Transcript: Couch Talk with Mike Selvey

Couch Talk 110 (Play)

Guest: Mike Selvey, The Guardian

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Hello and welcome to Couch Talk.Today’s guest is former England cricketer and The Guardian’s cricket correspondent Mike Selvey. Mike talks about the sledging and posturing that happened in the recent Ashes down under, the impact of Mitchell Johnson’s pace on the series, England’s future, the supposed Andy Flower vs. Kevin Pietersen story and also about his own playing career. Welcome to the show, Mike!

Mike Selvey (MS)– Thank you.

SJ– It is my pleasure having you on.

Were you ever told to get ready for a broken eff-ing arm during your playing career, or did you ever tell anyone that?

MS– No. i don’t think anybody bothered with me. I certainly wouldn’t want to personally break anybody’s arm.

SJ– Was the intimidation in your playing time a little more subtle than that?

MS– Well, there were a lot of very fast bowlers around, I have to say that. Now, there are not many around now. Mitchell Johnson is an exception these days. In the 1970s, when I was playing, it was almost a rule, especially in county cricket where numerous fast bowlers were playing. One of the thing that has happened now is that players, because they are not used to playing that sort of pace, not saying they can’t, just not used to playing that kind of pace, whereas when I was playing you did see the fast bowlers – it didn’t make you any more used to playing it, but they at least knew what it was to face that kind of bowling.

SJ– I was reading this article on Cricinfo about this very aspect I suppose, where Dennis Amiss was hit in the head but then he makes that double hundred at The Oval. That came to my mind when you say that people actually got in line and were used to playing fast bowling, hell bent on holding their reputation up rather than gifting their wicket away.

MS– That particular thing, it is funny how your memory plays tricks, isn’t it? Because, I was actually one of the people helping him off the field when he got hit. It was late in the evening, it was very dark. I know he got in the head by Michael Holding in the back of his head, and in a bad way. We had to take him off, and his head was bleeding and had other treatment. My recollection is that he kind of didn’t play any cricket after that. I think that was in the first innings, and he batted in the second innings. He then went to play in an England Test trial and got a hundred in the Test trial, but they didn’t pick him and in fact he had to play a full season. It is funny how your mind plays tricks. It was a remarkable comeback, to come back from that and next time you face them you get two hundred, even though It was a flat pitch, but nonetheless it was a tremendous effort.

SJ– Michael Holding got 14 wickets in the match. It was your 2nd Test match, at The Oval?

MS– Yes. That was just an incredible piece of fast bowling. It was straight fast bowling. He got 14 wickets in the match and none of the other fast bowlers got more than 1, or 2 I don’t think. There weren’t many left, were there? It was an astonishing piece of fast bowling on one of the flattest pitches that I’ve ever seen, that’s for sure.

SJ– During the recent Ashes, when all this sledging-machismo-aggression stuff going on, everyone harked back to the days of the fearsome West Indian fast bowlers and talked about how they barely ever said a word, it was just about their looks and how they bowled it rather than get into the face of the opposition. You played against so many of them in County Cricket, could you expound on that a little bit?

MS– Let’s put this another way. What seems to happen now is compounded by the focus put on it. The nature of the coverage now, the numerous cameras working on them. Earlier there weren’t that many – not many cameras or focus that the players are getting now. I do believe that it gets ramped up by media in all forms into the main issue. I remember during the Adelaide Test, during a TV program where we were talking about this very thing where all the newspapers who were following not the cricket going on but the confrontations and the body contact sort of things – they just ramp it up. There is too much focus put on it now, the more focus you put on it the more the players think that this is what you want and the more they are prepared to do it. It kind of escalates on the face of that. There is too much attention paid to it. If lesser attention is paid to it, probably they will do it lesser. It has gone on in various forms over the years, but the attention that’s given is  part and parcel of the main cause of why we are seeing more of it, why it seems more obvious nowadays.

SJ– Regarding so many TV cameras being around and that becoming prime focus, Cricket being a sport, a sport at every level is entertainment as well. so, now, you want a tightly packaged story with the good guys and the bad guys, all the drama that goes with them where cricket is a side show?

MS– The cricket itself, some scintillating cricket was played in that series in Australia and I don’t think it needed all that extra edge to it. The cricket itself could have talked very eloquently, I thought. I just felt that it was a distraction, an unnecessary distraction. It is not really what the people want to see. Is  thatwhat people want to see – the pseudo-posturing?. Michael Clarke didn’t really want to see an arm broken, did he? I’d like to think not. It is posturing. It is unnecessary. I don’t think it adds to the game anyway. Maybe it makes some play better or harder, but a lot of people have played the game well in the decades gone by and I don’t think it necessarily resorted of that.

SJ– I want to come back to Mitchell Johnson. How similar or different was he from the fast bowlers of your era, the (Jeff) Thomsons and Lillees and the West Indians. How different were the English batsmen now in handling it, and what should they have done better?

MS– How does he rate in terms of pace? He has got to be right up there. He is a very fast bowler. It is very hard to compare eras. All we can say is that Mitchell Johnson bowled very fast and for reasons I outlined earlier that there aren’t that many fast bowlers around the world any more. He was exceptional. He and Brad Haddin were the real key to the series. I think, most importantly, in his capacity to get rid of the lower order was a very big factor in this series. Haddin’s capacity to get them out of trouble and Mitchell Johnson’s capacity to blow away the English lower order were a huge factor.

SJ– You played in an era of not so great protective gear. Now you are basically wrapped up in a mattress when you come on to the pitch, but still people were afraid to get in line. After a while, if you see the same kind of pace again and again, I would think that for the players at this level, it will be a lot easier. Was it more a mental struggle rather than skill level adjustment?

MS– Actually the England top order played him quite well. They let the ball go well, they got out of the way well, certainly in the first few Test matches, he didn’t get the lower order out, it was the tail that he got out and England were kind of throttled away by the other bowlers – (Ryan) Harris and (Peter) Siddle. I will say he blew the tail away regularly. I don’t think it was that they didn’t get in line or anything like that. A part of the skill of playing him is to get out of the line, get out of the way. They actually played the fast bouncers quite well, and actually let it go very well.

That is how it was played in the pre-helmets era. You see a lot of pictures where balls go past people’s noses and you think “My goodness, that was close.” But that wasn’t close at all, the natural instinct was to watch the ball and if you watched the ball, then, your instinct took the head out of the way. You took the hand out of the way first, and then you get your head back as the ball went by. There were very few people in my experience who got hit on the head. Now, people with the helmet, there is a certain inclination to try and play the ball more and when they realise that they can’t play it, they just duck their head and playing it on their helmet and nothing comes out of it. May be an odd Leg bye. That is what you get for it. it is a question of how you play it. Now, the England batsman, by and large, they kept their eyes on the ball very well, the bouncers. It was the other balls that they got out to.

SJ– Regarding England’s performance overall, it was a remarkable turnaround in fortunes. You go from 3-0 to 0-5 and get whitewashed. Im assuming England aren’t as great as 3-0 or as bad as 5-0 either, the truth has to be somewhere in between. Have England been papering over the cracks last 6 months to a year. And was that exposed in Australia? How do you see it?

MS– I don’t think you’re far off the mark really. Papering over the cracks isn’t quite the phrase I’d use. I think what they were trying to do was to get one last series out of a very successful team. It was fairly evident over the past year that it was a team that was past its best. We saw that in New Zealand, we saw in the last summer – they won 3-0 without playing particularly well. Australia were dismal at times. There were crucial spells in the Test matches that England won and that’s what won them the series. It was fairly obvious that team was past its peak. However had they gone to Australia and before they had gone, said “Right, we are going to scrap this side and take an entirely new side out there” I don’t think that was going to be very productive. I think they were right in trying to squeeze another series out of a team that had just won an Ashes 3-0 and there’s nothing wrong in that. But the fact was that it was a team that was collectively past its best – a very experienced team, a very credentialled team, but not playing as well as they had done in 2011-12. They have to now start fresh.

Conversely they were totally taken aback by the ferocity with which the Australians came at them from the start. It kind of escalated from there, once they got beaten in Brisbane it was always going to be difficult to come back because that was such an overwhelming victory [for Australia] having been in a difficult position on the first day. England bowled very well at them in the first innings in Brisbane. To come back from that was quite remarkable. I think the whole ferocity on and off the field took England aback. There were elements too that compounded, which couldn’t be legislated for; Alastair Cook’s back going early on in the tour. Michael Carberry, who was a reserve on the tour, got in and got some runs. Carberry had to play. Gary Ballance didn’t get a game where he could have gotten a game where Joe Root got dropped down the order. You had Steven Finn who was an integral part of the attack who couldn’t bowl a ball in the same post code twice. He was out of the equation. You had Jonathan Trott going home. It just compounded. Things were not rolling. It rains in the warm up matches. Everything that could go wrong semed to go wrong.

Quite apart from the fact that Australians bowled magnificently well. Their top order batting is still very shaky. In 4 of the Test matches, I think they were 130 or 140 for 5 in the first innings. That top order is not too flash. Brad Haddin was outstanding and certainly in my view was as deserving of the Man Of The Series as much was Mitchell Johnson was. England could not respond to their lower order. There in lies the difference.

SJ– With Trott gone and (Graeme) Swann retired, and Steven Finn sent back, England are in a full rebuild mode? Is that it? They have to start completely from scratch again?

MS– Yes. You have to – to use a cliché – go back to the drawing board. They have to start over, and sort of started given that they have a limited squad in Sydney with Ballance coming in and with no Swann, Panesar played. (Boyd) Rankin played. (Ben) Stokes played in Adelaide, of course. That was one of the fortunate things that came out of the tour because had they thought Adelaide would not turn, conversely they thought it would turn then they needed to balance the side and Stokes to come into the side because they needed two spinners and they found a Test cricketer. It just happens. You have seen some sort of evolution. Jonny Bairstow keeping wickets. I don’t think that would last, but they have moved on from Matt Prior. It might  just as well be that Jos Buttler is the next one. There is a definite and obvious rebuilding to be done around the nucleus of the players who will still serve them well.

SJ– True. You had written a piece in The Guardian which basically said that Andy Flower wants Kevin Pietersen out of the team. Since then Andy Flower had denied that it was ever a “me or him” sort of situation. I guess he denied it without actually denying it, the sort of management speak they seem to be good at.

MS– It might have been slightly clumsy [by me] and interpreted slightly different. Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear of what I wanted to say. When Andy Flower looks to how he can best develop the side in future, if he decides that the future of the England team can only progress if Kevin Pietersen is not in the side… In other words, the long term future of the England side has to be without Kevin Pietersen.

SJ– The actual line that you wrote is that ‘Flower is thought to believe that the future development of the team can only happen without Kevin Pietersen.’

MS– If he thinks it can only be developed without Kevin Pietersen and Paul Downton, the new managing director, or James Whitaker disagree with that and decide that we are going to go on selecting Kevin Pietersen, then that would make Andy Flower’s position difficult, wouldn’t it? That is what I meant by that, that Andy Flower will find it difficult to carry on  under those circumstances simply because his vision of how the game should progress would not involve him, if that is the way he thinks. That is why I said Kevin Pietersen’s future could depend on that. That is not to suggest that it is Andy Flower against Kevin Pietersen. That’s not the case.

He has managed Kevin Pietersen for 7 years, whatever his personal feelings might be. I have no idea what they are. He has managed him for 7 years in one way or another – 4-5 years as director of the England team and a couple of years as batting coach. He has been involved all that time and got through it. You don’t suddenly get this antipathy. You see where I’m coming from? Any decision Andy Flower makes or will make will be based purely on how he sees the future of the England cricket team, not based on his personal feelings in one way or another for Kevin Pietersen.

SJ– My understanding of reading that piece from you was that Andy Flower actually believes that the team would be better off, or the team that he wants to shape going forward will be better off without Kevin Pietersen. It is already a fully formed thought in Andy Flower’s mind. That was my understanding, rather than, if he thought that…

MS– Clearly he will have his own ideas. My personal view is that Andy Flower is an extremely able coach. He has got a lot of credit in his bank. He won 3 Ashes series, a  World T20 and a series in India. that is a pretty strong credential against one pretty embarrassing defeat in Australia. He has a lot of credit in his bank. I think he coulkd actually become a stronger director of cricket on the basis of what he has learnt on the basis of what he has learnt here. There is a lot that can be learnt here, a lot you can take from here. Lot of things where you can say “I got that wrong here, let’s do things differently. Maybe the way we play has got to be different. The type of players we pick have to be different.” There is a lot you can learn from that.

With regards to Kevin Pietersen, you could say that he is 34 years old, and you could reasonably say that his best days are behind him. He played in 2012 three of the finest innings of this or any other era by an England batsman – in Colombo, Headingley and in Mumbai – all in the space of 6 months. Since then it has tailed off. He is 34 years old now, and he is looking for 2017, as he keeps saying, against South Africa. That is another 3 years, he will be 37 years old. Is that going to be the future? Have we seen the best of him? You have to then factor in what is going to happen with this IPL auction that is coming up, because he hasn’t had his contract renewed with the Delhi Daredevils, has he? The next round of auction has 3 year contracts. It wouldn’t surprise me that the least of 3 years contracts were contingent of full IPL participation. I don’t think they will pay big money for someone who will play only half the time. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem this season, but next season – after World Cup in 2015, England have a Test tour in the Caribbean in April-May which is during the IPL season. That is the series that precedes the next Ashes series that England would say “Will you go and play IPL when we are building for the Ashes?” you can see how that can become an issue and we will find out about that in the middle of next month when the auction is. All these things have to be taken into consideration when you are looking into the future. It is not just Kevin Pietersen who is under scrutiny, everybody is under scrutiny. I suppose in his case, he is more likely to be under scrutiny because of the nature of his other commitments and his age.

SJ– That’s completely fair. Rather than making it Andy Flower vs Kevin Pietersen, let’s look at an overall picture where you have a coach/manager of a team and you have, let’s say, a very good player – a bowler or a batsman– how do you see it if there is a ego clash or a him-or-me situation, who would you stick with? Is it easy to find an able coach, or easier to find a great player?

MS– It depends on what goes on. A lot goes on in the dressing room that we don’t get to hear about. There may be issues in the dressing room that gets compounded. There is all sorts of possibilities. It is very easy for us to sit on the periphery and say what a great player he is and that he must play. But sometimes you must make decisions based on what is best for the core of the team…what makes the boat go faster. Those things we are not privy to any more than anybody else outside the dressing room.

SJ– I agree with you on that. But, in professional sports, you look at football or American football or basketball or baseball or cricket, a team professional sport – the bottom line is that ‘it is about wins or losses’. When you look at it in that sense, would you want to stick with a player who is going to give you a better chance at winning? And in the history of sport we have seen that in the team lockers where people don’t get along but are still professionals and they have to play together and they do.

MS– Then you have to make a value judgment on whether the player is getting better or whether he is past his peak. That’s what I am trying to suggest to you here that maybe Kevin Pietersen’s best years are gone. If indeed he is on the way down… What happens in cricket teams is that not very often, very rare in my experience, a change in the team comes in by somebody coming to you and saying “He is better than him”. “He is still a good player, but I think he is better than him”. Most [changes] come when someone gets injured or like Ben Stokes – it is need in the team, to add balance to the side. something like that will happen, and someone will come in and do well.

i will give you an example. I said to Andrew Strauss in Australia, “I will ask you this question. Supposing Michael Vaughan’s knee hadn’t gone and Marcus Trescothick hadn’t had his problems. Suppose those two things hadn’t happened. how many Test sdo you think you (Strauss) would have played and Alastair Cook would have played?”

Both of those players came in on the back of those circumstances. That may well be that they had played on, nobody would have said actually that Andrew Strauss, at this stage, is a better player than Michael Vaughan, I think he will do well for us. Nobody would have said that. The only time that has happened, that I can think of, curiously, is when Kevin Pietersen himself replaced Graham Thorpe in 2005. That was the only time I think of that happening.

Somewhere along the line it is possible to make a value judgment. It is a professional judgment. That is what the selectors are paid to do. That is why they are the selectors and we are not. Because they make a judgment on what they see, on all the evidence they get –some of it is anecdotal evidence, some of it is knowledge, some of it is experience. They make their judgment on the basis of that. It may be that they decide that one wonderful player, a unique player, Kevin Pietersen, a genius cricketer or, has been a genius cricketer, is past his peak and in two years time that we are aiming for. I know there are series against India and many things, but it’s the Ashes, right? – in two years’ time who is going to come in and bat at no.4 for England? Is it going to be the 36 year old or is it going to be someone else who we are going to bring on now, with 13 – 14 Test matches before then?

What you are trying to do now,  it may be that they decide that Kevin Pietersen IS the right man. It may be that Andy Flower decides that. I am not suggesting that Andy Flower will preclude the idea that Kevin Pietersen being in any future side, I have not got that knowledge. All I was trying to say that it could be, if he decides Kevin Pietersen is not the way to go, then he would do it. And if other people decided that he IS the way to go, then that would make Andy Flower’s position difficult. That’s all I was trying to say. That got trickled up into “Andy Flower vs Kevin Pietersen” thing. That is the nature of business, I might have written it slightly clumsily. The essential thing is that if he decides that Kevin Pietersen is not the way forward, he will make that decision. The selectors, he is a selector too, Downton and James Whitaker decided that they want him to continue play for England, then that will make his position difficult.

SJ– That is true. OK, that is enough of the Ashes.

I have one last question, and this is about your playing career for England. This is from a listener, Sriram. He wants to know what was running through your head when you made your debut and you take the wickets of Roy Fredericks, Vivian Richards, Alvin Kallicharran, and in the second innings you take the wickets of (Gordon) Greenidge and Clive Lloyd.

MS– I peaked early, didn’t I? *laughs*

Very strange, you know? Because, the way we did Test matches then to how we do now is a world apart in the approach. For example, if I was to tell you that in that winter’s tour to India our support staff consisted of Ken Barrington who was the manager, Bernard Thomas who was the physiotherapist / assistant -manager and a bloke called Geoffrey Saulez, who was the scorer. That was the back-up team. That is a little bit different to what it is now, isn’t it?

My preparation for the Test was…I wasn’t selected originally, I played because someone got injured. I turned up around Wednesday lunch time for a Thursday start. We had lunch, we had a net. The next day we turned up and played the Test match. I found myself opening the bowling against Gordon Greenidge who I played against since he was about 15 years old for Hampshire 2nds and Hampshire Juniors side. it was just like me bowling to Gordon again. I have played him, and it was a very strange thing to bowl to Gordon again. I struck early, luckily. I am glad I did. I got Roy Fredericks caught in the first over. I bowled Viv out and bowled Kalli out. Suddenly I felt I was in the game here. I was alright actually. I never felt nervous at all. The reason I didn’t feel nervous was because there was a familiarity to it. Also, I think that because of the lack of big build up. The Test match now  seem to last 10 days – all the hoo-haa beforehand, practice days and interviews. You used to turn up straight from county games for a Test match. The county game would finish on a Tuesday, the 3 day game, you travel on the Wednesday and the Test starts on Thursday. So it was none of that either to come in to your mind. The leap (from county game to Test) wasn’t that great, I have to say.

SJ– But, you and England run into the buzz-saw that is Vivian Richards at The Oval, who makes a double hundred. And then you go to Mumbai and then you never play another Test for England…

MS– Well, The Oval was a one-off really. I didn’t bowl that many overs there either…

SJ– You bowled 14.

MS– Yeah. I bowled very less.  “Deadly” Derek [Underwood] bowled 65-70 overs. It was that kind of a pitch, certainly new to me, didn’t swing. Had we known about reverse swing in my days, we didn’t know about it back then – sometimes the ball did something funny, and we didn’t know why, that is something I wish we had known. The weather conditions were tailor made for reverse swing.

We went to India and there were four warm up sides against the zonal teams. We played in Pune, Jaipur, Jallandhar and one other place, Indore I think. In those games, I bowled with John Lever and I bowled alright. I came up with a couple of wickets here and a couple of wickets there and J.K. came up with 3 or 4 wickets here and there. He got himself in to the first team. He got 10 in the game and a half century. That was the end of it until I came in for the last Test match, quite literally just before the toss I was told I was playing because Chris Old pulled out because of an injury. I had hardly bowled for two and a half months. These were pitches where you bowled a couple of overs with the new ball and then the spinners would come on. so, I hadn’t bowled a ball. I went around the park, and that was the end of it.

SJ– Alright. Thanks a lot for being on the show, Mike. It was an absolute pleasure talking to you.

MS– It’s my pleasure. Good to speak to you.

SJ– I hope to have you on again.

MS– Yes, surely.

SJ– Cheers.

MS– Alright Subash.

SJ– Bye.

MS– Bye for now.

Episode Transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman