After suffering a career-ending injury in 1983, cricketer Alan Wilkins found his new calling in sports commentary. Today he is a veteran in the commentator’s box, subjecting almost every major game to his sharp analysis. In the extract published below, from Wilkin’s new book Easier Said Than Done, he writes about his commentating experiences in India.
Almost 400 first-class wickets do not do justice to Alan’s talent as a cricketer, but his ability to manage the disappointment of giving up his cricket career is remarkable. Congenial and friendly as he is with everyone, his evolution as a commentator is so impressive. His versatility as an analytical, knowledgeable and observant broadcaster is well known to audiences around the globe who enjoy his eloquent oratory.
The 1996 Indian cricket tour to England would be my debut broadcasting international cricket to an Indian television audience. I had been invited to work on the 1996 Cricket World Cup by the British TV production company, Sunset & Vine, but this had clashed with the BBC’s coverage of Five Nations rugby. I met up with the production crew for a couple of the tour warm-up games in mid-May. It was the first time I had met Harsha Bhogle, India’s congenial television cricket anchor, and there began a friendship which has stood the test of time. The commentary team included the former Indian Test cricketers Abbas Ali Baig, Kirti Azad, and Atul Wassan, together with the former Somerset captain, Peter Roebuck, Simon Hughes from Middlesex, Harsha Bhogle and myself. The three Test series, won 1-0 by England, was to be remembered for the superb debuts at Lord’s by two of the most important Indian players of the last two decades—Sourav Ganguly, who stroked a masterful 131, and Rahul Dravid who fell five runs short of a century—and the last Test umpired by the great “Dickie” Bird. The Test series was broadcast by ESPN Star Sports and, although Pakistan were also touring England later that summer, because ESPN Star Sports did not have the broadcast rights so my presence in the commentary box was not required.
Learning to cope with the extra demands of commentating on Test cricket was a huge step up for me. Indian commentators delivered more commentary than their English counterparts —I think it was Harsha who explained that fans sitting at home in India would expect to hear more commentary, not less, as would be the case with someone like Richie Benaud. To be invited to work on a Test series between England and India was one of the most thrilling assignments in my career. Watching (and describing) the greats of Indian cricket at the highest level—Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, Mohammad Azharuddin, Anil Kumble, Javagal Srinath—was extraordinarily rewarding. But, having had a taste, I wanted more.
A telephone call from the offices of TWI in Mumbai during the first week of December 1997, with an invitation to work on the India v Sri Lanka ODI later that month, was the perfect Christmas gift. This was an opportunity I was not going to turn down—a return to India 17 years after playing on Eden Gardens and a chance to see some places I had never heard of. Coming straight out of the mid-winter cold of Britain was no preparation for the first ODI in Guwahati, the sights and sounds were an eye-opener for a pale-skinned Welshman in Assam, in the far north-east of India.
The match at Guwahati was reduced to 45 overs because of the thousands of fans who were trying to get into the ground. Another problem was my stomach, which decided it no longer wanted to be a part of my anatomy. To say that the middle overs were difficult was putting it mildly, but somehow I got through the day and my first international overseas commentary assignment. The commentary team for this three-match ODI series was Ravi Shastri, Sunny Gavaskar, Harsha Bhogle, Sri Lanka’s Ranjit Fernando and myself; a very cordial commentary box, held together by the Australian producer, Michael O’Dwyer, better known around the world as “Mod” and a talented broadcaster on both sides of the camera.
The day after Guwahati was an eye-opener and a first for me— a flight on one of the most enormous aeroplanes I had ever seen! TWI had booked the entire production crew on to a specially chartered Russian plane called an Ilyushin II-76, a massive aircraft that was designed to deliver heavy machinery to remote, poorly served areas, especially during times of war. Between 1979 and 1991, the Soviet Air Force Ilyushin II-76s made almost 15,000 flights into Afghanistan, transporting over 786,000 servicemen and 315,000 tons of freight into the war-torn country. Here, on the eve of Christmas 1997, it would transport a cricket commentary team, a full television production crew, and the trucks and machinery required for an outside broadcast. The destination was Indore for the second ODI that would take place on 25 December, Christmas Day for those of us who would be celebrating it.
I thought this aircraft would never take off! As passengers, we lined up like troops on benches along the side of the fuselage, staring straight into the wheels of the trucks that had been driven into the aircraft. The noise of the four engines powering up to a full crescendo was deafening; everything and everyone inside that monstrous aeroplane shook and rattled until we were airborne. It was no good trying to listen to what the captain was saying, not because of the thunderous noise but because the entire crew was Russian!
The flight from Guwahati to Indore took what seemed to be an eternity, and worse still, my deteriorating stomach developed into an excruciating fever. I was aching all over, and desperately needed to rest and see a doctor. It felt like the journey from hell. I spent the whole of the next day in bed and the doctor gave me medication, not the best preparation for the second ODI, which I was due to host.
Another full house greeted the players and the commentary team in Indore, but the match got off to a problematical start. After just three overs, the pitch was behaving so poorly that the two batsmen at the crease for Sri Lanka—Sanath Jayasuriya and Roshan Mahanama— appealed to the umpires, who then turned to the captains. Arjuna Ranatunga marched out to the middle to discuss the situation with India’s captain, Sachin Tendulkar, and after a brief discussion, they agreed that the pitch was dangerous and that the match could not proceed. The ICC Match Referee, Justice Ahmed Ebrahim, from Zimbabwe, ruled that the match had to be abandoned. That decision had to be conveyed to the thousands of Indian cricket fans packed into the Indore stadium.
By this stage, the fans were getting extremely agitated. I was asked by the executive producer to walk out to somewhere on the outfield to talk to a hand-held camera, and explain to viewers in India and on the world commentary feed that the match had been abandoned. It would have been better had the crowd been advised of this, their frustration and anger vented at me in the form of flying objects as I attempted to explain to a television audience that the match was abandoned. Nor was I feeling much better.
There might have been a real problem had no further cricket taken place that day. To their credit both teams agreed to play a 25 overs-a-side match, with no pace bowling on the dangerous pitch, so that at least the capacity crowd was placated. I hate to think what might have happened otherwise.
Back in the hotel for the evening, the TWI production crew managed to set up a wonderful Christmas dinner for those of us who wished to celebrate. I dragged myself out of bed to attend, and was glad I did so, because the camaraderie in the room was wonderful. Christmas dinner in Indore. A night to remember, after a day to forget.
The production crew and commentators left early the following morning—Boxing Day—for Bombay, and then to Goa for the third and final ODI to be played at the Nehru Stadium, Margao, on December 28th, where Sri Lanka levelled the series.
It would have been ideal to have celebrated the New Year in Goa, but return flights had been booked, and I felt rather sad at having to leave India after my first venture to the country as a broadcaster. On the plane heading back to London there was time to ponder the memories of my first Indian assignment; I knew both that I wanted more and that my BBC days would be coming to an end. But that’s essentially the story of life isn’t it, where one door closes and another opens? Except we can’t predict when those doors come into our lives. For now, though, this felt like an Indian gateway to an adventure I had been craving.
A Welsh spring was no preparation for the incredible heat of Chandigarh, in the northern Indian state of Punjab: it was May 13th, and the mercury reading was 41 Celsius! An eclectic commentary team assembled for a rather odd-looking tri-series between India, Kenya and Bangladesh, once again having been invited by TWI to work in India: Harsha Bhogle, who was consolidating his place on Indian television as a cricket presenter and commentator, and Sanjay Manjrekar, who had played his final ODI and Test against the South Africans in November 1996. Sanjay was embarking upon a new career in cricket broadcasting and this was his first foray into the world where he is now, of course, a well-known, authoritative voice. The third member of the commentary team was the affable Trevor Quirk, from South Africa, whose puce-red facial complexion indicated that the Indian heat might prove a problem at this time of the year, and I wasn’t far behind Quirky in the pink complexion stakes. We were warmly received by I.S. Bindra, president of the Punjab Cricket Association, at the cricket ground that is now named after him. A familiar face that evening was Gordon Greenidge, then coach to the Bangladesh cricket team. I was taken aback by Gordon’s conviviality that evening—he talked more in a couple of hours than I had heard him for the best part of seven years in county cricket!
Our mode of transport for the series was, once more, the dreaded Ilyushin Il-76. Conditions at Gwalior for the match between India and Kenya were murderously hot! I had never in my life experienced heat and humidity like it. 48 degrees Celsius was insane, and a thermometer on the pitch gave a reading of 53 degrees! Conducting the toss, or doing the pitch report, was akin to wearing a suit into a sauna; there was no escape from the heat. Clearly, these conditions did not suit India because they lost to Kenya, despite having a batting line-up that featured Navjot Sidhu, Sachin Tendulkar, Mohammad Azharuddin, Rahul Dravid, Robin Singh, Jatin Paranjpe (who was making his debut) and Nayan Mongia. They had their revenge three days later, beating Kenya in the final at Eden Gardens.
It was a wonderful assignment, in spite of the intense heat. I was able to revisit The Oberoi Grand, the marvellous hotel I stayed in back in 1980-81 when I played at Eden Gardens, and I also had the privilege of visiting cities such as Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chandigarh, Chennai and Mumbai.
I will never forget my time in Gwalior, not just the cricket, but a solo adventure up to the very top of the Gwalior Fort in a tuk-tuk that I thought would never make it up the steep roads to the summit of that extraordinary eighth century landmark. Once there, the vista was breathtaking. An indelible experience if ever there was one, and just a pity that no-one in our commentary or production team wanted to come with me; the general consensus was that I was a bit mad to go out in the harsh mid-afternoon sun to do some sightseeing. I probably was but, during my playing days, I used to make a habit of visiting places I’d not seen before. I had no idea when I would be in Gwalior again, so best to make the most of it right there and then. All I knew was that the travel bug was very much in my system, and I would be seeking other assignments in India and other parts of the world. Right now, it was time for a move from the BBC to ITV and more challenges ahead.
Excerpted with permission from ‘Easier said Than Done: A Life in Sport’, by Alan Wilkins, published by Roli Books