Poachers turned gamekeepers

Test cricketers who moved from the field to the press box

Steven Lynch

October 8, 2012

Comments: 18 | Text size: A | A

Sid Barnes on his arrival at Waterloo Station, London, April 1938
Sid Barnes: Cardus-like in his writing (or so he thought) © Getty Images

Mike Atherton
Atherton played 115 Tests for England, 54 as captain, during which time his relationship with the press was occasionally prickly: during the 1996 World Cup he was threatened with legal action after apparently calling a Pakistani journalist "a buffoon". But on retirement Atherton joined the media circus, becoming an astute TV commentator and a perceptive writer, latterly as cricket correspondent for the Times. He has also produced a book on gambling, and probably writes better than he bats, which is saying something, considering he scored nearly 8000 Test runs.

Tom Horan
The first Test player-turned-cricket writer, Horan was born in Ireland but played 15 early Tests for Australia, including the first one of all, in 1877. Two years later he began a regular column in The Australasian newspaper, bylined as "Felix", and continued to write for them until his death in 1916. "He wrote with his ears and eyes," wrote Gideon Haigh, "with a sense of the telling remark and the evocative detail."

Sunil Gavaskar
I've tried to include here only those former players who write their own articles on arriving in the press box, rather than those who rely on a so-called ghost to bash out their thoughts. One former player who emphatically produces his own words is Gavaskar, a trenchant columnist. He produced his first volume of autobiography, Sunny Days, without any help in 1976, when he was only 27, and has been regular in the press and commentary boxes ever since his retirement from playing, after a brilliant career during which he was the first man to scale the peak of 10,000 Test runs.

Mike Selvey
After a fine career for Middlesex and, briefly, England (he took three quick West Indian wickets on his debut, in 1976), Selvey has been cricket correspondent of the Guardian since the late 1980s. A perceptive writer with a wry turn of phrase, he might have rather less hair than in his playing days, but remains a senior figure in the English press corps.

Percy Fender
England's 1920-21 Ashes tour was a disaster on the field - Australia won 5-0 - while one of the main talking points off it was the number of England players who were contributing to newspapers back home. In those long-ago days their comments weren't immediately beamed back to haunt them, but some ill-will was nonetheless caused, while a famous cartoon, depicting two batsmen scribbling furiously as they ran between the wickets, summed up the feeling at home that the players couldn't be concentrating properly on the matter at hand. One of the "guilty parties" was the innovative Surrey captain Fender, and while he never relied on cricket writing for a living, he can probably be credited with revolutionising the tour book. Previously they were often travelogues, but Fender included serious in-depth analysis of the play, backed up with copious statistics. (This doesn't mean he was always right: he famously predicted that Don Bradman would struggle in England.) Fender's chunky books, which cost around 10/6 (52½p) at the time, now sell for rather more.

Derek Pringle
Pringle played for England for more than a decade, starting in 1982 as a Cambridge undergraduate with an ear-stud (possibly a Test first) and a booming cover drive, and latterly as a canny seamer, who might have won the 1992 World Cup for England if an early lbw shout against Javed Miandad had been upheld. When he retired, Pringle took his humorous turn of phrase (and love of loud music) into the press box, and has been the cricket correspondent of the Daily Telegraph for more than a decade.

Sid Barnes
A controversial but prolific opener - his Test average was 63 - Sid Barnes once had his selection vetoed by the Australian board, and later sued someone who tried to speculate why. After his international career finished, Barnes was a press-box regular for a while, producing two Ashes tour books and a hard-hitting autobiography, all using his no-nonsense no-fools-suffered approach. Once, during an Ashes tour, he apparently reduced Neville Cardus - the arch-stylist who wrote beautifully on cricket and music for the Guardian - to speechlessness after suggesting they could copy each other's reports as their style was so similar.

Richie Benaud
The man who has seen more Test matches than anyone else - well over 500 at last count - Benaud was a journalist (specialising in the crime beat) even before his Test career finished. When it did, he took up life membership of the TV commentary box, and also wrote regularly for the News of the World, in an uncontroversial style somewhat at odds with the rest of the uber-tabloid. With around 50 years' service, Benaud was the NoW's longest-serving employee when it was shut down in 2011 in the wake of the phone-hacking scandals.

Vic Marks
An amiable offspinning allrounder, Somerset's Marks played six Tests for England: he seemed to have got into his stride in 1983-84, with successive innings of 83, 74 and 55 against Pakistan after failing to get past 12 in his first four matches... but never played another Test. He had more luck in one-dayers, twice taking five wickets in an innings. After retiring, he became a well-informed cricket correspondent for the Observer, as well as a popular member of the Test Match Special team, complete with infectious chuckle. He wrote a perceptive account of the England tour of India and Australia in 1984-85, during which he spent frustratingly long periods on the sidelines as other spinners were preferred, as reflected in the title - Marks Out of XI.

Bill O'Reilly
One of the finest bowlers ever to draw breath - he took 102 wickets in 19 Ashes Tests in the 1930s, with quick, bouncy legbreaks - O'Reilly was rarely short of a word on the field. He transferred that facility to the press box, where he became a respected correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald for many years, never mincing his words (but always writing them down, in longhand, on lined paper). On retirement, he reflected: "It has always been my one consuming resolve to tell my readers exactly what my personal reactions were to the events of the day. Not once did I ever spend time racking my brain on what was the nice thing to say or the thoughts I should not let come through on paper. In my opinion that would have been cheating."

Richie Benaud signs autographs at the official launch of the Ashes series, Sydney, November 8, 2006
Richie Benaud: covered crime before cricket © Getty Images

Ed Smith
A team-mate once said Smith's brain was "the size of Mars", and while that's probably a slight exaggeration, he has moved seamlessly into writing - composing Times leaders and learned book reviews, as well as touching on various sports including cricket - since his retirement from cricket in 2008 after a struggle with injury. Smith was a fine batsman, strong on the drive, who played for Kent and Middlesex and won three Test caps against South Africa in 2003.

12th man: Peter Roebuck
Not quite a Test player (although he did once captain an England XI), Roebuck moved from thoughtful county player to thoughtful writer and commentator, flitting between England, Australia and South Africa, often changing his accent to suit. His diary of an English season, It Never Rains ..., is widely considered the best of its type, and his articles, mainly for the Sydney Morning Herald and its sister papers in Australia, often sent journalists from other outlets scurrying for follow-ups. But Roebuck was hard to get to know, and the conflicts in his complicated personality culminated with his suicide in South Africa last year.

Steven Lynch is the editor of the Wisden Guide to International Cricket 2012.

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Posted by brittop on (October 9, 2012, 23:12 GMT)

@Ravi Darira: and what's you journalistic qualification that allows you to comment on the abilities of Manjrekar, Shastri etc?

Posted by   on (October 9, 2012, 19:56 GMT)

Good article, Stephen. Some of your readers here seem to struggle with the concept of Press Box vs. Commentary Box. Folks, the article is about thos who have become writers on the game, not those who commentate. With the exception of articles on cricinfo, Ian Chappell hardly writes and his brother not at all. I'm also yet to see a Bill Lawry-penned article in a newspaper/on a website. Tony Greig has written some, and imo could have supplanted Sunny here. But a very good list nontheless.

Posted by __PK on (October 9, 2012, 3:05 GMT)

Given that cricketing journalists are often accused (not without cause, imho) of living off the hard work of players, I think your headline should read the other way around.

Posted by ghost_of_len_hutton on (October 9, 2012, 0:27 GMT)

And then, of course, there's the Clown Prince Arthur Mailey, who famously erected a sign outside his butcher shop in Sydney which proclaimed "I bowled tripe, I wrote tripe, and now I sell tripe".

He also took 99 test wickets. They just don't make 'em like that anymore.

Posted by TomCalder on (October 8, 2012, 22:21 GMT)

Surely I am not the only person to have read this article and thought of the whereabouts of a Mr Geoffrey Boycott? With all due respect, surely his anecdotes and interesting points-of-view are greater than those of Mr Gavaskars? I can understand why you cannot list every single cricketer-come-commentator / writer, but I still think Mr Boycott deserves a mention. Very good article though.

Posted by   on (October 8, 2012, 21:01 GMT)

Sunny Gavaskar comes out with some howlers in the commentary box - and he isn't always gracious to the "other" side. Not one of the world's greats as a commentator. As double act, Billy Ibadulla and Glenn Turner were a brilliant commentary team.

Posted by sidzy on (October 8, 2012, 20:19 GMT)

Boy how can this list be complete without better players and analyst then atherton i.e. ian chappel nad bill lawry & boy o by tony greig...

Posted by Mark.E.C on (October 8, 2012, 18:21 GMT)

Or even the greatest modern day commentator, Mr K. O'Keefe!

Posted by   on (October 8, 2012, 16:11 GMT)

Great to see u found an honorary place for P. Roebuck as 12th man.

Posted by Beazle on (October 8, 2012, 14:46 GMT)

The vast majority of ex players who end up in the press box or TV commentary are absolutely useless. Their commentary is usually filled with statements of the obvious,

ie - " I think Smith is going to try to dig his side out of trouble, here" (Smith has walked to the wicket with the score 5-15).

I am pleased to say, that the above 12 are exceptions.

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Steven Lynch Steven Lynch won the Wisden Cricket Monthly Christmas Quiz three years running before the then-editor said "I can't let you win it again, but would you like a job?" That lasted for 15 years, before he moved across to the Wisden website when that was set up in 2000. Following the merger of the two sites early in 2003 he was appointed as the global editor of Wisden Cricinfo. In June 2005 he became the deputy editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack. He continues to contribute the popular weekly "Ask Steven" question-and-answer column on ESPNcricinfo, and edits the Wisden Guide to International Cricket.

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