What is your earliest memory of cricket?
I remember getting a bat (I think it was a Roy McLean autograph) when I must have been about nine years old. I hadn’t played up to that point as I had been to a village school in England before my family emigrated to SA and soon thereafter I contracted polio and was in hospital for several months. The first game I watched was when my father took me to watch the 1957/58 Australians play SA Universities at Newlands. I had decided Richie Benaud was my hero but he was out for a duck. I remember seeing Neil Harvey get 60. I see from the scorecard that Burke got 81 but I don’t remember anything of his innings, so I must have been an admirer of style rather than substance.
What made you decide to take on the editor job of editor of the SA Cricket Annual and how did it come about?
I first came across the Annual when I was a schoolboy and found it fascinating. It was an invaluable source of information when I became a journalist – long before the internet. I had long harboured an ambition to be the editor. While chatting to Ali Bacher (then MD of UCB) he said the Annual had lost some of its credibility and he suggested someone else (he named the person) might be the person to fix it. I told him I thought I was the right person for the job and he agreed to open it up to applications. I applied and with the help of an artist friend came up with a cover design and I made a detailed proposal of how I would structure the Annual (pretty much as it is now). A committee was set up, chaired by Raymond White, and my proposal was accepted. I have been editor since 1995.
What do you make of the recent changes to CSA from the board changing the constitution to allow President Chris Nenzani to stay on as President, to the many changes to the coaching setup?
I have never seen the constitution but as a matter of principle I believe constitutions should only be changed in exceptional circumstances. Nenzani has served two three-year terms and in my opinion his time should be up. I have seen it suggested he is needed to stay on to shepherd through the changes to the national team set-up but that in my opinion is not a strong reason. I like the idea of a team director but it concerns me that the CEO has stated he expects to have considerable input on both the style of play and transformation issues. In my opinion the team director should be given the freedom to stand or fall by his own decisions.
What do you make of the resignation of Tony Irish as SACA CEO especially in terms of the fact that the SACA are taking CSA to court due to the proposed changes to the domestic competition?
I think Tony has done an excellent job in developing SACA into a highly professional organisation which represents the interests of players very capably as far as I can tell. That said, the equivalent job in England is the biggest job in the field and I can fully understand him taking the opportunity. I am puzzled by an apparent reluctance by CSA to engage with SACA. It seems possible that CSA want to deal directly with players, bypassing SACA, but I think there should be a role for a players’ organisation. There are some capable people at SACA and I hope Tony’s successor is able to carry on the good work.
What do you make of the ECB’s decision to bring in the new cricket format The Hundred?
I don’t follow English cricket as closely as I once did but it seems the current Vitality Blast T20 competition has been successful this season. I don’t see the need to introduce yet another new format, so similar to T20. I am not opposed to change – during a stint in the PR industry in the 1980s I was in charge of the promotion of the Benson & Hedges Series which introduced night cricket and coloured clothing to SA cricket – but this one seems unnecessary.
Some years ago you talked about the many changes in how cricket reporting has changed from mere reporting and far more analysis and is this a good thing?
When I started there was no television and therefore a cricket report was indeed a report, describing what had happened, with some analysis. There was a tradition of cricket writing being almost an art form as established by the likes of Neville Cardus and RC Robertson-Glasgow in England. Louis Duffus was a good writer in South Africa. By today’s standards, some of the writing of yesteryear would be regarded as overly flowery and romantic, but I would like to see more creative writing, allied to the writer’s analysis about the game rather than an emphasis on what are often banal ‘quotes’ by players.
How has it changed things for a cricket journalist?
The most obvious change has been the introduction of press conferences, both in the build-up to matches and after every day’s play (at least for international matches). When I started as a specialist cricket writer there were no press conferences (during the isolation years) so writers wrote. If you needed a comment from a player you would go to the dressing room and ask to speak to that player. It was not an organised thing and therefore you were more likely to get some real insight because, usually, the player would know the reporter and there was a degree of trust. I can understand the need for some form of media management because of the proliferation of media outlets – TV, radio, Press, websites etc but there is a natural tendency for players to be somewhat wary when faced by a large group of media, not least because of the threat of fines for an unguarded comment. In my opinion it has made most media ‘opportunities’ bland and rather boring. One side effect is that every newspaper/website carries pretty much the same stories. I also suspect that it has made journalists less likely to show initiative in seeking out cricket stories.
Robin Jackman has told me that his biography that you wrote was specifically written as a book of humour rather than an in depth book of analysis of his career. Was this deliberate?
I would say the intention was to be entertaining rather than simply amusing. Robin has a great sense of humour and is an excellent raconteur and it certainly was never intended as an in-depth look at his career. At the same time it covered key moments of his career, such as how he got started, how he came to play in SA (and eventually get married and settle here), his brief and belated England career and how be became a commentator. There were many anecdotes and character sketches of players he played with and against or commentated with but I also checked out many of his stories to find, unsurprisingly, that his memory was not infallible and that some of the funnier stories were embellished to some degree. With the passage of time I believe incidents are remembered rather than details but where specific cricket events were described I ensured they were historically accurate.
What law in cricket would you like to see changed or introduced?
I think the ball should be declared dead when a fielder’s throw hits the stumps or, as in the World Cup final, deflects off a player or his equipment. I also think a lot of time is wasted checking boundaries, in my opinion it should be the position of the ball rather than the fielder that is key. If it crosses or touches the boundary it should be four (or six). In that case, of course, some of the amazing catches where the ball is knocked back into play would have to be looked at and if the ball crossed the line it should be six.
What do you make of the Kolpak situation that so many South African players take up instead of sticking with our own domestic cricket system and is there a solution to encourage fewer to leave SA?
In a professional era, players will naturally look after their own financial interests, so Kolpak will always be tempting – or will be until Brexit when the option may no longer be available. It appears that Kolpak contracts will no longer be valid after 2020 assuming Brexit happens. Nowadays a player has to have played international cricket in order to get a Kolpak contract and in general those who have taken the option have taken a decision that they are unlikely to be picked again for SA or else are not going to be first-choice players. Olivier is an exception because he signed after a breakthrough international season. Yet he too would not be a guaranteed first-choice player when all SA’s fast bowlers were fit. What concerns me is that CSA actively discourages franchises from signing Kolpak players, to the detriment of our domestic system. I have written in more detail about this subject in the 2019 SA Cricket Annual.
What do you make of the Test Championship and do you think it will improve an interest in the longer form of the game?
I hope it will lead to greater interest. It adds context to bilateral series but realistically I suppose that extra interest will only last for as long as the team followed is in contention for a place in the final.
Do you see a time in the future when transformation numbers are not implemented in our domestic cricket?
I hope so but I think it will take some time. Black players, particularly black Africans, are coming through in encouraging numbers, which shows that a policy of enforcing opportunities is having a positive effect. At the same time, though, coaches sometimes have to pick unbalanced sides or leave out a good white player because the system only allows five white players in a starting team. I look forward to a day when it is no longer necessary to select by numerical formula. That day, though, is unlikely to come until the administrators are confident that there will be a high number of black players whose merit is unarguable.
In your book Return of the Prodigal you said the marketing potential was the primary motivator for including South Africa in the 1992 Cricket World Cup. Could you elaborate on that?
I didn’t describe it as the primary motivator. I mentioned that there had been discussions between Ali Bacher and his Australian counterpart, David Richards, and that the organisers recognised the marketing potential of a South African return to the international arena. In my opinion, once the UCB became members of the ICC, on 10 July 1991, it was logical that they should play in the World Cup seven months later. It was surprising that Colin Cowdrey, ICC president, announced, apparently unilaterally, that it would not be possible for SA to play in the World Cup. This may have been to avoid conflict with the West Indies and Pakistan, who had both opposed SA’s readmission. There was also some sensitivity on SA’s part because the agreement to form the UCB included an undertaking to respect the moratorium on taking part in international competition. In the end, in my opinion, good sense prevailed. It also happened to provide a good marketing opportunity for the organisers.
Do you have a new book in the pipeline?
Not at this stage. Editing the Annual is quite a heavy workload for someone who is also trying to enjoy being retired from full-time employment. But if the right subject came along I could easily be persuaded.
BOOKS WRITTEN OR EDITED
1981 Springboks Under Siege (editor and contributor) (Now Publications)
1990 The First Century (Transvaal Cricket Centenary) (TransvaalCricketUnion)
1992 Return of the Prodigal (Jonathan Ball/Sunday Times)
1995 The History of Transvaal Cricket by Hayward Kidson (edited) (Transvaal Cricket Board)
1996 The Story of South African Cricket 1991-1996 (Royston Lamond International)
2003 Herschelle: A Biography (Spearhead)
2011 Jackers, A Life in Cricket, with Robin Jackman (Don Nelson)
2011 SuperSport Park 1986-2011 (Northerns Cricket Union)
2013 All-rounder: The Buster Farrer Story (Aloe Publishers)
1995-to date South African Cricket Annual (editor)