The Big Interview: Cricket expert George Dobell on England's historic test win

English cricket fans finished 2012 on a high. England became the only side in the history of Test cricket to come back from behind to win a series in India. Rana Malook discusses that and much more with a man who was actually there to witness it all, ESPN cricinfo’s senior correspondent George Dobell.

So George first of all just tell us how is India different as a touring journalist than other cricketing destinations and what was the highlight for you?

Oh, loads of things. How often in England do you put out your arm to stop your rickshaw colliding with an elephant, for example? But there’s another side to India. My overwhelming memory, I’m afraid, is the terrible level of poverty. I wasn’t prepared for it - I know I should have been; everyone warns you - and found it hard to square with the image of India as a developing super power. All countries have problems with poverty and a contrast between the rich and poor but in no democracy I’ve experienced is it as extreme as in India. The really odd thing was that it seemed to be accepted as a fact of life.

There’s one other memory that sticks out. I was in Mumbai when a boy I’d seen begging returned a roll of money - 10,000 rupees - I’d dropped. I’d not even realised it had gone. I thought such honesty in the face of such poverty was pretty amazing.

England’s success in India was a fantastic achievement and a great finish to the year, very different from the way they started it in the UAE against Pakistan. But given India's form in test matches this year, would it be unfair to say India had it coming? I mean the record at home for India was bound to come to an end at some stage wasn't it? (India ended 2012 having only won 3 of their 9 tests, drawing one having lost 5!)

I think there is a danger of people not respecting what a fine achievement it was for England to win a Test series in India. No team had done it since 2004. Only one team from any nation in history - David Gower’s England team of 1984-85 - had come from behind to win a Test series in India. England had a terrible record there and that India side - a side containing seven men who helped them to the No.1 ranking - was highly motivated and had nearly everything in their favour: the pitches, the tosses, the lack of preparation allowed to England in the warm-ups.

England’s batsmen will always struggle to adapt to quality spin in those conditions, too, as they are so different to anything experienced in the UK. England deserve a huge amount of credit. It’s as impressive a Test series victory from them as we’ve seen since 2005 at least.

But the point you make it correct: India have been in denial for a while. They have chosen to ignore their failures and bask in their successes and I’m not sure that’s what champions do. Most supporters will accept their team being out-played by superior opponents - as England were against West Indies in the 1980s for example - but when a side is undone by its own lack of fitness - and that was a key difference - then you do have to ask questions about the players’ work ethic and motivation. This loss could be the wake-up call they require, but all the signs are they will search for excuses rather than solutions.

It’s a myth that there are no good young players in India: there are many. But the determination to persist with those past their sell-by dates it hampering the development of the next generation. Maybe there is too much emphasis on individual rather than team success and the success of the cricket team is so wrapped up in the burgeoning nationalism of the country that many can’t bring themselves to criticise.

After the thumping defeat in the first test, I thought KP’s counter attacking innings in the second Test was the turning point of the series. India never recovered. What was the turning point for you?

It was a key moment, yes. It was so authoritative. It dented the bowlers’ confidence. Not many batsmen can do that. But there was a guy at the other end, you know. Alastair Cook also scored a century in that innings and, had he and Nick Compton not provided a platform, who knows if KP would have been able to score that magnificent century.

Don’t forget Cook’s century in the second innings in Ahmedabad, too. Maybe that was the key innings of the series. In it, Cook proved to his colleagues that it was possible to score runs against the spinners. He gave the entire side belief. Then, in the first innings at Mumbai, India were bowled out - despite winning the toss - by England’s two spinners. I think the tide was turning by the time KP batted, but he gave it a pretty firm tug in England’s direction.

England played more tests than any other country in 2012 (15) In 2013 they’re due to play 14 Tests, 17 ODIs and 7 T20Is. How carefully will the rotational policy have to be handled? How should it be handled ?

Cricket has been a squad game for a while now and the England management understand that well. It is unfortunate that some supporters will be denied the chance to see their favourite players some of the time but, in the grand scheme of things, it is a price worth paying; a necessary evil.

It’s important to understand why England play so much international cricket. They are trying to sustain the system that pays the players well, pays for the tours at top and age-group level, pays for the coaching staff, pays for the academy. The broadcast deals for the international team pay for the investment into grass roots cricket - about a third of the ECB’s income goes into that - and it pays for the counties, who produce most of the England players.

It’s all very well saying England play too much, but if they play less, what would people like to be cut: the funding to women’s cricket? To disability cricket? Hardly. So England have to play a lot and they have to do it with a squad of players and coaches that ensures adequate rest when required.

The fact that England now have separate coaches for limited-overs and Test cricket underlines their understanding of the issue. Much has been made of T20’s impact on Test cricket with the IPL being the main antagonist on this issue. With Warner smashing a 69 ball test ton this year and an increasing trend of others scoring Test match centuries at incredible strike rates. Is there an argument to be made that Test cricket has benefited greatly as a spectator sport from the shorter format? Will we see even less test matches lasting 5 days?

We may well, but I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. The famous Edgbaston Test of 2005 ended early on the 4th day, but I don’t think many people complained about feeling short changed, did they? There is no greater threat to the future of Test cricket than dull pitches. The balance between bat and ball is vital but, if there is to be an error, let it be in favour of the bowlers.

T20 generally has probably has helped develop the game across all formats. The standards of fitness and fielding, in particular, continue to improve. Batsmen seem to be stronger, bats are better and boundaries are shorter. Pitches are on the way to becoming homogenised. All these things contribute. Maybe T20 has given batsmen a greater appreciation of what they can achieve now, too.

Maybe some of the old skills are being eroded, though. Patience is a huge quality in batting and bowling, but there are few players who have the patience to bat all day or bowl all day on a flat wicket. Those skills will always be valuable. It’s probably worth pointing out that the quickest Test century record still belongs to Viv. He did that about a quarter-of-a-century ago, long before the introduction of T20.

Just to pick up on one part of your question: you suggest the IPL is ‘the main antagonist’. I’m not sure about that. Is it any better or worse for Test cricket than any other event? The one area where the IPL has set new standards is in marketing, not about the quality of cricket. Marketing is very important and Modi, in particular, did a tremendous job in that regard. But so did Stanford. I think hype has obscured some flaws and created some jealousy. But T20 was devised in England. If we’re going to blame it - or credit it - we can’t just pick out India.

Who do you see as key players for England this year? Most runs? Most wickets? Key break through player?

I wouldn’t over complicate things. I’d expect KP - the greatest England batsman I’ve seen - to have a great year and, if Swann and Anderson remain fit, I expect England to win back to back Ashes series. Cook is important, of course, but who would bet against him now? There’s a lot expected of Finn, too. He has the potential to be one of the best in the world, but he’s work to do, yet. It’s a big year for Stuart Broad, as well. He is at a bit of a crossroads now.

Again, he had the talent to be a fine international player. But so did Chris Lewis. So did Mark Ramprakash. It takes more than talent. I expect Broad to come through, but he does have a huge challenge in front of him.

Finally a few “most memorable” questions for 2012 in cricket. Most memorable wicket?

Oh, that’s tricky. Maybe Monty bowling Sachin in Mumbai. It was a hell of a ball. And the gasp that went round the ground was awesome to witness.

Most memorable shot?

Any one of those played by KP. I saw him score a few centuries in 2012. Mumbai was awesome; Leeds was magical. But he scored one against Lancashire at Guildford that was ridiculous. If I had to pick one shot, I think a straight drive over the head of Dale Steyn at Headingley. Just like Viv. There’s no higher praise.

Most memorable catch?

It’s the drops that stick in the mind. Amla, in particular. But there are a few beauties here: 

Most memorable comedy moment onfield/off field?

 Well, it’s probably not what you mean, but I very much enjoyed playing for the Test Match Sofa team against the Lord’s Taverners. Watching Ollie Rayner try not to hit my flilthy medium pace for four - I’d told him I’d change his player profile on cricinfo to suggest he was a friend of Jimmy Savile if he did - was quite amusing. As far as England goes, seeing play interrupted by two monkeys during the warm-up game against Haryana was unusual. They were doing to each other what KP later did to the Haryana bowlers.

Most memorable tweet received?

Loads of good ones. One of the joys of Twitter is the huge amount of wit out there.

Most memorable tweet sent?

They’re all gold dust!

George Dobell is currently one of the leading journalists in world cricket and you can follow some of his gold dust tweets @georgedobell1

image: © gareth1953