Mark Haysman September 8, 2006

Smoke and Hays

Robert Houwing
Mark Haysman stressfractured his back at 19 to end his Aussie Rules career, joined a bank for four years and came back to senses, and there was cricket to fall seamlessly back on

Mike Haysman © TWC (SA)

He's based in the "Big Smoke" and there's fire in his broadcasting belly. He loves South Africa and sports a blond mop more striking than Spook Hanley's. Only he's from Adelaide - not the Eastern Cape one, either

It might have been left to someone other than Michael Donald Haysman to become arguably South Africa's most prolific and recognisable English-language television cricket commentator and studio anchor.

'Haysie', you see, almost went the orthodox family route and made a career of banking back in South Australia. "My dad was a bank manager. My mother was in the bank. My eldest sister, Sue, was in the bank. My younger sister, Beth, was in the bank. One of my sisters' husbands was in the bank. It was a banking disaster, really. I was in the bank, too, for about four years ... then I came to my senses," says the now 45-year-old.

Haysman was a budding Aussie Rules player, into the career-options bargain: "It was my first sporting love; I was probably more talented as a footballer. Then I got a stress fracture of the back, aged about 19, and that put paid to that."

But there was cricket to fall seamlessly back on. "I got a scholarship, one awarded regularly in those days to the four most talented young players in Australia; they got an opportunity to sample county cricket. It was myself, Merv Hughes, Robbie Kerr ... um, um ... I'll think of the other. Anyway, it looked a slightly more exciting prospect than banking, so off I went [to Leicestershire - ed]."

For all his 'Rules' prowess, Haysman's cricketing aptitude had already been evident for many years: "I remember being absolutely distraught, at 12, missing out on the South Australian primary schools team, so I must have been going pretty okay at the game even at that stage."

He was playing Grade cricket in Adelaide by 16, and three years later had advanced to 12th man for South Australia in a one-day game after a double hundred in Colts cricket. "I was lucky enough to be a member of a club the two Chappells were at - and I was coached by Ian and Greg's father."

Haysman went on to make his Sheffield Shield debut against Queensland in the 1982-83 summer; the gap was created by David Hookes being called up to the national side and the replacement cashed in with 126 to announce himself loudly on the first-class stage. "The South Australia team I came into was remarkable ... Rick Darling, Wayne Phillips, John Inverarity, Peter Sleep, Joel Garner, Rodney Hogg, Glenn Bishop, Andrew Hilditch ... all very decent names, international names. I had five years with them before I came on the rebel visit to South Africa."

He didn't know it in the mid-1980s, but a collection of influences on these shores - in no particular order cricketing, commercial, media and affairs of the heart - would lead to Haysman never returning permanently to his Aussie roots after the rebel venture.

Today, he travels the world from his Sandton home as a SuperSport television commentator (most commonly to places where the Proteas are to do battle) and, even if his rat-a-tat-tat relish in the 'booth' is apparently an acquired cup of rooibos to some, he is rightly lauded in his role as an inquiring host of the consistently topical, refreshingly non-fawning weekly studio show Extra Cover.

South Africa, though, cannot take the credit for getting his broadcasting juices flowing: "I first harboured thoughts of it when I was about 10 ... maybe 12. I remember specifically sitting at my grandma's place one day watching the Channel 9 presentation of a game and thinking it was something I'd like to do one day. I got my gap when Australia toured here in 1994 and my knowledge of the Aussie team was called upon; I got a call out of the blue from the SABC and had to go to Bloemfontein for a domestic one-day game as a trial run of sorts. It worked out nicely and I had three years with the SABC before moving over to SuperSport.

"I wasn't the pioneer of Extra Cover but was very involved in the early days, with the production company, Trademark, and almost 460 shows later we have pretty much the same team ... I came up with the name, of which I'm quite proud, and was co-anchor for the first year with Darren Scott. He was terrific in his encouragement and advice, kind of getting me on track from my 'nowhere' position in broadcasting, really."

It ought to be apparent to most people that Haysman puts genuine energy into the show - including in the lead-up to its airing every Tuesday. "I consider myself one of the luckiest people around; that what I do for a living, commentating and studio presenting, is a hobby - something I don't consider work. It's a privilege, so I make it my duty to do those jobs the best I possibly can.

"You've simply got to keep your finger on the pulse; I'll spend two or three hours a day just researching things, and I do articles for the SuperSport Zone, too. Extra Cover alone requires a lot of planning, just to get the right mix on a 60-minute show. I make sure I capture 'stings' for the show - amusing or controversial moments - like Andrew Hall's peculiar wide this morning (we are talking during the SA v NZ Wanderers Test - ed) that nearly broke his own toe ... 10.44am, fifth of the fifth; there, that's in the bag. Then I'll sit down on Monday morning and edit it."

Sir Donald used to scribble advice to me on bits of paper ... I must have been delivered about a dozen of those tatty sheets. And I didn't keep 'em! Silly ...

It seems a pertinent time to ask Haysman about the degree of independence of SuperSport's commentators, in the light of "sweetheart commentary" charges made recently in India by former England captain Mike Atherton. Atherton alleged that India's cricket governing body, the BCCI, treated Nimbus, the production company to whom they sold the television rights for England's visit, "like an in-house production company ... Nimbus are petrified of upsetting their 'employer' for fear of not getting any future rights, so any criticism (in commentary) of the BCCI is strictly frowned upon".

Haysman insists the situation locally remains a healthily autonomous one; no United Cricket Board interference. "We are at all times, in fact, encouraged to be honest and direct in our views. We are chosen as commentators for particular series because SuperSport see us as the right mix; different viewpoints are actively encouraged. I think if we're not doing that we're doing an injustice to the profession."

Mike Haysman earned his ticket to join Kim Hughes's controversial touring side to South Africa partly on the strength of the "next Bradman" hype surrounding him - a compliment-cum-curse attached, it must be said, to several Australian batsmen both before and after Haysman. How comfortably did the tag sit with him? "You know, it's quite an amazing thing, when I started playing with South Australia ... to this day I kick myself that I didn't keep these things: Sir Donald was on the SACA committee and for some reason he liked the way I played.

"He used to scribble advice on little, scrappy bits of paper ... 'Mike, I think you should pick your bat up earlier' or 'don't look to get forward as much as you do'. I guess I must have been delivered about a dozen of those tatty little sheets. And I didn't keep 'em! Silly ..." Haysman was in his mid-20s when he received the fateful - for various reasons, not least of which the influence it would have on where he would ultimately settle - invitation to come to South Africa with the 'Australian XI'.

"I'll remember receiving that offer until the day I die. I was at a friend's place; it was about 10 o'clock one night in Adelaide. There had been some media speculation I'd be invited, so when the call came from Dr Ali Bacher I was absolutely convinced it was one of my other mates taking the mickey - for solidly 10 minutes I told the real Dr Bacher in no uncertain terms where to get off!

"It wasn't until the pretty earnest 'Michael, this really is Dr Ali Bacher here; please listen to me carefully' that I twigged it was no hoax. I had to fly to Melbourne the following day to meet with attorneys.

"There's another odd little reason I remember that whole build-up period so well: just prior to being approached, while I was still on the staff at Leicestershire, we played at Lord's and I was 12th man - I didn't play too often because Andy Roberts was the other overseas pro on the books - and I 'souvenired', if that's the right word, a Lord's ashtray: it took pride of place in my Adelaide flat. I wasn't a smoker ... then.

"When the (rebel tour) call came from Dr Ali Bacher I was convinced it was one of my mates taking the mickey - for solidly 10 minutes I told the real Dr Bacher where to get off!"

"But when I got back from that meeting with lawyers, having signed the rebel deal and so on, I walked in and made myself a cup of coffee in the microwave; not something I would normally do. As I opened the microwave door I knocked that Lord's ashtray into a thousand pieces on the floor ... I thought it a prophetic sign, maybe, that I'd shunned [the cricketing establishment]."

The still relatively youthful Haysman was probably the Australian cricketer with the most to lose from accepting the South African lucre. "Just prior to my being approached, the Ashes side was selected to go to England in '85; I'd been tipped by the scribes to be the 'young player' in the party, if you like. But I was not named in that squad or even the Young Australia side, the U25s, to go to Zimbabwe, and I was pretty devastated. It was impossible not to feel snubbed by Australian cricket.

"I will never deny that the South African money was an attraction - but then so was the very opportunity to pit my skills against the South African players of the time."

Did Haysman encounter much domestic ostracism for his decision to come? "I arrived back at the sports shop I was working in after a supper break one night, and about 50 protesters were suddenly outside with placards, having a full go at me. In the end I lost that job ... inevitable, I guess. I also had a guy walk up in Adelaide and spit on me; not enormously pleasant."

For all the diverse emotions generated by rebel tours, few could deny that the Kim Hughes-led Australian visits in successive summers provided some enthralling cricket at times; Haysman readily agrees. "South Africa certainly played better; we were outplayed in score-line terms but I think everyone who participated would concur that there was some genuinely intense cricket. You had some world-class fast bowlers at the time, obviously - Le Roux, Rice, Jefferies, a young McMillan - and when you threw in names like Pollock, Cook and Fotheringham on the batting front ... yes, it was serious cricket.

"We were astounded that South Africa had so many allrounders. I remember the first day we arrived we went to the nets; we were going to play a Transvaal team first-up which included nine domestic internationals plus Kallicharran and Clarke. At those nets we saw a bloke smashing the ball all over the place: Kim Hughes walked up to one of the guys bowling to him, to inquire if it was one of the Transvaal top-order batsmen ... but no, it was Neal Radford who'd be batting at 11!"

Despite the strength of the South African side for the rebel matches, Haysman's class and durability came to the fore; notably when the second National Panasonic 'Test' was staged at Newlands from 1-6 January 1987.

On a typically plumb track at the time, South Africa rattled up a first-innings 493 and the Aussies eclipsed that total by three runs in the tame draw with John Dyson scoring 198 and Haysman 153 - "I managed to run out John, who was my room-mate, just short of his 'double', which made the room a bit silent for a couple of days."

Has he, post-unity, ever experienced hostility from former SA Cricket Board personalities within the United Cricket Board over his rebel tour involvement during apartheid? "Look, there was naïveté on our part during that time. I'm the first to admit that. When I first signed up I had to go to an atlas afterwards and look up South Africa on the map. We took the view that we were coming to play cricket ... you look back on it, in its context, and realise there was certainly naïveté about it. But I haven't encountered any special [coldness] over it, no."

Haysman went back to Australia for a season after the rebel tours, but a more long-term return to these shores was already increasingly likely: he had met Leanne Hosking, Miss South Africa 1983, a week into the first tour. They married and are still together.

"It turned my life on its head, really. Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed myself in this country and do to this day. We did discuss, at one stage, the possibility of settling back in Australia but then I got involved in the business of indoor cricket here and things just mushroomed. I am blessed with enormous support from Leanne in my broadcasting career - I call her the perfumed steamroller ..."

Haysman and his wife Leanne a few years ago © TWC (SA)
Of course, Northerns had keenly hunted down Haysman's domestic signature as the rebel ventures wound down, and he went on to spend several summers with this previously unfashionable, yet awakening, force at Centurion.

"I really enjoyed my time with Northerns - except at the end, when circumstances took a turn for the worse and I retain to this day certain bitter and disappointing memories. A selection issue cropped up while I was captain and it ended in my being unceremoniously dumped over the stance I took; I felt let down by some senior people at the union.

"For the bulk of my time there, though, I was among a magnificent group of guys. I'd gone there in the first place partly because of my relationship with Anton Ferreira who I'd met in county cricket while he was with Warwickshire ... I also enjoyed people like Gerbrand Grobler, Lee Barnard, Fanie de Villiers, Tertius Bosch, Noel Day, Vernon du Preez, Mandy Yachad. We got close to honours a few times; just no cigar, sadly. But we had fun times together, we really did."

And the music's not nearly over, it seems, in terms of Mike Haysman's overall partiality toward this country ...

Robert Houwing is editor of The Wisden Cricketer (South African edition)