Transcript: Couch Talk 32 with Lawrence Booth

Couch Talk Episode 32 (play)

Guest: Lawrence Booth, Editor, Wisden

Subscribe to Couch Talk podcast on iTunes.

RSS Feed


Subash Jayaraman – Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. Our guest today is Lawrence Booth, editor of The Wisden and he also writes the Top Spin column in The Daily Mail. You can find him on twitter as @the_topspin. Welcome to the show, Lawrence!

Lawrence Booth – Thanks, Subash. Thanks for having me.

SJ– (My) Pleasure! Now that the test series in UAE between England and Pakistan is over, what are your thoughts on what has happened?

LB– Well, England has never been able to play spin very well in Asia. The series confirmed that with knobs on, didn’t it? It was pretty grim from the English middle order perspective, the top order was much better. What was interesting to me was what emerged after the series, where Andy Flower more or less admitted that the players were not prepared properly. And that was quite a shock for team that has grown up sort of lauding its own professionalism. It’s one of the key qualities to the England cricket team and one of the reasons it rose to the top of the rankings last summer. So, that was interesting and it raised questions of complacency, questions that cropped up after the 2005 Ashes when they went to Pakistan and lost 2-0. So, that was curious. The bowling was excellent. Really, England should’ve won the series 2-1, that’s the crazy thing about it! They needed 145 to win the second test and they had Pakistan 44/7 on  1st morning of the third (test). Really, freakish. But, superb bowling by Pakistan, and am delighted for them after the hell they have gone through for various reasons over the last couple of years. I wrote before the series started that a Pakistan win will be good for international cricket and I stick by that. I was just slightly taken aback by the ineptitude of the English.

SJ – Are we moving towards an era where the teams are so good at home but they go to conditions where they are comfortable historically or currently, and they get exposed. India rightfully got the stick for how inept and pathetic their performances were in England as well as in Australia. Should England be measured with the same stick?

LB– Absolutely! India did get the stick in England, and England deserve all the stick they get in return for the way they played in the UAE. England’s bowlers were good and they answered a question there about how to bowl in Asian conditions. So, that was one box ticked. But the batting was so poor that the question still does remain. Generally speaking, teams who go outside their own comfort zones, if you like, and I’m speaking mainly of an Asian – non-Asian split, they have always struggled. There was a period in the mid 2000s, when India‘s away record suddenly picked up and they started playing gutsy cricket under Ganguly and a bit after he left. That kind of skewed the trend. But, what we are returning to now, it is partly down due to the fact that lead-in time to tours are so short now. So, there is little time for acclimatization and often what happens is that the home team wins the first test and the away team is playing catch-up for the rest of the series. Yes, its not a good trend. And it doesn’t help when some cricketers come out and say “Don’t worry, we’ll get them when we play them at home”. One area I was mildly encouraged by the England side was their honesty in saying “Ok, look. We were just hopeless. We have to sort out the way we play spin in Asia”. Flower’s come out, all the players have come out and said that. So, there is hope there for them. Whether this is the same for all other teams, Subash, I can’t possibly say.

SJ – Going back to the question of preparation. We heard, and I don’t mean this in a negative way, that England’s preparation was so good for the Ashes and how they played India at home. And it was surprising that somebody who is known as a strict disciplinarian like Andy Flower came out and said “Well, we didn’t prepare well”. And, he is someone who has played really well, and England have at their disposal, the academies and the spin machines and all that. This is a question, as well as a comment – a question from Mayank Jhaveri . “What is being done in England, to overcome this? And what is being done currently in the highest level, at the international level by Andy Flower and others to combat this?”

LB – I’m not sure if a lot is being done domestically as such. Each county coach answers to his members and add success to county. There are very few pitches in England where you’d say “That’s a spinner’s wicket”. One or two pitches suit spinners better. But generally counties play to their strength, and the strength, we all know, is seam bowling. Internationally, however, this is a key, really. Parts of the reason England have done really well is that they have taken out county cricket early and sent them on Lions’ tours and four months programs and so on. That’s where the difference is made, or should be made. We can see, for example, the Lions playing One Day series against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. And there have been couple of quite stunning innings out there- Jos Butler, Craig Kieswetter scored blistering hundreds in Sri Lanka. As you mentioned earlier, you alluded to Merlyn that a spin-machine, but they can do as much work as they like in the theory of playing spin bowling. But, unless it is in your blood, it’s going to be very hard to, like in pressure situations in the test matches we saw in the UAE. It’s quite hard. I think people revert to old habits. English batsmen, and dare I say, South African batsmen, have not been brought up to use their spin to spin bowling as well as the Asian batsmen do. They just have a different approach. Part of the reason why England lost the series, when they failed to chase down 145, was because, we saw from Cook and Strauss in those 15 overs – they just played the spin from the crease, and after 15 overs, England have 20 runs on the board. And the template was set. Ian Bell, is actually one of the, this sounds a crazy statement to make at the end of a shocker of a series, better players of spin because he uses his feet. He actually played Shane Warne pretty well, for example in the ’06-’07 Ashes. He got down the track, he disrupted his length. And that’s what you have to do. And that doesn’t seem to be in the English batsmen psyche. So, somehow, that has to be conveyed to them. That’s actually a generational change. Flower may have been a great player of spin. He was – he reverse swept, he maneuvered the gaps. But, can he convey that to the current generation of cricketers. This will be tough and maybe he’ll think, “Maybe we just have to wait for the next generation, the ones coming through – the likes of Buttler and, I’d say, Kieswetter, as much. In Buttler, there’s certainly hope, a hope that they have got these bad habits out of their system.

SJ– And, I’m going to ask a couple of questions about the composition of the team, and where it is headed. And this is a question from Chasing Willow. She wants to know – Monty (Panesar) has made a comeback into the team. Looking ahead, you have a tour to Sri Lanka and a tour to India. So, now, is he going to be a permanent fixture in the team? And, what about (Eoin) Morgan? Where does he stand? Also, is there a disconnect between England’s “team greater than the sum of parts” theory, but still some of the players being hyped as larger than life characters? Is there an effort by the media to hype up some of the players, like say, (Graeme) Swann or KP (Kevin Pietersen)?

LB– Monty will have a busy year in test cricket away from home. He almost certainly will play in both tests in Sri Lanka. I’ll not be surprised, in at least three of the four in India later this year. I suppose they may come across a track that’s not spinning. At home, it’s a different matter. I can’t see him playing any of the three tests against the West Indies early summer, because England will go back to three seamers and a spinner. And against, South Africa, maybe the same. Monty is not a permanent fixture, and he won’t unless he becomes the number one spinner. And he won’t become that unless his batting and fielding improve out of sight or Swann loses it completely. Swann’s still a good bowler. He’s had an interesting year. Not quite as potent before that, but they like the fact that he can field in the slips and chip in with 30 at no.9, and just the general  spirit he brings to the side. Morgan is interesting. I thought, before the series, that he is the one potential weak-link in the entire England side. I was proved completely wrong – there were several weak-links. But, Morgan was the obvious weak-link. I think, he still hasn’t completely answered the question which is whether he can translate his One Day form into the tests. We all know he can still plays some nice reverse sweeps in the One Day arena, where the field is spread. But in the test, where there are fielders around the bat, we saw several such situations where he was put under real pressure. He was probably a bit unlucky that he often arrived at the crease in really tense moments, like 20 minutes before the close of plays, and that kind of things. But he didn’t handle it. He has so far based his CV on being ice-cool and above the fray, if you like, and that hasn’t happened.

SJ– I read your line about him being “able to cool down a furnace from 10 yards away”.

LB– That’s been his sort of USP, if you like, it’s certainly under question now. The slight problem that they’ve got now is, do they bring in Bopara? I don’t necessarily have faith that Bopara would’ve changed anything. I think he is a guy who lets the pressure get to him. I’d almost be tempted to go to the next generation. Let’s see if Buttler has got what it takes. The disconnect you mentioned, of the media hyping up the players – Kevin Pietersen gets a lot of stick in the English press, as much stick as he gets praise, and it’s erring towards more stick than praise these days. I think there is a feeling that he is sometimes not very honest about the left arm spinner issue. It is pretty obvious for anyone watching him bat, that, if Abdur Rehman pitches it on the stumps and straightens, we’ve got trouble for him. Do we hype up Swann? I think everyone can see what kind of a guy he is. He likes to crack jokes, and actually that sometimes can be annoying for journalists in press conferences. We can’t quote them, we want serious quotes to write a news story about, not a joke that we can’t make anything serious of. Maybe, to a degree, his joke-iness lets him get away with things where others wouldn’t get away with. For example, on twitter, the more serious member of the team would’ve been told “You can never tweet again!” if they had written all that Swann’s tweeted! So, in that sense, he does get away with it, a bit. People are watching him closely, and they know he is not having a great year. Someone like Broad doesn’t need any hyping up, for the moment. His bowling in the last two test series has been outstanding. Likewise, Anderson. I’m not sure I’d totally buy that idea, I’m sure you’d say that I’d say that, because I’m a newspaper journalist, I don’t buy the idea that we pump up our players unnecessarily.

SJ– I’ve got a couple of questions on the English team, and then we will move on to journalism – @Ayush_RedDevil wants to know – After the release of Swann’s autobiography, there have been reports that not everything is right in the dressing room. Is there any truth to it? What are your thoughts on it?

LB– I was out in India for the One Day series, which India won 5-0. And, Swann’s book had been serialised in a couple of papers back home right at the start of the series, probably the worst possible timing for a tour. And, throughout the tour, we tried to ask various players if there was an issue. Andy Flower came out pretty quickly and said “I don’t think this is right. I don’t think players should comment on current teammates in a book till their career is over.”.  Swann said, I remember before the Twenty-20 game in Kolkata when Swann was the captain, “A media beat-up, we were getting the wrong end of the stick”, and so on…  The next day, Pietersen was the man of the match, which meant that he sat next to Swann at the press conference. Pietersen, who hadn’t had a chance to talk about it on the tour, was asked about it, and he said he didn’t think it was a very good idea. And, we could see Swann’s face dropping as this myth that it was a media beat-up was dispelled by his teammate. So, that, I think was quite telling. Pietersen was unhappy. I think he dealt with it very well, Flower was right that Pietersen dealt with it very maturely. Didn’t let it get to him. If you or I are criticized by a colleague at the work place, publicly, I doubt we would be doing cartwheels, would we? It’s human nature to be not delighted with that kind of thing. Whether that’s created other problems, I don’t think so. One of the nice things about the England side is that they get along pretty well. They spend a recent amount of time with the man on the tour, which is when you see how close they are more than when they are at home. They do get on pretty well. Pietersen’s probably the only guy who risks standing on the outer. He has more of a sense-of-his-own celebrity. The others are pretty good guys, I’d say. Pietersen’s a good guy too, don’t get me wrong. They are a nice bunch of blokes, and I think they get on pretty well.

SJ– Alright! Let’s move towards cricket journalism, and where does Wisden fit in all of this? I’m going to start with the question from @HomerTweets – I’m sure you would’ve seen it too – Given that the print media is getting squeezed, everybody is competing for the same small amount of pie, how does Wisden fit in all of this? How do they stay relevant? And, we’ve seen it being especially obvious during the India-England series that journalists were basically becoming cheerleaders for their own teams. Is it based on their own convictions or is there a directive given to them from the people above them – “We’ve got a target audience”, say for example, an Indian newspaper of TV, they have to serve the Indian viewers and readers, and England newspapers and TV channels have their own readers and viewers. Is there a directive like that to cater to them? Where do you see this going?

LB– How is Wisden relevant? That’s a very good question! And it’s one that Wisden has been wrestling well within, even before I came on board. How is an annual publication in the internet age, when the statistics are updated by the second? Wisden has a big record-section, and one of the question we have to ask is – “What do we do with some of those sections?” when some of the records are actually out of date by the time the book is published. So, we are trying to shrink the record-section bit by bit, and migrate more of our statistics to a fairly rudimentary website, at the moment. Wisden has always been a record book in way, and you would be shocked to open it and not be able to find, for example, the best test score was by Brian Lara. It has to be a basic statistical service. But, above and beyond that, we’re trying to encourage people that there is a lot of good writing in Wisden. There are more sort of big front-of-book pieces than they used to be. Now, there are close to twenty. Now, there are USPs, the questions I saw on twitter were about USPs. I think very few organizations’ newspaper magazine have that capacity to attract all the big names in world writing to write one a subject and write about it skilfully. That’s a strong draw for Wisden. Look for what’s coming in that section more than our record section, which is vitally important, but it’s not such a focus of the book now that the internet is taking over. We’ve also got a magazine now online, called “Wisden Extra”, which we are trying to produce sort of 2/3/4 times a year depending on what’s going on in the world of cricket. So, we are trying to keep the name Wisden in people’s consciousness. I think there is also stil la run for an independent voice on cricket. Wisden’s been going for 149 years, this year will be the 149th publication. And while longevity, per se, isn’t necessarily an adverb for anything, Wisden has, over the years, developed a feeling that it’s, the words we use are – integrity, authority and independence. Now, others can be a judge of if we live up to that. Those are certainly the qualities that we aim for. I think, that still counts for something. That, in a world where people are being pulled in different directions and their vested interest. And that brings me to the second part of your question- journalists being cheerleaders, and are there directives. No, from my experience, there aren’t directives. I think it is taken for granted that a newspaper can stitch and say it’s first loyalty is for newspaper readerships so for English newspapers that is the English readers. The situation is slightly complicated by the fact that everything is now available on the web. The idea of local readership is perhaps an increasingly bogus one, and that is something the newspapers have to deal with. Are journalists cheerleaders? Well, some are, clearly! You can’t get away from there. No journalist should be a cheerleader. Journalist should be as objective as possible. Sports get blurred because it is a passionate and emotional thing, and no one really wants their sport to be filtered through a disinterested lens. It feels un-natural. Of course, you got to strike a balance, and not everybody does that. What’s happening, partly, is that, thanks to Twitter and Facebook, if someone in England says outrage on a piece written to it by and Australian journalist, they can link to it on Twitter and now it does the rounds. And suddenly, it sort of feels the fury that you find on Twitter. There is a lot of fury on Twitter, you can notice it yourself. I have to deal with it time-to-time. It is a function of the fact that, you are less likely to tweet about “Have you seen this nice, modest refreshingly fair minded piece by somebody in Australia. Let’s all applaud this.”. No, you are going to look for things that annoy you. And that voice has taken control, a bit. And that, exasperated the notion that journalists are being cheerleaders. Some are, but not all of us are.

SJ-In 2011, there was a confluence of so many things, top ranked team coming down and England making the ascendancy to no.1 spot, and the size of media, the following in both the countries- India and England, sort of fuelled everything. And then you have the social networking sites. You had Michael Vaughan making statements like “You should check VVS’ bat for Vaseline” and he was trolling people on Twitter. He was having a bit of fun with it. There was so much back and forth between the fans and journalists. Aashish wants to know if 2011 was a new low for cricket reporting. Was personal and national biases over-shadowing what needs to be cricket reporting? Is it a trend, or just one-off thing?

LB– It comes back slightly to what I was just saying, that we tend to notice things that annoy us more. And because of Twitter, that has been made much worse. Vaughan, I remember being in the lunch queue at Trentbridge test. I turned round and said to him, “That was a bit naughty, your Laxman tweet, about the Vaseline”, and he sort of pretended to take offense and claimed that it wasn’t. I think Vaughan’s tweeting is a bit provocative. I think he does it partly because he gets a rise out of people. It is tough telling a passionate nation of 1.2 billion to not react to someone who is trying to wind them up. It is almost pointless. That is a problem. People can choose to take offense or rise above it. The nature of sport is that people who have invested their emotion and things find it harder to rise above it. That is where we are at, at the moment. Whether it’s a low point for sports reporting? I’d say not. There is still a lot of objective good writing, they don’t get picked up as much. You read some of the English broadsheets. I love reading Mike Atherton, for example. Mike Selvey, who has a disinterested, impartial, take on the world game. It is simply not the case of one side simply trying to wind the other side up. Twitter has brought us all close in essence, but it has also so allowed us to land punches on each other more easily. And that is not a nice trend. I can’t bear the nationalistic nature of a few tweets. I find it sad, really. I wish more of us were able to take the internationalist perspective on the world game. Because, it is all our game. All teams are trying to win. If we are just name-calling, it demeans us all.

SJ– A couple of more questions – from ChasingWillow, again – She says that the editorial standards have slipped. You see things getting mis-spelt on newspapers, televisions, websites. She is saying that The Guardian no longer follows its style-guide. It’s all a bit shit. How does Wisden, the most traditional of all establishment, handle the supposed modernization of language?

LB– Wisden has got an advantage, that it is an yearly publication, we can take some time in putting it together. And that time question is what’s screwing other organization, in essence that, they need to react quickly to the 24 hour news-cycle to get things on Twitter, to get things up on the web as quickly as possible. Mistakes do creep in. And also, the situation of newspapers in England is that they are all losing money and they all have to cut costs. And often, the sub-editors are the first to go. It’s an unfortunate situation. But the people who run newspapers in England don’t seem to understand that sub-editors are crucial to maintain the integrity of the publication. So, how does Wisden do it? There is a time issue. Accuracy is one of the qualities that we strive for. When we have 1600 pages, mistakes will inevitably creep in. But, we have quite a rigorous editing process. Someone will send in their copy. Maybe, i’ll have the first look at it, first crack, and knock it into whatever shape he is knocking into. Someone else will check some of the more obscure stat and facts that are not easily check-able. Then, it will come back to me, I’ll ahve another look, and it will go into a proof. Five of us will read at the proof stage and discuss if there is any change that we have to make. So, it is quite a rigorous process, and the upshot is that not that many mistake creep in. I might be setting myself up for a full-day. My first Wusden coming out this year could be riddled with typos, but by and large, that is the process. It’s just a rigorous process with the time we have to produce Wisden allows us, and we are lucky in that respect.

SJ– I want your personal input on this- as someone who writes online for a publication, and someone who reads other media outlets and articles etc. Recently, we had the India-England series, one of the largest cricket sites in the world had this for a title – “England pwns India.”. It was grating to read. What’s your take on that?

LB– I can imagine that it would be grating to read, if you are an Indian fan…

SJ– No, it doesn’t matter whether you are an Indian fan or an English fan, or completely neutral.

LB– It would be more grating. I find it grating, as a non–Indian fan. But, I imagine, it would be more grating if you are an Indian fan. That’s my first one. My second reaction – it’s up to cricinfo if they want to use that kind of a word. I’d say, quite apart from being a bogus word, it is an overly aggressive word. And it was provocative. We shouldn’t be doing that. It just inflames people. And, cricinfo must have known that. And most of the questions that you have been asking me have been alluding to this, the whole phenomenon of countries and teams trying to wind each other up. India came to England as the number one ranked team. And England won 4-0. And then England went to the UAE as the number on team and lost 3-0. “Ha ha, you deserve that. India didn’t prepare properly, so they got what was coming. Now England have been…”. There’s a lot of name-calling out there, and it obscures more interesting debates, like what’s happened to Ian Bell’s cover drive and things that keep me awake at night? It’s an unfortunate trend. Poms, is a good example of that.

SJ– Last question, and this comes from Gary Naylor – He wants to know from you, as you are in a unique position to answer this – what separates the pro(fessionalist) from the amateurs, in the sense of paid professional journalist and the unpaid amateur journalist, such as bloggers, or websites or hybrids? Like, The Guardian Sports Network and Test match Sofa…

LB– I say it in the sense that the so called professional journalists, men and women who make a living out of journalism, are restricted essentially by what they are asked to by their newspaper. But, by and large, if I go to a test match for The Daily Mail, I’m the number 2 there. My job there is to keep an eye for the new stories, go to the press conference, write up the quotes, write up a few paragraphs about them. That’s my job. I don’t have the freedom that a blogger does, to take a subject and write on it. Equally, Paul Newman, who is the cricket correspondent, his job is to write the match report that day. I might have to ghost a Nasser Hussain column, or a David Lloyd column, we have a couple of guys who have a contract with The (Daily) Mail. So, our job is to put together the pages as our office wants it. The guys and girls who aren’t restricted by that can do whatever they want, have a lot of fun. They can go off on tangents. I try to do more of that on my Topspin column, it’s a web-based thing, no-one tells me what to write. I just decide each week, send it in and they say, “Thank you very much!”, generally. The professional journalists are restricted by the new-cycle, I’d say. Occasionally, a newspaper journalist gets a column to write, maybe once a week. Mike Atherton’s column is a pretty good column on The Times, for example. But, it can be frustrating, sometimes. I like to ring up the mail office and say, “I don’t really fancy going to the press conference tonight. What I think I may write about, is how Kevin Pietersen walks to the wicket. How about 500 words on that?, and they would say “You’re fired!”. It doesn’t work like that. Bloggers can do that and fair play to them, there is a lot of entertaining stuff out there. The balance is good for both parties.

SJ– On that note, Lawrence, thank you so much for coming on the show and taking on the questions from the listeners and myself. Much appreciated!

LB– My pleasure, it was good fun. Thank you, Subash!



[Download the episode here]

Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman