Episode 112: After a hard day in Nagpur, the great cricket writer Mike Coward gives a masterclass on Australian cricket

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

Mike Coward is among the world’s most distinguished and distinctive cricket writers and broadcasters, although he graciously declines the title of “Australia’s John Arlott.” He makes a welcome return to the crease as the guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their latest cricket-themed podcast.

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Mike begins by responding to a grim result (for Australia): the innings defeat within three days in the first Test of their current series in India. Coming after two unsatisfying one-sided domestic series against West Indies and South Africa, it strained the loyalty of Australian cricket fans to Test match cricket. Across the world, this format, the summit of the game cannot afford a succession of uncompelling, poorly followed series. 1-3, 7 minutes

Recovery from the defeat in Nagpur would be a major challenge for Pat Cummins, as captain, who had recently faced criticism at home for his progressive stance on social and environmental issues outside cricket. He believes that Cummins, in line with a growing number of modern sports personalities, will maintain his involvement in these issues and predicts that he will grow as a leader on and off the field. 3-5 minutes

A rare bright spot for Australia in the recent match was the début performance, capturing seven Indian wickets in their sole innings, of the off-spinner Todd Murphy, selected after a handful of first-class matches. Mike profiles the player, whose spectacles have earned him the inevitable nickname of Harry Potter in succession to Australia’s spin-bowling coach Daniel Vettori. He hails the temperament and methods which earned his success. 12-13 minutes

Even allowing for the impact of injuries the manner of the defeat suggested a poor mentality among the players and threatened a return to a pattern of poor performance in Asian conditions. The compressed scheduling of modern Test cricket had denied the team the time needed for technical and mental preparation in such an important series. In pursuit of profit from short forms of the game, the authorities in Australia were ignoring the interests of the longer form: as with the English county championship Australia’s first-class Sheffield Shield competition had been marginalized in the domestic season. He suggests sadly that Australians were becoming inured to this process across the world – and there had been no street protests against the shoehorning of this English summer’s Ashes series into six weeks. 3, 8-12 minutes

Mike sets out the structure of the Australian cricket board and its accountability to fans, and reviews its recent unsettled experience. Its membership is not rich in cricket experience, particularly after the departure of the fine women’s cricketer, Mel Jones,  but he sees hope in the appointment of Mike Baird, the astute former Prime Minister of New South Wales.  He looks back at three Australian Premiers who were influential cricket lovers, Robert Menzies, Bob Hawke and the “cricket tragic” John Howard. 14-20 minutes

Mike reviews previous examples of turbulence in Australia’s cricket history, particularly the sectarian conflicts which characterized the 1930s and 1940s, and were reflected in Don Bradman’s relations with Bill O’Reilly and Jack Fingleton. He analyses the underlying factors, especially in climate and temperament, which have allowed Australian cricket to flourish amid competition from a wide variety of other sports.  It has always had special strength in its rural communities. 21-30 minutes

Mike has reported and analysed Australian and international cricket for over sixty years from the perspective of a gay man. Ruefully but acutely, he suggests that conditions for gay male cricketers and supporters have changed little during that time, although women’s cricket has been far more open and accepting of same-sex relationships, especially in Australia. There are no “out” male first-class cricketers in Australia, in contrast to famous representatives in other sports. The World Pride Festival for LGBTQIA+ people was shortly to open in Sydney: fifteen sports will be a part of it and it was especially disappointing that cricket will not be among them. 31-37 minutes

Finally, Mike, Peter and Richard share highlights of their own playing careers and the factors, especially journalistic demands and knees, which brought them to conclusion or twilight. 39-44 minutes

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Peter Oborne & Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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