Episode 109: Cricket, diplomacy and a fierce despatch from Freddie Flintoff

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

Cricketer, diplomat and author Tom Fletcher is now Principal of Hertford College, Oxford. As the UK’s ambassador to Lebanon, he made notable efforts to support the country’s cricketers, especially from its community of Sri Lankan workers. Previously, he served in 10 Downing Street as the principal adviser on foreign policy to three British Prime Ministers, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron. He is the guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their latest cricket-themed podcast.

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Describing himself as a “recovering ambassador”, Tom conveys the intensity of his experience in Lebanon. He lived with the constant possibility of violent death: each day he had to read an intelligence digest of the groups who might seek to kill him, a list which grew longer each year. In 2013 the whole country became a target for Islamic State and he expected to have to organize the evacuation of all British residents. The following year a mortar shell landed in the fortunately empty swimming pool of the residence, literally on the road to Damascus in a sector controlled by Hezbollah. But it was impossible for him not to fall in love with the country and its people living through constant multiple crisis and the posting regenerated his idealism as a diplomat.

Tom gives his own account of his visit to the cricket match described recently to listeners by Fernando Sugath and Will Dobson. Understandably it met deep misgivings from his security. He recalls that the pitch on the car park took frequent unpredictable spin. His visit was part of a wider effort to raise the profile of migrant workers across the Middle East. He describes his remarkable job swap around the same time with an Ethiopian teenager in Lebanon. The official images of him doing her job cleaning bathrooms went viral: she took on his role when they went to lobby the Interior Minister and when they met the media afterwards.

In 2016 Tom published Naked Diplomacy (republished as The Naked Diplomat) with his insights into the dramatic changes needed in traditional diplomacy to cope with a world of immense political and technological change. It focuses especially on the demands of public communication and establishing influence by creating a perception of a nation which others admire. He is involved in an annual exercise to rank countries’ soft power and he shows how strongly this is influenced by sport. There is a real opportunity for our country to promote itself through cricket (he recommends giant portraits of Ben Stokes in every mission to a cricket-playing country), although he believes this is best achieved through the individual enthusiasm of local diplomats rather than through a centralized official effort.

More recently, he has published Ten Survival Skills For A World In Flux, on the reform of education to transmit essential skills to the next generation, and The Ambassador, a fast-paced thriller featuring a (fictional) murder at the British embassy in Paris, in which he served. The crowded action did not allow space for cricket – but he promises some in the sequel which is under way.

Tom describes his early cricketing experiences watching the Kent side of the 1980s, as a student at his present College, and in the Foreign Office’s own headquarters team. The highlight was always the annual fixture against the (usually more powerful) Commonwealth Secretariat at Blenheim Palace. In Kenya, he had been the High Commission’s liaison with the England team playing an ICC tournament. It earned him a net with the England players, where he now regrets bowling at Freddie Flintoff, whose straight drive struck him in the most painful possible place. In the aftermath of this injury he had an especially difficult evening assignment standing up to present awards on behalf of Her Britannic Majesty’s government.

In Paris he was able to enjoy regular nets in the grounds of the Embassy and its team played a number of agreeable fixtures in the Loire Valley. One opposing team was Mick Jagger’s: he remembers him as “a pretty decent medium pacer”, assisted by his characteristic gyrating run-up.

Tom discusses the contribution which sport, and cricket in particular, has made to British “smart power” diplomacy. He picks out the recent work of Christian Turner in Pakistan (he has just been promoted from his post as High Commissioner). He was especially active in repairing the damage caused by the ECB’s abrupt cancellation of England proposed T20 visit last year, and the current Test tour could be regarded as his swan song. He also highlights the role in Zimbabwe of his late colleague Tony Brennan, wicketkeeper-diplomat-comedian, and his personal effort to secure asylum in Britain for Henry Olonga after his heroic black armband protest against Mugabe.

Tom has a scathing view of international sporting organizations and tells a revealing story about FIFA when he was helping David Cameron to lobby for England’s failed World Cup bid. He hails the success of a quietly organized campaign against the most corrupt officials in FIFA. He suggests acutely that Putin’s methods in securing the Cup in 2018 were a model for his cynical behaviours throughout the world. Putin paid little penalty for these methods and he contrasts this with the massive hostility which has fallen on Qatar from its acquisition of the World Cup.

He suggests that there is a general crisis of governance in international sporting organizations. They do not do enough to represent the interests and wishes of sports lovers and they have contributed to a general loss of trust in international institutions.

He describes the relationship of his three Prime Ministers with cricket. David Cameron was the one most interested, and an occasional player, but all three were ready to make use of cricket appropriately in their overseas visits. He reveals that Gordon Brown in advance of a tour of India had decided to offer Sachin Tendulkar an honorary knighthood, but he has no explanation for why this did not happen. On a later visit, David Cameron was photographed executing a fine cover drive: Tom has kept copies of all the rejected images.

Finally Tom describes his own greatest feat of sporting diplomacy, in Kenya when he had to carry out a promise to box against the Mayor of Nairobi for charity. The Mayor was a former heavyweight champion, and had promised 3000 chanting spectators that “Fletcher would leave on a stretcher.” However, Tom still claims a decision on points and has certainly been able to retire undefeated from the ring.

Tom Fletcher’s three books are obtainable here https://tomfletcher.global/

Tom’s efforts for the cricketers of Lebanon were hailed in this past edition of the podcast


Get in touch with us by emailing obornehellercricket@outlook.com, we would love to hear from you!

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Peter Oborne & Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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