Couch Talk 157 (Play)
Host: Subash Jayaraman
Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. The guest today is Daniel Brettig, Assistant Editor at ESPNcricinfo. He talks about his recent book “Whitewash to Whitewash”, and some of the leading characters in it including Michael Clarke and James Sutherland, and plays a game of word association.
Welcome to the show, Daniel!
Daniel Brettig (DB)– Thank you, mate!
SJ– Congratulations on a wonderful book, Whitewash to Whitewash. It is an absolute ripper. Why did you choose those two time-points to provide the narrative – from the 2006/07 whitewash to the 2013/14 whitewash?
DB– I really thought about doing a book of this kind for a long time. i mentioned in the acknowledgements that I had been inspired by a couple of books by Mark Ray and Malcolm Knox, Border & Beyond and Taylor & Beyond. Those books were similar exercise to what I have done – journalistic account of a period of Australian cricket. I looked at those books and really got alighted. Even as a teenager, it was the first time I read Border & Beyond. It felt like that was something I would like to attempt. I was also looking for a narrative period that would work. When the 2nd Ashes and the whitewash took place in January 2014, that got me thinking that this story has a beginning, middle and an end. I can work off that. While I was in South Africa on the tour that followed the Ashes, that was when I really started seriously thinking about pitching it to a publisher. It went on from there. i was really looking for a natural narrative, so that I didn’t have to necessarily hoist one on the events, so that the book could feel relatively natural in terms of its progression.
SJ– The book has so much information even for people who might have followed Australian and world cricket very closely, from 2007-2014. There are still nuggets of information that you never knew existed. You had worked as a correspondent with Australian Associated Press before joining ESPNcricinfo. How much of that, working with AAP and other journalistic outlets, helped you in getting the inside information on the team and understand the inner workings of the team?
DB– One of the things that I have gathered while I was doing the book, and I heard this said to me by a number of authors when you are doing a project of this kind, when you keep going to people and say that ‘I am going to do this, I am going to attempt to write this book (or project)’, you can’t necessarily just stand on what you are telling them but you have to on what you have done in the past, your track record as a journalist. I feel as though that not only the fact that I was covering Australian cricket during that period, but also covering in a certain way. The guys I interviewed knew that I was looking for data, but not necessarily looking for screaming red hot headlines. I think that made people a bit more comfortable with the idea that I wouldn’t necessarily write a book that they would universally agree with, but that I would write an account that had an element of balance in it and tried to look through different perspectives.
The other thing about the fact that the book has got quite a lot of information that is not out before… When I got to the time I was researching, these were the questions that I had, and these were the things that I didn’t know in a lot of cases. There is not a lot in the book that I knew of prior to my going into researching what I had been sitting on. It was like going back to people and asking, “What about this?” there was a lot more depth that you can manage in daily journalism.
SJ– How much of a project like this, where you are an active journalist, when the players and officials that you are writing about are still in positions of power and have a long career ahead of them in domestic and international? How do you navigate through that, because after the book is published you still have to carry out your job as a journalist, so you don’t want to burn your bridges as well?
DB– I, to a certain degree, am going to wait and see how that plays out. Things have gone well so far. I am not going to count my chickens. But, one of the things about it that I had to do occasionally, as you might have noticed, that quite many people were mentioned without name, and that was a big factor in controlling, in being sensitive to people who have roles within Australian cricket. Allowing the story to be told frankly, without necessarily putting them in a difficult position. Whether I was quoting them by name was a judgment call I had to make on an individual basis. Also, when I was dealing with Cricket Australia, their preference in terms of interviews with current figures – James Sutherland or Michael Clarke or Wally Edwards – their preference was that I didn’t quote them directly. I was happy with that because I wanted their honesty rather than the views that they would express in a press conference, for instance. Not to say that they are dishonest in that situation but that they are cautious of the cameras as much as they are cautious of what their frank memories are of their event.
SJ– Of course they will be a bit more guarded as well.
The two of the big controversial situations in that period was the Monkey Gate and the Homework Gate. They are covered in quite a bit of detail. I thought the origins of the Monkey Gate controversy was quite interesting and probably escaped a lot of cricket viewers’ attention. I will let the readers read the book and find out, without giving too much away. That was just an example. Some of the passages in the book, such as the teleconferences within the selectors, members of the board etc., it is written as if you were actually present there. How did you go about getting those details in the book?
DB– It was really a case of quite, granular interviewing of people. Going to them once, twice, third time, try to collaborate with them, trying to establish exactly what had happened to the best recollection of a number of people. Also, I portrayed those events in a way that is going to be engaging to the reader, like the board telephone hook-up. It is not a very common thing to be able to strike something like that in that detail, ideally. But, in some cases what I was able to do was speak to one or two people, get some information. I would then go to some other people who might not have been so forthcoming if I had gone to them with nothing, but because I had information to begin with, they were then more willing to allow me to expand on that with their recollections. That is how you would do, it is like building a pyramid.
SJ– We talked about the process of writing the book. I want to talk about the characters of the book and some of the events. Michael Clarke is an essential figure in the book forming a link to that great team of 2007 and now as the captain of the team. A lot of good and bad things have happened around him and because of him. How would you characterize him as a captain, player and a teammate based on all your research and the interviews that you have done?
DB– I think Michael is someone who, one major reason for instance Michael is close to Shane Warne is that they both felt a little bit misrepresented in public perception. The difference between them is that Michael has tried to present a public face that is not always the same as his private one, or as I tend to think, Shane Warne is more of ‘what you see is what you get’. I think Michael was someone who as a cricket was in the system at a very young age and it was very clear from early that he was going to be a professional cricketer. He was lacking, maybe, a little bit of range of life experience, a range of empathy for all this at times. That is a product of the hermetically sealed world of international cricket and professional sport, these days. You can see an example of that in other sports too, of someone who finished high school and went to university and played cricket and then found themselves playing at a high level a little bit later in their career. That still occasionally happens in cricket. Michael’s background there was a big factor. But, I also think that he was at times unfairly maligned for reasons that were quite peripheral to cricket. The fact that there was a chance that he might have been lost as a captain of Australia for the fact that his public image was seen as a problem; his having different ideas on the way the Australian cricket team should celebrate wins – I found that a bit surprising when you line that up against his attributes on the field. That was something that the Australian cricket team needed form him at the time he became the captain. The key thing is to ensure that there are the right people around him to counter all those flaws and also to allow him to emphasize his strengths. There have been times when he has had the right people around him and things have gone well and there have been times when he hasn’t had them, and things have not gone quite as well.
SJ– As an outsider to Australian cricket, it was a surprise….you always believe that Michael Clarke was groomed to be the next captain for Australian cricket whenever Ricky Ponting called it a day. I was surprised of the opposition to Clarke’s ascent to captaincy. We always thought form the outside that it was just a matter of rubber stamping Clarke to become the next captain of Australia. Could you talk a bit about that?
DB– A part of the reason that there as opposition in early 2011 was that everyone felt that it was a rubber stamp. I spoke to a number of board members about it, and I agreed to a certain extent that there needs to be debates about his decisions. You don’t want these decisions to be made lightly. Equally, Ricky Ponting makes an excellent point in the book – “why wasn’t that debate being had earlier than my retirement. Also, in my resignation from my captaincy?” I think that is a very fair observation. But, in terms of the opposition, I think it was intriguing to be that there were views on the board, at a position where there is a lot more knowledge that were quite similar to the views that were being held in the Australian public and maybe published in one or two Australian newspapers. One thing I mentioned is that the opposition to Michael Clarke was evident in the Daily Telegraph in Sydney. Once Michael becomes captain, I describe it as – by way of crisis management, he becomes a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, to almost neutralise that corner of dissent. Fair enough to have that debate, and I agree with Ricky Ponting that if they were going to have it they should have had it before Ricky Ponting had resigned.
SJ– In the beginning of the book, a couple of things stood out to me – there was a bit of culling, selection dropping and picking again in the last 7 years of younger and older players. There were also reforms from Argus review. Two people survived everything – Shane Watson and James Sutherland. How did that happen? Obviously, they ought to be held responsible for some of the things – Sutherland with the board and Watson with the team. But, they survived all of that. Your take on those two?
DB– Starting with Shane Watson – his survival is largely based on two things. one is that he is a sort of player who has swayed an observer who has seen him for the first time and might have looked at how powerful he might look as a batsman, his potential as a match-turner with his ability as a swing bowler and think there is a talented crickets that we need to persist with. The perception created by that kind of viewing is held on to very firmly by cricket watchers, selectors, coaches, even if there is a great deal of inconsistency there, or injury in Shane’s case. I think that is something that has been in his favour.
A contrast to that is provided by Chris Rogers, who at first instance looks like a ‘nicker and nudger and a struggler, and suddenly when you look over the arc of his career, you see that that method works very well on a consistent basis. For a long time he wasn’t considered because he didn’t look like he was a champion player, for instance. That is one reason why Shane Watson has been persisted with over time.
Regarding James Sutherland, one of the things that I found fascinating about him that at different times he is engaged with different areas and perhaps disengaged from all other areas. When things come to a head for him, maybe three times in the course of the book – in 2010 when Australia cricket conference happens, the board reforms is mooted. Historically in Australian cricket there was the instance of Graham Halbish when he was the CEO in the in the late ‘80s to the late ‘90s, when he got out of step with the board, he was fired. For James Sutherland to approve of the program of Australian cricket conference for the sort of board reforms that was advocated by management figures towards board figures, he was putting his job at risk by doing that. That was one time.
Another time is after the 2010/11 Ashes. The formulation of the Argus review and all of the changes that occurred – the inclusion of the line form one of the interview is that “Why are you in the room? You are one of the people who needs to go.” That was representative of a number of people in Australian cricket at that time. it was certainly a point in time where had James not responded to the situation at the team and Australian cricket would have found itself in, he would have been in trouble.
The third time is 2013, the Homework Gate issues and the Champions Trophy incident (between David Warner and Joe Root) and the way that Pat Howard-Mickey Arthur-Michael Clarke, leadership was going. Of course, all people – Michael Clarke and Mickey Arthur were selectors in a process out of the Argus review that James Sutherland had a lot to do with. Interesting enough, when I talk to him about various issues, he doesn’t engage with that is happening with the team in India very quickly or immediately as you would expect because he was involved with the TV rights, discussions that were going on and which was a very important deal. Once a line had been drawn on to that, he was able to concentrate a bit more on whether or not things were going well for the team or not. You can see him a lot more engaged and direct. As is now the popular view and the right view, the circumstances in which Darren Lehmann was made coach weren’t ideal but in the end he proved to be the right man.
SJ– In the last 7-8 years, Australian cricket has been focused on packaging cricket in the public image perception, and the media rights a lot more over the performance of the national team itself and the health of the grass roots game. Now that you mentioned, with Lehmann in charge, there is a reversal in fortunes of the team on the field, but would you say that a lot of the same problems still remain – interrupted Shield season, poor scheduling, too much focus on T20 with BBL and IPL and Champions League etc?
DB– One thing that has happened on a recurring basis is the issues around the Champions League at the start of the season. That has been a very difficult thing for Australian cricket team’s medical and fitness staff to deal with. They are as a rule trying to equip players for a long season around long matches in particular, and then to find the Champions League happening in the middle of that… the first edition of the Champions League had an extraordinary effect on the fitness of fast bowlers. There was something like every Australian fast bowler who played in the first edition of Champions League had an injury, at some point in the season that followed. That was a very difficult thing for people to cope with. It is not in the book, but I remember interviewing Pat Howard in 2012 and he said that the balance between Twenty-20 and long form cricket is something that every country is struggling and it is going to take 5-10 years for people to get their heads around their best player and navigate around that.
I think Australian cricket, as it stands at the moment, has got the balance close to right. The Big Bash League could be a bit tighter. The Shield season is a little bit too marginalised. I believe that those are things that can be further tweaked. I don’t personally believe that the schedule has to be overturned because I do agree with the idea of the Big Bash League being held during the school holidays, for instance. That was very sensible. It is a difficult puzzle, and I think other countries are probably now looking towards Australia in terms of the way that Australia have tried to strike a balance. England, in particular, are mulling whether they can go to a Twenty-20 franchise system. Funnily enough, I am not sure if you would agree, and I have said this to Cricket Australia, in India one of the advantages is that the Ranji Trophy has its window very separate to the IPL.
SJ– I think it is just a co-incidence, I don’t think it was planned that way. IPL is played during the hottest part of the year, for the fact that it can be played in the evening, and it was the only window that was available to play and not go too far into June and July. They got lucked out, rather than planned that way.
DB– Sometimes you are lucky!
SJ– I want to let you go, but first I want to play a game of word association. So, I am going to give you names of various people who were involved in Australian cricket, players and officials in the last 7 years that are covered in the book, and you can tell me the first thing that comes to your mind.
SJ– Let’s start with Andrew Symonds.
DB– Hard done by.
SJ– Ricky Ponting?
SJ– Andrew Hilditch?
SJ– Shane Watson?
SJ– Shane Warne?
SJ– John Buchanan?
DB– Ahead of his time.
SJ– Mickey Arthur?
DB– Nice guy.
SJ– George Bailey?
DB– Nicer guy.
SJ– Michael Clarke?
SJ– James Sutherland?
SJ– Finally, Mitchell Johnson?
Could you tell the listeners where they can get the book?
DB– Whitewash to Whitewash is published by Penguin and is available in bookstores in physical form in Australia and New Zealand. We are still working on rights for overseas market. If you are overseas, your best chances will be to get it on Amazon as an e-book for your Kindle.
SJ– Excellent, Daniel! Thank you so much for being on the show, and a phenomenal book. Thank you so much!
DB– Thanks, Subash!
SJ– Thanks, mate. Cheers!
Episode Transcribed by Bharathram Pattabiraman