Batting againt Merlyn

Between 2005-2010 ‘Challenge Kemp’ was a regular feature of SPIN cricket magazine. Where – for some reason, always dressed as Sherlock Holmes – I would report on various challenges set for me in the cricket world.

This article was from the January 2007 issue.

40. Batting against Merlyn on Blue Peter with Mark Ramprakash

Middling a fierce Warne leg break, getting cuddled by a foxy tv presenter, being awarded a Blue Peter badge- it’s all just another day at the office for Kemp.

The latest challenge requiring me to dust down the ‘stalker and get out on the road once more, sees me up at 6am (6am!) and making for the BBC Television Centre where I’ve been told I’m to appearing on tv with Mark Ramprakash. This is all I’ve been told, however, so I’m unsure as to whether I should be bringing along my cricket whites or my leotard and dancing shoes. It does occur to me though, as I sit shivering, waiting for my bus, that I bet this isn’t the way Ramps will be turning up for our tv special.

When I finally arrive, I’m ushered into a huge, drafty studio and it is here the penny starts to drop about just what kind of programme we’re going to be appearing on. Surrounded by glued together yoghurt pots, a big shoe totaliser telling how much money has been been raised for Africa and two excitable golden labradors bounding all over the set, I begin to realise it’s not going to be Newsnight. Still, a cricket special on Blue Peter is as good a start to the Kemp’s television career as any.

The place is already a hive of activity, even now at crazy o’clock in the morning, and there, working away on their pride and joy in the centre of the studio, are Henry and Matt Prior- the brains behind Merlyn. Now THIS was worth getting up for…

Merlyn, the only bowling machine in the world that can perfectly imitate any bowler and any bowling style, can pretty confidently lay claim to much of the success of England’s Ashes 2005 win.

It was the relentless practice by every English batsman against Merlyn on “Warne mode” that helped them cope with the malevolent genius of the man himself (Troy Cooley opined that without Merlyn, Warne’s 40 wicket haul would have been more like 60).

All the England stars love Merlyn- Alastair Cook tenderly calls it “she”. They’ve all signed the side of the machine with thanks for all the help it’s given them and there’s even a huge red cherry mark on it where Flintoff briefly got the better of the Merlyn with a thumped straight drive, but, and this is the mad part, it’s been left at home this winter.

With England’s problems with the bat this time round, particularly against Warne it seems very short sighted of the England management not to take their secret weapon out to Australia. Still, their loss is Kemp and Ramprakash’s gain as we’re both to have a go facing it! I suspect one of us may have more luck at this than the other, still when have I been one to turn down the chance to humiliate myself?

Before all that though, there’s the waiting. And more waiting. And more. It’s unbelievable how long everything takes to set up. Cameras need to be heaved into place, lighting needs to be changed, presenters fluff their lines and more than once the director stops everything to bellow at some fool in a deerstalker who keeps wandering into the shot…

Eventually we’re ready and a huge cricket net is pulled out in the studio. The Blue Peter presenters run about in over sized cricket sweaters, chasing balls and yelping about how “amazing” it all is. A rictus grinned Mark Ramprakash stands in the middle of this insane tornado of chirpiness trying not to look as if he’s rather be anywhere else right now.

And we’re not the only one to find the whole chirpiness grating either. Henry Prior – a man with the naturally gruff demeanor of the scientific genius anyway – is getting more and more exasperated as his brilliant creation continues to be ignored. And when they strap a virtual reality helmet on Ramps head with the words “now to see what it’s really like to face Shane Warne” the snort from back of the studio has the soundmen pulling off their headphones in alarm.

And it’s not difficult to see Henry’s point. The computerised match that Ramps is inserted into is hopelessly inaccurate (the current best batsman in Country Cricket is even shown on national television blindly holding the bat the wrong way round…), whereas Merlyn, standing proudly aloof at the back of the studio, has turned a player like Cook, who had never even faced his Essex team mate Danish Kaneria in the nets, into a run machine last summer against Pakistan.

Observing it’s brooding owner, the Blue Peter director senses it would be prudent to get Merlyn on now, and, at last, the fun starts.

Calling in code to one another (“a bit more 39, I think” says Henry as his son punches in the numbers on the controlboard) the Priors set Merlyn up to bowl Warne-style leg breaks. For another bowling machine to do this the mechanisms would have to be lifted up, rested on their side, and, an age later, they might be able to land a Warnie on a length. In a matter of minutes Merlyn is ready, the three flashing lights on the front counting down and the ball is spat out, pitching and turning square just in front of the prodding Ramprakash.

Ramps deals with his over of “Warne” well, a sweetly timed sweep shot leaving you wondering whether, after his glorious summer, he should be out in Australia facing the real thing rather than winning 70s throwback TV shows. Still, I have more to think about as it becomes my turn and I make my way down the end of the net.

“Merlyn can impersonate any bowler you know” Matt tells me “it doesn’t have to be Shane. In fact when we told your editor this he suggested we put it on Akhtar setting. I told him it would probably kill you. He just replied ‘…and?’”

I start to realise this could be embarrassing. I could end up either losing some teeth or falling flat on my harris after being flumoxed by some snake-charming spin, all on national TV.

“Couldn’t you put it on Jeremy Snape setting” I ask, hoping to get the slowest ever recorded bowler. Instead I get the old Melbourne Wizard himself. They’ve slowed the pace of the ball down for me, and I do actually get a sight of where the ball’s going to land – a long way out on the off side – but as soon as my foot has gone to the pitch of the ball, it’s fizzed past my bat and misses the stumps by millimeters. I look suitably stunned.

“We put more revolutions on that than on Warnie’s Ball of the Century!” Matt chuckles. It was an impossible ball to face, but, unlike Mike Gatting, at least I’m still in. The next few balls are equally as fierce, but I manage to get a bit of bottom edge on a few of them and I’m even starting to enjoy myself – holding a perfect, high elbowed defence shot just for the cameras.

Suddenly a woman, gesturing with her clapperboard, calls out to her colleague, “When are we getting rid of this bloke then?”

It’s now that I notice the camera stopped rolling ages ago. Ramps is by the exit shaking hands, getting ready to go, and I’ve just been getting in the way. There’s not going to be any Kemp on Blue Peter when it goes out. This isn’t all going to lead to me getting my own chat show. They slap a Blue Peter badge on me as I exit the net, and all my dreams melt away like snow on an open fire. Again.

Batting against Merlyn 2

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