I enjoy a good chinwag. I enjoy it even more when it’s with four guys I idolised as a kid. It has always been an ambition of mine to chew the cricketing fat with Athers and Co – perhaps over a couple of beers in the pub – so when Sky invited me to meet them a couple of weeks ago, it was an opportunity too good to miss.
There was just one problem: the meeting wasn’t going to be in your typical boozer. It was taking place in the Members’ Bar at the top of the Lord’s pavilion. Well, I suppose we all have to slum it now and again.
When the day arrived I was ushered through hallowed corridors that only MCC members, top class cricketers, and Giles Clarke’s butler are normally allowed to tread. I climbed up several immaculately polished staircases, past portraits of the very men I was about to meet, and into a room with a large wooden table. There was a splendid view over the ground towards the media centre. I was very much inside HQ’s inner sanctum.
The aforementioned cricketing legends were all assembled and waiting … no doubt thrilled at the prospect of meeting a humble blogger whose greatest cricketing achievement was scoring 17 not out for Worcestershire U15 against Lancashire U15 back in 1991.
“Have a seat, James” our host from Sky said to me. I instinctively sat next to Beefy for old times’ sake. I loved watching him as a junior member at New Road in the 1980s so it was no contest really.
I quickly glanced around the table to see if I recognised any of the other media guys. There was Andrew McGlashan from Cricinfo and a couple of other people I vaguely recognised. Fortunately there was no Paul Newman or Mike Selvey, who might have mistaken me for Dimitri Old or my old TFT colleague Maxie Allen. Phew! That might have been awkward.
Without delay the discussion began. The meeting was only scheduled to last half an hour so we were determined to get maximum value. McGlashan kicked proceedings off by asking about Alastair Cook’s decision to step down as test skipper. Was it the right move?
Athers: It was absolute the right time for Alastair to go. We all saw him India and he looked totally finished. He seemed down in the dumps and exhausted. We all have our stints as England captain and his had definitely come to an end.
Beefy, Bumble and Nasser all nodded solemnly. I detected a real sympathy for Cook. I guess they’ve all felt the pressure of captaining (or coaching) England at various points. When it all goes wrong it’s not a happy place to be.
Discussion quickly moved on to Joe Root. Was he the right man to take over? Again all four agreed wholeheartedly. They said it was going to be Joe all along, it was always a given, and there weren’t really any other serious candidates. I avoided the temptation to ask whether Andrew Strauss’s ‘process’ was therefore a waste of time.
One of the subjects raised was whether Root’s England might differ from Cook’s in approach – especially as everyone assumes that England are going to play uber-aggressive cricket from now on.
Sir Ian: Sure they’ll try to be positive. But a team can’t manufacture a style of play. The guys need to play the way they’re comfortable with. Not everyone can play like Australia when they were world champs – scoring at four an over all the time isn’t easy.
Bumble: Bayliss will ask them to play to their strengths. He won’t want Cook trying to smash it everywhere. That’s not his game. If the other players want to be positive and it suits them, then so be it.
Athers: (stealing my thunder!) The interesting thing is what the CEO Harrison said. We don’t know if he was misquoted, or something like that, but he was definitely encouraging England to attack. Is it the CEO’s place to do that?
Everyone around the room nodded or pulled a face. Their views on this one seemed quite clear.
The next topic was the Champions Trophy. Were they all looking forward to it?
Nasser: It’s a big competition these days. I like the way it’s short and sweet. But it’s a real shame the West Indies won’t be there. It’s remarkable when you consider the team they might have put out. But rules are rules.
The big question was whether we could win it. The panel were mildly surprised when informed that England were the bookies’ favourite. However, after some thought all four agreed that Captain Morgan’s men stood as good a chance as anyone – particularly as we were playing at home.
At this point I intimated that I our bowling attack might be our Achilles heel. I said that the batting was strong, with plenty of depth, but the attack lacked star quality. They didn’t disagree …
Sir Ian: The death bowling is a problem yes < the others nodded >.
Bumble: Woakes is solid enough at the end but we need someone else too. I’d like to see Mark Wood do the job. He can bowl good reverse swinging yorkers. He might be ideal.
Sir Ian: I saw Mark in the nets the other day and he was rapid. He was scaring his Durham teammates to death! He looked very fit.
The others seemed to agree that Wood might be a very good option. But who else, apart from England, did the panel fancy to make the final?
Sir Ian: It’s quite open really. It should be exciting because anyone could win. It’s a short tournament and it’s all about who hits form at the right time.
Athers: I favour South Africa and India to qualify from their group. England’s group is harder … but I think the winner will be England or one of those two teams.
The conversation then changed pace a little. The panel were asked how much white ball cricket has changed in recent times, and whether they thought they’d be able to cut it as players in the modern era.
Nasser (a little unsure of himself): Hmmm. I really don’t know. It’s just so different now.
Athers (thoughtfully): I guess you’d learn to adapt. You’d be brought up playing differently too.
Sir Ian (confident as ever): I definitely think I could’ve done it! It would’ve been great fun to play T20. It probably would’ve suited my style.
Bumble (smiling): I reckon Viv Richards wouldn’t have been bad at T20! Sir Viv would’ve dominated in any era. I think players from yesteryear would’ve adapted quite nicely to be honest.
The senior citizen of the panel then went off on a little tangent that I quite enjoyed:
Bumble: I don’t believe all this stuff about bats being the reason players score more quickly. I think it’s all in the training. They’re so strong now, and do specific work to help them hit it miles. Plus, of course, the boundaries are smaller.
He’d made a good point. It’s really hard to compare eras when the training is so different now. They’re proper athletes these days and they build the precise muscles they need to increase bat speed etc.
But enough about white ball cricket. Now it was time to talk about the summer’s main event: the test series against South Africa. All four panellists agreed it would be tough for England.
Athers: South Africa probably have the best record of all the teams that tour England. They seem to come over, finish off whoever’s captain < looks at Nasser and grins > and then disappear again. They’ll be strong once more.
Sir Ian: I can’t wait to see Rabada. He’s already world class. He’s an extremely good bowler despite his young age. He’ll do really well here.
Nasser: And he’s a bright lad too. He speaks really well and learns quickly. I was very impressive when I met him. He’s a quality person.
Bumble: And don’t forget Philander. He’s really suited to English conditions. Perhaps Steyn’s fitness won’t be so crucial.
I found Bumble’s perspective on Steyn’s injury quite interesting. He said nobody really knows how fast South Africa’s spearhead will bowl when he eventually returns to action. It’s a good point. Surely serious shoulder injuries are bound to have a long lasting effect on pacemen? It’s interesting that Steyn’s return has been delayed again and he’ll now miss the series altogether.
At his point I decided to be a little mischievous and ask them about AB de Villiers’ decision to skip the test series. They all agreed it was very sad.
Bumble: Why do you think he’s not coming? What’s he said?
Me: He said that he needs a rest … yet he’s willing to play in the IPL and the Champions Trophy!
Bumble: I feel particularly sad for the South Africa supporters.
Everybody in the rooms nods. Nobody seems particularly impressed with AB.
The next subject was day-night cricket in England. Let’s not forget that Edgbaston will stage the first ever test played under floodlights when the West Indies come over in August.
There were mixed opinions at to whether the experiment is a good idea. Beefy in particular had his doubts …
Sir Ian: I don’t like it. As soon as the lights go on the ball does all sorts. Look what happened in Adelaide on what has traditionally been a flat batting wicket. Heaven knows how bad it will be in England! It won’t be a level playing field.
Athers: But isn’t that the way test cricket goes, Ian? Conditions change throughout the match and you’ve got to adapt
Sir Ian: I know what you’re saying Ath, but it’s going to happen every day at the same time. And everyone will know it’s coming. I don’t like it at all.
Nasser: It could lead to more tactical declarations and things like that. You know, teams pulling out when they’re seven or eight wickets down so their bowlers can take the new ball under the lights.
Bumble: It might feel like a return to uncovered pitches, when everyone knows there’ll be spells in the game when it’s really tough to bat.
I asked the panel how much say Warwickshire had over the decision. I wondered whether this experiment had been forced on them or whether they were strongly in favour?
The panel said they didn’t know but suspected Warwickshire were either in favour or ambivalent. After all, they might see the novelty as a way to sell more tickets –especially as the Windies aren’t the big draw they used to be.
At this point I glanced at my watch and realised that we only had five minutes left. What a pity. I could have done with another five hours. There was so much more I wanted to ask. Knowing that I probably had just the one question left, I decided to raise the biggest issue of them all …
Me: I’m worried about the future of test cricket. And I’m a bit concerned that the ECB seems to be prioritising white ball cricket above first class cricket. Do you think that Strauss, Harrison and Graves will consider it a successful summer if England win the Champions Trophy but lose the tests to South Africa?
The panel look thoughtful. They agree that Strauss is very, very serious about winning a major 50 over competition. However, after a somewhat uncomfortable pause – which I found revealing in itself – none of them gave an explicit ‘yes’ to my question.
Nasser finally interjected: I disagree a little bit actually. The tests are undoubtedly important but the Champions Trophy is a big deal nowadays. It’s an important trophy that everyone wants to win.
I accepted this response. After all, how can anyone say for sure what Andrew Strauss thinks privately? What’s more, I think everyone in the room realised I was making a point rather than asking a question.
Anyway, the conversation soon drifted in a different direction – one I was also keen to explore. Is there room in the schedule for test cricket, ODIs and T20s … or will one of these formats eventually die?
Nasser: All three formats have something going for them and are important, so I’d hate to see one of them disappear.
Athers (to Nasser): But do you think there’s room for all 3 in a cluttered calendar?
Bumble: Yes but they need to make ODIs into 3-match series like they used to. Five matches is too many. It prolongs tours and isn’t necessary.
At this point, I couldn’t help but wonder whether playing 5 ODIs against the Windies at the end of September (with the last one being as late as the 29th) was more than a little bit daft.
But before I could follow up the question, the rep from Sky informed us that our time was up. We all stood up, shook hands, and went off in different directions.
As I left the room and descended back down those beautifully polished stairs (and peered into the Long Room for a cheeky look) a few thoughts occurred to me …
First of all I found myself asking “did that really happen”? It was over so quickly. Secondly, I berated myself for failing to ask whether they fancied a quick pint afterwards. Who knows, it might have turned into a drunken afternoon with numerous selfie opportunities. Obviously I didn’t have the balls to enquire.
So what did I make of the commentary team? I thought they were all good blokes who obviously get along well. Sky are lucky to have a bunch of guys with such good chemistry.
Bumble actually surprised me a bit. He was far more imposing than I’d anticipated. Because he acts like a comedian on TV everyone forgets just how knowledgable he is. It’s obvious that the others respect him a great deal.
As for Nasser, he was easily the most self-deprecating and congenial. I’d met him before and I like him a lot. He was always open to other’s views and I can see why he was able to bring a struggling England dressing room together as captain under Duncan Fletcher.
And as for I.T.Botham what can I say? He’s I.T. Botham. One of my heroes. He was affable and passionate. You could almost smell his self-assurance too.
But the real star of the show was Athers. The man just exudes calm authority. He dominated the room despite having the softest voice. I wish I had half his composure.
Mike Atherton is wasted in cricket. He should be prime minister or something.
Sky Sports’ biggest ever summer of sport includes live coverage of The ICC Champion’s Trophy, Test series against South Africa and the West Indies, the British & Irish Lions tour, The Open and Formula 1.