The Times: Hannon And Walsh Bat For The Duckworth Lewis Method

A 2009 interview with Neil and Thomas from The Times.


Neil Hannon and Thomas Walsh bat for the Duckworth Lewis Method

How did two Irishmen write a brilliant pop album about cricket? Thomas Walsh and the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon explain

Two men with outlandish Victorian facial hair are sitting in a room opposite Lord’s discussing cricketing concepts that would have made W. G. Grace eat his own pads: the Twenty20 tournament, the Duckworth Lewis Method, and pop music.

Neil Hannon, better known as the cerebral lead singer of the Divine Comedy, and Thomas Walsh, of the Irish band Pugwash, have just released the first pop album entirely devoted to the sport of cricket, to coincide with the start of the Ashes series. It contains one song that dissects a single ball bowled by Shane Warne. The album is called The Duckworth Lewis Method. It is barking mad, and brilliant.

Although the album is not released until July 6, rumours of the strange, ironic songs have spread from the Barmy Army up to the members of MCC in their “bacon-and-egg” striped ties in the Long Room, and clearly Phill Jupitus is on the case. As Stephen Fry twittered recently: “Dear old @jupitusphillip gave me The Duckworth Lewis Method, an album by Neil Hannon of Divine Comedy and others. Magnif. Loving it much.”

Hannon and Walsh may seem unlikely pioneers of cricket pop, and they are also pioneering hard-to-wear, newly grown beards for this occasion: Walsh has the full W. G. Grace bog brush, and Hannon a hairy “W” effect, similar to the mutton chops worn, he says, by W. G. Grace’s younger brother Fred (who also played cricket for England).

Hannon is the son of a Northern Irish Protestant bishop and Walsh grew up in Catholic Dublin, where he painted stumps on the wall of the Kellogg’s factory by his house. “The local sport was hurling and they’d take your face off,” Walsh says. “It was just an excuse for controlled violence, so I took to cricket to be contrary.” A courageous move in Ireland at that time.

Hannon says that they both discovered “the love that dare not speak its name” — a passion for cricket — and then began to write the songs.

Here is a taste of Jiggery Pokery, a Noël Coward-style song about the famous ball delivered by the great Australian bowler Shane Warne that bamboozled Mike Gatting in 1993: “I took the crease to great applause and focused on me dinner/ I knew that I had little cause to fear their young leg spinner.” Then Gatting is out, after the ball “span obscenely”. And he’s very angry: “It was jiggery pokery trickery jokery how did he open me up?/ Robbery muggery Aussie skulduggery out for a buggering duck.” The song ends in a hysterical crescendo: “I hate Shane Warne!”

Hannon does not hate Shane Warne, but he clearly is obsessed and besotted by cricket: “Actually, the duck was in fact a four, but that didn’t rhyme. Artistic licence.”

Long before he made ten Divine Comedy albums, toured the world, wrote the Songs of Love theme tune for Father Ted, and reached the top ten with songs such as National Express, Hannon was an unemployed musician lurking in his parents’ attic in Enniskillen. “I was basically in the wilderness with nothing to do, so what better to fill in the time than watching five days of Test cricket? And reading long, complicated novels.” Hannon is “a massive E. M. Forster fan. And I read Evelyn Waugh, Fitzgerald, things like that.”

Words are addictive for Hannon. He even won the James Joyce Award from the Literary and Historical Society of University College Dublin for his “outstanding contribution to modern music”, something Britney Spears may await for some time. Hannon’s Divine Comedy songs are full of puns and literary and film references, from Wordsworth to Fellini, so it’s not surprising that he was obsessed by the “feast of arcane and antediluvian terms in cricket” — including the Duckworth-Lewis method for settling the score when it rains.

Walsh and Hannon got out a notebook in a Dublin pub, and after four pints of brainstorming, they had a veritable cricket lexicon: googlies, maidens, silly mid-offs and the strange pleasure to be had from the burbling Test match commentary. As the song goes: “Peruse the paper/ Sip some Earl Grey tea/ And let the Test Match Special set you free.”

They also used the word “panglossian”, perhaps a pop first, in their song Mason on the Boundary. “And we checked it to make sure in the dictionary afterwards,” confesses Walsh, who has developed a strange cricketing argot atop his mighty Irish accent. “When we were writing the songs, Neil did all the reverse sweeps and the lovely little cuts — I did all the big slogs. Neil did all the subtle things.”

Walsh’s big slog, and the first single released tomorrow, is The Age of Revolution, which refers to cricket and this new form of pop music. It’s also the title of a Wisden book on the past 30 years of the sport. Walsh tried to put the entire history in three verses. “The history of the colonial, repressed countries, and how these teams play better than England now.” It is, he says, the end of the English elite. “Always denied entry/ By the English gentry/ Now we’re driving Bentleys/ Playing 20/20.”

“That’s a quadruple rhyme!” says Hannon. “But don’t you think Bentleys are more for footballers? I expect the cricketers are driving Porsches.”

For fans of the Divine Comedy the once sharp-suited, sunglassed Hannon has become unrecognisable in his new guise as “Duckworth”, in a striped blazer with a “Perfect” prefect badge, a pipe, a pince-nez and raging hay fever. Duckworth and Lewis (Walsh) are camping it up big time, and at first they wrote the cricket songs “just for a laugh, then the more we wrote the more serious it became”, Walsh says.

They had to write between three and six in the afternoon because it was “the only small window in the day when we were both awake”. Walsh avoids mornings, is a night owl or a “lazy bollocks,” as he puts it. Hannon has a young daughter, Willow, with his wife, Orla, a nurse, and finds that “I kind of run out of steam the longer the days go on. So we worked on the music where our two lives crossed.”

The pair’s lives first crossed at a wedding where Walsh was playing in his band Pugwash. “We both liked ELO,” adds Walsh, disturbingly. Hannon’s early influences included Tom Lehrer and “Christmas time with my parents sitting in front of BBC watching Flanders and Swann thinking secretly — that’s really quite funny”.

“But I still get offended by their song The English Are Best,” Hannon says. “I don’t listen again and again. I tend to hear something once and think, that’s brilliant! Off to write something like it.”

He has written a new Divine Comedy album, which is on hold because of the unexpected success of his cricketing project, and is considering touring with it “appropriately in these straitened times, as one man and a piano”. This contrasts with large venues such as the Roundhouse in London on his last tour for Victory for the Comic Muse, when he brought most of an orchestra along. Lewis [sic- Duckworth] also has a new Pugwash album out.

In another weird foray into English tradition, Hannon is turning the Arthur Ransome book Swallows and Amazons into a musical for the National Theatre. “It’s fun for all the family, lashings of ginger beer and messing around in boats,” he says in ironic tones. “But it’s actually really quite good, and nearly finished. We bow down to the great god Nick Hytner on that. I had a nightmare the other night it was going on in a school gym in Scotland.”

But back to the cricket news. On the day of the interview, a letter appears in The Times titled “Lame Duckworth” and begins “Sir, I am appalled at the Duckworth-Lewis system for resolving rain-affected cricket matches . . .” This is the cue for Hannon, in his best “angry of Tunbridge Wells voice” to launch into a disquisition on the merits and demerits of the short form Twenty20 match, which is the latest evolution of the game, versus the traditional Test match.

“I think cricket was a little on its uppers before Twenty20 came along, but at least it has invigorated certain elements that might have moved away. But if it has impacted on Test match cricket, then it is a bad thing for me.” There is a pause while Hannon considers one of those cricketing words he clearly relishes. “They don’t nurdle as much as they used to.”

Walsh is equally worried by 20/20 being a slippery slope. “The Test match brings forth subtleties in the game,” he says. “But asking people to sit down for a Test match is like offering them a Rich Tea biscuit after being force-fed all these cream cakes, all that whacking the ball everywhere.” For cricket revolutionaries, they turn out to be rather cautious.

The Duckworth Lewis ensemble remains surprised that their obsession is shared by so many. “Cricket turns out to be a kind of Masonic thing,” Hannon says. “It’s bringing people out of the woodwork. Suddenly the chief buyer at HMV turns out to be a massive cricket fan. In fact, it seems sensible to connect all our albums to a sport, any sport, from now on.”

So far the best-known song associated with cricket is a group of very drunk people shouting “Barmy Army”. This is about to change at last. Perhaps the most singable anthem from the album is a simple dirge: “The end of the over the over is ended/ The end of the end of the over is over.” The days when cricket was the private preserve of “claret-cheeked English gentlemen” are also, definitively, over.

The Duckworth Lewis Method are playing the Latitude Festival near Southwold, Suffolk, on July 17.

The Duckworth Lewis Method explained

The Duckworth Lewis Method was devised to answer the most important question in cricket (more important even than what filling to put in the sandwiches for tea), which is how to find a fair way of settling matches that have been affected by rain.

England being the world leader in rain, it is unsurprising that the solution was devised by two English statisticians: Frank Duckworth and Tony Lewis.

Until they unveiled their theory in 1996, various flawed methods had been used. Duckworth and Lewis came up with a new system, officially adopted for international matches in 2001, which uses historical analysis of how teams behave chasing a target depending on the time available and their wickets in hand.

They drew up tables showing what score a team should be on with X wickets down and Y overs remaining when chasing a target of Z.

If they are ahead of that score when rain arrives, they win. If not, they lose. This is only for one-day matches: if a Test match is washed out, it is ruled a draw.

While the method should be simple to follow, there have been notable mistakes.

In March, the West Indies coach called his players off the field for bad light, thinking that they were one run ahead of the Duckworth- Lewis target and so would beat England.

But he had not included a wicket in his calculations and they were actually two runs short.

The Times - Kate Muir and Ben Macintyre