Transcript: Couch Talk with Ashwell Prince

Couch Talk 148 (Play)

Guest: Ashwell Prince

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Couch Talk with guest Ashwell Prince.

Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is former South African batsman Ashwell Prince. He talks about playing cricket in the apartheid era South Africa , the quota system, his career, the controversy surrounding the time he was given the captaincy and he refusing it, being dropped from the team, and the toughest bowlers he faced amongst other things.

Thanks for being on the show, and welcome to the show.

I want to start with when you were a kid – you grew up in the apartheid era, you were 13 in 1999. Growing up in that era, what made you even choose cricket as a sport to play?

Ashwell Prince (AP)– People might have a misconception of cricket in South Africa was only a white person sport. That might be a misconception around the world. Cricket was played in the community I grew up.  From the time I opened my eyes, cricket was there. Even before i was born, cricket was played in my community. Where I grew up in Port Elizabeth, there was a rich culture of the game, and was there in my community. It was not just after the country was united in 1994 that we started playing cricket. We were always playing cricket, we have a rich history in non-white cricket, if you like.

SJ– There is this quota system that is always raised as a reason why a non-white player might be included. Because, if a white player is included nobody questions the motive behind it, they immediately assume it is because of talent and skills. Whereas, when a  non-white player is chosen, we assume it is because of quota system. What is your thought on it?

AP– In the initial years that was always an issue. But I think, as you can see in the performances now of the current players – Hashim Amla being the captain of the Test team, Vernon Philander being one of the top – 3 seam bowlers in the world. And other names too – JP Duminy represented the country a lot of times in his career, and some others like Makhaya Ntini who was right there at the start. Yes, there were various people who were always questioning players’ selections, and I suppose there will always be that situation. I don’t know how long it will be before that goes away. But you know, the only know to prove your worth to the team or the country is by going out there and producing the results, which these guys are doing at the moment.

SJ– I want to continue on that talk a little bit more. With the quota system in place, some might say that when it comes to the national team, it should strictly be on merit and there is no role for quota system. However, it is not a level playing field because the facilities and the background of the players of different players doesn’t even compare. Some kids playing cricket, growing up in SA may have the best cricketing schools close to them in the community, whereas someone is from a disadvantaged background historically, racially and socially – may not have the same opportunities. Do you see a role for the quota system in SA?

AP– Look, since we touched this subject, it goes without saying that some people in this country grow up in a vastly different and challenging circumstances than the others do. I am fortunate to be privileged at the moment to live where I live because of what the game has given me. my children are able to go to some of the top schools in the country. Whereas, I haven’t been able to have that in my own time. But, having said that, I wouldn’t change my youth for anything. What we had back then is what we had, and we made the most of it. it brought challenges with it. We tried to overcome them. So, yes, like I said, there are more privileges now, and my children are able to go some of the big schools and I can choose wherever I want to send them. But, I wouldn’t swap my childhood for any other childhood. Whatever challenges we used to face in the past, that was where we found ourselves and we made the most of it.

SJ– So, what were those experiences as a young boy growing up playing cricket? There comes a date line where it is re-integrated South Africa. What are the experiences as a cricketer in the psot-1994 SA from your personal experiences?

AP– Post-’94, was my last year, senior year, at school I attended. Basically, my old school was in the old Apartheid, before 1994. Coming into schools cricket at that stage, in my last two years of schools cricket we integrated. So, in 1993 and 1994 we integrated with the white schools and we started playing representative cricket as a mixed team instead of only non-whites together and whites separated. Once things changed and once we got the opportunities to be able to show what we can do, it had nothing to do with the colour of the skin, but basically what you are capable of doing on the field or wherever it may be – work, school, whatever. It has got nothing to do with the colour of your skin. People got opportunity, and that is what you need – an opportunity to show what you can do.

SJ– When you made a debut for SA, and I am sure there were voices that questioned the legitimacy of your selection, you went on to disprove with your bat. So, what were your feelings when you scored those big 100s and you show that you are there because of your cricket rather than anything else?

AP– At the end of the day, for myself, I was more or less in the first generation of non-white guys to start making my first class debut, back in 1995. i was first generation breaking into first class cricket and then into the national team, although there were other non-white guys before me in the national team. There were people like Makhaya Ntini, Herschelle Gibbs, Roger Telemachus, Henry Williams, Paul Adams – those guys played international cricket before me. but, you are right – there were those who questioned my selection, whether your selection was merited etc etc. Where I came from, the community that I represented, I only had one thing – the one thing that drove me was to prove that people from my community, given the opportunity, can also shine on the bigger stage of the world. that was my driving force right throughout my career – to just represent where I came from and show the people who come from those communities can also do whatever if given the opportunity. Today, my record is nowhere near someone like Hashim Amla or Vernon Philander, but I think I can atleast say that I made a small contribution to the team when I was there.

SJ– You are under-playing it, of course!

Looking at your career for SA, in Tests – you played 66 of them. I am sure you think that you deserve to play a lot more than just 66. What happened?

AP– When it comes to selection and things like that… We had just lost a Test match against Sri Lanka which was two losses in a row. In the previous series, we had won the first Test and lost the second, and then Sri Lanka came and we lost against Sri Lanka in Durban. So, I suppose a couple of Test losses at home and so, someone had to make way. Unfortunately, it was me. People who had supported me throughout my career said that it was harsh. On so many occasions that I had bailed the team when the team was in trouble and then on this occasion when I maybe had three games where I didn’t have a decent performances – that is all it took, three games, and not bailing the team out. Unfortunately, they didn’t bail me out. That is how it goes. I played 66 Tests for my country, I got no regrets. To be quite honest to you, I am not missing it at all, I am not missing Test cricket at all. I enjoy watching, and this is my first week of commentary and I actually enjoyed it in the commentary box. But, I don’t miss playing at all.

SJ– You were a middle order batsman, but in that Test match against Australia in 2009, you were made to open. You were given the captaincy, but you didn’t have the option of where you can bat in the order. How did it all pan out?

AP– How do you know all these things? How did you know that I was given the captaincy but I didn’t have the option to pick where I can bat? How do you know that?

SJ– I did a research! I cover cricket here and there, and I do a bit of research before i get my guest on. you get to hear about the stories too. so, what was the entire back-story there?

AP– You got the story spot on! I went through the messages on my phone and I had a strange message from the convenor of selectors at that time, which was Mike Procter. He said to me, “I have got good news and bad news” – this is while I was listening to the message – “The good news is that we want you to play and captain the team. But the bad news is that you have to open the batting.” Of course, I had not been able to take the call, and hence it was a voice message. I called him back and said that I am obviously happy to be back in the team and delighted that you guys are considering me to be a captaincy again, because I had once stood captain before on a previous tour when (Graeme) Smith was injured. So, i was glad to be given the captaincy etc etc. But, however, if I am going to be the captain of this team, I want to bat where I batted for 40 odd Test matches before the time broke my finger. I played 45 or so matches at no.5 I told him, this is the situation. If you are making me the captain, and I am telling you that I am batting at no.5, because that is where I had batted and had the most success in my career. But, if you are telling me that I have to open the batting and I can’t bat at no.5, then you have to find a different captain. Basically, that is what happened there.

i was only prepared to be captain on my terms, which I think is fair enough because I don’t think any other Test captain in the world would be told “You have to open the batting!” you know Test cricket because you are a reporter, you follow it. I think you will agree with me that I wasn’t being unreasonable in saying that if I am the captain, then I should bat where I want to bat. Are you with me?

SJ– Yes! i completely agree.

AP– Basically, that was the situation. I said, “Look, however if I can’t bat where I was playing for most of my career and you are enforcing me to open the batting. But you have to find a different captain.” I think Jacques Kallis was the captain for the Test match.

SJ– Yes.

There was another side story to this, which I have heard. You can confirm or deny, whichever way. When this happened, when you were offered the captaincy and you said that they can’t dictate to you where you should be batting in the order and you wanted AB de Villiers to open, if you were chosen the captain. But, that didn’t happen and Kallis was given the captaincy and he made you open. There is a story that there was s provincial game around the time that you were captaining your side and AB was in the opposition and you had bowlers to have a go at AB and you kept calling him the “Golden Boy”. How true or not true is that?

AP– That is not true! I wasn’t telling any of the bowlers to have a go at AB. In fact, I don’t think I was even captain of that match either. I wasn’t the captain the Warriors. That I am sure. I think Johan Botha was the captain of the Warriors. Me telling the bowlers to have a go at AB is absolutely a long way from the truth! But, nonetheless, there were some verbals in that match involving various players. I don’t want to dwell on what was said to whom and etc etc.

To come back to your question about me, to say AB should open the Tests – basically suggested to Mickey Arthur, the coach. I asked him why AB couldn’t open the batting seeing that upto that stage he had opened the batting for quite a number of his Test matches. He had opened for quite a number of them, and I had never opened in my Test career. I did suggest that he could open, but the verbal that you guys are talking about had nothing to do with me suggesting that he should open and him not wanting to open and etc etc. That one you are certainly on the (ball)park but not 100%.

SJ– OK. Fair enough..

One day, hopefully, you will give us the entire story. If not now…. If you want to give 100% of the story now, that is fine. Otherwise, we will wait for it, whenever it comes out.

Jacques Kallis is given the captaincy and then you are made to open, and of course you score a brilliant 100, a huge one. So, how did you adjust to being an opener, technique wise and mentally?

AP– Look, generally my game was built on being tight technically and I don’t think I will be….you guys saw my Test career and so you guys won’t know how I batted when I was 18-19 years old, which was like watching totally different people. When I was 18-19 years old, I was much more of a dasher. But I soon realised that if I wanted to play Test cricket and I kept batting that way I was not going to get any success in Tests. I was saving my Test career and my style of batting was always to be compact and not to be too extravagant. So, I think adjusting to opening the batting…In that particular match it almost felt like it didn’t matter to me where I batted in the batting line up. If they put me at no.1 or 3 or 5 or 7, wherever, I had so much of a point to prove, with a lot of anger in me. I was hurt because I hurt my thumb in Australia. At the time I broke it I had broken into the top-10 batsmen in the world. And I missed the tour with a broken thumb, Mickey Arthur was the coach at that time, he was standing right in front of me as I was leaving the tour. He pulled me aside and said, “Look, you have been one of the guys who form the backbone of this batting line up in the team. As soon as your thumb is ready to play, I guarantee you that when you get home,” – and Australia were coming straight back to South Africa after this series in Australia – “you will get your place back to play.” That had been the precedence that had been set when other players had gotten injured. If there were established players in the team, once they were fit again they will get their placed back.

When in South Africa, I was fit for the first Test. Everyone, the selectors too, were under pressure because JP Duminy put the ball in their court. He was outstanding in the tour to Australia. If I was the selector, I wouldn’t have left JP out myself, because you can’t leave someone out like that after a series like that. Nonetheless, in the following up series, I still believed that there was an opportunity to play both JP and myself in the same team. But….maybe I would give too much away if I keep going this route… But, that would have meant that AB de Villiers had to keep wickets. So, you can understand me a little bit. AB de Villiers would have had to keep wickets for both JP and myself to be in the team. Of course we all know that AB didn’t keep wickets and I was left out of the team.

Anyway, when it got to the third Test match, Graeme Smith was injured and Neil McKenzie was left out of the team and I was asked to open the batting. Purely, I would never call myself an opening batsman. It wasn’t going to be a long lasting success as an opener. But that game was purely one where I had so much of a point to prove, that I basically have a lot of anger in me and I am out there to prove a point, and just throw it at the selectors’ face. That is what I wanted to do.

SJ– Would I be right in saying that if you were to be included and AB were to keep wickets, which meant Mark Boucher would have to be dropped? That could have happened….

AP– That could have been a possible solution. Yes.

SJ– But, that couldn’t happen because of whatever team leadership, or whatever you want to call it… “Clique”?

AP– I am not going down that line of clique, etc. etc.  I am only saying that in terms of form – that is the only thing I am saying – in terms of form, that could have happened, the selection could have happened. I am talking about contribution on form to the team at that time, at that particular time that I am talking about. i am talking about contribution in terms of runs on the board. I believe that I wass producing my best in my Test career [at that time]. If they really wanted to have me in the team, they could have made a way. That could have been done. But, for other reasons that you are alluding to – I am not alluding to that – that is your opinion, I was left out in the Test.

SJ– Alright!

In your playing career, there was a time Shane Warne got you out in 5 out of 6 innings or so. Who were the toughest bowlers that you had to face, spinners and pacers?

AP– Shane Warne got me out plenty of times. i remember when I was walking into the SCG when it was the 3rd Test of the series. That was also after my Test debut series was in South Africa against Australia. I had a few other Tests in-between. Soon after we were playing Australia again. Shane Warne was one of the world’s greatest spin bowler. As a left hander, with Shane bowling in the rough a lot of the time, I really found it difficult. The more Tests I play the more I develop at least to survive a game. If the conditions were more in my favour rather than his favour, like the day I got a century against him was on day one, and day two – it was early in the Test match and we were batting first. As a young Test cricketer, as I got more experience you learn there are times when things against spin bowlers are more in your favour and as the game progresses, the spin bowler gets more attacking in the game as the rough starts to develop and they become a lot more threatening. Obviously Shane Warne didn’t always need the rough. He was one of the greats to play the game. It was tough against him up front. But I am quite satisfied to say that I did score a Test hundred against him.

SJ– And in terms of the toughest pacer?

AP– I think the toughest fast bowler, was not the fastest of them. I feel that my technique against the quick bowlers was OK. So, I was never really threatened by pace. But the guy who was obviously hard to play was Glenn McGrath because he just puts you under pressure all the time because he doesn’t give anything. There are no loose balls to hit, you can’t release the pressure. You always felt under pressure against McGrath. Among the fast bowlers – Glenn McGrath.

SJ– OK!

In terms of batsmen or innings that you were part of as a fielder or a teammate – an innings that you remember as your favourite?

AP– We were playing against the West Indies – I can’t remember what series, I think back in 2005 – and Brian Lara scored centuries in back to back Test matches. One was 190. The first Test was in Guyana, I don’t think he made any big score there. The second Test was in Barbados? Brian Lara scored two centuries in two Test matches back to back. Those two grounds were Barbados and his home ground in Trinidad, 180. I remember in Trinidad I was fielding at backward point and he must have had 5 guys in the ring on the off side with probably just one slip. Fast bowlers were bowling to him with just one slip, and we basically tried to stop him from scoring. I was in backward point, and we also had a cover, a square cover, an extra cover and mid off. And he was hitting the ball through them all like he was playing the fool with us. He was toying with us. He was that good. For me, he is the best I have played against.

Somebody else’s that really stands up is Ricky Ponting when he scored a century in the first and second innings at Sydney, and that was something to watch!

SJ– Last question. You mentioned the comeback innings and you almost played in anger to prove a point to the selectors. Any innings that you play that contributes to the team is always something to remember fondly. But, which of your innings do you recall where you feel that you were playing really well and the opposition was tough? Which innings comes to your mind as your favourite?

AP– I feel that, early on in my career, I scored a hundred in Sydney. That was my second chance in Test cricket. I played my first chance in Test cricket with 6-7 Tests. I didn’t do much, just scored a couple of 40s and got dropped. I got the second chance at Test cricket. I scored a 100 against Zimbabwe and the West Indies, but we were in Australia again and as I said I was coming into the third Test without a big score against my name. Fortunate enough I managed to get a 100 in that game. had I not scored a 100 in that game it might have been the end of my Test career. That was quite early on. I think the 100 in Sydney coming in at – I don’t know what score – maybe 3 down for around 100 runs, saved my Test career. I took a lot of confidence from that century, knowing that I can score a Test 100 against Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee. I went away from that series satisfied, not just satisfying in getting a 100 against them but because they were dominating the game at that time and to be able to score hundred against that team gave me confidence to go out and score 100s against other teams.

SJ– Fantastic! On that note, Ashwell, thank you so much for being on the show.

AP– Thanks a lot for having me, thanks a lot for calling me on the show.

SJ– Thank you so much, Ashwell.

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Episode transcribed by Bharathram Pattabiraman