Transcript: Couch Talk with Mike Atherton

Couch Talk 112 (Play)

Guest: Mike Atherton

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. The guest today is former England captain Michael Atherton. He talks about the various aspects of captaincy and leadership relating to a cricket team, his transformation from being a cricketer to a journalist and also provides his views on the leaked draft of the position paper. Welcome to the show, Athers!

Michael Atherton (MA)– Thank you very much!

SJ– Thanks for being on! You know, I have been chasing you for nearly 18 months now. So, it is my pleasure.

MA– All my fault.

SJ– We can blame it on the schedule, I suppose.

I want to talk to you about two topics. First, on captaincy/leadership. Second, your transition and transformation from being a full time cricketer to being in a commentator box.

You mentioned in your autobiography, Opening Up, though you had an idea that captaincy was coming your way after Graham Gooch stepped down in the summer or 1993, you felt you weren’t prepared for it. Why did you think so? What do you think would have had you prepared more?

MA– I am not sure you can entirely prepared for it no matter how experienced or old you are. It’s a unique job and one that takes through different routes that you cannot really prepare for. I think, when you are 25, which is what I would have been in 1993, with not that much cricketing experience internationally – I think I had played around 20 odd Tests at that stage – I was pretty green and raw as a player and not played any cricket in the subcontinent, England didn’t really play much cricket in the subcontinent then. I only played 1 Test out of 115 or so in India, which is unbelievable when you think about it. In terms of general experience, I was pretty green and naive. I was just 3 or 4 years over university. I thought an ideal age for captaincy, that you want to be would be 27-28, that kind of age if you are going to do that job for 3 or 4 years. so, you are getting the prime time of your playing career in terms of batting or bowling or whatever you do and also at that stage you are both experienced enough and young enough to do the job. Ideally, 2-3 years later would have been great.

But, you can’t choose the time you get hold of these opportunities. I was aware. I had a back operation when I was 21. I said to me that I wasn’t going to have a long career, not going to play into my late 30s. So, I had to take the opportunity on offer while it was there.

SJ– There is a question from listener, DIleep. This is about the perception that you were the future England captain in the making in the cricketing circles. Did that change your entire approach to the job?

MA– I think it is unhelpful tag that you can carry with you. I captained virtually every team I played for, 16’s, 19’s, Cambridge. I was made vice-captain of England in the 1991 series. I was barely a year into the England team at that stage. There was this kind of expectation and tag, I don’t think it is necessarily helpful at that stage in the career. You want to be putting all your energies into being the best player you can be. So, it is kind of unhelpful.

Did it affect the way I did the job? No. there is nothing you can do about it, about the tag and expectation others put on you, about what they expect you to be. I didn’t have any expectations that I was going to captain England. I didn’t put those expectations on myself, they came from outside, but they were probably unhelpful.

SJ– There are two schools of thoughts in how a captain should be selected. As you said, you weren’t ready for the job because of your age and experience. But anyway, I spoke to Mr. Brearley about this, and his idea – you pick the captain and then pick the team. And there is the Aussie way – you pick the best XI and then you pick the captain. You tend to agree with the Aussie way of selecting the captain, don’t you?

MA– I do, in this day and age. I do think, though, that it will be very difficult now for a captain who is not calling his way into the team. Mike Brearley was one of the great England captains. But, the level of media scrutiny now is such that it will almost be an unbearable position if you don’t feel you are there by your own performance, if you feel you are carried by the rest of the team. I think it will be an almost unbearable job to do now. As much as I admire Mike, I think he was one of England’s great captains, I think just the way that the nature of media has changed has made that very difficult job now, if you are not pulling your weight. If I was selecting, I will be picking the best XI and choosing a captain from them. There may be the odd circumstance where that doesn’t apply. I am thinking of Australian Bobby Simpson. If you are in such a mess that you feel a kind of experienced old hand who might not quiet justify his place would give you what you are looking for. I can see that in exceptional circumstances, that might be the case. More often than not, you will be picking the bets team and then the captain.

SJ– Fair enough.

You also mentioned in the book that when you were made the captain, you had no idea about the extent of the responsibilities of an English captain in terms of media and management training. If you were the player in the English system now, how differently will your grooming be, in terms of captaincy?

MA– It is a good question. Not many England cricketers get a chance to do any captaining at all because the nature of the schedule of international players these days means they are basically taken out of the counties and most of the times they play the odd game here and there. But, because it is one odd game, they are not made county captains very often. In fact, there is a kind of – I wouldn’t say a crisis of leadership – but you got a situation where you are asking people to become the captain even on the basis of less experience than perhaps what I had. I think the ECB try and guide these young players in certain players which they weren’t able to, or couldn’t do when I was around. Alastair Cook had a number of sessions with Mike Brearley. They get smart and realise that they have to find ways to broaden these players’ minds because they are not getting the practical experience of captaincy. They will do bits and bobs to help prepare, but I don’t think anything replaces practical experience of it. Now, it is a problem of young English players not getting the opportunities to captain county sides. Players of my generation and earlier generation had. There is no way around that problem. I don’t see an easy solution, because the nature of international schedule means the guys are not playing any county at all.

SJ– When you look around international cricket, and the captains – from Alastair Cook to (M.S.) Dhoni to Mushfiqur Rahim of Bangladesh, almost all these people have been learning on the job. Dhoni was brought in out of nowhere, basically.

MA– That is right. That is great contrast to the earlier generation. England had captains like Ray Illingworth, Keith Fletcher, who had been experienced county captains over many years. Now, the players are learning on the job. Alastair Cook had precious little leadership experience before the job and had to learn quickly about the demands of good captaincy. There is no way around it. I can’t see a way around it. It is just a by-product of the way international cricket has changed, it has become all consuming and the ability of players to get hard, hands-on experience that the earlier generations had is just not there.

SJ– What are the things that you think are to be in place that enhance your shot at succeeding at the job. Of cours,e you ened a set of very good players. With due respect to Ricky Ponting, the team handed over to him from Steve Waugh….pretty much anyone could have led them to the record that he eventually got. What do you think are some of the things that you need in place – the support system and background staff to succeed in international cricket arena?

MA– It depends how you define “success”. I wouldn’t, as a captain, I wouldn’t define it simply by the wins and losses. The wins and losses go against their name and that is how a captain is remembered. If you are the captain of Bangladesh, and you are coming up against Australia, you are not going to win too many Test matches, so it will be ridiculous to judge the captain of Bangladesh in a Test series vs Australia simply by whether they win or lose. A good captain can make a bad team better. A bad captain can make a bad team or a good team worse. A good, great captain can make a good team great. It is about the influence the captain has on that group of players that really should define how he does the job. What are the tools that will allow him to do a good job. Obviously, good players is nice if you got them. The best captain are seen on instinct of the game. you can learn about captaincy and you can learn to become better. The best people have had an instinct of a feel for the game, that I don’t think necessarily is that easy to learn. You either have it or you don’t. It is a kind of strong character or personality that you can call a dressing room and lead the dressing room. That is important. If you are a good player and you are playing well, that helps as well, your decision making gives you confidence. Your ability to have the other players following you.

Captaincy is a very difficult thing to evaluate, because you have the on-field tactical side of the game that we all see, and as the captains of the moment that I see in the international cricket – Brendon McCullum, Michael Clarke really stand out for their acute tactical awareness. But, you got the stuff in the dressing room that we really are not privy to. It is really very difficult to get a grip on that because if you ask any current player in the English side, he will say Alastair Cook is the right man for the job because it is not in his interest to say otherwise. It is very difficult just to take the word of the players in the dressing room because we are not there in the dressing room, we don’t get a handle on that part of it, which is a very important part, of course.

SJ– You talk about the instincts and the feel for the job. Even that is kind of evaluated based on what has happened as a result of the Ashes that was taken. Say, for example, if the captain moves the first slip to gully and the catch goes there, they praise that.

MA– I actually don’t look at it that way. For myself, when I was commentating, or watching when I am about to write, I look out onto the field. With the good captains you can see exactly what they are trying to do. i watch with great admiration Brendon McCullum in two miniseries that his team played against England at the start of the England winter. When you looked out onto the field and watch the bowlers bowling and the plans that were set, it was absolutely clear at the time what they were trying to do and how they were trying to get the batsmen out and he didn’t let things drift. That plan would change every half hour or so. But, you could see clearness in thinking and strategy.

There are many ways to skin a cap out on the field. It is not necessarily that you can be judged on outcomes. And you can see what a captain is trying to do and you can see that the team know what they are trying to do, there is clear strategy there, provided that strategy reflects some cricketing common sense. Obviously, if you are playing a slow and low turner and you have got 7 slips and 3 gullies (sic) and bowling quick bowlers all the time, that is ridiculous. Provided the strategy fits some kind of cricketing common sense, I think that is what you are looking for from a captain. The more fundamental thing of how you are trying to play the game. McCullum and Clarke tend to be attacking captains in general, they are encouraging their teams to play in a reasonably attacking and aggressive manner which most of the best captains have done.

SJ– But, in this era, where there is so much scrutiny is put on the moves that you make or don’t make, the line between where you are being aggressive and the line you are gambling can be quite thin. How do you guard against that?

MA– You can be too flashy and funky. I have seen captains in the past who change the fields for the sake of it almost in order to say “look at me. I am being a funky captain. I am flashy.” That is what I say that it has to be grounded in some cricketing common sense. You don’t want a captain who is playing to the gallery. You want to the captain who is trying to win the game for the team in the best way possible. Playing to the gallery is obvious when it is happening.

SJ– How do you define leadership in sports? People are different in their own ways. Everyone has their own methods of dealing with success and failure. As a captain, you have to take care of the other 13-14 people in the squad as well. How did you balance it off as your time as captain of England.

MA– That is difficult, I think. It is not an easy job, as Alastair Cook is finding out right now. You have to try and balance the demand of your own form and game against making sure that you are trying to get the best of the 15-16 men in your touring party that there is. Times have changed a bit. When we went abroad, there would be a manager, coach and physio. So, your responsibilities were virtually all encompassing you – training in the nets and the tactical side of the game. Now, a captain has much more help from the backroom staff that number as many as the players themselves. That changed. The captain’s responsibilities are more delineated now, so you now have a coach who might be in charge of all training in the nets and the captain who leads them on the field. That has its difficulties as well.

I think it is one of the hardest I find, when I am commentating or writing, a portion of blame would be the wrong way of putting it. but, you are trying to find where the responsibility lies. England have just been whitewashed in Australia and there are a lot of people calling for Andy Flowers head. In the earlier days it was a much simpler equation. The captain was responsible for the results of the team. The players would be responsible for the runs or wickets that they scored or didn’t score, or took or didn’t take. That was a very simple equation, really. Now, the head coaches and specialist coaches and all number or coaches and that level of responsibilities are not so easily appraised. I find that very difficult sometimes. I still go back to personally responsibilities. As a captain, you need to encourage that in your players. You want them thinking for themselves, ask them to sort their own games as much as you can.

SJ– What were the expectations that you had of your own self when you became the captain, in the short term and in the long run? When did you think of giving up? did you think you got everything out of you, as a captain?

MA– I had a very clear thought. One of my strengths said that I am a very clear thinker. When I took over the job in 1993, England had lost about 8 of the previous 10 Test matches. We had a horrid trot in the Ashes and then in India and Sri Lanka. It seemed clear to me that we had come to the end of the particular era in English cricket, an era dominated by the kinds of David Gower, (Allan) Lamb, (Mike) Gatting, (Ian) Botham. That had pretty much come to an end. So, what I wanted to do was take a group of younger players forward and create a team that in the sense England would become 19th county. I felt, when I started with England, because of the nature we didn’t have a central contract players would come for a week of Test cricket and then sent back to the counties, we didn’t develop a cohesive sense of who or what the English team was. In that side, we had players of my year – (Graeme) Thorpe, (Mark) Ramprakash, (Nasser) Hussain, (Alan) Mulally – guys who I played with, who were just about making their England debuts at the same time. i thought that was a chance to try and develop something. But of course, it was very difficult then without central contracts because you are still playing lots of county cricket between Tests. Fast bowlers would arrive knackered or often injured. The idea was right, the vision was right, but it was too soon in the sense that the idea came before the central contracts were introduced – they weren’t introduced until my very last season in cricket, eventhough in 1995 at the end of the South Africa we had put for the a paper to the ECB arguing for central contracts. But, it was another 6 years before it came in.

SJ– It is an interesting thing. You talk about central contracts and England being the 19th county. Now, what you have is your high performance academies and centre of excellences. Players don’t really get to play as much of the first class game at all, and they are in the England system.

MA– It is a difficult balance. A balance has to be struck. The England system is getting a pounding at the moment because of the results in Australia. But, I am all in favour of generally taking players out of the system and into the lines of Lions and developments squads under top class coaches. They develop quickly and develop well. you look at Joe Root, when he came into the team he was – I finished an article on him- really looked a top class player on the back of cricket with Yorkshire and all the grounding that he got with Yorkshire, and also having taken that extra step with the Lions. It is a difficult balance, but you still want the players to be playing an amount of county cricket. Not just for the experience that they get, which is good for them, but there has to be a feeling for the county game – that they are a part of a wider picture, that they are producing player that are going to go on and play for England. Once they do that, the players are still part of the county and community that they came from – I think it is one of the great strengths of the Australian system as the players would go back and play grade cricket and state cricket and be a part of the community from which they came. So, that is good for them because they are still grounded with their community and their community will feel they have the player to be proud of. So, I think retaining the link with your root or retaining those roots is very important indeed.

SJ: I remember reading about this NFL coach. He has led his team to multiple SuperBowl wins. He said he treated his superstar players as superstars. He cut them some slack from time to time at practice sessions, gave them a bit of leeway. Does this sort of thing happen in the cricket set up? Would someone like Kevin Pietersen get that much leeway? How would you have handled it if you were captain, with some of the shenanigans that went around in the summer of 2012?

MA: One of the absolute essentials of leadership and captaincy is working out the characters in your team and trying to treat them accordingly. It’s plainly ridiculous to try and treat everybody exactly the same way. Different characters demand different handling. Having said that, there’s a line that you recognize can’t be crossed. I’m not privy to what went on with the Pietersen thing apart from knowing what everybody else knew, that there were some text messages and this and that. So Strauss and Flower will have felt that that was a line that should not have been crossed, and was crossed and therefore there were disciplinary measures to be handed out. I think every captain, manager, coach would recognize that you have to have those lines which cannot be crossed. Clearly if you have a superstar player you may give them a little more leeway than other players because games tend to be won by those other players that you have, but can be damaging if you let things run out of control. There has to be some cohesive discipline that applies to everybody in the team. I think that’s a fairly comprehensive common sense approach.

SJ: Lets move on to the second topic, that of your transition and transformation to being a commentator and journalist. Why is it that there are so many former England players writing for the broadsheets? You don’t see that with any other cricketing nation except England. Why is that.

MA: You say so many. There’s myself, Pringle and Selvey. I think that’s it isn’t it? Virtually?

SJ: That’s three more than most other places…

MA: There’s been a long tradition of players writing in the media. You go back to the great Australian players of years gone by. I wouldn’t say it’s a solely English thing. But I suppose it has to do with the way English cricket is organized. You know we play in the Summer in the northern hemisphere and the tour in the winter, so it can provide an all year round job I suppose. That may be one simple reason. People finish playing cricket at 33 (in my case) or whatever it is, and you know you need a job. Before central contracts you couldn’t finish playing cricket and think you are made for life, and even if you were, you’ve still got to wake up every day and think that you were doing something worthwhile. So it provides job. I still don’t think that because you’ve played for England you can walk into these jobs. Mike Selvey and Derek Pringle are good at what they do. They’re good writers. They write their own copy, find their stories. Its not just a case of having played and walking into a job. But people do think if you are good at the job and have also played cricket, that’s a good thing.

SJ: You are one of the very few commentators that people tune in to listen to. You, Michael Holding, et al. What was the learning curve for you like as you came into the job and progressed as a TV commentator?

MA: It was, simply, a bit like the captaincy we were talking about before. You just learn on the job. I didn’t have any training as such. It was simply a case of, when I started, I started with Channel 4. Richie Benaud was working there, Mark Nicholas and a few other guys who had done it for a considerable length of time. So if you are smart, you sit, you listen, and learn. One thing I did do at the start was get some tapes of myself commentating, to just listen to. The cadence of your voice is quite important and I have a slightly monotonous voice at times. So I tried to work on that a bit at the start. And also just to listen to how you sound when you are talking, whether you are talking too much, all those kinds of things. I sat with Richie quite a bit early on. He was very helpful.

I don’t know whether that’s old fashioned these days, but I tend to think that commentators ought to be neutral when they commentate. I don’t think I should be a cheerleader for the England team. When we’re commentating in England there will be people who don’t want England to win. There will be people listening who want India to win or West Indies to win or Australia to win. Richie said something early on that has stuck with me. He said you are a guest in somebody’s front room, or you feel as though you are a guest in somebody’s front room. Cricket is on all the time. It’s on five or six hours a day. So try not to be an irritable or irritating guest. Try not to talk too much and beware of stating the bleeding obvious I suppose. So, pick your moments.

SJ: It is interesting that you say that. Andrew Strauss, soon after giving up playing and captaincy of England, joined the commentary box, and if I remember correctly he said a few times “We” when he was referring to England’s performance.

MA: Yes.

SJ: He has since corrected himself of course. How hard was it for you to tune off the fact that you were an English player, and you were expected to be neutral and objective, but you are going to be critically appraising your former team and teammates.

MA: I didn’t find it that difficult to be honest. Clearly, if you said to me now, who I wanted to win the Ashes, I’d obviously want England to win. You are not going to get away from the fact that (a) you are an Englishman, (b) you are a former England player and a former England captain. So obviously I would prefer England to win. But in all truth, I enjoy watching good cricket. I enjoyed watching the cricket Australia played this winter. So even though it was five nil and a bit painful for England, I enjoyed watching Mitchell Johnson bowled quickly and all those kinds of things. I enjoy watching cricket provided the cricket is good. I don’t worry about results. I stopped worrying about results of the England team when I stopped playing because basically I no longer have any influence over it. I enjoy watching good cricket, I try and call it neutrally, but as I see it, with the obvious coda that I am a former England player or a former England captain and if you said to me as a spectator who would you prefer to win, it would obviously be England. But I don’t see that impinging on a professional job. You can do a job professionally; call it as you see it, hopefully reasonably neutrally but wanting England to do well while you are watching.

SJ: You write for the Times, and you do commentary for Sky. Is it easier to write your cricket reports and pieces because you’ve been at the cricket all day? Or is it harder because you may not get to time to switch off from the cricket to refresh and refocus?

MA: I think the two complement themselves quite well. Writing keeps you sharp. You have to turn up at some press conferences. You’ve got to be there the day before watching the players, listening to the captains. It helps you stay on top of things. It helps to keep you sharp. The commentating helps form ideas in your mind before you sit down to write. You have to watch carefully because you are commentating. And you are kind of formulating ideas way in advance of when you actually sit down to write. The difficulty sometimes is you find yourself pushed for time. If there’s a tight deadline or something and you have to combine the two, you sometimes don’t have the time you would like to write a properly polished piece. But generally the two complement each other pretty well.

SJ: There is a question from a listener, Siva. It is about how you find the time to delve into non cricket writing like, to quote him your “awesome book on gambling”. Do you have to switch off from cricket completely while researching for such books? Or do you balance everything?

MA: Well that gambling book was written before I worked for Sky. I was working for Channel 4 which was a summer only job. So I had the winters free. And I wrote that over two winters. It was also virtually before I had kids as well. So that kind of frees up a bit of time as well. I like writing about other things. I’ve written for the Times about other sports, occasionally about politics. I wrote a big piece on the artist L S Lowrie last year. So I like doing that. It keeps you fresh for the cricket. I must say in the last year or two I’ve had less time to do the other things just because it’s been pretty full on with the Times and with Sky writing about cricket. But I’m hoping I’ll have another book or two in me about other stuff, not just cricket.

SJ: I have to ask you this. About the issue that’s been on the front pages recently – the leaked draft of the ICC’s position paper. Plenty of people have put in questions. I’m going to name one – Victor. He wants to get your thoughts on the draft plans of the “Big Three” – England, Australia and India cricket boards to take over cricket basically and the abolition basically, of the future tours program.

MA: I’ve been reading the leaked draft over the weekend. And I want to read it again. I’m going to write about it next week. So I haven’t really formulated my thoughts generally. But sport is not business. And it seems to me that these proposals are based on the off field strength of England, India and Australia rather than what happens on the park. My own view is that cricket should look to expand and not contract. The strong have to help the weaker. Because the weaker haven’t always been weak. West Indies, for example, were dominant over a 20 year period and probably produced the greatest cricket team that has ever been. That’s arguable, but you know, possibly. Just because they’re in the doldrums now doesn’t mean that they’ll always been in the doldrums. In any case it seems to me that it is short sighted to contract the game that ultimately the strongest teams are only as strong as the weakest link in international cricket. You want to make those international teams that are struggling a bit currently, stronger, and I’m not so sure that the proposals from what I’ve seen, are going to make them stronger.

SJ: You mentioned that sport is being seen as a business rather than as a sport. You constantly hear this thing about how Test cricket is not viable beyond England, Australia and India. There is a question from another listener, Kartikeya. We are at a time where cricket is making more money than ever before in the history of cricket. And yet, somehow we are not able to find enough money to support all ten Test teams play a full test cycle involving series of at least three Tests and all that. Why is there not enough noise about this?

MA: Well I suppose what happens is that however big or small the cake is, you spend that money accordingly. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that because you might have ten times the amount of income that you had a decade ago, that the game is ten times better off. It just means that you find ways of spending that money. I’d argue that the game is not fundamentally stronger than it was a decade ago. You’ve got Pakistan who can’t play at home, you’ve got West Indies and New Zealand who are undoubtedly weaker, you’ve got Bangladesh and Zimbabwe who hardly play any Test cricket at all. So you’ve got four teams, three of whom have put this proposed paper together. That’s not ideal.

SJ: How poor the leadership in cricket? Because if it was determined that we have some stronger teams and weaker teams, both on and off the field, financially as well as cricket wise, we are going to bankroll them and do all the things we need to do to make cricket better, rather than see who gets more money out of it?

MA: The ICC has been an organization in difficulties for a number of years now. We had the last chief executive trying to force through the Woolf Report and now three countries going in virtually a hundred and eight degree opposite direction. So that suggests that it’s an organization in difficulties, and struggling to find its place in the world. I think leadership of cricket is not good at the moment. I think we can see that from the decisions that have been made over a number of years. The solutions and answers to that are not immediately apparent.

SJ: As a former player, and now a commentator on it, and writer about it, what are your hopes?

MA: Well if the proposed paper is put forward at the end of January, I’d hope that the other countries outside of those three would vote against it. I don’t think they will, but I’d hope they would. If that proposal goes through in the form that we’ve seen, I asked as former West Indian cricketer what he thought of the proposal and he said that if the other countries vote for that proposal, they deserve all they get. They’ve got a chance to make a stand I guess.

SJ: If the proposal goes through, where do you think that leaves cricket?

MA: Again, having to think off the hoof a bit here because I haven’t really given it that amount of thought which I will be doing over the next week or two. Basically, what you are looking at in that scenario is there’ll be three or four countries playing marquee Test series between themselves, and then there will be more room for the domestic T20 competitions. The Big Bash from December through February, IPL from March through to May, the T20 competition in England through the summer months here in the northern hemisphere, so they’re getting increasing scope I would say for having the best players playing those. And then you have the marquee Test series between England, India, South Africa and Australia. So the scope for countries like New Zealand and West Indies producing good Test cricketers of the future would be reduced and players from those countries will be looking at the domestic T20 tournaments as their big thing, which is not ideal. But that would seem to me to be obvious result of these proposals.

SJ: So I suppose the outlook for the future is not that great.

MA: What it is doing is contracting the game. In the last two or three decades, the ICC’s mission statement has been to spread the game, to make it a world game. And these proposals don’t accomplish that.

SJ: All right Athers. Thank you for spending this morning with me. Take Care.

MA: A pleasure.


Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman and Kartikeya Date