Rub of the Dice

22nd September

The best that Nigel Pearson can come up with to excite the armchair audience with (as we scoff the pizzas he claims as our staple diet during speedway meetings) is the less than thrilling news that “both sides need victory for different reasons”. If all that glitters isn’t gold, then this isn’t quite the case either as prior to the meeting Swindon were almost definitely assured of third place in the Elite League unless rivals Ipswich went on to produce a series of astonishing results in their remaining meetings. Given they’ve recently been unable to replicate their early season form and the first of these “vital” meetings was away at Peterborough, this all looked highly unlikely. On the other hand, Coventry had flirted with relegation but with a shock last heat decider triumph at Arlington had already made their season secure with a guaranteed mid-table placing. Obviously these facts wouldn’t deter the Sky Sports Speedway presentational team from claiming this meeting was going to be another earth shattering, thrilling nail biter, despite evidence to the contrary and some rain prior to the meeting. Hans Andersen confirmed conditions were a bit of a struggle, “it’s a bit patchy with the rain that came down just before we started” and later reveals the true state of play, “there’s only one line on the outside and Bomber’s the only one brave enough to use it!”

In the pits, as always Sarra ‘Sherlock’ Elgan was keen to ask and answer her own challenging questions. Along with her trademark pout and furrowed brow to indicate the gravity of each question, she’d started to wave her arms during the interviews as though trying to land planes on an aircraft carrier. Flailing her arms like a windmill, she quizzes Troy Batchelor, “how important is it for you to win to secure third place?” Adopting his usual wide eyed but casual manner, the young Aussie doesn’t convince when he claims in an unemotional voice, “we’re all pumped up!” Apparently this heightened sense of anticipation in the Swindon camp is because, “we’ve got some new riders!” This claim is a bit of a mystery since of the ‘new’ additions to the team Seb Alden is a shop soiled rider having previously plied his trade for the Robins, while Pavlic has now ridden enough for the club to find himself in the team proper rather than down at reserve. Still, if it excites Troy then that should be enough for us at home.

Hans Andersen wins the first race and Sarra soon elicits (“are you enjoying yourself here you seem to be?”) a positive response from the Dane (“I am!”) as well as news that he has been re-born (“it’s kick started my career once again”) at Brandon. In the den of mutual congratulation that is the Brokeback commentary booth, Nigel also feels some quasi-religious fervour when he delights in the sight of up and coming Ben Barker, “another one who gives us hope for the future”. Kelvin has also been impressed with young Ben, “I like his attitude when interviewed”. Sadly, Ben’s bike packs up before he can make any further positive impression in heat 2.

Fortunately to enliven a dull, lacklustre end of season meeting, idiosyncratic Scots referee Ronnie Allen (61) is on hand to interpret the rules in his own way and so eschews all four back and instead excludes Troy Batchelor from heat 3 when he falls in the first corner. Kelvin’s flabber is gasted and, raising himself to his full height and displaying his legendary knowledge of the rulebook and the vagaries of first bend bunching, this decision is immediately denounced as a “MISTAKE!” Usually toys would be thrown from Rosco’s pram but, for some reason, news of the exclusion is slow to filter through to the pits, so instead of tantrums we’re treated to the sight of Troy methodically preparing for the rerun rather than rushing to his toolbox in search of spanners. Much as the Sky team pretend to be outraged by bad language, tantrums and heat of the moment over reactions, the loving almost pornographic way the camera lingers over such incidents and, of course, the endless slow motion replays of crashes betrays these as the real box office draw of each and every meeting rather than the racing itself. With faux outrage at the ready, Kelvin can barely mask his disappointment at the lack of reaction from Troy, “I don’t think he even realises he’s been excluded!” Temporarily in Sarra mode himself, Nigel Pearson notes, “this hasn’t been communicated to the pits!” before his commentary partner and Sherlock wannabe snaps back with lightning insight, “that’s why there’s been no reaction!” Even when the news finally filters through reaction remains totally muted. Rosco – who’s famous for his on screen petulance, love of the cameras and wild comments – comes over all Zen and goes off for a few “deep breaths”. While Troy decides to concentrate his energies into preparing for his next race, “the ref’s the boss and I can’t do anything about it”. Crestfallen but making the most of a bad situation with no ‘unexpected’ swearing to apologise for, Nigel codedly praises Troy’s “mature attitude” while an exasperated Kelvin moans, “it’s not the attitude I would have had!” Talk of Kelvin’s hair trigger emotions allows the commentators to bond further in their booth and Nigel comes over all misty-eyed and wistful recalling visions of Kelvin in the pomp and grandeur of his wild eyed, (possibly foul mouthed) temper tantrum days of yore.

The racing is so follow my leader and overtaking seems as likely as an intelligent post race question in the pits from Sarra or Sam that Kelvin is soon forced to talk about his second favourite topic – the track. Tonight we’re told in a serious voice, “track conditions – I HAVE TO REITERATE – are not easy!” Apparently at a meeting we’re not seeing on our screens at home, Detective Inspector Tatum continues, “so far THE EVIDENCE WE HAVE is that the racing has been top drawer!” I’d hate to see bottom drawer if that’s the case! A Carlsberg moment follows when the third heat is eventually rerun, “Chris Harris – you know what he’s like when he hits the front – he’s PROBABLY the fastest rider in the world!” We know that Kelvin likes to exaggerate but surely Nigel or someone should have a word when the hyperbole gets this out of control?

If Ronnie Allen’s first ‘controversial’ decision irked Rosco, then the second quickly causes him to break his vow of silence. This happens in heat 6 with the exclusion of Mads Korneliussen for a tapes offence when his helmet visor snags the tapes just as they rise in the attempted first running of the race. Rosco is straight to the pits phone where the Sky cameras and microphones await his explosive reaction. Stupidly, he tries attempted sarcasm and imitates one of Sarra’s rhetorical questions, “he’s caught the tapes with his helmet, you can’t exclude him for that!” “I can” replies Ronnie before adding “it’s a tapes infringement” in the quiet, patient voice of someone who realises that the person they’re speaking with isn’t playing with a full deck of cards. Elsewhere, Kelvin knows his own mind, “I have to say that is an ERROR!” In the pits, the camera cuts to show us two middle-aged men (Russell, T. & Rossiter, A.) in red anoraks speak animatedly. Unnecessarily, Sam explains the scene but adds nothing to our understanding, “the boys are having a discussion”. Once his chat with Terry Russell has ended, Rosco remains pretty measured, “I think Ronnie’s got a few rules up his sleeve.” Unfortunately, for both Alun and Kelvin a brief glance in the British speedway rulebook would confirm that Ronnie is correct. If he’d been less camera shy, perhaps Sky could have found the time to let him explain rather than keep the viewers labouring under a misapprehension?

Though excluded, apparent lack of communication in pits has Mads Korneliussen once again briefly line up at the tapes – thereby delaying things further – before being finally sent away. This could have been gamesmanship or understandable confusion but, with Rosco in charge, it’s hard to tell given he already had the distraction of wild conspiracy theories on his mind. Nigel almost tuts over this aspect of the debacle, “this doesn’t do the sport any favours to be honest” while Kelvin avers, “it’s a slightly messy situation”. When the race is finally run, Allen and Andersen win with some ease though Nigel can’t really take pleasure in what he’s seeing, “this is team riding though, to be fair, they don’t really need to do it!”

In the absence of tension, Nigel has to clutch at any straws of consolation he can invent, “the race for third place could come down to two points difference”. While our hearts collectively race at this prospect, Ronnie Allen continues to plough his own furrow to perk up the entertainment on offer. Heat 7 has Chris Harris come to grief on the first bend but, unlike Batchelor, he’s surprisingly not excluded. Tactically for professional hyperbole reasons every week Kelvin claims to be surprised by something mundane he’s seen for our benefit as the armchair audience. Usually this storm in a teacup is stuff like a bad choice of gate position, racing line or a minor mechanical problem. However, tonight his ire is comprehensively stoked by the referee, which definitely saves the effort of inventing an imaginary bogeyman. “I would have thought the ref will exclude Chris Harris…[he doesn’t] well, SORRY, HE’S GOT IT WRONG!” Nigel expresses faux concern for Alun Rossiter’s blood pressure and mental equilibrium, “well, Alun has had his patience tested – though he’s a lot calmer this year!”

In their speedway coverage, Sky Sports pride themselves on their presentation. A key component of which is the roving camera in the pits, there to capture the unguarded ‘real’ moments of instant reactions from the participants under stress. This evening, they inadvertently capture live on film the hugely influential speedway figure (and Swindon co-owner) Terry Russell with his hands metaphorically down the knickers of British Speedway. It’s a real pulling the strings of the puppet moment when we see him on the pits phone and, as if he’s just come from the set of the latest Guy Ritchie epic London geezer film, hear him instruct/advise the referee, “we’ve had two bad ones – so try and level it up for us will ya?” If the published rules are that the referee won’t speak to riders but only the team manager during a meeting, why did Ronnie even take the call? Nigel lifts the metaphorical carpet and quick thinkingly whistles a happy tune to distract us from the implications of what we’ve all witnessed, “Terry Russell had to step in there” he claims before celebrating the way Terry brings “a calming influence with the referee”. This makes it sound like both Ronnie and Alun are thundering around the place like runaway mad bulls. After this inadvertent brush with the media spotlight, Terry drops into the background and resumes helping old ladies across the road for the rest of the meeting.

The production team and Sam Ermolenko do manage to find Rosco who warms up sufficiently to further develop his conspiracy theme and fulminates in King Lear-on-Prozac fashion against injustice. “Ah well, what can I say? I think there’s some sort of conspiracy…it’s absolutely pathetic! …People wonder why I’m like this on Sky!….you can see that, you’re a rider, that is shocking!.. you’ve got a guy up there and we’re focussing on a bloke up there – Ronnie Allen – not the riders!” Actually, we’re focussing on the team manager not the riders but still we know what he means. Ultimately, Rosco has no choice but to threaten the ultimate sanction, “I ain’t gonna speak to him ever again!” It’s a vow of silence that he completely fails to keep during the remainder of the meeting, “I don’t want to talk about it but the ref spoilt the meeting tonight!”

Though injuries in heat 8 (“I think Seb has broken his collarbone and James has bashed his hand”) and bad luck also play their part, Swindon do fall away against Coventry during the latter stages of the meeting. Understandably so given that they’re already in the play offs and the result of the meeting is comparatively meaningless. Nonetheless, Alun clearly knows who the villain is, “well, it was going well until a certain person tried to change the goalposts!” He does perk up in Sarra’s company enough to flash his teeth and flirt, “I’m doing a Nick Faldo now and giving away my secrets!” It’s a weird Freudian comparison for Rosco to make given the proven incompetence of Faldo as a team manager and motivator of talented individuals. Though, of course, Faldo did excel as a competitor during his playing albeit without popularity [the old golf joke was: ‘every time Faldo says ‘good shot’ they build the eighth Wonder of the World’]. Oblique talk of the Ryder Cup allows Nigel to wear his golf glove with pride and try a shockingly weak pun, “was that Alun Rossiter’s sandwich order then?” In true relentless bonhomie style, Kelv splits his sides ‘laughing’ at this verbal dexterity, “a ha ha ha ha ha!”

Ever vigilant about foul language, Sherlock couches her questions to Rosco with particular care, “things seem to be conspiring against you – and don’t swear!” “I won’t swear” flirts a hurt Rossiter. Never needing a second excuse to find a plausible explanation, a taciturn Leigh Adams picks up on the well worn but unproven discrimination theme in almost every interview (“we’re racing eight guys tonight!”). Leigh has by his own high standards been under par tonight (“it’s not ideal”), so Kelvin seeks other explanations for the dropped points, “there’s been a long gap between heat 6 to heat 11….he’ll be a bit chilly.”

Luckily to pass the time and liven things up for us at home, Nigel noted down some ready drafted phrases to drop into proceedings when the opportunity allowed. When Troy Batchelor’s first three races find him pointless we learn, “yet to complete a race or score a point – a night of misery for the Batchelor Boy!” Rosco’s battle with his emotions also earns frequent sympathy, “Alun Rossiter trying to stay calm, trying to stay cool, trying to stay focussed”. With apparently every red anoraked member of the Swindon Robins management team present in the pits and in the limelight, we also learn, “co-owner Gary Pratchett is there looking at James Wright – the situation is being carefully analysed”. Nigel has retired his frequently used “to be fair” linguistic tic for the evening but his inner policeman instead surfaces with the “questions” version. “The questions will be argued late into the night” [are questions argued?] “Well, questions will be asked – did Chris Harris punish himself?”

The thinking man’s Tony Millard, Kelvin Tatum has also hit a rich vein of form on the word play front. With sixteen points between the teams before heat 11, he expects inspiration from the Swindon number 2, “if Wright could get away it would be an inspiration for the Robins…[seconds later he’s shown riding third out of the second bend] yeh, not unexpected”. Later when predicting what will happen when looking at a replay of a race he’s just seen, the Kelv tells us authoritatively “he’s gonna have a quick look, a long look in fact!” While sight of Troy B in a black and white helmet leads Kelv to praise Rosco’s managerial acumen, “he’s gonna give it a rub of the dice” before he worries about the standard of equipment the young Aussie will ride, “that bike’s running like [pause to catch his swear word] awfully!” Looking ahead to the climax of the season, he comes over all Zen, “well, you can never wait for play offs”. Probably his most profound thought of the night is “well, you know, sometimes sport can be cruel”.

22nd September Coventry v Swindon (Elite League B) 52-43

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