We know the voice more than we know the person. After spending a little over three decades in the broadcasting profession, former Glamorgan and Gloucestershire cricketer, Alan Wilkins, has finally lifted the lid on his eventful journey from a ’’journeyman county cricketer’’ to a highly successful and revered media personality in his autobiography, ‘’Easier Said Than Done: A Life in Sport’’.
On a sultry Kolkata afternoon in mid-May (for those who aren’t aware, the afternoon hours of Kolkata in May-June can be a litmus test for the frailer spirits, with the mercury hovering around the 38 degrees Celcius mark on most occasions), I was supposed to meet the sixty-four-year-old Welshman to discuss his autobiography and his life in general in a posh city hotel.
Having finished giving an interview to a reputed Kolkata daily just a few minutes back, ‘Wilko’, as he is endearingly called in the sporting fraternity, walked down to the reception where I had been waiting with a host of questions pounding inside my head, and stretched out his right hand toward me, with an affable smile plastered all over his face.
The warmness of the smile was genuine enough to put the interviewer at ease and within no time, I was witness to the man loosening up the knot on his bag full of engaging anecdotes which sprawled across cricket, golf, tennis, football and what not! Time has never ticked away as smoothly as it did during those forty minutes that occupied the length of our conversation.
Q: You have mentioned in the ‘Acknowledgements’ section of your book how your close friends had been insisting you for a long time on writing an autobiography and how you ‘’began to put [your] thoughts down on paper…slowly, but surely’’. How long did it take you to go through the entire process of writing this book, and how did the idea materialize?
Wilkins: I had been working on the manuscript since October 2014. I always wanted to pen my thoughts down on paper, but was not sure how I was going to do it. It’s been a long project—one that I rather enjoyed as it felt more like writing a series of diary entries. It was Scyld Berry, cricket correspondent for The Telegraph, who first encouraged me to embark on the project and convinced me that there’s a lot to be written about my life, there really is…and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I can actually write about this life of mine, in a way to be a kind of a guide to those who aspire to venture into the profession of broadcasting in the future.
Q: The title is considered the fulcrum around which a particular narrative revolves. What made you choose the title ‘’Easier Said Than Done’’ for your autobiography?
Wilkins: You know, I and my publishers—Ashley Drake of St. David’s Press and Roli Books India—thought about the title for months. Then, I just woke up one morning and the title popped into my head, all of a sudden: ‘’Easier Said Than Done’’! I mean it’s such a common adage—‘easier said than done’. In essence, trying to forge a career as a cricketer first and later breaking into broadcasting where I have always held the mic in hand, it pretty much sums up my life in just a few words—‘’Easier Said Than Done’’ (the musical cadence of the Welsh accent rings distinctly in the air).
Q: Your initiation into the world of sports began with playing cricket and rugby during your formative years. Later, a computer science course, a sports science course and subsequent county stints with Glamorgan and Gloucestershire ensued, before you finally settled into your role as a sports broadcaster. Taking a cue from your book, would it be fair to say that Alan Wilkins’s life has been a story of hits and misses all through?
Wilkins: Well, I suppose you could say so. As I have written in my book, I was too late with my university application form which didn’t please my parents at all. I then had a year off—from my final year at school to when I eventually made it to Loughborough University where I studied sports science, sports psychology and history and that was all right, but I then embarked on a computer science course at a time when nobody had computers…when (points at my laptop and a couple of phones placed on the center table) nobody had mobile phones and stuff like you have got over here, and I started learning about the computer languages like Fortran, Cobal and Prolog and I thought to myself: ‘What am I doing here?’ I was totally convinced then that these computers were never going to catch up, so I gave it up after a week—ten days or so.
Q: In hindsight, do you feel that it was a blessing in disguise in many ways?
Wilkins: Absolutely right! I said to my dad that I couldn’t do it and told him that what I really wanted to do was pursue a course that would run parallel with sports. I always wanted to get into Loughborough and I went over there to appear for the physical examination which was brutally difficult. I had cleared the test but was told to wait for another year before I could join the university in the next session.
Q: You also happened to work as an assistant groundsman at the Cardiff Arms Park, with a view to keeping yourself occupied with some work before you could formally start at Loughborough University. Tell us about that experience.
Wilkins: It was a good experience for me, but probably awful for the club (laughs)! My knowledge of preparing pitches was very little. I worked on what was then the Cardiff Arms Park and is now called the Principality Stadium and I would tend to work on the lawnmowers and the bowling greens, and then I went over to the cricket pitches.
To be honest, I was a bit clumsy to begin with, but I learned new things as I went along. I learned about turf, learned how to prepare pitches. So, it was a fruitful experience for me because I got to earn some money as well which came in handy when I went to Loughborough a few months later.
Q: What was tougher? Attending Mr. Duncan Case’s lectures or bowling against Sir Vivian Richards?
Wilkins: Haha! That’s a good one. Mr. Duncan Case, my psychology lecturer, was a wonderful human being. He is no more now, but they were fun times. Bowling to Viv was quite tough. Obviously, he is one of the greatest batsmen to have ever played the game.
I’d had some early success against him and whenever you’ve got someone of that stature coming up against you, it’s always going to be a big challenge, just like bowling to Sunil Gavaskar, or Zaheer Abbas, or Clive Lloyd, or Gordon Greenidge was for that matter. Since then, we have become really good friends.
Q: People are used to hearing your silken voice on air, but not too many of them are aware of the fact that you also happen to have 243 first-class wickets to your name, including those of some of the brightest luminaries in cricketing history like Sir Viv Richards, Sunil Gavaskar, Ray Illingworth, Sir Ian Botham, Joel Garner, Alvin Kallicharan et cetera. Which is your most treasured wicket?
Wilkins: (spontaneously) Viv. I say Viv, but at the same time (I would say) Sunny Gavaskar. You’ll have to put those two almost together because Sunny was such a phenomenal Indian opener and he would get into any World XI. Barry Richards too, was a fantastic player. But if I had to choose one, it would be between these two.
Q: Which is your favourite Sunil Gavaskar innings?
Wilkins: Oh, gosh. The one he scored at the Oval—221—when he brought India almost on the threshold of victory. Was it ’79 or ’81? ’79 I think it was. Yeah, and it was that same year I got his wicket (grins).
Q: A shoulder injury brought an abrupt halt to your blossoming cricket career in 1982. How difficult was it to endure the post-injury phase and what kind of support did you receive from your family during that time?
Wilkins: I got great support from my family, amazing support. It was a crushing injury to my bowling shoulder and looking back, I feel that the rehabilitation wasn’t done in the right way. To be honest to myself, I think I overdid it and it was a case of me and the club, Gloucestershire, not thinking along the same lines.
So, I set myself back and didn’t bowl a single ball in first-class cricket in 1982—my third year with Gloucestershire, whereas my two previous seasons with the club had yielded 52 wickets and 54 wickets respectively. But, eventually when I did get well, I realized that I wasn’t quite the bowler I was before and felt it was the right time to call it quits and move on.
Q: You have devoted an entire chapter in your book to Kolkata (erstwhile Calcutta), called ‘Christmas in Calcutta’. For a trivia, Mr. Wilkins was here to play for the ‘Cricket Association of Bengal Overseas XI’ against the Srinivas Venkataraghavan-led ‘Indian Board President’s XI’ on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the Cricket Association of Bengal in 1981. Kindly talk us through your memories of that trip.
Wilkins: It was an outstanding experience! It was my first ever visit to India and we had a pretty good touring party; Mike Brearley was the England captain at that time. It was a good crowd and the Eden Gardens was full to capacity…it was a massive stadium at that time. And since it was the end of December, we had been out of cricket for a good three months and I had been playing rugby back home during the offseason. It was a good game but we were thrashed, completely.
Q: But you bowled decently…
Wilkins: Yeah, I bowled okay. I took some wickets (1/37) and got some runs too. I do remember Pranab Roy getting a hundred and I think Arun Lal made some runs as well. What I liked the most about the trip was travelling through the city. We went to take a look at the Howrah Bridge and I said, ‘Look at all these people! Where are they all going?’ There were millions of people and I never really got over that as to how many people are there in this country. All in all, it left an indelible impression on my mind.
Q: You also had the opportunity of meeting India’s then-Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi after the match…
Wilkins: Yes, she was flown in in an army helicopter which had landed on the Eden Gardens and we were all introduced to her. She was a delightful lady who greeted us with a warm smile and said, ‘Welcome to India, my country’. That’s all and we all bowed down to her.
Q: You have been to Kolkata quite a few times over the last few decades both as a player and as a broadcaster. Apart from the shift in consumer preference from the old-age Fiats and Ambassadors to modern SUVs, what else in your view has changed about the city?
Wilkins: What’s changed? Well, there are more buildings now and when you come out of the airport and take the flyover, you see these beautiful skyscrapers and hotels. But you have still got the old heritage buildings like the Victoria Memorial, the Marble Palace and the Writer’s Building exuding their own grandiose.
In some ways, not a lot has changed about the city. It’s the cultural hub of India, it’s colourful and the population here has also grown manifold. People love their football here. Maybe I am wrong, but there’s quite a British legacy in Kolkata. The cars have changed though. Still, I reckon you see more Ambassadors in this part of Kolkata (referring to Park Street) than in any other city of India.
Q: You have had the opportunity to play cricket at both Lord’s and the Eden Gardens. What according to you sets these two grounds apart, compared to the ones that are coming up now?
Wilkins: Their history…their heritage. Lord’s has been there for a long time now. It’s the Home of English cricket…
Q: Why not the ‘Home of World Cricket’?
Wilkins: Well, some people would disagree with that. I know Ian Chappell doesn’t like to call it the ‘home of cricket’; he prefers the MCG or the SCG more, but everyone is entitled to their own opinion. That said, if you ask any male/female cricketer who has played at the Lord’s, he/she will tell you that it’s a special feeling. Walking through the Long Room at Lord’s is very, very special.
Q: You have been through several ups and downs in your personal life, as you have mentioned in the book. How has your life changed since meeting your wife, Susie nineteen summers ago?
Wilkins: Susie and I have been together for a long time. I always happened to be on the road; (was) too busy! So it happened that we got married in 2014 in Cardiff, but literally because of the demands of my job and because we were living in Singapore for long, it took some time for the two of us to get married.
It happened during India’s tour to England that summer, so we managed to get a little weekend in and went on a honeymoon for two days. Then I told her that I needed to resume my commentary duties and she happily gave her consent. She is a very patient woman and if you’re involved in the profession of broadcasting, or playing cricket, you need someone like that as your partner.
Q: Vijay Amritraj, in the preface to your book, has written that when you first joined him to anchor Wimbledon for ESPN Star Sports back in 1999, he wasn’t too confident of how ‘’a former cricketer’’ would be able to ‘’cover the world’s number one tennis event from London’’, and that he ‘’wasn’t ready to partner someone who wasn’t experienced’’. Foraying into the rather unknown territory of tennis broadcasting, how long did it take you to brush up your skills on that front?
Wilkins: Vijay was right. He was right to be apprehensive at first because the first time we met, he asked me: ‘’You are a cricketer, right?’’, and I replied: ‘’Yes, I am a cricketer.’’ He then asked me what I knew about tennis and I said to him that I knew nothing as much as him, but that I was willing to learn about its nuances from him. I was a bit reluctant about the job initially, but once I got into it and we started working together, we became great friends. I don’t call myself a tennis analyst. My job essentially is to present, say for example, the Wimbledon from the studio, commentate on the proceedings on the Centre Court and elicit expert comments from someone like Vijay Amritraj.
Q: Talking about tennis, who are the top young guns on both men’s and women’s circuits?
Wilkins: Alexander Zverev is the new kid to watch out for, isn’t he? Then you have also got the likes of Dominic Thiem, Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov making rapid progress. There are a few promising Americans as well on the men’s circuit. Britain has a guy called Kyle Edmund who recently beat Djokovic in the Madrid Open.
In women’s tennis, when Serena eventually says that she is going to hang up her tennis shoes, I mean who else is coming through? It is such a big opportunity for young women like Simona Halep to move up the blocks. Then, you’ve got Garbiñe Muguruza who has already won the Wimbledon once, but for a decade and more, it has been the Williams sisters who have dominated the women’s circuit.
Q: Thanks to all its glitz and razzmatazz, T20 cricket has edged out both Test cricket and one-day cricket in popularity charts, resulting in the emergence of a new breed of cricketers—T20 specialists. What are the pros and cons of being the so-called ‘’T20 mercenaries’’ in your opinion?
Wilkins: T20 cricket is here to stay; it’s not going to go away. Cricketers, these days, know that they can earn their bread by playing only T20 cricket and hence, some of them have turned their backs on Test cricket. I call myself a custodian of the game and want to ensure that Test cricket remains; we need to protect it at all cost, we must do that. But I respect the wishes of a person who wants to play T20 cricket and safeguard the future of his family by earning phenomenal sums of money and if you look at someone like a Kieron Pollard who plays T20 cricket all around the globe throughout the year, he may want to play Test cricket, but somewhere along the line in his career he decided that he would not be playing Test cricket and he’s made a name by playing only T20 cricket.
The landscape is changing all the time. In England, for instance, the ECB is planning to launch a new 100-ball competition. So we need to wear brave faces in cricket and be mindful of where the game is going.
Q: The entire cricketing fraternity was moved to tears by the news of AB de Villiers’s sudden retirement from international cricket a few days ago. How big a blow is this going to be for South Africa leading up to the 2019 World Cup?
Wilkins: Huge blow. It’s a huge blow not just for Cricket South Africa, but for the rest of the world as well. AB de Villiers has been an ambassador for the game and, in fact, he has made the call at the right time to allow the Proteas plenty of time to plan their preparations without him.
Let’s look at the brighter side of things. What an opportunity it has thrown up for the youngsters to come in and try to fill his boots! I know it’s going to be very difficult to fill AB’s boots because he is such a special cricketer, but he has reached that decision where he feels that his body isn’t supporting him anymore. Can’t blame him for that.
Q: Mr. Wilkins, it’s time for a small game now. I will give you a few names and you’ll have to tell me one word each which describes the following people the best.
Q: Sunil Gavaskar.
Wilkins: Mischievous (guffaws).
Q: Roger Federer.
Q: Vijay Amritraj.
Wilkins: Wonderful human being.
Q: Tiger Woods.
Wilkins: One word for Tiger? Oh, gosh… (Takes his time) What’s better than impressive? (Thinks again) Monumental!
Q: Sourav Ganguly.
Wilkins: A word to describe Sourav? Phew, give me a word for Sourav Ganguly. (Thinks) Learned.
Q: Richie Benaud.
Q: Kumar Sangakkara.
Q: Your father, Hadyn Wilkins.
Wilkins: (Thinks for a split second) LEGEND!
Q: The FIFA World Cup is just round the corner. Who are your favourites for the tournament?
Wilkins: My team, Wales, has not made it. I would love to see Wales participating in that tournament sometime in the future. I think France have picked a strong squad but Germany are always strong, aren’t they? And there’s no Italy this time around.
Then, you never know what the two Latin American giants—Brazil and Argentina—are going to come up with. (A slight pause) England? Should I say England? (Makes a flag-waving gesture with his left hand up in the air) Should I wave the flag for England?
Q: And your picks for the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup?
Wilkins: Well, that’s difficult. I think you’ve got to go with India…you’ve got to go with India because of their resources. England, the host of the tournament, might revel in home conditions. South Africa will obviously be without AB de Villiers.Pakistan are going through a phase of transition with Misbah (ul Haq) and Younis (Khan) having hung up their boots.
Sri Lanka are building (a new team) too. The Kiwis can spring up a few surprises under Kane Williamson, you never know. Then, you’ve also got the Aussies who had a phenomenal Ashes against England earlier this year. Bangladesh…don’t write off Bangladesh! I reckon the 2019 edition is going to be the most exciting Cricket World Cup ever!
Q: Any conversation with Alan Wilkins remains futile unless we ask him to compile an all-time World XI of cricket…
Wilkins: Sorry, I can’t do it right now. It’s not on the top of my head because you are talking about career stats. There are so many legendary players to choose from. You’ve got Barry Richards, you’ve got Sunil Gavaskar…Vivian Richards…Javed Miandad…Imran Khan…Ian Botham…Zaheer Abbas…
Q: Let me tweak this question a little. If you had to choose only one seam-bowling all rounder from a pool which comprises Kapil Dev, Sir Ian Botham, Sir Richard Hadlee, Imran Khan and Clive Rice, who would it be?
Wilkins: Ah, you’re putting me on the spot here. If I want a strike bowler, I would probably have Imran in there. Kapil Dev! Look what he gives you. It’s a terribly difficult question. I guess I’ll have to pass over to the next question.
Q: You have spent over three decades broadcasting and commentating on a wide array of sports in different parts of the world. Any interesting anecdote from your broadcasting/commentating career which will stick in your memory for the rest of your life?
Wilkins: The 2002 US Open men’s tennis final at the Flushing Meadows: Sampras v/s Agassi. It was a very emotional moment for us in light of what had happened in the US a year ago—the 9/11 attacks.
Sachin Tendulkar’s last international match at the Wankhede Stadium in 2013—very, very special.
I know I should say the 2011 World Cup, but I wasn’t here for the final. I was on the jet en route to Augusta for the Masters.
Roger Federer winning his seventh Wimbledon title. How could I ever forget that?
Any match involving the Williams sisters…probably the first time they played together.
Q: What does Alan Wilkins like to do at home when he is not tied up with his broadcasting duties?
Wilkins: Well, believe it or not, I like going to the gym (lets out a hearty laugh)! I like to stay reasonably fit. Then, Susie and I take our dog, Leo for a walk on a daily basis. We walk for miles and I love walking. I love playing golf as well, and I want to play more golf. I don’t play cricket anymore; it’s only a few years ago that I had been playing for the Singapore Cricket Club, but I don’t want to play anymore. In Wales, you’ve got beautiful cliffs and beaches, so I love to go for a drive whenever I find time.
Q: Final question. Writing ‘’Easier Said Than Done’’ provided you with a wonderful opportunity to revisit your past and take stock of your life—a life which has been a tale of varying experiences, both on and off the field. Looking back, is there anything that you feel you could have done a bit differently?
Wilkins: That’s a really good question. I think in my cricket years, although I worked very hard, I could have worked harder. I could have worked harder at getting the ball to swing more. Mike Procter, my captain at Gloucestershire, had said that had I swung the ball more consistently, I could have possibly had an international career. But at the same time, it was Mike Procter himself who asked me to bowl quicker, and by trying to bowl quicker, I invited more trouble as my shoulder didn’t last the strain.
Batting wise, I was mostly used as a night-watchman, but I could bat. I know my record is awful but there was always room for improvement. Yes, there are a few personal things as well that I could have done a bit differently. Sports makes you a very selfish person…it makes you obsessive about your own performance all the time.
But as I have written in the book, I try not to live with regrets; I try to look forward because life is all about looking ahead. If you look too far back with regret, I think it pegs you back. So, even though I’ve had a fantastic career, I want to keep going, I want to keep mentoring young people who wish to choose a career in media or broadcasting and maybe, look forward to the next cricket match, or the next rugby match. That’s all (smiles).