'We might have won the World Cup if I had stayed in'
Subash Jayaraman: During the 2005 Ashes, you were the only active English cricketer to have played in an Ashes-winning side. How relieved were you when England won that series?
Phil DeFreitas: It was a strange one, because I played till I was 38 or 39 and I didn't realise that until suddenly someone told me that I was the only active cricketer playing first-class cricket who had won the Ashes. I knew 2005 was my final year and the Ashes was on. It was the best Ashes series I have ever seen. That series could have gone either way.
SJ: You went to Australia during that successful 1986-87 Ashes series. As a 20-year-old, how difficult was it to handle the sudden fame and the expectations?
PD: I never really felt the pressure or expectations in the Ashes series. Fortunately there were legends in the England side. There was [Ian] Botham, [Allan] Lamb, [David] Gower and so on. The team and the environment was so relaxed that you could make yourself at home, relax, and so the pressure and expectations never really crossed my mind. Actually I knew I was to debut in an Ashes series only the day before the side for the first Test was picked.
Botham, Gower, Lamb spoke to me during the pre-match dinner, and I thought, "Right!" and I went cold. I suddenly realised, "Why, this is quite serious!" We won the Ashes and both the one-day series. It was a three-four month tour. We lived like a family. It only sunk in when I got home. I found that very difficult to cope with. It was very hard to play cricket without proper education on how to deal with the media and other things. I felt very insecure, very naïve.
SJ: You were considered to be the next Ian Botham. What was it like, at the other end, watching him play that match-winning innings in Brisbane?
PD: I still believe he was one of the best ever. When you work with Ian Botham, it is special. It is very hard to explain unless you experience it yourself. He looks at you and makes you believe in your game. I got very close to Ian Botham in that Ashes series and he basically looked after me. I think that is why people said I would be the next Ian Botham.
There never will be a next Ian Botham. There never will be another Kapil Dev or Imran Khan or Wasim Akram or Jacques Kallis. I don't think anyone should be compared to anyone else. I think there was a lot of pressure put on me because of this.
Looking back, I wish I had taken my batting more seriously. I took it seriously towards the end of my career at the first-class level, when my bowling was going downhill a bit. Every time I played for England, I was judged based on the wickets I took and I felt that my bowling had to be No. 1, otherwise I wouldn't make the England side. I always felt that when I went in to bat, I was batting with the tail. There are times where you hate it, when you lose confidence.
SJ: As a bowler, what were your strengths? Did you feel more comfortable in ODIs over Tests?
PD: Yes, one-dayers, probably, because I love to hit the ball, to run in and bowl. The game was different then as well. I always had the confidence. I believed I was one of the best fielders as well. I also wanted to prove myself as a Test cricketer. Like the series against Sri Lanka or New Zealand at home, when I got consistent with wickets and runs. If you look at my record, and the number of times I was dropped, every time I came back I had to get wickets.
I always felt the system was totally different then. Someone else gets wickets in the county and they are in. I am happy the whole system has changed now. There are central contracts and that would have suited me.
When I first started, I ran in and just tried to bowl as quick as I could. As time went on, I had a couple of injuries, I had some bones removed from my elbow. You lose a yard or two. I felt that I had to work on skills to prolong my career. I did swing the ball, but I wasn't fully in control of how the ball was swinging. With time, I learnt to control it and work on my line and length and the areas where I needed to bowl. You learn skills, and that is what I did as time went on.
SJ: In the 1987 World Cup final, people point to Mike Gatting's reverse sweep as the turning point. However, England had a pretty good lower order. How did you view it from the dressing room?
PD: We played very well throughout. Graham Gooch played an extraordinary knock in the semi-final, where he played the sweep shot for the majority of the innings since India had two spinners. At Eden Gardens, I reckon there were 150,000 in there. It was an extraordinary atmosphere. It was unbelievable. We started off bowling badly and Australia managed to get a decent score. The changing room was relaxed when Mike Gatting was playing. Suddenly he played the reverse sweep and lost his wicket and the attitude in the dressing room changed. But we still felt we had the players to do it. I went in and nearly won it, but I think I was caught by the tallest player on the field - Bruce Reid, at mid-off or something like that, in a Steve Waugh over. Had that gone over, we could have won it. It was just sad not winning it because all the way through we had played some wonderful cricket. He [Gatting] made a mistake.
SJ: In 1992, you must have thought that you could pull through?
PD: I honestly thought, "This is it!" We were lucky in the semi-final with Duckworth Lewis in Sydney, because that might have been a very close game in the end. But I thought we deserved to go through because we played well throughout the tournament. It was strange, because Pakistan, if we carried on playing in Adelaide, we would have knocked them out. They managed to stay on. From my point of view there were a couple of lbw decisions that didn't go our way early. If both were out, we would have been chasing a lesser target. Again, we still felt that we had the ability to chase the runs down. And a good friend of mine who played with me at Lancashire, Wasim Akram, was unbelievable with his bowling.
SJ: Since 1992, England haven't featured in a semi-final of a World Cup. Why is that so?
PD: I really don't know. Since 2005, and maybe slightly before that when Nasser Hussain took over as captain, the focus has been on Test cricket and we have done well there. We won the World T20 in the Caribbean. But I feel that the two things that you would want to win as a cricketer are the 50-over World Cup and the Ashes. I never felt that we, as a cricket nation, are building towards a World Cup. We need to identify the players and we need to keep playing them. I am not the England coach at the moment and I am not a selector. But I feel that leading to a World Cup, we don't seem to be saying, "This is the best team we have." We have to give them the experience of playing together. I don't think that has happened, because of the scheduling of international cricket. Other countries seem to be doing it. Again, maybe we need to take the 50-over World Cup seriously and really focus on that like we do for Test cricket.
SJ: What is your take on Eoin Morgan coming in at the 11th hour and replacing Alastair Cook as England captain? What are your thoughts on England's prospects in this World Cup?
PD: We went to Sri Lanka to play seven ODIs. We were not sure who among those would feature in the World Cup squad. Surely, [you need to] identify your players and keep playing them. It doesn't matter if they fail because you know they are the best players. But we were months from the World Cup and still undecided about our captain and who is going to open the batting. I find that strange. I just feel that we seem to be leaving things to the last minute. I think that is not good preparation.
SJ: Given all that, do you not have any hope of England winning this one?
PD: No, I do. They have played quite a few games since then. Morgan has taken over as captain. They seem to be playing the same side now. This England side is a very good team on paper. All I am hoping is that we get through to the next phase. If you get through, anything can happen. You saw that with Pakistan [in 1992]. I still believe that we have a decent side. All you need is two or three players to click.
SJ: Who are those players?
PD: I think Morgan, [Jos] Buttler and the quick bowlers up front. You need that X-factor to deliver. They have shown that they can do it.
SJ: You have Australia, New Zealand and South Africa - those teams would be in anybody's top three. Where do you see England finishing in this World Cup?
PD: We play Australia and New Zealand in the first two games. I think England should win at least one of those two*. We win one of those two, then we have Sri Lanka. I think England is going to the next stage. Anything can happen from there. There is no reason why they can't go all the way.
SJ: What are your fondest memories of your playing career?
PD: The 1986-87 Ashes tour will always be out there as the greatest. If I could relive my career, that is one place I would love to go back to. It will never happen again.
Secondly, the two World Cup finals. Obviously, disappointing that we were not able to win the World Cup.
I was very lucky to have a long county career. I had my goals, to take over 1000 wickets and score over 10,000 runs, which I achieved, and I am proud of that. I travelled to wonderful places - India and Pakistan, specifically. The most disappointing thing is that I have played only one Test match against India. We had a shocking tour in 1993. I was injured, I had groin problems. I played the final match with no warm-up, practice or confidence. Every time we played India at home, I was the 12th man. But I'm travelling the world and playing against wonderful Test nations and making wonderful friends and still having friends in the game. That is a dream, isn't it?
*This interview was recorded before the start of the World Cup