Couch Talk Episode 61 (play)
Guest: Andy Zaltzman
Host: Subash Jayaraman
Subash Jayaraman– Hello and Welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is the comedian, cricket columnist and probably the single biggest reason Cricinfo’s Statsguru is still in business, Andy Zaltzman. We will be talking about the intersection of his cricket obsession and comedic profession, in addition to U.S. and U.K Politics,the England Team’s prospects in India and of course, the KP situation.
Welcome to the show, Andy!
Andrew Zaltzman– Thanks for having me over!
SJ– My pleasure!
What is the typical day/week in the life of Andrew Zaltzman?
AZ– Well, not very exciting. I spend a day of the week working on my cricket blog, and a couple of days working on The Bugle Podcast. I’ve been there is a radio show on Five Live. Mostly, sitting by my own in a shed, looking stuff up or looking up cricket statistics. Or, making up lies. It is not the most showbiz of lifestyles. I occasionally go on for live gigs. Sometimes, I play football with a group of comedians in South London, which is also extremely high quality. And, talk to my children when the opportunity arises.
SJ– So, where do you fit in your stand-up routine and other shows that you do around the world?
AZ– I’ve started doing that quite sporadically nowadays. I used to do 3-4 gigs a week all around Britain, driving a lot of miles late at nights to shows. But, since having children, and The Bugle Podcast, I couldn’t do that. There are a lot of stuffs that I have to attend to, just do my own shows in theatres and art centers. I just finished a sporadic tour of British venues a couple of weeks ago. I’m not doing a great deal of stand-up at the minute, but I’m hoping to do some more next year.
SJ– It looks like, in the current climate, people like you are renaissance men. You do stand-up, you do radio shows, you do commentary, you do blogs. And all of those in different areas – cricket, football, comedy and politics. For example, you have Aatif Nawaz. He has a TV show. He has an online talk show, he does commentary for (Test Match) Sofa. Do you see a change in trends? We used to have people specialized in one aspect of things, and they used to produce more contents along those lines. But now, you are basically a jack of all trades.
AZ– Me and Aatif are Leonardo da Vinci of the 21st Century. That is a verifiable fact.
A part of that comes down to the fact of how the internet works, it has opened up a lot of opportunities. You can create your own content, whether it is written or audio or video. You can do all these different things. But, when I started doing stand-ups, I basically did just gigs. Along side that, you get to do a bit of radio or a bit of TV work. The range of things you can do as a comedian now is much broader. It has opened up opportunities in sports, where there weren’t many comedians earlier.
SJ– It looks like the one area where you have Aatif beat, and this is according to Wikipedia, is that you delivered your son at home?
AZ– I did. Yes. On the plus side, I got a 25 minute stand-up routine out of it. I am not sure my wife is entirely convinced that’s the appropriate response. But, luckily it was quite a straightforward birth in the end. But, it was nerve-wracking moment, like the last ball of a big One Dayer hanging by the rope. I had to take the catch. I was a pretty dodgy fielder while playing cricket, but I had to take that very important catch of a very slippery boy. Luckily, I managed to cling on and threw him in the air and highfived my wife. And then went to see the replay on the big screen.
SJ– Let’s get to that area of common interest to us- cricket. Your origins in cricket, and why you are so passionately crazy about it…?
AZ– I got into it in 1981 which obviously was a fairly good summer for English cricket. It might have given me a slightly skewed view on what following the English cricket is going to be like, certainly for the rest of the 1980s and a lot of the 1990s. But, I think I just accidentally got into it. My dad played it a bit and followed it a bit, but he wasn’t that into it. I just chanced upon it, watching television, and seeing it there, and thinking to myself, “Ah this is good.” We lived in a little village in Kent. There was a village cricket played in the middle of the village. We used to see it being played there. It was just a chance of fate that happened as impressionable setting on a boy to be exposed to one of the greatest England series of all time. My father bought me a couple of books about it later that year. That kicked off my obsession with the sport that has occupied an unhealthy proportion of my brain ever since.
SJ– Do you still play the sport or just obsess over the statistics?
AZ– I don’t play much now. I used to play a lot of village cricket, which was the highest level I had ever got to, and rightly too. It was great fun. But, when I was doing stand-ups, I was doing a lot of gigs on Saturdays and Sundays and couldn’t play much. Cricket had to be sacrificed on the grounds that it was becoming increasingly obvious that I wasn’t going to make a living out of it. It is just selectorial prejudice against ginger headed players. But, thankfully Jonny Bairstow has finally broken through that last taboo. I play a couple of games per year. With a job that has irregular hours on commitment, plus a wife and two small children, spending a day standing on a field is slightly hard to fit into the schedule.
SJ– In the confectionery stall blogs that you do for cricinfo, lot of those stats sound real. Lot of them are very convincing. What percentage of those, would you say, are made up stats?
AZ– I think all of those stats that I put in are real. I spend probably more time than I should in working them out. I look them up, and make the function of cricinfo Statsguru earn its money. I don’t use made up stats. I use made up facts. Those are very, very different things. All of the stats that I use, albeit sometimes meaningless and obscure, are all very genuine.
SJ– So, you have S. Rajesh on speed dial, or do you have a hamster punching the numbers for you?
AZ– Oh yeah. I have a little underground cave with an infinite number of monkeys working out stats for me. You know, like the ones in that wrote those Shakespeare’s plays, or the descendents of them. I don’t have S. Rajesh on speed dial. But we do exchange mails occasionally complimenting our work on the stat we dug out that week.
SJ– For a lot of the people that I know, bloggers and others, we spend inordinate amount of time on Statsguru looking at random numbers. But, you still have all of us beat put together in terms of the nuggets of information you dig out. On an average, how many hours in a week do you spend on looking up stats? You said you spend a day on your article. But, how much of the preparation work goes in? How do you put the whole post together?
AZ– It varies from blog to blog. I’ve had some of them more stat base than others. Sometimes it is hard to try and make them sound funny as well. It is hard to turn a stat into a joke while keeping it relevant. The time varies. Some weeks, I have an idea and I look up, and see if have some stats that back that idea, and end up knowing that after 3 hours I haven’t written anything. I’ve got 3 pages of stats that interests nobody but me.
These are the problems of being paid to write on cricket. I can justify that as work, which frankly, it shouldn’t be. Some blogs take several hours of research and a few hours to writing it. And others, opinion pieces – color pieces, or comment pieces don’t take quite as much time in preparation but might take a little more time to write.
SJ– When it comes to the World Cricket Podcast, I noticed that you have started publishing the transcripts. Who does the transcribing for you?
AZ– When I do the podcast solo, it is basically scripted. When I first started doing it a few years ago, some people told me that they couldn’t download it because they didn’t have sufficient internet. So, I put up the transcripts for the people who don’t have fast enough internet in whichever part of the world they are accessing it. There are ideally more people listening to it than reading it. But it is really just so that people who couldn’t download the audio or stream the audio because they are on a dial up connection can still read it.
SJ– For me, the same thing happened, in the sense that I was just publishing the audio and people said “Why don’t you transcribe it?” But, since I have conversations, I had to rely on the goodwill of a person, Bharathram, in India, and he does the transcribing for me. As with anything, you outsource it to India, which is what I did.
AZ– That is the modern way! In a few years time, it will be done the other way around.
SJ– Let’s change tack and go to the place where you and I met- the Test Match Sofa. In the recent weeks, there has been a kerfuffle between Test Match Sofa and Test Match Special. What is your take on the whole thing?
AZ– It is an ongoing bicker for a while now. I guess, from Test Match Special’s view, they paid to be the live broadcasters and so might see the Sofa as a threat. But, I don’t see much crossover in their audience. I think they probably made too much of a fuss about it, as a result of which Test Match Sofa got more publicity than it otherwise would’ve got. I think they can happily co-exist and be different and do what they do. I don’t see them particularly overlapping or competing.
SJ– Let’s say, for argument’s sake, there are 10 different versions of Test Match Sofa across the world, or within England itself. What would you say then? There are then definitely cutting into some of the Test Match Special audience. It is just a hypothetical question.
AZ– If there are that many, then will split the online alternative commentary audience. It won’t take away the ones who are listening to the Test Match Special on the radio. In the future, and it is already happening that more and more people listening to the radio on the internet, there is more direct competition. But, Test Match Special is so well established that it has in-built authority that there are some people who would just happily listen to that. It is very good in commentary and has a very good commentators and pundits. I can see why they are trying to defend their territory, but I am not sure the way they have done it is the best way or if they had to do it at this stage. I’m not a businessman nor am I interested in the political side of these things. So, I don’t really know much.
SJ– You’ve been on the Sofa multiple times. Do you have a horse in the race?
AZ– No. Do you ask if I have vested interests? Not really, no.
SJ– If tomorrow Test Match Special says “Hey Zaltzman, why don’t you drop by?”, you will be more than happy to, wouldn’t you?
AZ– Yes. I will. I’ve been at Test Match Special once, during the World Cup, as a fill-in. Someone else didn’t turn up, and they asked me to come in and join in 20 minutes. I’ve listened to it since I was a little boy and I still listen to it. Realistically, I am never going to be one of their lead commentators. Then again, I go to Test Match Sofa just for fun because it is mostly sitting and watching cricket with other cricket fans and talking about it i don’t think I have vested interests on either sides. I hope that they stay in the current status quo where they are co-existing in parallel, rather than in competition. I’m pretty happy with it as someone with a toe rather than a foot in each camp.
SJ– Alright! Let’s talk about the on going soap opera that is the England team. What do you make of the team that has reached the Indian shores without Andrew Strauss who basically held the team together. How do you see this team under Cook progressing, now that they have “reintegrated” Kevin Pietersen? What do you see as the prospects for the team?
AZ– It is slightly hard to predict. They have become a bit unpredictable as a side, England. How they fare in India depends on the usual things when you tour the subcontinent- whether you can dominate the spinners and our bowlers who have been effective in English conditions trying to transfer those skills to less favourable pitches which we haven’t done particularly well in recent years. Although last winter against Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the bowlers bowled very well on Asian pitches but the batting failed uncharacteristically.
It is a strange thing for a captain to come into the side with such a degree of turmoil. And without having led England in a Test match, Cook seems to have had to deal with more press conferences and media questions than most captains get in a year and a half of captaincy. Obviously a new captain coming in is a big challenge. Cook doesn’t have that much captaincy experience, but has done pretty well in what he has done. He is, at the moment, in an unassailable position in the team that has a lot of experienced players. You can probably see it as a transition from that point of view. It is more of a question of how the team can recover the cohesion and the kind of form that it showed a year and a half ago when it dominated all the opponents they played. I am not sure it will be easy to recover that. That said, the Indian team has had a rocky time as well. They have won at home but not against a particularly strong opposition. It is two teams that have faltered significantly, having been very good. That makes it quite interesting.
I’d favor India because of their home advantage, and England’s historic ineptitude against even half-competent spin in Asia. But, England have a lot of experienced batsmen, it will be a big test for Ashwin and Ojha who have done very well in the competition against New Zealand and West Indies. It might be a step up for them, or given England’s performance last winter against Pakistan, it might be a step down for them when they bowl to England. It is quite hard to call the England team at the moment. They have wavered wildly between extremes of excellence and on and off the pitch ineptitude over the last couple of years. It will be very interesting to see. I’m happy Pietersen is back in the side because he is one of the most compelling cricketers of this part of the century.
SJ– What did you make of the whole KP situation? Did you ever receive text messages from Pietersen?
AZ– I’ve never received a text message or any other piece of communication from Kevin Pietersen. If I did, I am going to assume he had been given a rogue phone number. It was an irritatingly childish episode of how it was dealt with everyone that was involved. Cook did a pretty good job when he was appointed captain of smoothing troubled waters. But, no one has emerged from it taking any credit. It will be interesting to see if it affects Pietersen as a player, because in the last year he has played several spectacular innings while being inconsistent at the same time. England are unquestionably better with that player in the team. But, there are not many sports that take individualism to a degree that cricket does. You can have a player that nobody likes and you can still be really cohesive as a team. He is a fascinating cricketer and quite a fascinating individual that he seems to play cricket with such a well calculating mind, and that mind does not always kick into gear off the pitch. It is fascinating. He is one of the few English players who could dominate an innings in India who could score a sizeable hundred such that it damages the opposition.
SJ– There is a question from a listener, and he is the official “Cricket Couch Scribe”, Bharathram. The question for you, as a stand-up comic, is – we live in a time where anything that is said by a person is read and analyzed and cut and diced by hundreds and thousands and millions of people and interpreted in many different ways. As a comedian, it is your job to mock or ridicule or make fun of people or groups of people or the work they do. How hard is it to keep the audience entertained, draw a line between the entertainment that you are dishing out as a comedian and stay within the line while making an emphatic comment about something?
AZ– It is a balance that you learn to achieve through trial and error. I don’t think there is any hard and fast rule on how you do that. In terms of satire, there are different ways of treating any subject. You can treat an extremely controversial subject as well with a degree of taste that means that it shouldn’t be offensive. There are people who treat neutral subjects in an offensive way. It depends what type of comedy you are trying to achieve and how and why. It generally comes down to an approach and find a way that suits your style. I have a non-confrontational style I guess. I don’t really set out to offend. I don’t set out to do so in an antagonistic way because I don’t have the voice or face to do that. Or the leather jacket. It is just a process of learning how to strike a balance that you want to. I try to remember as a comedian telling that the first task is to make it funny, and then if you can do that, it makes any satirical point that you are trying to put across generally more affective anyway.
SJ– You are a political animal and you do The Bugle Podcast with John Oliver who I see you on almost a daily basis here, in the US. Where do you think this [U.S. Presidential] election is headed?
AZ– I hope that Obama wins. I don’t entirely trust Mr Romney. I don’t know if America does, either. I’d be surprised if it does. I don’t think it should. American politics is totally baffling to an outside observer. It is a strange, and wonderful in some ways, but absolutely crazy in other ways, as a democracy. It seems that the bookmakers have Obama fairly strong. But, after all that happened in 2000, I just do not trust the American electorate. I know that Obama has not done everything that he said he would do, that he set out to do. But, that is all the nature of politics. It is almost impossible. Particularly, it seems in the American system, the way the system is, the Republicans are working against them. It is like a whole brain surgery on your system and smashing your head with a frying pan. It is understandable that he has not achieved what he set out to achieve. Politics is very difficult when you have got so many competing different interests in so many different directions. I think he has done OK.
SJ– What is your general take on how politics is handled on either side of the pond?
AZ– There is a lot more political media in America, which is why The Daily Show [with Jon Stewart] has been successful for so long because a lot of what it deals with is the media that associates with politics which we don’t have in this country [U.K.]. Also, there is more to satirize on a daily basis apart from the actual issues, it is the treatment of the issues. Everything seems a lot more extreme and polarized in America. People seem to have much higher party loyalties than they do in Britain where generally over the last couple of generations, people have gone less and less attached to a particular political party and slightly apathetic about parliamentary politics. In both countries, there might be a sense that your individual vote does not count because of the way the voting system works. That is certainly true over here where if its a safe seat, your vote is essentially meaningless. There is a lot of frustration with democracy in most democratic countries. There is always the sense that things could be done better. The problem is that in a country of 60 million people, there are 60 million different ideas on how it should be done better.
SJ– The point that you made about the extremes in terms of politics, I find it to be true in cricket as well, in the sense that there are people with entrenched views that wouldn’t budge. Either the BCCI is a devil, or the saviour. Nobody is willing to cut the other side any slack.
AZ– Yes. That is almost the nature of 21st century discourse or something like that where there are instant 24-hour news and conducted at high pitch and small things get blown up into big stories and don’t have a lot of middle ground. It is not a healthy way for humanity to resolve its problems, but that is the way the things are. As a sports fan, one of the things that I found most annoying in modern sport is the way sports have started behaving like politics. A lot of spin, vested interests, slightly dodgy political and commercial dealings going on. And you want sports to be an escape from all that, but that seems to be more and more growing in sports and sports media. I want to see people running around hitting and kicking things. I don’t want to read stories about corruption and cheating. That is what the rest of the news is for.
SJ– Last question- What is your prediction for the India-England test series?
AZ– I think India will win, without knowing too much about the pitch conditions…
SJ– You will expect them to be turning.
AZ– I think India will win 2-1. I think England will play quite well, but will have a couple of costly collapses. I think the English bowling took a real dent in the 2nd half of the English summer. And with Finn injured before the start of the series, I think they are going to miss him as he was the fastest and most penetrating of England’s bowlers, now posing a massive challenge for the rest of them to provide the incision for England to win Tests. Both the sides are vulnerable, which as trends indicate, in Test cricket there is no one dominant team, I think South Africa could become that. Only in the last year did South Africa start looking like that, so let us see whether they can carry that over a longer period of time.
I think India will win, but it will hopefully be close and exciting!
SJ– Excellent. Thanks a lot for coming on the show, Andy! It was a pleasure talking to you.
AZ– Thanks for having me! Thanks. Cheers!
Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman