Friday, April 6, 2012
At the wicket with George Dobell
Since his first article in The Cricketer, George has written for SPIN – the Cricket magazine, The Guardian, The Times, and The Birmingham Post. He is now a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo and has developed a following as one of the preeminent scribes on the County Championship.
He talks to a cricketing Buddha about his start in the business, an affinity with the Windies and gives a reasoned account of a number of the issues facing our great game. He also answers the age old question of the origin of the humble pavlova.
A cricketing Buddha: Kia ora. Thanks for giving me a little of your time, George – I’m grateful you’re willing to have a chat to an amateur hack.
George Dobell: Kia ora to you, too. We’re both the same, aren’t we? Cricket lovers. Everything else is a detail.
ACB: The obvious opener – how did you get started in the cricketing media? Surely there’s a story of young upstart beats the odds in there somewhere?
GD: Not really. It just turned out I wasn’t very good at anything else. I wanted to be a musician. I WAS a musician, but the very unsuccessful kind. So I tried a few things – I worked in an IT firm where my job, I think, was to look busy (I had so little clue what I was doing, I put a whiteboard next to my desk and wrote impossible formulas all over it so it looked as if I was working on something very complicated and important. I was actually playing minesweeper). The thing was I had a baby rather unexpectedly. And they’re an expensive hobby. So I had to earn more money. I was doing a million jobs – I’d get in from gigs at 4am and then study or work during the day. Eventually I wrote a piece and sent it off to the 3 cricket magazines that existed in the UK at the time. In the end I picked the one – The Cricketer - who seemed the nicest on the phone. It was easier work than loads of the rubbish things I was doing. I’m very grateful to Richard Hutton, Mandy Ripley and Peter Perchard for their kindness and patience with me in those days.
It’s taken a long time to get a really good job. I’m 39 now and have been doing this for most of my working life. And, even though I have a great job now – and working for cricinfo really is a dream as well as a responsibility - I haven’t made a success of it. I’ve a lot to prove - to myself as much as anyone.
ACB: What was is like seeing your name in print for the first time? Do you still remember what the piece was about or who published it?
GD: It was an interview with Dermot Reeve – who, funnily enough, is a good friend now – and it was in The Cricketer. I didn’t really think anything about seeing my name in print; just not the way I think. I don’t see any reason to be proud or anything like that. It’s not like we run into burning houses and save children, is it? Actually I’m a little bit embarrassed by my job. Doesn’t contribute an awful lot in the grand scheme of things, does it?
ACB: Your job means you spend a lot of time ‘on the road’ with cricket – how many days do you spend at county grounds and on foreign shores each year? What’s your favourite country to visit with cricket (hint: New Zealand would be a great choice)?
GD: I actually have a New Zealand passport so I’m not exactly impartial here. Besides, I’ve only really just started as an international journo. I’ve spent most of my time writing about county cricket and, as I’ve lived in Birmingham, in the centre of England, I get to go home a lot. England are away from home for 240 days in 2012, though, so I’ll soon be racking up the reward points in hotels.
My favourite (other) location so far is Barbados. Their main pastimes are cricket, drinking rum and talking. I fit in pretty well. I’m looking forward to England’s tour of New Zealand in about a year’s time and very much hope we can get together then for a couple of beers.
ACB: In New Zealand, and around the cricketing world, there seems to be a growing media choice to go with past cricketers as opposed to those with journalistic backgrounds – is it killing off the dreams of young hopefuls, and does it make for better coverage? What’s your cricketing background?
GD: Nobody – no-one ever in the history of the world – played more cricket than I did between the ages of about 11 and 17. After that I was more interested in girls and, a little while later, I had a couple of pretty rubbish car crashes. I can’t play at all now, but it’s no loss to the game. I was keen but not much good.
Is it a disadvantage not to have played professionally? Sure, bound to be. So I have to work harder, don’t I? I worked out long ago that I wasn’t the most talented writer, either. But what am I going to do about it: curl up in the foetal position and sob? No, I’m going to work harder and find ways to compensate.
I did once receive a man of the tournament cup for fast bowling, but it turned out to be a clerical error. Yup, they gave it to the wrong guy. You’d think I’d be too ashamed to keep it, wouldn’t you? Hell no - pride of place! On another occasion, I bowled Philo Wallace (West Indies opener) in a game at Wormsley. I think Philo was suffering from a rum-related injury at the time, but I don’t want to get bogged down in the details. Anyway, afterwards Everton Weekes called me over for a word of advice – Everton Weekes! – and then said ‘I saw you bowling: I think you should stick to drinking rum and playing dominoes.’ A little harsh, I thought, but probably accurate. I have actually taken his advice, too. Well, half of it.
There are some advantages in not having played the game professionally, I guess. I think I see the game from a spectator’s viewpoint and some former players miss that. They think the game is all about the players. It isn’t. It really isn’t. They’re just one part - an important part, but just one part. Anyway, there are times when former players talk to former players on air and they fail to draw out the interesting stories that a journo might. I think only one former player – Mark Butcher – has ever used the line ‘How many Tests did you play?’ on me. The answer, of course, is the same number as John Arlott and Duncan Fletcher. And Mark Butcher and I played the same number of ODIs.
I wouldn’t advise anyone to go into cricket journalism. It’s almost impossible to progress. I’ve been incredibly fortunate, but I’d equate that to a lottery win. I receive emails every day from people hoping for a break. I don’t know what to say to them. There just aren’t the opportunities out there. I take no pleasure in saying that, I promise. It’s not meant to sound smug. It’s just I don’t want people to be under any illusions. Newspapers are dying and cricket is a niche sport in most countries. That’s not a good combination, is it?
ACB: Did you have a cricketing idol in your formative years? Has your career allowed you the opportunity to either meet or interview them? Did it enhance your thoughts of them or burst the bubble?
GD: Yes, I grew up watching Somerset. So my heroes were, on the whole, Richards, Garner and Botham. Absurdly, I tried to bat like Peter Roebuck. As someone said recently, I bat like Roebuck and write like Botham. Not the ideal combination.
I liked all the all-rounders, too: Hadlee, Imran, Kapil Dev. My granddad – my Kiwi one – always called me Hadlee. Imran - how magnificent was he? I guess I was lucky, too, in that I always liked the opposition as much as England. I have a huge affection for West Indies and Pakistan cricket, in particular.
I recall, as a boy, batting on the outfield at Taunton. I hit one – edged probably – and it knocked the glass of wine out of the hand of a woman who was sitting with Viv. He bellowed at me – you know, in that deep voice that always reminds me of Barry White (I’d love to hear Viv sing ‘My first, my last, my everything’) - and my friends scuttled away in fear. I trembled my way over and, for a second, I thought he was going to murder me. Then he smiled and said ‘you bowl, too?’ I said ‘yes’ and he said ‘well, if you bowl like you bat, we’ve got ourselves a pretty good player.’ I felt 10 feet tall. I don’t care what he does for the rest of his life – he could go on a shooting spree – I’ll still love him for that moment.
By the time I came to interview, or simply sit next to, these guys, I was old enough to know that we’re all flawed to a greater or lesser extent. It’s unfair to expect them to be super heroes - I’ve never been disappointed or let down in that respect. They’re just people and we’re fools to expect perfection in each other. Botham is a great example: he was my first hero. Later I realised he’s not a great commentator and, at times, he can be… well, as flawed as the next man. But he was a great cricketer – he really was – and he’s raised tens of millions of pounds for charity. There’s much to admire there. I guess I’d always rather focus on that.
ACB: An increasing number of cricket articles are including players’ tweets – what are your thoughts on journalists using social media as a source of quotes and research?
GD: Well, I guess you have to a bit. Seems a bit rubbish, though. I mean, surely you have to have better sources than effectively eavesdropping on a conversation?
ACB: Twitter, blogs, and forums, among others have changed the way we get our cricket fix in the past decade – where do you see cricket journalism heading in the future?
GD: Online. Newspapers are doomed. Maybe not all of them, but it is a truly terrible industry at the moment – like coal mining in the UK in the 1970s-80s.
ACB: All Blacks Rugby World Cup winning coach Graham Henry recently had portions of an after dinner speech at a fundraiser quoted in a local newspaper - do you think ‘off the record’ still exists in the instant gratification digital age?
GD: Interesting question. Off the record does exist – of course it does – but I’d think that if you speak in front of a room full of people and then expect it to go no further… well, it seems a bit naive. Off the record tends to mean ‘don’t attribute it to me’ anyway.
ACB: While many want to keep cricket’s traditions, the game is now faced with overarching commercial realities – our great game is now big business. How do cricketing governing bodies balance the cash cow, and wide appeal, of T20 with test schedules?
GD: Good question, again. And the answer is in the question: it’s a balance. It’s very hard for them and we’d do well to remember what drives the increase in monetary demand. It is, largely, player salaries. They want ever more and can now threaten to go and play in T20 leagues rather than continue with international duty, so the board respond with more money-making international series. National boards clearly don’t get everything right, but it’s worth reflecting on the challenges they face before denouncing them.
Just think about the Stanford episode. Why did that happen? Because there was a danger that the players would refuse to sign their central contracts and take their chances as freelancers. So the ECB sought new ways of supplementing their income and came across Stanford. History won’t remember all the details, I fear.
ACB: After England’s recent Sri Lankan tour opener, Graeme Swann gave a press conference in which he mentioned he wanted to kill Perera, deplored cheats and inferred he always walked – is that kind of comment journalistic gold for the media?
GD: It is, but we have a responsibility, don’t we? He was clearly joking and that should have been made clear. He said something similar in this piece where he says he wants to hunt down the families of the people who drop catches off his bowling and do them ill.
It would be a sad, colourless world where Swann – and the like – have to fall into line for the sake of offending some halfwit somewhere. Please, God, let there always be room for humour.
ACB: I recently penned a piece on women in cricket and received a lot of feedback centred on its classification. For fear of having to send a Mad Butcher doll to @AlternateRowan, do you know why ESPNcricinfo categorises women’s international cricket as OTHER?
GD: Well, I can tell you that I did raise the point at the very highest levels of the company. I don’t know the answer and I don’t know if it will change but they are aware of the issue. Give it some time.
On that issue, it is worth remembering that ESPNcricinfo is a business. Sometimes we receive furious emails from readers complaining that a preview might not have been published in a timely manner, or similar. And, depending on the tone (we’ve had death threats, racist insults and downright abuse) it’s sometimes hard to avoid thinking, ‘well, good luck finding another service which provides all this free of charge’. The fact is that women’s cricket will receive a fraction of the views that men’s cricket does. So while there is an issue of equality and a responsibility to promote the game, there is also a balance between being politically correct and ensuring that the greatest number of users can find what they want in the easiest way. In the end, these things are defined by demand. As I say, though, it’s an ongoing debate and the way it’s done may change.
ACB: You get to talk to a lot of cricketers – who makes the experience a genuine joy? On the flip side, who’s harder to get an answer out of than finding a shy Aussie cricketer?
GD: It’s nearly always a joy. I’ve had really great moments interviewing Sobers, McGrath, Lara, Boycott - it’s a huge pleasure to talk cricket in-depth with them, and many, many more. The international press conferences tend to be very bland events but, even on international tours, there are moments of insight. In the UAE I was lucky enough to interview Dave Richardson, for example, in great detail about Saeed Ajmal’s action. I honestly wasn’t sure I was intelligent enough to understand the issue, let along pull off a readable piece on it, but it was a real pleasure to talk in such depth. And to work for a company that gave me the space to explain it in the depth is required.
Very few players or administrators are rude, but you do have to remember it is an everyday job for us and them. No job is all cakes and ale.
ACB: With both Strauss and Flower being asked to comment on Sri Lanka’s political situation prior to the tour, it reignited discussion on politics in sport. Does politics, and the implied interference, have any part in our great game?
GD: Well, that is a million-dollar question. And it’s a question I’m not really qualified to answer. There’s a reason I’m a cricket journo and not heading the UN. And it’s not just the hours.
There are, of course, times when sports and political issues collide. We should never put up with racism or the like. But the Sri Lanka situation – the Zimbabwe situation, even – is interesting. I do wonder why people are asking about those tours and not the UAE tours. The UAE is not a democracy and has a system of employment that comes as close to slavery as I’ve witnessed. Why is it OK for the England team to go there but not to go to Zimbabwe?
I guess my response is that cricket should, whenever possible, be used as a unifying force. I could go into more detail on that, but I fear I’ll bore you witless.
ACB: What do you make of the Jesse Ryder (or Eoin Morgan) syndrome, where ‘fans’ don’t criticise certain players but seem intent on verbal assassination?
GD: Not sure I understand the question. Do you mean do I think people can be too harsh? Yes, very much so. I’ve been guilty of it myself. It’s very easy to criticise – the devil has the best lines – but sometimes it’s just silly. You can be brilliant and be made to look rubbish by Murali. That doesn’t mean you haven’t tried or you’re a complete fool: it means you’ve played sport and you’ve come second. It happens. It’s not a disgrace to lose if you’ve done your best. Anyone who has played should know that. It’s one of the reasons I love the game: it teaches you – or should teach you – to win and lose with grace.
I tend to get more criticism when people think I’ve been too soft on players or teams. As I say, it’s easy to call for heads and suggest drastic solutions. It takes calm and intelligence to remain faithful and patient.
ACB: Spot-fixing, DRS, the explosion of T20, money woes at domestic level – cricket has gone through a lot of changes in recent history. What do you see as the big issues facing cricket going forward?
GD: Corruption is a huge problem and multi-faceted. Giles Clarke’s comments about on-line piracy were lampooned but, over the top though they were, I knew what he meant. Undermine the value of broadcast rights and we have a huge problem in time. But the biggest issue is simply that cricket, in most of the world, is a niche sport. It’s nowhere near as popular as rugby in New Zealand or football in the UK. It has to fight to survive, so it’s vital it remains attractive to spectators. Good pitches, the availability of some games on free-to-view TV and attractive cricket are all important factors.
ACB: A couple of quick-fire one-worders to finish off: Day/night tests?
GD: Yes, why not? It’s a spectator sport. If it attracts more spectators – and it may well – then great.
ACB: England test captaincy: Strauss or Cook?
GD: Cook keeps proving me wrong. I saw him make a first-class century before he played for England and I thought he wasn’t good enough. Then I saw him make a Test century and thought the same. And now he’s nailed ODIs, too. He started slowly as captain, but he just keeps improving. So, when the time comes, he’ll be a decent replacement. I hope the time isn’t quite yet, but Strauss needs some runs, doesn’t he?
ACB: T20 or test cricket?
GD: Both. You can like both.
ACB: Pavlova - New Zealand or Australia?
GD: New Zealand. Everyone knows that.
ACB: Thanks for your candour – it’s refreshing.
GD: It’s all I have! That and hard work, anyway. Cheers, my pleasure. Really enjoy your comments and blogs.
Have a read of George’s articles on ESPNcricinfo – there are a number of international pieces alongside comprehensive coverage of the County Championship. If you’re on Twitter you can follow him @GeorgeDobell1.
Post a comment below or tweet me @aotearoaxi. If you enjoyed it, sign up for email alerts for future pieces from a cricketing Buddha.