Cricket interview

Scyld Berry, Daily Telegraph Cricket Correspondent

This month we are shifting away from former players and coaches to interview one of the world’s most respected cricket journalists - the Daily Telegraph’s cricket correspondent and former Wisden editor Scyld Berry.

Having covered more Test cricket than anyone alive (450 Test matches and counting!) one can only imagine some of the great Tests he must have covered. So, it seemed the appropriate place to start, of all those Test matches, which ones are your most memorable?

“Now that’s a difficult question,” remarked Scyld. “There are five that immediately spring to mind. Headingley 81, Edgbaston 81, Edgbaston 2005, the Oval 2005 and the Kingston Test of 1986 when England were bombed out by Malcolm Marshall, Patrick Patterson, Michael Holding and Joel Garner. That was the most frightening Test match I have ever seen. You genuinely thought there was a possibility of someone getting hit or killed.”

It’s fair to say Scyld has been extremely fortunate. Not that I’m jealous. Honestly.

We’ll touch upon more of Scyld’s memories and thoughts on the game today, later. But I wanted to rewind the clock. What got him into cricket and what was his journey into journalism.

“I grew up in Sheffield in the early 60s and Yorkshire were winning the championship more often than not. We had the likes of Ray Illingworth, Fred Trueman, Geoff Boycott, Brian Close, Jack Hampshire – it was a wonderful team that was good enough to beat most touring sides, including the West Indies and Australia. I always wanted to play cricket, but for one reason or another I wasn’t able to until I was 17 years old and even then, I never got to bowl! I was captain and didn’t dare bowl myself! So, I was 18 when I finally managed to bowl in a proper game of cricket – and I took six for 24 then immediately lost my legbreak. Unfortunately, playing cricket was never going to be a career for me.”

And so Scyld choose a career in journalism. If playing wasn’t an option, then writing about it most definitely was. “In my last year at university I wrote to The Observer and asked if I could write some match reports for them and they said no! I asked why not, so they said come into the office and let’s have a chat. A few weeks later they agreed to let me start covering some games. That was in 1976 and I’ve been writing ever since.”

After those early years writing for The Observer, Scyld covered Test matches for the Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald. And in 1993, he joined the Daily Telegraph where he has remained to this day. For 20 years he was the Sunday cricket correspondent but for the last four years it has become 7 days a week as he took on the daily as well as the Sunday reporting duties.

“It’s all year round now. 41 years of summer and winter – or more often perpetual summer!”

So, what’s a typical lead up to a series like for a journalist and what does a day at the Test involve? Personally, I always feel for a journalist when you must be all prepared to write your piece, then a flurry of wickets fall in the last over or two but the deadline for filing your piece hasn’t shifted!

“Before any series I like to write a lengthy preview for the Sunday Telegraph five days before the Test begins. I then go to the ground the day before the game to see both sides practise and attend the press conference by both sides. I like to get a feel for which side will be stronger and more likely to win. I then write up the piece in the afternoon. If the Test is in England, I hope to have covered one of the warm-up games before the first Test to do some research on the opposition. On the day of the Test itself, the thing about being a cricket correspondent is not that the days are very arduous, but they are very long - 10/12 hour days is the norm. I get to the ground at 10am for an 11am start. I’m someone who watches a day’s play as closely as possible. I like to think I miss less than an over a day, maybe two or three balls. Then come the close of play I’ll start writing which takes me an hour or two. I normally have to file the piece to the Telegraph by 8pm. About half an hour after sending it I like to re-read it one more time on my iPhone to check there are no silly mistakes. Then it’s back to the hotel, something to eat and time to switch off for the evening. I basically repeat that every day for a Test match. On tour, weeks can go by without having days off, but that’s the nature of the job.”

And what if those late wickets fall, which can ruin your planned piece? “To be honest the real challenge is not so much the Test match as I don’t start writing until just before close, but the one-day games that take place on a Saturday as the Sunday papers have an earlier deadline. You have to pretty much file as soon as the game finishes so that can involve some skill to know an hour before the game finishes which side will win and to write accordingly. There’s nothing worse than having to tear up and start again. It takes me about an hour to write 900 words so those Saturday one-day games are probably the biggest challenge of the job.”

In Scyld’s time as a journalist technology has evolved and social media has been introduced; I was keen to know how life has changed for Scyld as a journalist?

“The means of transmission. We used to have to type out our report for someone to phone it through to copytakers or take it to a telex office abroad! Now it’s all about the laptop, and in the last few years the internet and connectivity have been good in all countries that we tour. But I remember even five years ago getting a signal in a hotel on some tours could be challenging. Social media has also been a useful tool to keep an eye on everything going on. For example, being told by someone when a record is about to be broken because the Test Match Special guys have sent a tweet with an interesting statistic can be useful. And of course, just the amount of information that is now in the public domain because of social media is a plus.”

We spoke earlier about the memorable games Scyld has covered, but what about the most difficult story? “For me it was Kerry Packer and the World Series. It was completely unprecedented. No one knew where the game was going to go. Would there be anything left after Packer had creamed off the best players? No one knew where it would end. Would there be any more international cricket against the likes of Australia and the West Indies?”

In 2008, Scyld was appointed editor of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, one of the biggest honours for any cricket writer. It was a role he was in for four years. “It was heaven and hell! It was heaven in that in the summer there was very little do to apart from commission the odd piece, but it was hell in January and February when most correspondents had left it until the last moment to file their piece and having to chase them up, edit and proof read. There were definitely two extremes to the role. It was intense, but I was very glad to have done it for four years.”

One of the things I wanted to get from this interview with Scyld was to pick his brains on the state of cricket today, starting with where he sees the future of Test cricket?

“If I’m honest I do think it’s a bit alarming. I think the popularity of Test cricket has passed its peak. I’m sorry I’ve come to that conclusion but the Ashes illustrated that to me. The ICC has had a role to play in this. The World Test Championship should have been implemented in 2013 and 2017. The ICC said it would but then they cancelled them. I think history will look back and see that as a pivotal moment when T20 cricket overtook Test cricket in its popularity. Test cricket needs context.”

And with Alex Hales and Adil Rashid being two recent players who have turned their backs on red ball cricket, is this a trend that Scyld thinks will grow?

“Yes, I’m afraid the dam has broken. Unless the ICC and ECB greatly increase the payments for Test matches many more will do the same. I think every young player still wants to play Test cricket, but once they have failed to crack it, they’ll give up red ball cricket and specialise in T20. It’s where the money is.”

Is there something that the ICC can still do? “They could make sure minimum payments for every Test match are subsidised to a satisfactory level, but the Test Championship planned for 2021 of just one Test match in England between the first and second best countries is pitiful and too late. It should have been the top 4 teams playing against each other. That would have a been a lovely grand finale to a four-year cycle. A one-off Test which can be decided by the toss of a coin and virtually over in an hour won’t revive the game.”

After a winter where the England Test side has struggled, and the one-day side has revelled, how does Scyld see the state of the current England sides? “The 50 over side is the most advanced of the England sides across the three formats. They have real depth with 14 or 15 players now competing for those 11 places whereas the Test side has only 9 or so confirmed players. They haven’t got that squad of 15 that the one-day side has. In T20 our team seems to be lagging a bit behind the 50 over team.”

Does this bode well for the 50 over World Cup next summer in England? “I think the trajectory towards the 2019 World Cup is encouraging but we never seem to win the crunch knockout games. The Champions Trophy semi-final was the biggest set-back in that regard. England would have been full of much more self-belief if they had won that 2017 Champions Trophy.”

And what about the Test team this summer? “Pakistan in May should be an England win, but we did think that last time and Pakistan managed to draw the series 2-2. As for India, the fascination is can Virat Kohli cope with the ball swinging and seaming around? If he can’t you’d expect England to win; if he can, such is his appetite for run scoring then India will probably be favourites. Especially now they have a very good pace attack as well as their spinners.”

I always love to listen to Scyld and picking his brains on the state of play of the game. You always receive insightful views. But like with all of my interviews I had to ask him about the best players he has witnessed live.

Let’s start with the bowlers. “Malcolm Marshall has to be up there. He swung the ball both ways, cut the ball both ways and bowled so fast. In terms of a spinner you can look no further than Shane Warne. What I look for in a cricketer is someone who is never defeated. I never saw Warne defeated. He reached a stalemate with Collingwood and Pietersen in the Adelaide Test of 2006 but he was never beaten from what I saw and nor was Marshall.”

And the batsmen? “Viv. For the simple fact that no one ever got on top of him. A good rule of thumb: does a cricketer leave a team stronger than he joined it? Viv did that with every team he joined. The Leewards, West Indies, Somerset and Glamorgan. The energising and transforming of a team into winners is the best rule of thumb and he was better than anyone else that I know.”

One thing people may not be aware of is that away from writing Scyld is heavily involved in promoting cricket to people who don’t have easy access to proper cricket grounds. “I launched the Wisden City Cup, which is now the ECB City Cup, as a competition for youngsters in inner cities who want to play cricket but don’t have access to a ground. Because I wasn’t able to play the game when young, I don’t want others to suffer the same frustration.”

Journalists can come and go, but there’s a reason Scyld has covered more Test matches than anyone else: people love reading his articles. It was a pleasure to interview Scyld, but I suspect my interviewing skills come a distant second to his! Scyld - thank you!

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