We arrived at the Grace Gate at Lord’s. The ground was a hive of activity. Graham Gooch strolled by, shoulders rolling and head bowed in that familiar fashion, and then the penny dropped: it was corporate and media day ahead of the Royal London Cup final between Warwickshire and Surrey. Lord’s was awash with cricketing royalty … and us.
Our hosts, two lovely girls from Threepipe, an agency that does PR work for Royal London and the ECB, came down to greet us. We were issued with guest passes and ushered into the ground. “Where’s Nasser?” I asked. “Talking to the Daily Telegraph at the moment”. “Oh, you mean the proper journalists” we joked.
First up we were taken to the Lord’s Academy for a quick net. We milled around for a bit and then Nasser emerged smartly dressed. Polite introductions were made. “Where are you from?” he asked me. “The Full Toss” I replied. “Oh ok” he said with a look I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps he’d read one of our rants about putting cricket back on free-to-air television at some point? Well, we have had emails from Sky’s PR department in the past.
I needn’t have worried though. Nasser was as nice as pie – a real gent in fact. He seemed to enjoy meeting us ordinary bloggers and was only too happy to engage in some hard-core cricketing discourse.
First of all I asked him who he thought would win Saturday’s final. “It should be close” he said “Warwickshire are a good side who play in a slightly old fashioned way. They’ll look to score 270 or 280 and then defend it on the slow Lord’s wicket. Surrey, on the other hand, have lots of match winners and a good blend of youth and experience. I just hope the weather’s good and toss isn’t too important”. I nodded in agreement.
After a brief chat about how much one-day cricket has changed over the years, I was told to pad up. Nasser bowled me a leg break that I played respectfully straight back down the pitch. “Blimey, I actually managed to land that one” he said.
I’m happy to report that I batted quite nicely (for a change) and after ten minutes or so he complimented my high elbow and orthodox technique. “You can play a bit” he said. Well, I guess Nasser has always liked old-fashioned blockers. Just don’t ask me to play a ramp shot.
Soon it was time to get down to the nitty-gritty. I was determined to ask a few searching questions. “How do you feel about the ICC’s rejection of two divisions in test cricket?” He paused thoughtfully and gave a politicians answer: “I think all test cricket needs to have meaning” he said, whilst staying firmly on the fence.
“I’m still optimistic about test cricket’s future though” he claimed “but we’ve got to speed things up, get rid of silly delays, improve overrates, and play on wickets that give everyone a chance. The days of 500 plays 500 have got to go.” Amen to that.
What followed was a big discussion about one-day cricket and modern batting techniques. The girls from Threepipe must have been bored out of their minds. “When I was a young lad at Essex” Nasser said, “Keith Fletcher used to tell us off for hitting balls out of the nets. It cost the club money if we lost them.”
“These days all the England lads do is try to lose balls. They go out into the middle and do range hitting with Bayliss. He’ll stand twenty yards away in a helmet, chuck balls at them, and they’ll smash them into the stands”.
After explaining how tighter calls on wides, and modern batsmen’s ability to move around the crease, meant that bowlers now had a very small area to bowl at, Nasser revealed that today’s batsmen focus almost exclusively on creaming deliveries that land in this area. That’s why slower ball bouncers are so prevalent: they’re the only legal deliveries that don’t land where batsmen anticipate. Nasser compared England’s young ODI batsmen to modern day golfers, who spend hours in the gym trying to lengthen their driving distance.
As we were talking about big hitting and strike-rates, the discussion moved on to Jos Buttler in particular. I was curious, “if all Jos does is practice his range hitting, how will he ever improve his defensive technique and get back into the test team”? Nasser answered my question by asking another question: “If you’re a modern player like Jos, why would you want to? More and more young players see first class cricket as a grind and want to specialise in the shorter forms.” Everyone grimaced.
“Joe Root is a special case” Nasser continued, “he developed as a 1st class player first and then learned all the fancy one-day stuff. It’s mostly the other way around these days. England find good strikers of the ball like Hales and then try to teach them a defensive technique rather than vice versa; therefore we’ve got all these talented guys who can strike a ball beautifully but they’ve got dodgy techniques that are exposed in test cricket.”
I used this opportunity to ask whether he thought England should cast the likes of Buttler and Hales as limited overs specialists and basically pick different test and one-day XIs. “It’s an interesting argument” he said (again without giving a specific answer) “only a very few elite talents like Root, AB de Villiers and Virat Kohli are good enough to excel in all three formats. It’s hard for mere mortals to adapt. It messes with their head”. Once again, I found myself agreeing.
Nasser rather wistfully admitted that his way of playing – “learn to keep it out first and then learn how to score” – is an anachronism these days. He spoke affectionately about Alastair Cook as a throwback to a different era.
“If Alastair was here now, and you asked him about his technique” Nasser said “he’d admit it’s terrible”. “He knows his head’s all over the shop, it looks ugly, his bat comes down at weird angles, but at the end of the day he gets lots of runs, even though we joke that he’s only got two shots. He sells his wicket very dearly. It’s a completely different skill set”.
Hallelujah to that. There’s no way guys like Hales and Buttler will ever be as good as Cook in test cricket because they try to bat as quickly as possible, not for as long as possible. As an old fashioned opener myself, who’s no bloody good at T20, I’d like to see a lot more Cooks. We all speculated that Haseeb Hameed might be a much better test opener than trying another ODI convert like Roy.
The discussion temporarily waned as we all walked back to the Lord’s pavilion. Nasser greeted a number of former players on the way – Phil DeFreitas, Simon Jones, Alex Tudor and Monty Panesar amongst them. Eavesdropping on his conversation with Monty I managed to ascertain that Monster has had a shoulder injury that’s finally on the mend. Shame it’s too late to take him to India.
Now the highlight of the evening was about to commence: a trip inside the pavilion and a look at the hallowed Long Room. It was as refined and elegant as ever. “Do you know why we (England) always played so poorly at Lord’s in the 90s?” Nasser asked. “It’s because we always took this place for granted. Whereas the Aussies turned up and were in awe of the place, and embraced all the traditions, we used to find it stuffy and fight against it. It’s only now I’ve retired that I really appreciate the history.”
My friend asked Nasser how he used to deal with the pressure on match days. What was it like to walk through a packed Long Room on your way to the middle? “I never coped particularly well to be honest” he said “the pressure did affect me”. “The England boys these days, on the other hand, take it all in their stride. Joe Root is like an excited kid on the first morning of a test match. He doesn’t get worried; he just enjoys it. Johnny Baistow’s the same. He’s the most relaxed guy you’ll ever meet”.
At that point, we were distracted by a portly man pulling faces through the window. It was Mike Gatting. “He’s probably been at the champagne and pork pies again” Nasser quipped. Well, it was corporate and media day.
After a quick tour of the Lord’s museum, and photo opportunities with The Ashes urn, we were whisked away to the media centre. This was particularly exciting as I was a media centre virgin. Nasser was surprised that a blogging luminary like myself (ahem!) had never been up to the media centre before. I resisted the temptation to make the obvious ‘outside cricket’ gag. I’ve got about as much chance of securing a press pass as James Vince has of playing the next test.
One member of our party asked what it was like in the media centre on match days. “The journalists sit over there” he said “You’ve got your Brenkleys, Selveys, Pringles, Newmans, Etheridges. They basically do nothing all day – other than argue with each other or moan about overrates – and then suddenly spring into action as the copy deadlines approach”. I sat down in one of the chairs, imagined I had laptop in front of me, and pictured being one of them. Would I be concentrating on the game or worrying whether that ghastly Dmitri Old was having a go at me again? I could always block the bastard I thought.
After a quick glimpse into the TMS box – did you know they had a window specially installed so they could hang a microphone outside? – we moved on to Sky’s much larger broadcasting area. Nasser joked that we were now at the scene of Strauss’s famous ‘C-word’ crime. Rookie mistake apparently. Some mics are always on.
At this point I asked a question I’d been desperate to ask all day: “how close are you commentators to the players these days”? Nasser said that when Strauss became MD of English cricket he cleverly decided to improve relations between the players and the media. He made sure they spent more time together – something that resulted in Grumpy Bob going out for dinner Stuart Broad and James Anderson.
I asked whether this actually made it more difficult for pundits to be objective and critical of players. Nasser sidestepped the question like a pro. “Fortunately the team are playing well so we haven’t been in that position yet”. I decided not to push the issue. I’ve often heard Nasser criticise the players – he once said Cook had been ‘worked out’ – so I genuinely believe he’ll say what needs to be said.
A few minutes later, Nasser said his goodbyes and rushed off to catch a train. But before he went I managed to ask him the most obvious question of all: “It’s Brisbane 2002, the sky is blue, it’s bloody hot and you decide to bowl. WTF?” He smiled sheepishly. He knew some awkward bastard would ask that eventually.
“Well” he said “a local statistician told me that history shows it’s always best to bowl first at the Gabba”.
So would he make the same decision again? “Oh God no. I knew I’d made a howler straight away. I apologised to the lads at lunchtime and Hoggard threw his food at me.”
“But we did get them all out for a mere 492 in the end. That wasn’t bad for us in those days.”
The 2016 Royal London One-Day Cup Final takes place at Lord’s on Saturday the 17thSeptember. Tickets are priced from £30 for adults and just £5 for under-16s and are available to buy online now – www.lords.org/final