Transcript: Couch Talk with Gideon Haigh

Couch Talk Episode 89 (play)

Guest: Gideon Haigh

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ):

Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is cricket writer, Gideon Haigh. We talk about DRS in the Ashes, the ethics of walking, the Australian team’s performances in the Ashes so far, amongst other things.

Hi, Gideon! How are you?

Gideon Haigh– I’m alright.

SJ– Now, you are in England and covering the Ashes. Let’s talk about the biggest talking point of this series – the DRS. Let’s first get your views on it before this series, and how they may or may not have changed due to the goings on at Trent Bridge.

GH– It is not my biggest talking point of the series, and I am bored writing about it. I have actually found it incredibly obtrusive in this series and I would rather resent having to concentrate on it. When I go to a Test match, I go to watch the cricket, I don’t go to an exhibition of umpiring technology. I have found it tedious and obtrusive and that is a worry to me. When cricket simply becomes an exhibition of technological jiggery-pokery, then we are in the danger of putting the cart before the horse.

SJ– Was it always like that for you?

GH– I have never been particularly neurotic or hung up on absolute umpiring certainty. The umpires were doing a good enough job before DRS, as far as I was concerned. An additional 3-5 % of accuracy doesn’t really turn my crank all that much. I am quite interested in some of the secondary effects that the DRS is having on the game. I am interested in the way it is altering [batting] technique. We know the pretty well known example – Graeme Swann is a much more effective bowler for the presence of the DRS. He gets many more LBWs against left handers than he would have had 10 years ago. I think Shane Watson is an interesting example of a player who hasn’t quite assimilated the impact of DRS on technique. He is one of those batsman who thinks that if you get a big enough stride forward, that should give you immunity from LBW. But he is getting caught out and he looks consternated by it, looks bemused, like it is a bit unfair that he is getting caught out this way.

The batsmen no longer play with bat and pad close together with the idea that the umpire won’t be able to tell whether the bat or the pad was hit first. DRS will pick that up unfailingly. It is interesting that Joe Root did not refer the decision in the first innings of the Lord’s Test when bat and pad were very close together. I don’t think he was quite sure which got hit first and he decided not to refer it. England have taken the approach that you only refer it as a batsman only if you are pretty sure that it is going to reprieve you. You don’t do 50-50s. That takes a degree of discipline and organization on behalf of the team. But, I don’t want the series to be decided by who is better at manipulating the DRS. I want it to be with the cricket team. At the moment, England are ahead on both those counts. But, it doesn’t require a lot of imagination to see a mere effectiveness of the DRS apporting a disproportionate advantage to one side or the other.

SJ– Isn’t that interesting that now the cricket captains and players have to have an additional thing added to their skill set – when to call for a review? Considering the fact that you grow up coming through club and first class cricket, and all these times you don’t use the DRS. Then you come on to the international scene. Suddenly, you have to be an expert on when to call for a review. I think Chris Rogers was a very good example of this – Shane Watson was very plumb, but he had to call for a review because he wasn’t used to the review system, perhaps.

GH– I will be interested to know exactly what the dialog was like in that case – whether it was a case of Watson asking what Rogers thought, or whether it was Rogers volunteering positively that it wasn’t out. I actually found it is slightly strange that (Darren) Lehmann would come out so assertively and explicitly that Rogers had advised Watson to go for it. Ultimately, it was Watson’s decision and Rogers does not make the referral. He simply provides some sort of input. There seems to be some sort or pre-emptive initiative by Lehmann to exonerate Watson from the responsibility from his own referral. We should have the players miked up to listen to their conversations while they discuss these things. Why not? Everything seems possible under the current technological dispensation.

SJ– My question is even more fundamental – is it fair to put that burden on the players who don’t have any additional information but will have to ask for a review?

GH– It was interesting to see (Usman) Khawaja’s response when Rogers made enquiries about his LBW, Khawaja just shrugged his shoulders. He did not want to get involved. It actually also manifests the power dynamic at the crease. In the case of Watson, he is a senior player, a valuable wicket, he turns to a player who, despite being 35 years old, is only playing in his 3rd Test. What is his partner going to say? “Piss off Watto. You are plumb”? Or, “Yeah, Watto. I think you are right. May be, you should have a second look at that.” What is Khawaja going to say to Rogers? Khawaja is in his come back to Test cricket. What is he going to say? How is the guy at the other end going to assess his input in to his own particular predicament. It is a lot of information for the players to process.

I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes to quite a divisive force within a team. There will be certain players who always condone their partner referring. There will be others who take a rational, more analytical, more detached stance as an observer. It was interesting in the first Test match – that Bell referral in the 2nd innings. I think it was (James) Pattinson bowling and Bell looked up to (Johnny) Bairstow at the other end, and Bairstow was very positive, assertive and very spontaneous in the way he said “Yes. Refer it. It’s not out.” I thought you learnt a  little bit about Bairstow in that process. He didn’t look confused, or perplexed. He was in the moment. He was involved. He was a good teammate. You learnt a little bit about him as a player, as well as a teammate and a professional.

SJ– I wonder whether the captains, even all the batsmen, bowlers – sit with the tech guy and the tech support guy and they have all these replays and are supposed to say if they will call for the review or not. Do you know if any teams go through this? Perhaps Michael Clarke should join in on the session.

GH– Interestingly, Michael Clarke, back in January, he was involved in a DRS referral. He referred an LBW. Kulasekara was bowling in a ODI. He took the referral even though he was out plumb. Later in the innings, (David) Warner could have taken that referral which would have exonerated him. I think the Australians are making up DRS as they go along. A part of the thing is a little bit unfair to have those kind of responsibilities. A part of me is in sympathy with them as well. They go in there as players. None of them want to be umpires at the end of their careers. It is interesting that so many of the English first class cricketers go on to be umpires and so few of the Australians do. Maybe we are learning a little bit about the cultural stereotypes.

The problem that we are getting with the DRS now is that it is in use in some places and not in others. It is not used in the most lucrative form of international cricket, which is any Test match or ODI involving India. It is also not used in the first class cricket. So, where are you going to acquire the experience to learn to use the DRS from? It is something that you have to learn at international level. Perhaps that is an additional advantage that experienced international teams will have over inexperienced international teams in future.

SJ– You brought up the name of India and the possible divisive nature of DRS within a team. There is a question form a listener, Chandan, and she wants to know – Has all that has happened in the first two Tests vindicate the BCCI’s opposition to DRS?

GH– I have always been strangely sympathetic to the BCCI’s position on the DRS. I have never been over-fond of the system. I am finding it an intense irritation now. I appreciate that it adds an additional dimension to the cricket watching experience. But that, like I said before, is not why I go to a cricket match for. I don’t think this has been a particularly good advertisement for the system in this series. I wouldn’t be surprised if the BCCI took some satisfaction from that. I wouldn’t begrudge them on that.

SJ– We saw ICC come out in a very unprecedented manner – publish the stats in terms of the decision made, those that were right and wrong, how many decisions that DRS corrected, right after the Trent Bridge Test. Is there additional pressure that the ICC is perhaps feeling for pushing the technique – the DRS system – all this time?

GH– They have nailed their colours to the DRS mast pretty conspicuously. So, they would be embarrassed to some degree with how things were going. I don’t think it is as simple as saying that it is not the technology’s fault, and it is the human’s fault. Cricket is played by humans. We are going to have to allow for the human foibles, where the DRS is concerned. You can go back to T. S. Eliot’s remark, which is, “It is impossible to create a system where no one needs to be good.” A system is only ever going to be as effective as the people who implemented it.

SJ– Correct. Lawrence Booth had written a piece a while ago when DRS was first implemented. This is perhaps 2 or 3 years ago. He said that DRS could make the players behave more honestly. Even Stuart Broad mentioned that in the discussion after Tony Greig had delivered the Cowdrey Lecture at the MCC last year– that the DRS could actually encourage walking. Let’s get into that aspect of cricket. You saw what happened…

GH– The Broad decision,  an egregious one, and a disappointing one. But I frankly have never been a particular fan of walking. That is because I am an Australian, I don’t think it is integral to the functions of the game. I don’t think it is an honoured part of cricket tradition. Victor Trumper didn’t walk. There is a passage in Charlie McCartney’s autobiography, where McCartney talks about walking one day and Trumper telling him off saying that “You will be given out more times when you are not out out than not out when you are out. Don’t take the decisions out of the umpires’ hands.” Through Lord Harris’ autobiography “A Few Short Runs”, he talks about being given not out mistakenly by umpires, for about quarter of his decisions, but he doesn’t not talk about walking. I think walking enjoyed a pretty brief efflorescence through the first generation after World War II in the English county cricket.

Simon Ray makes an argument in his book, “It’s Not Cricket” that he believes that this was some thing to do with the last days of amateurism in England, where amateurs wanted to make some residual special status around themselves. They decided to make an ostentatious show of walking when they knew that they are out, even though we know that there were certain species who never walked on nought or 99. So, walking kind of makes hypocrites of us all. It is simpler to leave it to the umpires. At times, the umpire will make a bad decision and we accept that in the same spirit as we accept the one that favours us. I don’t get hung up about what Broad did. I was sorry for Aleem Dar. If the technology is going to be worth anything at all, there should be some way to interdict against decisions that are potentially embarrassing to umpires.

SJ– I understand every player is guided by his own moral compass. They have to live with it whether they have to act in an honest manner or not. When you play in a  club, you probably walk, you are encouraged to walk, perhaps. I am not sure?

GH– No. Never.

SJ– I guess that it’s just with the Australians then…

GH– I have been playing club cricket in Australia for 40 years, and I don’t think I have ever seen anyone walk. I have seen some monstrous nicks go unpunished by umpires.

We see the moral code in how you respond to an umpire’s decision. In club cricket, in Australia, we frown heavily on dissent because we recognize that the umpires have a pretty hard job. But in terms of making decisions for ourselves, that is what the umpires are for. They are there to make the decisions.

SJ– I agree, but at the same time, this is something that I’ve wrestled with – I went by the philosophy that if it is OK for Sachin Tendulkar, it is OK for me. If he is not going to walk, as someone watching him in Test cricket and deriving enjoyment, it is good for me too. We just have to live with your own decisions. Did I do the right thing? Is that the right thing?

GH– May be that’s why your highest score is 49, Subash…

SJ– I know my highest score is 49. I probably am never going to pass it for many different reasons. But, not doing the right thing is not the same as doing the right thing, isn’t it?

GH– I don’t understand why walking is doing the right thing.

SJ– Because you know you are out. If you know you have edged it, why wouldn’t you walk?

GH– But the laws don’t require (me to walk).

SJ– But, I don’t break into my neighbour’s door because the laws prevent it. if the law weren’t there, it is not that I would go barging in and stealing stuffs.

GH– It is a game, Subash. I don’t think it necessarily has to operate according to calling to Biblical law or statutory law. It was an egregious mistake by the umpire at Trent Bridge, but I don’t think you can generalise from one mistake about how players ought to behave. I think Broad had instinctive reactions, they weren’t intellectual reactions. I don’t think Broad went through a process of mental reasoning. To me, he looked completely frozen by the predicament that he was in. If Aleem Dar had given him out, he would have walked instantaneously.

SJ– Quite possibly so. It is not about Stuart Broad, because Michael Clarke stood his ground, Brad Haddin stood his ground. So, it is not just Stuart Broad situation. Players all over the world do it. my point is that professional sport does not exist outside society, it is played by people and officiated by people who live by the rules of the society. So, how can you have a sport where players can have moral codes that are completely detached from what we encourage our kids to behave like?

GH– Cricket is unusual in having this kind of slightly archaic, almost pre-modern, arrangement whereby an umpire cannot give a batsman out without an appeal in advance. It explicitly states that he can’t act naturally, he has to respond to a process initiated by the bowler. That kind of interlocution between the umpire and the bowler does allow the batsman a certain amount of wriggle room. Perhaps we should eliminate the umpire-appeal altogether. Perhaps we should make it an instantaneous decision by the umpire. Perhaps, we should eliminate all the emotions from the moment, but of course, I actually don’t want to do that. I don’t want to eliminate this wonderful aspect of cricket. But once we allow that relationship or arrangement to be struck, then we have come to all its entailments.

SJ– By the way, when I say the batsmen should walk, I also say that when the bowler knows that the batsmen got an inside edge on to the pad shouldn’t appeal either. There are instantaneous reactions from the batsmen and the bowlers, and then you get back to your senses. When you know the batsman has edged, you take back your appeal, in an ideal world. I understand that you don’t live in an ideal world, shouldn’t we be striving to be better?

GH– In the Spirit of Cricket in the preamble to the Lord’s, it doesn’t actually say that it is against the spirit of cricket to appeal when you know a batsman is not out. But is doesn’t extend the same sanction to the batsmen who knows that he has nicked the ball but is standing there for the umpire’s judgment. I wonder why that is.

SJ– Is it because everything in cricket was done by a batsman?

GH– Cricket is a batsman’s game! *laughs*

SJ– We have spent enough time on DRS and the ethics. Let’s talk a little bit about Australia, before I let you go, Gideon.

What does it take to play for Australia these days. If I have my first or middle name as Ashton, is that good enough?

GH– *laughs*

What does it take? Of course, there are 3 different Australian teams. There was an interesting piece by Martin Crowe on cricinfo saying that Australia has only 6 first class teams, maybe it is getting hard for us to choose 3 international teams from those numbers. It was an interesting point of view. We have had a lot of players who could call themselves Australian players in England this summer. At various stages, we have had 32-33 players between the Champions Trophy team, the Ashes and the Australia-A team. I sense that there is a little bit of confusion these days about what it takes to be an Australian, and whether representing your country isn’t quite such a distinction as it used to be. It is confusing at the moment for fans and for players about where they stand in relation to the idea of representing their nation.

SJ– In the Anglo-Australian universe, everything revolves around the Ashes. Everything is planned with the Ashes in mind. Yet, we had Ashton Agar and Steve Smith, who weren’t even in the original squad, play the first Test at Trent Bridge. It looks like there is confusion in not just in how the team is run or Shane Watson’s LBW reviews, it runs all the way up to the selectors and the Australian cricket board.

GH– We have changed the coach too, 2 weeks out from the Ashes series. We have essentially changed the selection panel. It does seem a little bit as though we are just being a little bit too clever for ourselves at the moment. We are expecting to surprise England somehow by our leftfieldness. I don’t think that is going to win us a five Test match series. There is a limit to the number of surprises you can pull. England did get bit of a surprise that Agar got picked for the first Test. Althugh, funnily enough, I spoke to someone from the ECB the night before the Test match who said that they wouldn’t be surprised if [Australia] picked Agar. So, (Andy) Flower had been thinking about him as a possibility.

I think, considering what had happened to this team in the months leading up to Lehmann replacing Mickey Arthur, I think it is actually added to the instability or insecurity of the players. They don’t know where they stand in the player hierarchy anymore. They don’t have any idea as to who is the next cab off the rank. There used to be a very clear idea in Australian sides about who was the next man in. If any of the top-6 dropped out, everyone knew who the next best batsman was in Australia. Everyone knew who the next best spinner or fast bowler was. But, by the time we get to Manchester, I absolutely have no idea who is going to be chosen by Australia. I have no idea who was in Australia’s best six batsmen before the Trent Bridge Test match. It does feel like the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing as far as the Australian cricket is concerned at the moment.

SJ– Within the touring squad, did they have all the best Australian players? That is a question that has to be answered as well.

GH– It is a good question. I think they did. I didn’t think there were anyone obviously missing. I felt a bit sorry that Steve Smith was left out from the initial squad, because at times he batted quite well in India. once he was in, I didn’t have a problem with him joining the party. I did find it puzzling that you would go so early with the idea of Watson and Rogers opening and committing Australia to playing them in all 5 Test matches, and then giving (Ed) Cowan one game to establish himself at no.3 and immediately leave him out. No.3 is such a key position and has a specific set of disciplines. It has a specific set of attitude and technical requirements that it seems to be unfair to draft a batsman there for one Test and then leave him out. What would have happened if Khawaja had failed at Lord’s? Would he have received another game or would we have had another candidate? No.3 is such a pivotal position that it amazes me the little patience we have with all those players who have auditioned for that role.

It is interesting that Clarke has now decided that he has got to bat at no.5. There is a solid statistical argument for that – he averages 64 batting at 5 and 21 batting at 4. Watson averages low 40’s opening and mid-20s everywhere else. But these are players of vast experience. Why do they get to choose where they should be batting in the batting order, and why does everyone else have to bat around them? Why should Phil Hughes be batting at Trent Bridge, at no.4 at Lord’s and why is he opening in the Sussex game? It doesn’t make any sense. I know he actually came out and complained about that, and I don’t think he is doing so lightly. But, I think it is a pretty fair criticism for him to make. If he is going to admit it at a press conference, then it is a sign that he feels quite strongly about it, and I don’t blame him.

SJ– Where does David Warner fit in all this now, now that he has score 193, admittedly on a flat pitch?

GH– I never expected him to open in this series, anyway. I expected him to be a potential middle order player, kind of a counter punching no.6. My guess is that he has probably jumped the queue and will come back in the competition. They will want him to play at some stage in the series. They paid a lot of air fare to him. He has accumulated a lot of frequent flyer points this summer. I think they will give him a go and Smith may be the unlucky one who misses out.

SJ– I will let you go with one last question, and this comes from a listener Siva – he seems slightly peeved that he has read quite a few numbers of articles that have blamed the Big Bash league squarely for this batting performance of the Australians. He thinks that is not correct, and that is lazy because the effect of the Big Bash – if any, there will be some I suppose – will not be seen for a few more years from now. Because you have the IPL and you still have Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara coming into the team. The long term impact of the IPL will be seen in the next generation of batsmen or perhaps in the one after that. So, what is your take on that? I am sure it has some effect, but not as much as everyone seems to be saying it to be.

GH– No. It is much more complex than that. It is gratuitous to blame the Big Bash League solely as the cause of Australia’s batting woes. I have heard from some coaches and keen observers of the game that there has been a bit of a problem in Australia’s talent pool for maybe 10 years. I can remember very vividly in a conversation with Rod Marsh back in 2007-08, when I was asking about the prospects for the Ashes in the next few years, and Rod at the time was at Loughborough with the ECB, and he said quite openly that it won’t be long before England are knocking lumps of our blokes because there is not a lot coming through Australia and there are quite a few talented players emerging in England. That predates the Big Bash League.

What the Big Bash League does now is it poses a problem as an impediment to developing long form palyers. Not in and of itself, but it has provided an alternative career path for domestic players.  You no longer have to aim to be a Test quality player in Australia to make a decent living. That is in some respect no bad thing. A domestic player should be able to have better financial opportunities, but it does mend this idea that you have to be the best that you can possibly be and represent your country. That kind of thing has gone by the board. That has been seen since the advent of IPL and in domestic cricket in Australia, right around the IPL auction time every FC player gets pretty hung up on the possibility of getting an IPL contract. They have seen the Daniel Christians, they have seen the Glenn Maxwells. They know that a kind of lightning strike bid from a proprietor of who takes a shine to you can make or break you as a young sportsman. It would be a very strange young sportsman who is capable of looking past that.

The other thing that the Big Bash League does, which is deleterious to Australian cricketers is that it signifies that ultimately it is the commercial outcomes that count with Australian cricket rather than cricket outcomes. I think when you have a situation that you will have in Australia next summer – if you are a long form player who doesn’t want to play in the Big Bash League, you might have a 3 month hiatus during the season if you are not playing Test cricket. I don’t think that conduces to the preparation of players, particularly batsmen who are to bat for long periods.

You got a problem in Australia next summer. The first class cricket will cease in the first week of December. The party for South Africa probably won’t be chosen until 3rd week of January. By the time the selectors get around to chosing the side to play the first Test in Pretoria on Feb 12th, their information about the which batsmen have first class form will be 6 weeks out of date. You have more and more players in the situation like how Alex Doolan faced last season who had a barn burner of a first half of the season, went to play for the Renegades, didn’t get picked for the first 5 or 6 games, and then his season petered out. I think Doolan is a really good player and he should really have been under consideration for this Ashes series, but he did so little after the advent of the Big Bash League. He missed the opportunities to really prosecute his case.

Everyone is getting used to this new dynamics of this new season in Australia. It changes every season. It is quite difficult to develop momentum now in the way the players used to. The season does not have the natural rhythm that it used to, which causes problems for players, management, for selectors and for captains. Considering how much cricket has changed over the last five years, they have almost become addicted to it now, If a season doesn’t change, it is like more stability than we can handle.

SJ– So, where do you see Australia go in the remaining 8 Tests. Are Australia going to prove Ian Botham, of all people, correct?

GH– It is mind boggling that there are another 8 to go. I wonder what I would be writing about in Sydney.

I still don’t think that England are that good. I don’t think Australia are that bad. I don’t think that any side, even West Indies from the 1980s, is going to dominate 10 Tests in a row. I think there is a potential for Black Swann kind of event to disrupt the series to alter the balance of power. England, despite what it says, is terribly dependent on James Anderson. The Australian attack, even though Pattinson’s gone home, has some depth to it. Pat Cummins can still come into consideration. I like the idea of playing Jackson Bird at Manchester.

If (Kevin) Pietersen doesn’t play – people keep saying that he doesn’t matter to the team, of course he matters to England, he is their X-factor batsmen and is the only one in their top-6 who strikes above 50 per 100 balls and is the only one who can take the Test match away form you in a session – England without Pietersen is a considerably lesser team than one with Pietersen.

So, even in its worst periods, under the Australian cosh in the 1990s, England periodically did manage to take a Test match off Australia. I won’t be surprised if Australia manage to turn the tables on England at some stage in the next 8 Test matches. You must have a pretty high opinion of England if you think they are going to dominate from start to finish.

SJ– Excellent!

Alright, Gideon! Thanks a lot for coming on the show again!

GH– Alright. Thank you, mate. See ya!

SJ– See ya!

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Episode Transcribed by Bharathram Pattabhiraman