Jonathan Agnew on 'the leg over'

Jonathan Agnew gives Rich Evans the inside story of TMS’s most famous gaffe.

Aggers: “He knew exactly what was going to happen. He tried to step over the stumps and just flicked a bail with his right leg.”

Johnners: “He tried to do the splits over it and unfortunately the inner part of his thigh must have just removed the bail.”

Aggers: “He just didn’t quite get his leg over.”

I thought Jonathan Agnew may be a tad weary of recalling a famous transcript that happened over a quarter of a century ago, one that he dedicated a whole chapter to in his book Thanks, Johnners, and has listened to a thousand times. I was wrong. Interviewing an articulate, affable media man was never likely to be difficult – journos know what you want to hear – but even so, he recited this story with such panache. It just rolled off the tongue, delivered with untiring warmth and affection. I prepared a page-load of questions but needed only five. On the face of it, the “leg over” is an amusing piece of innuendo. Delve a little deeper and it’s a heart-warming tale of how a special bond was made.

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West Indies arrived for the 1991 Wisden Trophy having not lost a Test series for 11 years. They had defeated England in seven consecutive series over a 15-year period, while England had just been flayed by the Aussies down under. But it turned out to be an even contest which West Indies led 2–1 going into the fifth and final Test at The Oval. Ian Botham’s recall, after a two-year absence, dominated the build-up.

“Ian had been out of the England team for a while and there was a big focus on him coming back,” recalls Agnew. “There was a lot of the old news-generated stuff of ‘broken beds in Barbados’ and drugs.” In 1986, model Lindy Field claimed she had such wild sex with Botham during England’s tour of the Caribbean that they broke the bed. In that same year, he admitted to using cannabis and the TCCB banned him for 63 days. Botham would continue to be dogged by brawls, bans, court cases and scandalous headlines. “That’s why I think Brian [Johnston] was on high alert when it came to the leg-over incident – Ian was batting quite steadily by his standards and got out in that rather unusual way.”

Botham was dismissed on the second day when he attempted to hook Curtly Ambrose, staggered backwards and dislodged the bails as he tried to hurdle the stumps. The TMS commentary that followed would dissolve Brian Johnston into laughter for a full two minutes. In 2005, it was voted the greatest sporting commentary of all time in a BBC poll.

Agnew wasn’t the joke’s architect; he was rehashing a quip from a fellow hack. “[After Botham was out] I went to the press-room to get a cup of tea,” says Agnew, “and John Etheridge from The Sun came up to me and said: ‘I know what our headline will be tomorrow – Ian Botham cocked it up by not getting his leg over.’ We had a chuckle about that and I went back upstairs. Bad light and rain had stopped play, and Peter Baxter, the producer, pulled back a chair beside Brian and motioned for me to sit down and film during the break, which is something I hadn’t done before with Brian. It was a big moment to sit down with the main man, and of course he started off by going through the scorecard.”

Agnew, 33 at the time, was in his first year with TMS and this was only his fifth Test. He was then a summariser, tasked to assist and absorb the greats of the commentary box, including Johnston – who had joined TMS in 1970 – and Bill Frindall, the show’s scorer since 1966. Agnew had yet to forge a personal rapport with the 79-year-old Johnston. “I think he had spent most of the summer wondering who I was. I was an expert summariser but I was just a young lad. I think he saw me as a bit of a challenge, so he was being a little bit risqué. He talked about [Botham’s] inner thighs and something just prompted me to say: ‘He just didn’t quite get his leg over’. I didn’t deliberately say it – it just came out. I remember looking at Brian, who was sitting to my right and had this look of absolute horror on his face. He went bright red – puce – and there was a hesitation of about a second and a half where he stopped dead. You can hear in the background a clatter of china, which was Bill Frindall, who had a nose for innuendo every bit as big as Brian’s. He had a cup to his lips and when I said the leg-over line he crashed the cup down into the saucer.”

Johnston tried to work his way through the scorecard.

Johnners: “Anyhow [hissing]. He did very well, indeed. Batting for 131 minutes and hit three fours. Then we had Lewis – played extremely well for 47 not out… [struggling to contain himself]. Aggers, do stop it.”

Johnston didn’t know what to do with himself. “Brian wasn’t looking at me – he had buried his face in the scorecard, and I was chuckling. And that’s why he says ‘oh do stop it, Aggers’, with a bit of a snigger.”

Johnners: “And he was joined by DeFreitas, who was in for 40 minutes. A useful little partnership there; they put on 35 in 40 minutes and then he was caught by Dujon off Walsh [laughing again]. Lawrence, always entertaining – he batted for 30… 35… Oh… 35 minutes [starting to lose it completely]. Hit a four [laughing] over the wicket-keeper’s… [prolonged wheeze]… Aggers for goodness sake, stop it!”

“He almost made it through. His face was absolutely buried in the paper but it was that snort of Frindall’s, just at the moment when Brian was taking a breath – that’s what did him in the end,” says Agnew. “That’s when he just collapsed. And so on it went from there. I actually felt quite sick halfway through to be honest, but when you are totally corpsed up like that it’s an impossible situation because you can’t broadcast.”

Aggers: “Yes, Lawrence [laughing], L-L-Lawrence… batted extremely well… [Still laughing; another loud wheeze from Johnston.]”

Agnew gave up. “I was giggling quietly and thinking this could be quite amusing. I wasn’t really in a fit state to contribute. But when I saw what happened to him, that turned very quickly to convulsion and horror – fear for what was going to happen. But when I tried to speak halfway through again, it was hopeless. Nothing came out.”

Johnners: “[squealing and barely coherent] He hit a four over the wicket-keeper’s head… and he was out for nine. Tufnell batted for 12 minutes, then was caught by Haynes off Patterson for two, and there were 54 extras. And they were bowled out for 419… I’ve stopped laughing now.”

But he hadn’t. “Johnners took a copy of the transcript around with him for the rest of his life, wherever he went. He loved it – he was very proud of leg over,” says Agnew, who has played it “thousands and thousands of times”.

Twenty-five years later, it still has the instant effect of serotonin. “It’s been played a million times at least, but only one person has got the view that I have, which is sitting next to Brian and actually watching it happen, watching him convulsing, trying to get through the tears pouring down his face. It’s a very special memory. Sometimes I listen to it and I have tears pouring down my face. Sometimes I listen to it and it kind of just washes over me, but the best ones are when I can just stop for a moment to listen to it and see Brian on my right-hand side.

“It’s just a lovely, childish, innocent, silly bit of banter. If I had said it to anybody else – like Henry Blofeld or Chris Martin-Jenkins – they wouldn’t even have noticed it. But because it was Brian and because he was tuned in to Ian Botham and all the news that had been building up before the match, the thought of him not getting his leg over really hit the spot. Johnners stormed off into the night afterwards, thinking he’d been unprofessional and let the side down. But when he came back the next day we’d had a lot of letters from people who’d enjoyed it and I said: ‘Come on, we’ve got to go and listen to it.’ So we went down to the engineer’s room, sat down and listened to it. He loved it of course. It was played at his funeral. It was played to him when he was flat out in a coma to try to get him to come round.”

Agnew had brought the curtain down on his playing career with Leicestershire the previous season. He had dabbled in journalism while still playing but left his role as chief cricket writer of Today newspaper when TMS came calling. The leg over helped to propel his media career. “It was a very good thing for me because radio audiences are very loyal – they don’t like change. They take to new voices quite slowly. And suddenly there was this lad who helped create this moment of hilarity and it really opened the way for me. I was accepted much more quickly than I think I would have been otherwise.”

It was a moment that both inaugurated and immortalised a friendship. Agnew pays tribute to the influence Johnston had on his career and personal development: “He gave me wings. He showed me how you broadcast in that free-spirited way – but with discipline. The confidence to really express myself came from Brian; the confidence to relax and let yourself go and be a bit naughty – live on the edge a bit.”

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England claimed a five-wicket victory to draw the series – Botham had got England’s leg over the line, hitting the winning runs in his first Test win against West Indies in 20 attempts.

The next year, Johnson refused to broadcast with Agnew ever again because he laughed every time he looked at him. Eventually he retreated and did a “your letters answered” feature with his leg-over comrade. Everything was going smoothly until a letter signed “William H Titt” presented itself – and that was it; Johnston had to be wheeled out. He wrote a letter of apology to Mr Titt. There came no reply.

The Nightwatchman is Wisden’s quarterly. Each issue includes an eclectic collection of essays, articles, and brilliant photography from an array of contributors. The Nightwatchman is a great gift idea and a must-have collectible for anyone who appreciates the culture, history and unique beauty of cricket.

This piece is taken from issue 19.

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