By Derek Pringle
Nobody enjoys criticism, but it can have its benefits as England’s cricketers discovered at Headingley, following the improved performances there of James Anderson and Stuart Broad after both had been slated by Michael Vaughan, a former England captain.
Vaughan’s suggestion that one of the pair, England’s most successful combination of opening bowlers in Test history with 957 wickets between them, be dropped for England’s second Test came after the team had been well beaten by Pakistan in the first match at Lord’s. His motivation was to shock Joe Root’s team into improving their performance which had looked flat and uninspired.
The suggestion by Vaughan – perhaps deeply felt but no doubt with a headline in mind – would have made for difficult hearing, doubly so given that both Anderson and Broad had played under him earlier in their England careers. Their pride piqued, the pair responded how great players should and came to the fore to help level the series – the only questions being why they and their captain and coach had needed Vaughan to summon the devil for them?
You often hear cricketers in press conferences say: “I was determined to prove the critics wrong.” As if pointing out their deficiencies or poor performances was a diabolical liberty. Given those critics are often former players who understand the game and its pitfalls only too well, there is a feeling by the incumbents that ex-pros are doing them and the game a disservice by dissecting their deeds.
It was a point once put to me by Michael Atherton, when he was England captain and I was working for The Independent. Given we’d been good mates as players, he felt betrayed that I should be getting on his and England’s case with the rest of the media. I told him that cricket would spit him out when it was done with him and he’d have a very different perspective then. Fortunately, we were both sensible enough not to fall out over it. His was a typical response. All players have their moments where former players get beneath their skin with a well-aimed barb.
I remember Ray Illingworth calling for me to be dropped after I’d taken five wickets against the West Indies in 1984 at Edgbaston. They’d scored 606, but I felt five for 108 off 31 overs did not warrant the chop. Fortunately, the selectors did not agree with him, at least not for another few Tests.
Fred Trueman also used to give me stick when I played, though with him you always felt there was a certain persona he was trying to live up to, one that automatically rubbished the modern player over the tried-and-tested cricketers of his own generation.
Once, and this long after I’d retired, I had a beer with Fred in Johannesburg. It was early 2005 and England under Vaughan had just beaten South Africa in a thrilling Test match at the Wanderers. Matthew Hoggard, who’d bowled superbly, had taken 12 wickets in the match with a combination of outswing and canny cutters. So I asked Fred how he’d rated Hoggard’s swing bowling.
“He’s a lovely lad that Matthew Hoggard, but he couldn’t lace Tony Nicholson’s boots,” said Fred.
Well, that got the debate going, especially as ‘Tony Nick’, as Fred called him, had never played Test cricket. Certainly, Nicholson’s first-class record of 879 wickets at 19.76 for Yorkshire was excellent, but he played during the era of uncovered pitches. As such, comparisons were surely futile. Yet Fred was not for turning. “Could not lace his boots, sunshine.”
On another occasion, this time at an exhibition match in Newcastle in the late 1980s, Fred sat next to Neil Foster and I for lunch. “I could improve both of you as bowlers in 20 minutes if we had a net together,” said Fred over the soup.
“Right,” replied Fozzy, calling his bluff, “what you doing tomorrow morning at 10.30? We’ll be here ready if you are.”
Fred agreed to the date, but for whatever reason didn’t show. Fair enough, we both thought, or at least we did until two days later when he slagged us both off in his column in The Star.
Now, I understood that sports columnists are encouraged to be controversial but his claim, that he’d met us both at the match in Newcastle and that we’d snubbed his offers of help, were just not true. Indeed, Fozzy was so incensed that he wanted to sue, at least until I’d calmed him down.
As a general rule, I’d say former players in the media tend to offer constructive criticism. Occasionally, this is acknowledged, as Paul Collingwood once did at an England press conference at Edgbaston, citing a piece I’d written about his dismissal in a county match. Collingwood had been among the runs since and claimed it had been my report, which pointed out what I felt to be a flaw in his batting technique, that had helped him change for the good.
It was generous of him to mention it though it didn’t give the other papers the headline they wanted bigging-up a rival’s copy. But hey, I guess you can’t please everyone.
Obviously, instances like that tend to be the exception and I have also incurred the wrath of England players like Alec Stewart and Kevin Pietersen with pieces I have written about them and their performances; Pietersen even threatening to sue in the wake of the text messaging scandal of 2012.
Of course these days players claim not to read papers or their online content, so should be protected from the pundits’ brickbats. But however Broad and Anderson got to hear about Vaughan’s critique of their Lord’s performance, it had the necessary effect of both men raising their games to the benefit of all.
If it is not stretching it too far, that could be seen as teamwork across both the generations and the player and media divide.
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