Transcript: Couch Talk with Russel Arnold

Couch Talk Episode 72 (play)

Guest: Russel Arnold

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman– Hello and welcome to CouchTalk. The guest today is Former Sri Lankan international cricketer, and currently a TV commentator, Russel Arnold. He talks about his playing career, the recent player contract issues with the Sri Lankan board, political influences in the running of Sri Lankan cricket, the retirement of Samaraweera and also what the future holds for Sri Lanka.

Welcome to the show, Russel!

Russel Anold– Thanks.

SJ– Let’s start the talk with your playing career. You started your Test career as an opener, and you were moved to the middle order. You played Tests for 7 years and ODIs for 10. Especially in the second half of your career, you were shuttled in and out of the squad. What are your thoughts on how your Test and ODI career panned out?

RA– With the Test career, initially, I grew up as an opener and that is how I was picked into the squad. If you look at where I got all my runs, it was at the top (of the order). But, when it came to the ODIs, to balance the team, the team felt that I was better in the middle order. I could do the job of handling the pressure well and take the team across the finish line. The change was made. The same change was made in the Test side as well, but that did not work out for me. In the ODIs, it went really well till a certain time.

In the second half (of my career), Sri Lanka was looking to make a lot of changes and trying to accommodate other players as well. i was moved further down, which really didn’t suit me. I think that is where the struggle started. But, you have to make the best out of it. I am a player who plays himself in, knocks the ball around and controls it. I am not someone like Andrew Flintoff who can walk in and hit 6s and 4s. The role wasn’t suited, but it was all done to accommodate players. I felt that I would have done better, and the team would have done better had I come at no.5 or 6, rather than shafting me to 7 and 8.

SJ– Do you think Sri Lankan cricket got the best out of you as a player?

RA– I could have done a little, or much better if I was a little up the order, at positions where I could perform better, which would suit the type of cricket that I play. But, at the end of the day, I have no regrets. I am thankful for what I have achieved. Being a part of it was an honour. It is about being thankful, because it could be so much worse. You see a lot of other good players who have not got any opportunity at all. It is a mixed bag, and that is how I like to look at it. And, that helps me move on and am really thankful for whatever has happened to me.

SJ– That’s fair.

You have been doing TV commentary since. What were your thoughts going into the job and how do you think you have developed as a commentator?

RA– It was interesting initially. It sounds fun. You are watching cricket and talking about it. But, there are  a few things to learn technically. You have to deal with timing, there are certain times when you need to talk, and when you shouldn’t talk. You have to work with your partners. It is a massive team work that many involves people. It’s about getting used to it, and how you try to get the picture out, which is very vital. When, for example, I am talking about something, the cameramen and others are listening and following what I am saying. If I am talking about someone in the crowd, they are trying to pick that person. It is a sequence of matters. If they spot something out there that we can build a story on, they let me know. It is trying to go from one story to another and working together. In the same way, downstairs, there are directors pulling out graphics. There are guys pulling out the replays. It is teamwork.

Personally, let’s say to put out a better experience, I have improved a bit in every aspect. When I first started, I had to work quite a bit on my voice. I do have a lot more to work on to make it more interesting for listeners. I made progress, and that is all you can ask for.

SJ– You have a wide range of cricket commentators. From Michael Atherton to Sunil Gavaskar to you to Ravi Shastri to Mark Taylor or whomever. One of the listener, Shyam, asks – What attributes makes a good cricket commentator, according to you?

RA– It is a combination of factors. English is a factor of it. The extent of being understood. Not dictionary English or perfect English. At the end of the day, you have to be who you are. Your accent makes you different from others. Everyone can’t sound the same. You have a style. The best example is the late Tony Greig. He was able to create a lot of excitement with his voice. Not all of us can. Not someone who is a closed person, who is better to listen to when he is talking in his own way and his own seriousness can achieve what Tony could do. It won’t happen, just like in your playing days. It is like identifying all that. It is also trying to find more content, or technical aspects, or background of players or what you can do, what makes them speak. At the end of the day, putting out your opinion, what you think. You are not there to voice others’ opinion. When you analyse, you have to come up with your opinion. It is a mixture of knowledge of cricket and your abilities to show your network, or dig in more information. And, try and be presentable, and not be overboard. You don’t have to dig down to one point. Like I said, you will be precise on English. You can be understood by the listener, but probably not the best English. That is all that matters. Enjoying it, getting into the game, live it and explain it. That is what a good commentator would do. If he is trying to imitate and try to be something he is not, he will be in trouble. A bit of knowledge and English, some background and homework will be good.

SJ– It is an interesting point you raised about doing your homework. You can see who are the commentators who do their homework. There are a substantial number of commentators, some of them may be your colleagues as well, who don’t do their homework and are just reading from the screen. Everybody knows that if it is the last over and there are 10 runs required, the required rate is 10.

RA– Let me add another thing to that. You said “everybody” who know cricket. But, as a commentator, the ideal way to relate to it is by bringing in new fans as well. You sometimes have to talk about the real bowling stuff to a cricket person and try to educate, say, the housewife. You bring in the new fan and explain to the person who doesn’t know cricket. That is also something that you have to achieve, build on the base.

SJ– At least, the modern TV commentator has the additional responsibility to the job, then. The T20, the domestic leagues going around everywhere, then.  The style of commentary that you do in there will vary from the style that is there in a Test match against that in an IPL match.

RA– Yes. The time frame also comes into it. In a T20 game, there is no time to tell you a story or a background because so many things are happening and you have to go from an event to event. In a Test match, sometimes, there is hardly an event, so there is time to build up whatever story you want, or to explain any other matter. Even that comes into it. As a commentator, when there is a lot of things happening, it is so much easier because the excitement is there in the picture itself. So, the formats do differ, the time frame do need to be adjusted. You have got to try and say things that have to be understood in the least number of words so that it doesn’t overlap. Let’s say I am talking of a story and a wicket falls, then I can’t finish the story and am caught in-between. Ideally, you are trying to achieve those little targets as well.

SJ– Alright.

We will switch our attention to Sri Lankan cricket. If not for the recent mess that was with Australia in the last week, one could have said that one of the more dysfunctional team administration going around could be in Sri Lankan cricket, especially with the contract issues. What is your take on how it panned out?

RA– It was brilliant. The standoff didn’t last long. The contract was put forward. The players brought forward their views. The board made their stance known. They were on their way. There was a decision, and everybody realised where they stood. And, there are issues which need to be addressed and everyone did understand that and moved on.

I thought it was brilliant, the way it panned out, especially the time frame. It was out of the way, and we were on our way.

SJ– Interesting. The players, initially, said they won’t sign it because the 25% of the ICC event revenue that they wanted, that didn’t change. That hasn’t changed, they haven’t resolved that at all. They had a conversation with (Sanath) Jayasuriya, and suddenly came to an agreement. Do you know what really happened?

RA– Jayasuriya put forward to them the facts, and explained it to them, not that they did not know, but sometimes it is nice to be told “this is where we are at, and this is what we can do.” That is what Jayasuriya did. So, the players were quick to understand the situation, the consequences, and they decided that the best decision that they can make is for cricket. And, they did. For them to even think of other things, and putting forth demands is reasonable. But, then, they understood where the board is at. From the board’s point of view, they can’t promise benefits they can’t afford. It was a tricky situation, and I was very pleased with the resolution that was achieved so quickly.

SJ– Sri Lankan board has a history. Very recently, there was a period of time when the Sri Lankan cricketers were not even paid. If you are an up and coming Sri Lankan player, how would you feel? How would your interest be protected by what has happened?

RA– Let me put it this way. As a player, when you haven’t played and you are new, all you want is to be out there and play. If life goes on and life starts evolving, other needs come into play and you move on. As a young player, he might be confused about what is going on there, but he would be happy to play out there even without a contract.

If you were told – you said you are from Chennai, “Here is an opportunity for you to play for India.” Are you going to say “Are you going to pay me this much??” No? I’m going to jump in. Relate their situation to your life situation, and understand how their mind might work. You look forward to opportunity and then when you get better you life needs fall into place. And, with cricket, unlike any other sport, the time frame is little. As a player, you sacrificed so much and there is no time to go and achieve much elsewhere. So, there is also a need to capitalise on that limited time frame.

SJ– I agree. At the same time, this is your main mode of living. So, you have to protect your economic interests as well. For example, as a new player, I can completely understand them saying that when the board comes and says “Hey, here is an opportunity to play for your country.”, they will jump at the opportunity and take it without the contract, like you said. On the other extreme is someone who has played for 10 years, like (Kumar) Sangakkara or (Mahela) Jayawardene, and they may have some things already lined up. but, in-between you have players with 7 or 8 years’ experience.

RA– You have a fair point. Only the A-grade player need not worry because they have so much going. There are players in between involved too. But, he will understand that this is what is on offer, and what we can afford to pay. If you are employing someone, can you promise him a package of a bigger company or a company with bigger capability of bringing in money? No. There has to be a bit of freedom in there.

I’ll tell you something in here, in that meeting, Sangakkara and others were not there. The likes of Sangakkara, Dilshan left, saying “You (non A-grade) guys decide. If we are here, we might, as seniors, our profile might intimidate you younger guys from voicing your opinion. You decide, we will fall in line.” That was brilliant. These little gives and takes have to happen. If you look at your professional lives as well, it is nothing different. Just that, with sportsmen, there is the short lifespan. You have to maximise. If the capabilities are there to pay those rewards, it should be done. If not, what do you do? Life and cricket has to go on.

SJ– But, in a weird way, because Sri Lankan cricket board, or for that matter, any cricket board – their property is their cricketers. So, you would think they would give as much to the players as possible so that their prized possessions are taken care of. But, maybe, that is just me.

RA– I do understand that there is an issue when you compare the world class, and other players in the team. It is an argument once again. In Sri Lanka, if you look at what the cricketers earn, it is much better than what you would earn in another profession. In other profession, the life span is longer. The capability to sustain yourself, and look into your career is greater. Then you argue that these players are competing with world class players who are having much bigger benefits. Again, that is another side of the argument. But, you have to be paid in proportion to your earnings.

SJ– I see your point. There was another point of contention – Sri Lankan cricket refused to recognize any player representation, meaning agents. In the modern days, and I also saw a statement in the Island Cricket website during a Q&A post that you are also not in favour of players having agents. Isn’t that quite counter to how modern sport is dealt?

RA– I am saying that in Sri Lanka cricket there are very few who go to the level that they need to be managed. If Sri Lanka cricket appoint people who look into these people, the younger guys, groom them, help them with any documentation that they may have, which is not going to be very demanding. Our market doesn’t have much to offer- very few players. I probably wouldn’t care too much about Sri Lankan Board contract. So, what would the agent be doing for them? When agents are involved, they are trying to build profiles. You look at the Sri Lankan standards. We play a happy-go-lucky type of cricket. The moment you put them out of their comfort zone and lifestyle, it becomes an issue. You need to identify where the Sri Lankan cricketers are. They are simple guys, playing cricket and enjoy it. If you are at that stage, then OK. And move on. Don’t complicate life. You don’t need an agent trying to build a brand and a profile for you, which will clash with their mentality, etc. the contracts or profiles or endorsement that hardly any have, at say IPL or otherwise, that have to come, will anyway come. I don’t think an agent will have to go for Sangakkara or Lasith Malinga or for that matter, Thissara Perera.

SJ– But, for that matter, the board saying that no player can have it..

RA– No no no no.. They said “We will not recognize.” You want to talk to us, you come. They want to keep the complications out. When you are building profiles and brands when there is not much, there is clashes. They looked at two points in the past to nullify these issues. In the circumstances, they were smart. The Sri Lanka cricket is in one sense a business. They could even argue that they made a smart business decision in playing themselves in a good position to negotiate the contracts, which is well done. Doesn’t that happen in the business world?

SJ– I agree. If they consider themselves to be in a business, they should.

RA– You are expecting them to earn money, you are expecting them to pay professional cricketers. Then, it is fair enough.

SJ– If that is the case, they should deal with the players as in a business as well. One business representation should be dealing with the other. How do you expect a player who knows cricket but does not know the ins and outs of a business deals to come to a negotiation table? That seems like an unfair practice.

RA– What is the negotiation involved? The contracts are straight forward. There are a few clauses which the players would discuss. You need an agent to voice your opinion. Yes?

SJ– If there is any, yes.

RA– Why do you need an agent to voice your opinion? You voice your own opinion. You have your parents, you have access to someone who advices you. It is not an agent that you need. That is a name you are putting. I don’t see any need. I think life will be simpler for Sri Lankan cricketers in this manner. There could be different ways, but for Sri Lankan lifestyle and Sri Lankan cricket this is good enough. There are very few people who find the need for someone to manage their affairs. Once an year you need an agent there to negotiate a contract which is straightforward, argue on a few process which Sri Lankan cricket board didn’t want it. They could have allowed it, but with what happened, I don’t see an issue.

SJ– Moving on. When the Woolf Review came out with how the ICC does its things and how the member boards, cricket business etc. one of the recommendation was that the national boards must be free of political interferences and influences. It is not just with Sri Lanka, but with a lot of other Asian countries as well. the chairman of selectors is a former player, Sanath Jayasuriya, but he is now  a Member of Parliament. Hashan Tilekeratne is a part of the selection panel. Looking from outside, that kind of recommendation was never taken on board – to not have political influences. Understood, that these are some great cricketers who played for Sri Lanka, but they are now representatives of a political party.

RA– I see where you are coming from, but from political point of view, I am not the one to talk to. I can’t help you with interpreting laws and how all that will work. But, how I see that situation is. I have seen how Hashan Tilekeratne was as a player, same with Sanath Jayasurya. Whatever it is, the way I know he is a teammate, a cricketer who knows how to make good cricketing decisions. That is my take on that, form that point of view. The political angle – you respect them to know what they are doing. Just because you are not a politician doesn’t mean you are going to be sitting there and making decisions for the right reasons. They make wrong decisions. We have seen political decisions being made, but what is the guarantee that the other decisions are not being influenced?

SJ– That is absolutely true.

RA– As far as these guys are concerned, they are very good cricketers who know what they are doing, they know what to look for and you must give them a chance and see how they go. The rest of it is these, but it s a blackout as I know it. This is how I know it, and this is how they will be. If I compare, even with Kumar Sangakkara, I know him as a cricketer, and as a friend. He has gone on to build a reputation, his profile, with so many other things. But, primarily, this is how I see him as, same as these other guys.

SJ– I agree. But, the only thing is that it opens a can of worms. I understand that people with  no political background can also make poor selection choices and mistakes. But, the point is that if you have a political baggage, it opens up a whole different can of worms because politics makes for strange bedfellows. So, why would you want to mix cricket with politics? That is my, and a lot of other fans’ want to know.

RA– That is because you can look for words and instances and harp on it. Like I said, Sanath Jayasuriya is probably Sri Lanka’s best cricketer is the chairman of selectors. He knows cricket. He knows to make cricketing decisions. Let’s see if he can do. It is about keeping it nice and simple. I get your point, but this is how it is. So, that’s how I look at it. As for interpreting the technical and political aspects of it, I am the wrong person for that.

SJ– One of the decisions that this selection committee took was dropping Thilan Samaraweera from the Test squad. And he went on to announce his retirement. He is someone with an average close to 50 and served Sri Lankan cricket for so long after playing 80 tests. How do you think Sri Lankan cricket handled that?

RA– Initially, I didn’t know where I was on the issue. Now, looking at what cricket Sri Lankan has to play, I am of the opinion that Sri Lanka must blood youngsters. If you don’t play them, you don’t know what they have to offer. This is a great opportunity to give them a run. Looking at the batting order that was against Australia, you had 7 batsmen who were in their 30s. You have to make some decisions. Who will miss out? You will have to take tough decisions.

There were some injuries. You thus saw Thirimanne come in, Chandimal come in. Suddenly, the outlook changed- it is not as bad as it seemed. Until you play them, you don’t know.  You should keep the seniors and just let these guys just play the supporting roles. They have to be given roles where they can get some responsibilities. Those spots need to be opened. You see the youngsters out there and get them into the top 7. I would go with just the two seniors. If I have to pick – Kumar Sangakkara is still there. He is still fit and rolling well. I will have to decide who the next senior person must be. And, to a certain extent, it was going to be a touch-and-go.

SJ– That is between Dilshan and Jayawardene?

RA– Jaywardene, to me, he is class, and his quality. But if you look at the recent form on his travels. We have an issue here. He is still the best man-manager etc.  to help the youngsters. So, that would pick my vote for him. Unfortunately, for Samaraweera and Prasanna Jayawardene, they may have one year or two, but when a year later the challenges are there, they will be an year older. Now is an opportunity to put the youngsters in. I don’t think we should miss this opportunities to put the youngsters in.

These are my hard decisions. When I consider the other cricket that Sri Lanka have – T20 and ODIs. Jaywardene, Sangakkara and Dilshan will probably be in the mix in 2015. Might as well hold them back and use them and move on. That is how I look at it. That is my point.

But, on handling Samaraweera, when Jayawardene was injured, he was brought into the squad. Probably, that was the mistake. If they thought he was not going to play unless they wanted to play him, they should not have brought him in. If I have to be critical, that is the point. Otherwise, I cannot find fault because of the reasons that I just told.

SJ– Jayawardene and Sangakkara are on the wrong side of 35. As you said, they could still stay till the 2015 World Cup. And Sri Lanka hasn’t and probably will never rebound from the loss of great cricketers like Murali(tharan), who could have taken on that wicket against Bangladesh in Galle. Chaminda Vaas is gone. The team is under the leadership of Angelo Mathews and Chandimal. Where do you see the Sri Lankan cricket going with this youth movement, and the talent that is coming through?

RA– There is talent coming through. There is hope that there are plenty of capable batsmen. You need to put them into international cricket and exposure. Now you know that there is that other guy who is very capable, who has confidence and arrogance and can play shots like Vithanage. You need to put them there. He wasn’t challenged in that Test match [at Galle vs Bangladesh], but he did what he could do. There is nothing that he could have done challenge wise.

The bowling, yes, there is an issue there. it is not deep, but it is something that can give you an opportunity. If you saw the pace and spin attack that played against the Bangladesh and the one that played an year ago against New Zealand that Sri Lanka won in Galle, only Mendis didn’t play here, Randiv played. It was the rest. But even if you look at the time Murali and Vaas were there, there was a lot of help from the pitch, not like the one that was prepared at Galle. I don’t think these bowlers can be judged on that. If we lack firepower, we have to help them, not nullify them further. That is where we went wrong.

SJ– There is a listener, Nathan. He is interested on knowing potential fast bowlers coming through. We saw Eranga, Suranga Lakmal, Nuwan Pradeep.

RA– We have Welegedara. There are a couple of youngsters – Lahiru Jayaratne is one – who can lift their game up. This year, they are trying to get some A-tours in place. Once those are in place, you can see them coming up and get tested a little bit more. There are a few names going around. But, we still don’t know. Domestic cricket is played in a different manner than test cricket. A lot of cricketers are coming to international cricket and learning their trade, which is a point that I have been making. Spinners are opening the bowling in our first class cricket. Where will the fast bowlers go? He needs to bowl lots of overs. He needs to learn to control the game. that is what you need in conditions like ones in Australia, England and South Africa.

When spinners bowl, we are good, we are happy. One side is tied up, little bit of turn. We know what is going to happen. Sometimes, the fast bowler will come in and mix up the pace and see if there is a bit of reverse swing and if things go his way. But, to become a better team, you need them to do a lot more. You need them also when the conditions are such that you need to control the game. If the spinners don’t bowl well, there should be a fast bowler bowling dot balls to build the pressure. That can be learnt only if they bowl a lot of overs in domestic game. You bowl a lot of overs, and recover and come back to bowl another spell. It is an art. Recovery is an experience- how you take of your body.

Suddenly, when you do it in the international level, you break down. You have the injuries coming. You don’t know how to do it and the team falls apart. These are the areas that we have to address for our fast bowlers to do better. Their bowling fitness, mentality and all need to be learnt.

SJ– With the addition of Chaminda Vaas, do you see a better, cohesive fast unit?

RA– He has got the knowledge. And, Vaas, unlike many of the other Sri Lankan cricketers, is a very hard worker. If you pick an professional, where he goes to all the wires, Vaas is the man for you. For him to do really well in the subcontinent, he has to know how to handle it fitness wise, and skill wise. You have seen a lot of travelling fast bowlers coming to Sri Lanka, play one match and get broken down, or not pick a wicket. If you want someone to relate to these things, Vaas is the best option.

Also, for the fact that he was a hard worker, he will know to relate. Kumar Sangakkara, for example, has had a wonderful run. He never struggled. But a player  may find it hard to relate to someone who never found it tough. Most of us, 80-90%, are not at that level. Vaas will be able to relate to most of these players and up themselves. Those special players are very few. I think, he will need time. But, I am very sorry if he gets pitches like the one he got at Galle.

SJ– On that note, thanks a lot for coming on the show, Russel. It was an absolute pleasure talking to you.

RA– Thank you, Subash.

SJ– Bye!

Download the full episode here.

Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman