Dad/Miandad” wordplay before devising this delightfully daft twin tribute to the hippy trail to the subcontinent and former Pakistan batsman Javed Miandad, who played uniquely in the first six one-day World Cup tournaments. Miandad’s son recently married the daughter of the notorious Dawood Ibrahim, India’s most wanted man and implicated in last year’s bloody Mumbai attacks. Heavy.

The Age Of Revolution

Taking its title from Cricket’s Age Of Revolution, 1978-2006, the fifth and most recent volume of Wisden’s historical anthologies, this salute from one cornerstone of the Empire (Ireland) to another (India) mentions the “spirit of 32” (the year All-India played its first Test abroad) and Vinoo Mankad, the postwar opening batsman, spin bowler and still half of the highest international opening partnership.

Fuller Pitch

The impossibly named, topper-sporting star batsman and inn-keeper of the pre-Victorian era is mentioned in the stately Gentlemen And Players, a reference to the regular amateur-versus-professional challenges, usually won by the pros. Incredibly, these definitions lasted into the ‘60s. Yes, the 1960s.

A Cheese Roll

Hannon, in the guise of Mike Gatting, claims that “if it had been a cheese roll it would never have got past me” in Jiggery Pokery, the standout account of Shane Warne’s 1993 Ball Of The Century that left him floundering at Old Trafford. But the remark was actually made by teammate Graham Gooch and ended with “him”, not “me”. Not that Gooch was rubbing it in.

Word Magazine - Steve Jelbert