Monday, 17 February 2014


Way back in the mists of April 2012 I had the idea to ask cricket writers a set of standard questions about their time spent covering the game, upon which they would be invited to riff. Initially, I gathered half a dozen or so together, mainly through buttonholing the less forbidding writers in the press boxes I found myself in, and had fully intended to work my way up to the scarier, fire-breathing beasties. The idea was successfully pitched yet, for one reason or another, never hit the streets. Nor even the virtual streets. Anyway, having asked people to devote some of their time to this, it seems only right they don’t languish on my hardrive. So, here you go…

George Dobell started life with the Birmingham Mail, later worked as a freelance reporter, co-owned SPIN magazine, and is now a senior correspondent with ESPNcricinfo. [Interview: July 2013]. 

Who are your favourite cricket writers, past and present? 
It was a piece by Mark Nicholas – written for the Telegraph upon his retirement – that inspired me to become a cricket writer. Well, that and the fact that I’m not much good at anything else. I’m not so keen on him as a presenter, but he’s a fine writer. CMJ was the gold standard: balanced; informed; calm. There are currently loads of good ones: Mike Selvey, Nick Hoult, Steve James, both the guys at The Mail, John Etheridge and Stephen Chalk all stand out. I like writers who tell you things you don’t know. Lizzy Ammon is going to be very good. She’s started late, but she has an enthusiasm and work ethic that mean she’s improving rapidly. Pat Gibson, Neville Scott and Paul Weaver are excellent, too. I’d also add David Foot to the list: he’s a fine writer, for sure, but I use him more as a template for good living. Sometimes – quite often, actually – I ask myself ‘how would David Foot react to this situation?’ The answer, invariably, is with calm good humour. 

How about broadcasters – which trio would you have in the commentary box for your perfect 30 mins, and why? 
I’m going to cheat here. I’d like to be there and I’d like Dan Norcross to present, with Jim Foat and Geoff Boycott coming and going as guests. Why? Because it would be funny and informative. Though not as funny as we think we are. 

What were your personal cricketing achievements and highlights? 
Well, 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.   

Beyond a Boundary – what other passions do you have in life?  
All the normal things. And a few of the abnormal things. 

Fantasy cricket – where’s the venue, who’s playing, and who are you watching it with? 
Quite happy with reality.  

Favourite ground in England?  
Variety is the spice of life, isn’t it? It’s a real pleasure to visit so many different grounds as nearly all have their own identity and charm. If pushed, though, Taunton (where I spent so much of my childhood that, for a while, I thought Colin Dredge was my dad), Edgbaston (simply because I know so many nice people there) and Tunbridge Wells (I like a rhododendron as much as the next man) stand out. Over the last year or two, the Times kept giving me the games no-one else wanted to cover: so I went to places like Southend, Grace Road, Northampton and Bristol (they’re really not the most sophisticated press boxes) and, without exception, I had a fantastic time and learned masses.   

Favourite press box on the county circuit and why? 
Again, the variety is appealing. The guys at Hampshire, Taunton, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Yorkshire and Worcester are always very good company. And how could you not enjoy a night out in Durham or Brighton?   

Which ground provides the best nourishment? 
Edgbaston, in the UK, I think. There was a moment during the India Test in 2011 – just after an enormous lunch – when I was being given a massage while writing when two girls came round the box. One was holding a vast pot of warm chocolate, the other an enormous basket of strawberries to dip into the chocolate. There tends to be a fair bit of moaning in the press box but, that day, I think there was collective realisation that the job isn’t THAT bad. 

What’s the best day’s cricket you’ve reported on? 
They’re all different and nearly all enjoyable, but close finishes can be a bit of a nightmare when you have a deadline to consider. I remember a bowl-out in a floodlit T20 game at The Oval – it may well have been a quarter-final – between Surrey and Warwickshire that must have been very exciting for the spectators, but when you have an editor shouting down the phone becomes less appealing. Neil Carter bowled a beamer in that bowl-out. Devon Malcolm once bowled a bouncer in a bowl-out. I once got the result wrong in a report, too, when the umpires imposed an over-rate penalty as the teams left the pitch. All very dramatic, I guess, but not much fun at the time. 

And which day’s play do you wish you’d been at? 
Sorry, I don’t really think that way. 

Philo Wallace, on the other hand, looked less chuffed

Mirth in the press box – who’s the funniest colleague? 
Ian Baker – a freelance journo who works for The People among others – is right up there. He’s not always intentionally funny but he does make everyone laugh. In Abu Dhabi he was engaged in an increasingly frustrated phone exchange with what he thought was an IT helpline when it dawned on him he had actually phoned the ACSU. Quite why he had phoned them for help with his wi-fi remained unclear. Ian is a young Oliver Hardy, really – very amiable, a bit chubby – and is easily teased with the suggestion that there’s a free cake in the next room. He knows there isn’t, really, but he can’t resist the temptation to go and have a look. He’s a very good journo, too, and excellent company. Ivo Tennant is funny. I recall him asking what type of trees were growing in front of the cathedral at Worcester. We told him “felchers” so he wrote in the Times’ blog: “felchers are obscuring the view of the cathedral at New Road.” Only then did we suggest he look up what the word really meant on Google. He deleted that post pretty quickly. Of those that are witty on purpose, Tom Guest of the Worcester News, Dan Norcross of Test Match Sofa, and Steve Cotton in the Somerset press box stand out. 

As a journalist, what’s the most tempestuous experience you’ve had – be that with colleagues, players, coaches, board members, spectators, or readers? Have you ever come to blows?  
There was an angry spectator at Edgbaston a few years ago who came to the press box looking for me. Fearing a beating, I told him I was Brian Halford and, to this day, he still says ‘Hi Brian’ when we see each other. As far as coaches go, I guess my relationship with Mark Greatbatch became somewhat turbulent. I had quite liked him in his early days at Edgbaston but he reacted badly to pressure and went, I thought, slightly insane. Actually, that’s polite: he went barking mad. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if he’d picked his horse to be wicketkeeper by the time they sacked him. Sometimes he would phone and complain about what was in that morning’s paper. “My wife cries every morning,” he told me. “Well, Mark,” I said, “if I woke up next to you, I think I’d cry, too.” We haven’t kept in touch. I wasn’t the only guy to fall out with him. He fell out with most of the players, the opposition, many of the spectators and lots of other journalists. To be honest, I reckon Mother Teresa would have wanted to give him a slap at times.

Magic wand time – what changes would you make to English domestic cricket, if possible? 

I’d introduce a supporters’ association – it’s meant to be a spectator sport, but the one group of ‘stakeholders’ who are hardly consulted is the one that pays the bills for everyone else involved in the game – and ensure the primacy of the County Championship in the domestic season. If the season continues until the end of September – and is prioritised ahead of the Champions League – then many of the fixture congestion issues are resolved at a stroke. . I’d like to see an FA Cup style knockout - played in the T20 format - involving the minor counties and shown free-to-air. I’ve been banging on about it for years. I may be deluding myself but I honestly believe the ECB have some sympathy for the idea.

What about international cricket – what would you change, given half a chance? 

Again, I rather like it. But it may be time to start thinking about promotion and relegation between 10-team Test divisions. It's hard to provide any encouragement to the likes of Ireland and Afghanistan without it. Forget the World Test Championship: it’s a turkey of an idea. The ICC have done well to end the era of dead pitches in Test cricket – they presented a huge threat to the game – but limited-overs cricket does need to be played on good surfaces. 

Which youngsters do you think will go on to be giants? 
Ben Stokes. Shiv Thakor and Aneesh Kapil are worth keeping an eye upon. Maybe Matt Dunn and George Edwards, too. 

Who are your favourite county batter and bowlers? 
They’ve just retired but Mark Wagh timed the ball so sweetly that he was a joy to watch. And Andy Caddick was, at his best, the best English bowler I’ve seen: he could do it all and I saw him produce some impossibly good spells. 

Which coach do you most enjoy chatting to, given the opportunity? 
All of them. They all have a huge amount of knowledge and passion for the game. 

And which player is a refreshingly platitude-free zone to talk to, on or off the record? 
It’s only really at England level that players are media trained into blandness. At county level, most of them are free-thinking and interesting.   

Whither broadsheet county reporting? And is Internet journalism sustainable? 
ESPNcricinfo seems to be managing, doesn’t it? Bearing in mind that Cricinfo will have people at more games than most papers, will offer them more space and that they are free to view, I’m not surprised the broadsheets are a bit nervous.   

What is the best piece you’ve written? 
No idea. Always a bit busy worrying about the next one to think about the last. 

Also in this series:  

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