Episode 66: England’s most incisive cricket writer, George Dobell, who never forgets the fans

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.

George Dobell, chief correspondent of Cricinfo but not for much longer, is one of the most independent, incisive and informed cricket writers in Britain. Never a captive of the cricket Establishment or a champion of any interest except everyday cricket fans, he has broken or developed some of the biggest stories in English cricket. He brings unique insights as the first guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their new season of cricket-themed podcasts.

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George was the first to reveal the ECB’s cancellation of the two intended tours of Pakistan ­5-20 minutes and his story prevented them from sheltering behind the assumption (after New Zealand’s cancellation) that it was prompted by a real security threat. 9-11 minutes He condemns the hypocrisy and ingratitude of the ECB’s decision, which not only reduced England’s standing in international cricket but also ignored the national interest in good relations with Pakistan at a volatile period. Forensically, he dissects the real motives behind the decision: the ECB were seeking a pretext to end an unprofitable commitment in an already overloaded international programme for England’s men players. 11-13 minutes He cites England’s other recently abandoned tours to suggest that the ECB have become unwilling to ask players to tour in any unprofitable destination if it might threaten their chances of earning in the IPL or the Big Bash. 19-20 minutes He suggests that the ECB’s business model has given them a short-term focus and led them to assess their performance in narrow financial terms (although with no great success): they have therefore downgraded relationships with all other countries except Australia and India. 7, 14-15 minutes

To the ECB’s great credit, George reveals that they offered him, their sternest critic, a major role, which he has declined. 3-4 minutes Happily for English cricket-lovers, he is to remain in the press box after leaving Cricinfo next month. 51-52 minutes

George was also instrumental in bringing national attention to the case of Azeem Rafiq, the former Yorkshire and England under-19 cricketer.20-28 minutes He developed a close personal relationship with Azeem, and reveals the exceptional stress, including a family tragedy, he endured during the painfully long process of seeking a response to his complaints of bullying and racist treatment by Yorkshire CCC. 20-23 minutes George’s interview with Azeem created the pressure for Yorkshire to set up an inquiry into his claims. It took over a year and eventually the club admitted that he had endured incidents of racial harassment from their staff and other players. The full report has been seen by only a few people, who do not include Azeem himself or even the ECB which has demanded it, although the club has been ordered to produce it very soon to Azeem’s employment tribunal. 25-26 minutes He has seen shocking evidence to the inquiry not related to Azeem and not apparently investigated at all. 27 minutes Nonetheless George believes that the report represents “a crossroads moment” for English cricket, and will fulfil Azeem’s ambition to create better conditions for the next generation of Asian-origin and Afro-Caribbean players. 22, 28 minutes

George emphasizes that there are many good people in the administration of Yorkshire and that the problems in the county are far from unique. He has worked on many stories about the progressive and in his view, deliberate, exclusion of Asian-origin and Afro-Caribbean people from all levels of English cricket, notably the unnecessary closure of Haringey Community College which had acted as a pipeline for so many talented Afro-Caribbean players. 22-23 minutes He notes that Warwickshire, despite its highly diverse ethnic population, has just won the County Championship without a single locally-born player of Asian or Afro-Caribbean origin. 30-31 minutes

George has had a long and close relationship with Moeen Ali, who gave him a candid interview on his decision to retire from Test cricket. Despite his recent decline with the bat, he remains one of England’s best postwar all-rounders. George describes the set of factors which led him to lose focus and belief in his Test career, notably his fluctuating position in the England batting order, a lack of first-class cricket outside Tests, the abrupt loss of his central contract, and examples of simple miscommunication which left him feeling unvalued as a Test player. Moeen has done more than anyone to raise the profile of Muslims in English cricket: George believes that he still has a major role to play in this. 32-39 minutes

George describes his journey into becoming a cricket writer, from being a struggling jazz musician. He regrets not having played cricket at a higher level, which would have given him more insight into the game, and which others have combined with hard skills of reporting and analysis. His leitmotiv has been to represent fans against administrators (and some umpires) who have forgotten or never knew what it means to pay to watch a cricket match. He urges all fans to make themselves heard through the Cricket Supporters Association, of which he was a co-founder cricketsupporters.com    44-48 minutes

He has a new role (the result, he claims, of an ambush) as Chairman of the highly-regarded Cricket Writers Club. Apart from many social duties, he has launched a bursary scheme named after the late Bethan James to encourage inclusion and diversity in sports journalism. 39-43 minutes Lack of support for it from his employer, Cricinfo, was a key factor in his decision to leave. 49-50 minutes

Finally, he gives some candid advice on how to become a cricket writer: captain England in Test matches, work for SkySports – or take a vow of poverty. 52-53 minutes

Get in touch with us by emailing obornehellercricket@outlook.com, we would love to hear from you!

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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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