April 28, 2015

'Life as a journalist is a pretty paranoid existence'

Angus Fraser talks about his transition from fast bowler to sportswriter, and the challenges of reporting on cricket

"Trying to out-write someone - it can get a bit poncey then, can't it?" © PA Photos

At what stage of your cricketing career did you start thinking about what you were going to do after you'd finished playing?
Well, after I'd finished with England, Middlesex were having a difficult period and the captaincy came along and that was really good to get your teeth into that, to have a purpose about your last two or three years. But I suppose you are thinking about post-career at that stage. Media does seem attractive, but I suppose to become a Sky commentator you've probably got to achieve more than I achieved on the field, as far as the volume of Tests played, England captaincy etc. But there's still plenty of potential jobs you could do around it.

During the winter of 2001-02, Test Match Special got me quite involved, so I spent a winter commentating with them, and during that winter there was some movement in the press box. Michael Henderson had been with the Telegraph, and I think he'd gone to the Daily Mail to do the sort of Ian Woodridge role as one of the main sportswriters. Derek Pringle had been approached to go from the Independent to the Telegraph, which left the Independent position available.

During my career I'd written my own pieces, rather than having them ghostwritten. When I did a diary for the Sunday Telegraph, Scyld Berry - and I don't know whether it was because he was being bloody lazy or not, and couldn't be arsed doing my diary - said: "Why don't you do it yourself?" So I did. He'd give it the once-over and then we'd send it in. I carried on doing that, and people are aware that you're writing your own copy, I suppose, and then I did some pieces for the Guardian.

Then, out of the blue, I got a phone call from Paul Newman at the Independent. So I went to see him for a drink and we had a chat. I was offered the job as the correspondent with the Independent, to fill Pringle's role. I got a taxi back to Lord's, knew what I was going to do, and sat in my car and cried. I went up to my position in the dressing room and had another cry, because I knew that was it and I was going to take this on, but equally, I didn't want to stuff Middlesex. So I spoke to a few people - Don Bennett and Alan Moss and a couple of others - and they said, "Look, no, you're perfectly right to do this. Don't feel like you're letting the club down or anything like that".

What time of year was it?
It was March time. They wanted me to start immediately, but I said I wasn't going to start until May, until after the Benson and Hedges Cup group stage had finished, just to give Middlesex a better chance to put some things in place. I'd made Andrew Strauss vice-captain the previous year, so I got him and his wife round for dinner and said, "This is what I'm looking to do". He was keen to take it on, so I think we managed the situation as well as we could have done. And then a couple of days after the last ball I bowled competitively, in the Benson and Hedges, I was at Shenley Cricket Club doing a match report for Middlesex versus the Sri Lankans.

Were you made to feel welcome?
There were a few things written, a few things said, a little bit of resentment, and I understand that. There are people who've been working as cricket journalists for a long time. They do what they do for local papers and what-have-you in the hope that one day they get one of these main jobs. So when someone like myself just walks straight into one, it's a real kick in the teeth for them. I understand that, but it's not my fault - it's the editor of the newspaper who's made the decision.

"I always remember something Scyld Berry said to me once when I was fretting over a piece. He said, 'Look, it's never as bad as you think it is, and they're never as good as you think they are either'"

But I was welcomed, yes. And with the press corps, it's about how you do your job. There have been a couple of former players who've gone into it and taken the piss, really. They haven't really done it properly, and the press corps haven't had a lot of time for them. But I think they quickly realised that I was committed to this, not taking any shortcuts, attending every press conference, doing the job properly, and slowly but surely you hopefully win their respect and are accepted as a part of that group.

Did you read the press much as a player? And, if so, did you prefer those who wrote florid, purple prose - the style of Neville Cardus through to Simon Barnes and Gideon Haigh, say - or those who wrote with a keen cricketing acuity? The words of your colleague at the Independent, Stephen Brenkley - "Often he was the last person out of the press box as he sought the elusive bon mot but his verdict was born of a keen eye and careful assessment" - would suggest both.
It's a mixture, really, I suppose. I enjoyed Martin Johnson and Michael Henderson - all right, if you're the one who's copping a bit of flak off them then it's different, but I always enjoyed their copy. They had a good turn of phrase. Quite amusing to read. I haven't read Cardus, CLR James or anything like that. I've done a lot of reading about cricket, but not like a historian, or to judge people as writers, as such. There are people that you read just to see what their views are on things. Pringle, Mike Selvey, people like that.

You've said you missed the competitive environment as a player. Was there a competitive element up there in the press box?
Yeah, I think there was. Life as a journalist is a pretty paranoid existence, isn't it? You wake up every morning fearing that you've missed the story and everyone else has got something that you've not got. Why? I suppose, like anything, it's confidence, isn't it? It's having the confidence to judge your assessment of what's taken place out there, and if it's different from Pringle's or Selvey's but you believe that's right, then that's okay. You don't want everyone to be writing identical stuff, do you? You don't want everyone taking exactly the same stance on any event that's taken place. But I wasn't competitive as regards getting the exclusive as such. And working with the Independent, you're not in that kind of environment. They want considered, reliable, trustworthy coverage of what's happened, really. While they're not going to turn away the odd exclusive, I always felt that going out there and sort of looking for that, then you're always a bit worried whether what you're putting down there is right.

But, yeah, it is quite competitive, and a different sort of competitive. But you are also a pack, a team, sharing information. There have been news stories that have happened, and you'd speak to John Etheridge at the Sun or Paul Newman and Mick Dickson at the Daily Mail and you'd talk about what they think the angle was. And yet, I suppose when there were quite serious technical or tactical cricketing discussions, then they'd pick your brain. You'd have an exchange of information on that front. And there'd be times on a tour when you haven't got enough time - you'd be on a deadline to get everything together and you'd probably say, "Right, you ring him, you ring him, and you ring him" and you collect all the quotes and we share it like that. But there are other times when someone gets something that others haven't got and they keep it to themselves, and quite rightly so.

"I upset a few players along the way, people who didn't agree with what you said" © Getty Images

You've used the word "sensationalise". Obviously, the pressure to shift units has a huge effect on the tone of copy. Would you have been able to write for one of the tabloids?
No. I don't think a former player could. I think there's a clear distinction between the broadsheets and the tabloids. I think there's probably greater skill, greater journalistic assessment of situations that's required, when you're writing for the the Sun, the Mail, the Mirror, the Express and the rest of those papers than there is for the broadsheets, because everything's got to be more concise and more easily digestible than maybe myself or [Mike] Atherton or Pringle going off on some tangent about the grip of a batsman influencing where he can hit the ball, and stuff like that.

Did players respond differently to you once you'd gone into the press box? Were they a bit more guarded?
Yes, I think so. Because you're writing about people you played with, it's inevitable. Again, I suppose there might have been that sort of reaction if your criticism was just for the sake of being critical. If your criticism was justified, and you could argue that, then they were comfortable with it. I upset a few players along the way, people who didn't agree with what you said, but I was comfortable with that if I believed what I was saying was right. Sometimes, when there's a deadline, you've got half an hour and the story's changed, and you're sort of thinking on your feet - sometimes you can write your best pieces doing that because you get down what you're thinking rather than worrying about it. In those circumstances, sometimes you can write things that people haven't appreciated.

Sometimes, in that frantic moment, trying to get your 800 words down in the best sort of shape you can do, you maybe have slightly misjudged a situation, and if you do, you put your hands up and say, "Yeah, I can see where you're coming from. Maybe I have got it wrong."

Was there ever a time when you regretted a particular choice of words, maybe because they were a little harsh or unsympathetic?
Nothing like that, no. I think a couple of times you tried to make fun, which didn't go down very well, and you got a couple of letters of complaint. I wrote something about "a couple of Italian tanks in a World War", and one letter said, "My father lost his life in the War". You're never going to keep everybody happy - well, you're probably not going to keep many people happy - and sometimes you can try and be too clever for your own good.

"I've been in control of the cricket ball in my hands or the laptop in front of me. Now my sort of satisfaction comes from hoping that others do their job well"

When you entered the press box, were there any scribes in there with whom you'd fallen out during your playing days? No. I'd had a pretty good relationship with the media as a player. I'd been quite open, and I think during the end of my international career I'd spent not as much time with the media as the players, but I quite regularly went out for meals with them. I thought that sometimes the attitude of some of the players in the England team was that they felt they were hard done by and they had a tough existence, and you sort of think, "For Christ's sake, just enjoy what you're doing."

You spoke about having to have played a certain amount of cricket to get in at Sky. I suppose there's a similar situation with the broadsheet correspondents: Atherton, Selvey, Pringle, Vic Marks, Steve James and Ed Smith are all ex-Oxbridge boys. Did you feel any pressure from within yourself in relation to that, needing to match up to what you perceived to be a standard of writing?
No, I didn't give a shit about that. It didn't worry me. They might have been ex-Oxbridge, but I trusted my judgement of the game. When I was player I wanted to be Curtly Ambrose and Glenn McGrath, but I wasn't because I wasn't good enough. I accepted that I probably couldn't write as nicely as the others but I just wanted to do what I did as well as I could. Just cover it as you see it. It's then for other people to judge. Trying to out-write someone - it can get a bit poncey then, can't it?

Do you have a favourite piece of yours?
I'm trying to think - I've written so many bloody words. I think I'm pleased with the views I've taken on situations, and the fact that they've ultimately proven to be pretty strong and good ones. I had some big stories to cover: the ball-tampering row at The Oval; the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. The 2005 Ashes was a huge thing, and I think I produced some good stuff there; again, under a huge amount of pressure because it was the thing to be involved in that summer.

It's been a privileged position, and I've seen some great passages of cricket: Steve Waugh hitting a four off the last ball in Sydney; Steve Harmison, when he got those wickets in Jamaica; Muttiah Muralitharan, when he bowled England out at Trent Bridge; Shane Warne bowling England out at Adelaide when we lost 5-0 the first time round; Brian Lara's 400; Tendulkar scoring a hundred to win the game in Chennai; countless other special moments of cricket. To be sat in the crowd, close to the action, and to witness those moments is a real thrill. It's something that I'm very fortunate to have done.

Do you agree with the notion that the better the day's play, the easier it is to write about?
I always remember something Scyld Berry said to me once when I was fretting over a piece. He said, "Look, it's never as bad as you think it is, and they're never as good as you think they are either." And that's probably the case. I think some of the situations that crop up and the way you've got to react - you're struggling with your communications, you're up against a deadline, and yet you've got it in the first edition and it's looked good and you've actually got the job done - that's what you take pride in.

In terms of difficulty of job, where would you rank fast bowler, director of cricket, England selector, and cricket correspondent?
I'd probably say what I'm doing now, the director of cricket job, is the hardest just because it's what I'm doing now, and you tend to forget the emotion you had when you were doing the other jobs. This is hard because I was responsible for the end result as a player and a journalist - ultimately, my figures and the copy that appeared in the newspaper. Now you're trying to create the right environment, you're trying to get the right people involved, you're trying to develop young men, which is very, very enjoyable when you see them come through - someone like Sam Robson, who came through this summer and played for England, it's something you're very proud of, because he's become an international cricketer under your watch, as it were.

But watching, there's nothing I can do. There's a game taking place in front of you, you're hoping the Middlesex players perform well, but they are going to do some stupid things and there's nothing you can do about it. I think it's the lack of control. I've been in control of the cricket ball in my hands or the laptop in front of me. Now my sort of satisfaction comes from hoping that others do their job well.

Scott Oliver tweets here