Episode 72: Scyld Berry – England’s greatest cricket-watcher – shares highlights from over forty years of England on tour

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.

Scyld Berry, a former editor of Wisden, has watched nearly 500 England Test matches (more than anyone in history), and reported them for The Observer and then The Daily Telegraph.  He has just published a penetrating account of all the countries where he has seen England on tour: Beyond The Boundaries, published by Fairfield Books. He is the guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller on their latest cricket-themed podcast.

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Scyld reveals the original intended title of his book – which conjures up a startling and hitherto unknown vision of a well-known commentator.

A recent sighting of Brunel’s pioneering steamship the SS Great Britain leads him deep into the history of England cricket tours. It made possible the first two tours of Australia even before the opening of the Suez canal. Described by W G Grace’s brother, it took the England party to Melbourne in reasonable comfort in two months without having to stop in South Africa for coal.

Scyld’s first tour described in the book was Australia 1978-79. He describes how the print technology and the associated deadlines at that time forced him to downplay the first big story of the tour – the success of the Australian fast bowler Rodney Hogg operating with the new machine-made Kookaburra cricket ball. Players and media were much closer in that era (often literally, booked by the same travel agent into the same accommodation and transport) and there was a strong code of “what happens on tour stays on tour” protecting players’ off-field activities. Press conferences were rare and news was generally gathered in the bar. Scyld thinks this a healthier system than the now constant spoon-feeding of the media with formal statements for citation and conferences and players put up for interview. However, he notes the success of media training in making players more articulate and informative. He pays personal tribute to the current England media manager, Danny Reuben.

From the rich detail in his book Scyld picks out some key points or stories from each country (in alphabetical order) he has seen on tour.

Australia: the historic isolation of indigenous people from Australian cricket and Australian society generally; the strength of grade cricket, especially in Sydney, and its contribution as a pipeline of talent to the full Australian side; the recent challenge to the primacy of cricket, and its exclusive use of dedicated land and stadiums, by Australian rules football.

Bangladesh: the contribution of rooftop cricket to the early development of many players, including Tamim Iqbal – although Tamim was also lucky enough to have a driveway where he literally learnt to drive. Scyld also underlines the underprovision of cricket facilities for the enthusiastic Bangladeshi community in Britain (100,000 in East London with no local access to a turf wicket). It led him to establish the Wisden City Cup (now the ECB T20 City Cup) to create new opportunity for them. He tells a sad story of a Bangladeshi waiter, a brilliant slow-left arm bowler, turned away from the Middlesex nets because he could not speak English.

India:  after a delightful story of a friendly match in a Calcutta orphanage in the 1980s, when an England bowler was taken off in favour of his 12-year-old captain, Scyld shares the joy of seeing young talented players in the Indian subcontinent discovering how to play the game in their own way. He urges India’s top players to exercise the same ethical influence on topical issues as Muralitharan in Sri Lanka. He hopes that Virat Kohli’s recent powerful intervention in support of Mohammed Shami will start a new trend.

New Zealand:  the wonderful intimacy and informality of New Zealand’s “boutique grounds”; the unassuming attitudes of their cricketers, led by Kane Williamson, even in their recent rise to the heights of international cricket.

Pakistan: the unforgettable experience of cricket high in the mountains of Chitral and Gilgit; the great Bronze Age city of Mohenjo-daro, where they might have played an early form of cricket; the vital role of Sattar Edhi and his Foundation in providing health and welfare services to Pakistan; competing accounts of the origins of the doosra and reverse swing;

On South Africa Scyld explains why the events of the World T20 have made him optimistic that cricket there is at last coming to terms with the legacy of apartheid and on the path of achieving full integration.

Sri Lanka:  he traces the English influence on Sri Lankan cricket through its élite schools (particularly that of C B Fry).

On the West Indies he pays a moving tribute to Sir Everton Weekes, as an almost unique combination of great batsman, great commentator and great human being.

Of all that he has seen of cricket overseas, he would most like to replicate in English cricket the New Zealand governance model – with a strong influence by ex-players. He contrasts this with the cricketing experience of most of the ECB.

Listeners are invited to contribute to the MCC Foundation appeal donate.thebiggive.org.uk/campaign/a056900001v5HIzAAM  It will aid the Foundation’s National Hubs, which offer cricket and personal development to disadvantaged communities in Britain, and the wonderful Alsama Project in Lebanon which is transforming the lives of young Syrian refugees. The podcast featured Alsama and three of its young beneficiaries earlier this year.

Episode 39: The sky is the limit for Alsama Cricket Club, where refugees from Syria get new lives

All contributions to the Appeal made between midday 30 November and midday 7 December will be doubled in value.

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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