Couch Talk Episode 47 (play)
Guest: Ed Cowan, Australian Test Opener
Host: Subash Jayaraman
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Subash Jayaraman- Hello and welcome to Couch Talk! Today’s guest is current Australian test opener, Ed Cowan. We’ll be talking about his start to his international cricketer as a test opener, the debut at MCG last Boxing Day, Australia’s First Class cricket and his book, “In the Firing Line- Diary of the Season”, among other things. Welcome to the show, Eddie!
Ed Cowan- Thanks, Subash. It’s great to be on your show, mate! I’m very happy to be here. I hope we can have a great chat!
SJ- It’s my pleasure.
Let’s begin with the test debut. After scoring four hundreds in four games, coupled with Phil Hughes’ struggle against New Zealand, it was pretty much a given that you were going to be opening on Boxing Day. What were your feelings before the squad was announced for the India series, and how did it build up from there to you walking out with David Warner onto the pitch to open the innings on December 26th, 2011?
EC- You said it was a given that I was going to open the batting. In my mind, it is nice to know that that wasn’t the case. If you remember, Shane Watson was under a bit of a mysterious injury cloud. And, they weren’t quite sure whether he was going to play solely as a batsman or if he could bowl at all, and what his bowling work load could be. That sort of cloud was hanging over the team before the Indians played the Chairman’s XI at Manuka Oval. So, I was in my own mind, thinking that he was going to play and I had my way of dealing with pressure. I was just thinking he was going to be picked.
It was just a good opportunity to put my foot forward on a good wicket and manage to score, as you said, a hundred. It wasn’t up until half-way into the game and after getting those runs that I was informed that I will be in the squad and would open the batting. And that was the moment I certainly won’t forget. But then, the build up for, I think, the biggest test in the Australia, if not the world each year, having grown up watching so many Boxing Day tests, it is such a ritual in Australia and then, contemplate being a part of it. At that stage, it was the 21st or 22nd of December. There wasn’t a whole heap of time to start thinking about it. it wasn’t as if you were picked for a tour that was leaving in 3 weeks’ time. It was that you were opening the batting in 4 days’ time for Australia at Boxing Day. You have to deal with that.
My mindset was on two things. I’m in the form of my life, having scored 4 hundreds in the last 4 games. I don’t think I could’ve been better prepared for that. I had nothing to lose. It is something that I had worked hard for a long time and just of the opinion that just wanted to go out and nail my opportunity, or whatever comes of it. i was coming with an open mind, not wanting to think too far ahead. I would’ve been happy to know that I would have 6 or 7 years of test career, though. I just wanted to enjoy that moment and see where the adventure takes me.
SJ- Excellent. There is a question from the regular listener of the show – @cluelessvictory. He wants to know how different was your emotion from the time you were called off the Members’ bar in Sydney in ‘04-‘05 as a substitute fielder for a few minutes and this actual debut where you were presented with a Baggy Green for yours to keep?
EC- Clearly, very different moments. The big difference for me was knowing that I deserved the Baggy Green when I was handed it over before the Boxing Day test. To field in a test match was a great thrill, but essentially, it was all that could ever be – fielding for a couple of overs in a test match. To know that your journey has come to a point where you can actually compete in a game, and contribute and try to win the game for your country and to know that you have earned the spot in the team- that was something very special and very hard to recreate with words, but I guess the best way to describe it would be that it was the end of a very long journey and relief of all the people that helped you along the way and I guess, lived that dream with you. That was very rewarding not only for me, but for my family members and coaches that have sacrificed a lot to get to that moment. Now, the battle is, one thing is to play test cricket, and the other thing is to compete. The next step is to really dominate it. so, I think having ticked the first two boxes, I think I belong and can get some big runs moving forward. It is just the question of walking the walk and really nailing the good days, rather than just getting starts. Hopefully, fingers crossed, that is the plan moving forward.
SJ- I want to touch upon your step up to the test cricket. The Australian first class system has been, for a long time, hailed as the best system in the world. It was credited with producing hard-nosed test-ready players. You played with New South Wales, and then you moved to Tasmania. Now, you have played 7 tests, 4 against India at home, and 3 against West Indies away. How much of a step up was that, from Shield Cricket to Test Cricket? And, what were the adjustments, especially the mental approach to the game, as well as the tweaks to your technique?
EC- That’s a good question. I still think Australia still holds the best and toughest domestic competition in the world. To succeed in that competition, that puts you in a really good stead to be a good test cricketer. With only 6 teams and only 10 games, it is a condensed season, in the sense fast bowlers are always going full throttle, you get the sense in the English County system that it is almost survival of the fittest, and that affects the quality of their cricket. I don’t think the English First Class cricket is as strong as our domestic cricket, but they are the best test team in the world. So, it is interesting how those two structures are dissimilar.
The big step up for me was just the level of scrutiny. It still felt like a game of cricket and a game that I was really familiar and comfortable with. But, the big difference for me was purely the level of scrutiny. Experiencing people judging you on how you play, how many runs you make and every move you make the whole time, and having to deal with people who aren’t necessarily that considered in their judgement and then pumping it out to the public in the form of newspaper articles, radio segments and whatever it is, and shaping public opinion for whatever reason.
Sadly, cricket journalism in Australia, at the moment has sort of turned into a tabloid competition, compared to what it is like in UK, where you get a really considered, clever journalists providing great commentary on the game. In Australia, that has gone very tabloid-centric. To sell paper, they need to be firing blokes, basically. They were shooting bullets all summer at Ricky Ponting. If it wasn’t Ricky Ponting, it was David Warner until he got a century. If it wasn’t David Warner, it was myself. If it wasn’t myself, it was Brad Haddin. So, permanently, that builds up, and you just need to block it out. But, if the entire public wants something to happen in Australia very much like how it happens in India as well, wheels start turning and pressure builds. That was the biggest step.
The skills was a step up, no denying that. In first class cricket, it feels that you can wear down the bowlers through the course of the day. In test cricket it feels so over the course of a series, at best. Such is the intensity it is played at. It feels as though the bowlers are constantly coming back. In first class cricket, whether it is fitness level, or just pure adrenaline, you know that if you can get through late in the day, there is going to be some cash-in period. It just felt like in test cricket, there is no let-off. No loose spells before the second new ball. It was just tough work the whole time. For me, those were the two biggest differences.
SJ- Regarding the media scrutiny, the heightened level of scrutiny, once you entered the international arena, I read some of your quotes from the press conferences you did at Dominica and where you said that you shouldn’t be judged by the scoreboard. Do you feel that you and Ponting (the pressure was on Ponting as well) were getting short changed in these days of instant punditry and 24 hour news?
EC- Yeah, perhaps. That quote was particularly in reference to the time zone of the West Indies series. The guys were under pressure. You were there for the 2nd test, I know, and you saw the conditions. They were bloody hard batting conditions all the time. For people, particularly press or the public, to open up the scorecard when they wake up in Australia when they have not seen a ball because of play being through the night, and then make judgements- that was why there was a build up of frustration, in that sense.
On the flip side, I’m also very aware that as a cricketer, regardless of whether you are a club cricketer or a professional cricketer, you are judged by your performance. It is purely a performance game. I’m more than happy for that to happen. But, I just want that [judging of performance] to happen on the basis of being put into the context of the game. It is very easy to spit stats about how well you are playing, and not watch the game, when in fact you might have played out of your skin and contributed a 50 in a innings where 160 was par. But for guys to read through that back home, that context isn’t really given. So, that is really important as well.
I understand that the 24 hour news cycle has also developed around the game. That is important for the game as well. It is just ensuring that context is given to that kind of observation.
SJ- On a somewhat of a lighter note, how is it to have been sharing the test arena with the legends of the game? In the debut series, you were playing against Tendulkar and Dravid and you have been playing with Ponting in Tasmania, and he was your batting partner at the other end. How was that?
EC- Another good question! There were moments, particularly in that Indian series, having grown up idolizing people like Rahul Dravid and Tendulkar as the premier batsmen, apart from Lara, that Australia has played against – to sit at bat-pad, in particular, and you are only a meter away from them. It is not like you are at mid-off and it feels like you are an extension of the crowd. Stand at bat-pad, a meter away, hear them breathe, hear them talk to themselves, hear their disappointment if they played a bad shot, almost smile when they get one away – it created this intimacy…I didn’t know them, but it felt like as if I got to know them through the series just through being so close. It was great to play against them.
In Ricky’s case, it’s been such an eye opener to see how he goes about his cricket and how enthusiastic he is, his infectious attitude to winning, and how that can rub off not only on the Tassie (Tasmanaia) team, but also the Australian team. Just to be around that is pretty inspiring. The other issue is that you get to know these people and realize that how they have been portrayed by the media or by other cricketers, often isn’t the case and that they are really lovely people. I know Ricky has been always portrayed as the hard-nosed individual when he is probably the most giving, lovely and sensitive guy you could ever meet, and can be completely and brutally honest. He really cares for other people which you never would have got from not playing with him.
SJ- I want to touch a little bit more about team dynamics. Simon Katich just announced his retirement from Australian first class cricket. He was your teammate at New South Wales. And, it just so happened that you actually took the opening slot from your former teammate. So, what is it like to be in a dressing room, being close mates with someone you know you are in direct competition with? How does it fit into the whole team dynamics, both at the Shield level and international level?
EC- It is something that you get used to right from under-age cricket, whether it is the club under-15 team, trying to get picked into a representative side – you always seem to be competing with guys in your own side. So, balancing that with team ambition, just generally, balancing individual ambition and the team is something that you just get used to. I think the difference that is there in domestic cricket, but less so in international cricket, I think, is because that the test team is the pinnacle, and you stop competing with the guys on the team just to get the result. There is no individual ambition, in the sense, trying to go to the next level, where there might be individual ambition in terms of trying to be the best player in the world, but that is good for the team. I think that kind of competition is really healthy in teams. It makes guys push themselves, it makes guys look for improvement. A lot of teams I’ve played for over the years, guys have run-scoring competitions between each other. That is good for the team. If a team is consistently scoring big runs, that certainly makes winning a lot easier.
SJ- I want to touch upon a few aspects from reading your book. One of them was that quote, “We are only ever competing against ourselves, with our discipline, patience and preparation.” So, as a cricketer, a batsman especially, you are defined by your failures. The game is built around failures. So, how does team’s success, even though you may be failing help you out of your situation both internally and externally?
EC- That concept of competing against yourself was something that I had while I was growing up, trying to put in to practice, knowing that no matter how much you practiced and prepared, how well you were playing, you could still fail. Essentially, the perception of failing. You get a good ball, you nick off, and that’s your day! I sort of became accustomed to it. If I’m prepared well, and it’s been consistent with other times that I’ve done well, my routine is there, I’m watching the ball, and am up for the contest. If I still get out, then, so be it. That is the nature of the game, and have learned to deal with that.
i guess I’m on top of that, like you mentioned, the team’s success is the reason why I play. It’s not necessarily the reason why everyone plays the game, but that is why I play the game. I love playing in winning sides – knowing that the collective effort is better than your opposition. That is one way of dealing with not contributing individually. It is finding support, or try and bowl in the nets to the bowlers, or whatever it is in the course of the game so that if you haven’t contributed as your job, you can still get the result as the team. That is one of the great aspects of the game of cricket. As you say, having to deal with failure, you become accustomed to it and you find different ways of trying to deal with it.
SJ- Say, if a team is winning but you are not contributing, does it eat away at you, or just find ways to get around it and focus only on the team’s success and then hoping that you will hit form again?
EC- I think, any time you are not contributing to the team, it hurts. You feel like you are letting your team and your teammates down. It just takes the edge off it slightly if the team is winning. But, generally if you are one of the better players in the team and you are not scoring the runs, then your team is not winning either. So, that can go hand in hand and that can spiral out of control. At the same time, you want to be contributing. It hurts knowing that you have let your mates down, and you made them carry you. But at the same time, there will be stages during the season when you carry them and you got their back. There is a little bit of swings and roundabouts in that sense.
SJ- I want to go back to your book again. What aspects of keeping the diary for the entire season, documenting the ups and downs in form, the highs and lows of being a professional cricketer that came to light that you didn’t realize existed, what did it teach about yourselves, and the sport itself?
EC- I don’t know if it taught me anything about the sport itself. Everything in that book had been lurking somewhere without necessarily documented. A few things that I did learn were that a diary is dangerous, things can start becoming almost self fulfilling prophecies. You start predicting, or thinking that something might happen. It is basically a project on the power of the mind, and how positive and negative thinking can affect your performance. It made me think really analytical at times, which as an analytical person to start with as my base, was dangerous. I’m at my best when I can just let go of all the emotions and just go and do it. So to have that snow ball was hard. To keep on top of it, it took a while to separate good batting with good writing, and knowing that they didn’t necessarily go hand in hand.
The biggest thing was reliving failure, if you had a bad day. You are so used to just tossing it aside, saying that you had a bad day. But then, to go home 6 or 7 hours later and write about it and re-live it and try to explain that emotion in your diary for other people, that made things snowball as well. It was an interesting process. I won’t say I won’t do it again. I will do it a little bit differently. I learned a lot about myself. It made me realize what makes me tick and how to improve on those little aspects that I saw come through in the diary. So, it was really worthwhile project. I don’t think there is any coincidence that the year after I wrote the diary, was my most successful season as a cricketer. So, it was certainly well worth the effort.
SJ- Listener question from Benjamin – What is the biggest lesson that you have learned in the two test series that you have been a part of so far?
EC- Test cricket is harder than it looks. For years, particularly the years you’ve been a professional cricketer, you sit on a couch and you see a bad shot or a flat wicket and you think that it is the cash-in day today. “Ah, that is a terrible shot.. what’s he doing? What an idiot! I can do better than that!” and that whole couch situation – we all have been there. The realization is you don’t know what kind of pressure they are under until you are part of it. I’ve got a lot more respect for the guys who have done really well in test cricket for a long period of time to deal with that.
Test cricket is really interesting at the moment because the wickets have started to become a little bowler friendly, a bit more conducive to 40 wickets falling in a match. And that makes for really good cricket. So, it is just interesting seeing it from close quarters. I feel like I belong and I can do really well. It has been a bit more emotionally exhausting than I thought it would be.
SJ- Talking about test cricket, the documentary that Jarrod Kimber and Sam Collins are making, “Death of a Gentleman” deals with that central question – is test cricket dying? They followed you throughout the India-Australia series. What are your views about the ever mushrooming T20 leagues. Can tests and the T20 leagues like the IPL and Big bash co-exist?
EC- Good question.
As an aside, I hope that the movie is an absolute cracker. Not purely because I’m in it, hopefully they explore that issue for all it’s worth.
My personal opinion is that test cricket can survive and I don’t think I’m alone here. It’s just going to require a lot of effective management and cooperation from individual boards and the ICC to ensure that test cricket is still the priority of every single nation playing it. I don’t know if that is the case at this point of time. If we continue the way we have been in the last two or three years, maybe test cricket won’t be the premier format, and that’s concerning. The first thing to go will definitely be the One Day cricket. If they kill that off, for whatever reason, I think test cricket has more of a chance for survival. It is a fact that broadcasters love One Day cricket. It provides a full day of advertising revenue and content for them. It’s a battle of media powers and cricket boards.
As for T20, it is a fantastic a game as a compartmentalized aspect of the game and has its place. But even with the IPL and the issues of window, that is really important that there is a window so that every team can field its best team for every test. That is probably the biggest issue facing the game. It will be interesting to see how that is dealt with. Next thing will be to see whether every country will develop its own T20 franchise league, what kind of impact that starts having on the cricket. That is something, when that happens, I don’t quite know what the answer is. If that is the case, we will seen the demise of One Day cricket before we see the demise of test cricket.
SJ- One last question, and I will let you go, Ed. Australia’s next test series is going to be at home against South Africa, more than 6 months since the last test you played. How do you intend to keep yourself busy between now and then in preparation for it?
EC- I have to leave tomorrow for the UK. There is an Australia A-tour to England, for the first time in 15 years. I’m lucky enough to captain that team. 4 games against Derby, Durham and two fully fledged unofficial tests against the England Lions. That will take up probably two months. By that time, it is almost cricket season in Australia. So, that takes me to mid-August, and by the time you get back to Australia, there is preparations for the Champions League with my “Sydney Sixers” team. And, a couple of first class games before the first test. Although, it is 4 months away now, but those four months will go pretty quickly. There is a lot of cricket to be played. Looking forward to playing the A-tour. And the test series against South Africa is going to be a defining moment for the Australian team and where they are heading, particularly if – as I feel – South Africa beat England in England, it might be a moment to take on potentially the best in the world at home. If we win that, we take huge momentum into both the series against India and then the back-to-back Ashes series.
SJ- Fantastic! On that note, thank you so much for coming on the show. It was an absolute pleasure talking to you, and I wish you the very best.
EC- Thank you, very much! The pleasure was all mine. Hopefully, you can have me back on the Couch some stage.
SJ- Oh! That will be fantastic! Thank you!
EC- Thanks, mate! Good chatting.
Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman