It is 11 in the morning and I am waiting at the reception of the Taj Lands End Hotel in Bandra, Mumbai, reading all the questions I have prepared for the gentleman I was going to interview in about half an hour. The gentleman is Alan Wilkins. As someone who has gone less to stadiums, courts to watch cricket, tennis in India and remained glued to TV sets, Alan Wilkins is not an alien name.
He was there most of the times on our TV sets, describing the game, discussing a brilliant spell of bowling, a magnificent century, a lovely forehand or a powerful backhand and using different adjectives to match the emotions of the audience. Every word that he spoke made the happenings clearer for viewers and the game understandable for the rookies. He has done this for years after years after years, and has not got bored of it. The power of the spoken word is such that it stays within our veins for a time immemorial.
The responsibility is so huge that a word here or there can cause a storm, especially in sports where fans are very closely attached to their heroes and teams. Unlike, in print, and now in digital, where a misspelled word can be edited and a factual error can be omitted, there is no such scope for a TV presenter to do such a mistake. A sentence, whether true or false, once out of your mouth in front of the camera, travels to a million homes and even if you correct yourself the next moment, either you lose your credibility or your job.
This is why Wilkins' job and that of many like him might look very attractive from the outside, it does come with its own share of difficulties. On the occasion of the launch of his book Easier Said Than Done, I tried picking his brains on the biggest challenge in sports broadcasting, his most nervous moment in front of the camera, whom he admires the most and how the game of cricket has changed over the years. And in the process, I realised that Wilkins was so much more than the man we always saw in front of the camera, describing the game to us. Here, I try to describe him using his own words.
How and when did the thought of writing this book come across your mind? Also, why do you call it Easier Said Than Done?
I was thinking for years about writing the book because I always felt that even though I did not play cricket at the highest level... was not a Test cricketer, but I always felt that I have a story to tell about the life of a county cricketer. I always considered that I played in what was I called was a 'halcyon age' with some great cricketers like Sunny (Sunil) Gavaskar, Zaheer Abbas, Mike Proctor, Vivian Richards. The list is long. I always felt that I had something to say. And then my career changed with my shoulder injury and I got into broadcasting.
Again, I came into broadcasting in a golden age with BBC. And I felt my journey taking me globally, I needed to write this. It started really with India. I played cricket here to celebrate the golden jubilee of Bengal Cricket Association (CAB). It is here where I thought one day I am going to write about my journey, my adventures and put it into print. It has always been on my mind to do it. In the last few years, it really came into being. I started writing it round about in 2014. It's really been a long-term project in my head and I am glad that it is done.
I did not want a cricket title. I took me months of problem solving to try and find a title for this book. I just got up one night thinking, 'oh somebody said it right that it is easier said than done'. And I said 'that's it'. And because I am into business of talking, saying something and because I have played professional cricket, it is apt to call it 'Easier Said Than Done'.
Your father was a sportsman but did you always want to be one as well? When did you decide to pursue sports?
My dad was a sportsman. He was a rugby player and a cricketer. I went to Loughborough University and studied the psychology of sports, of physical education and I was leaning towards that. But I knew I wanted to play and I had the god-given chance to be able to play professional cricket and I thought 'If I don't do it now, you cannot go back to it.' So when this cricket opportunity came, first at Glamorgan and then for Gloucestershire; it was too good a chance. In a way, it goes with what you are doing, you go through your school, and in the process, it just became a way of life. I wanted to do it. I wanted to play a sport.
You mentioned about the injury that put a full-stop to your cricketing career. How difficult was that period?
It came at a wrong time for me because I had two very good seasons with Gloucestershire — took 54 wickets in two consecutive county seasons. My batting was coming on with it. So everything was looking good. And then in '82, in my third season with Gloucestershire, I came back from a season in South Africa with a slight ache and I felt a slight discomfort in my shoulder. When I got back, I could not bowl. It became a frozen shoulder. I had two operations on it. It became a pretty nasty injury. I missed the entire season in 1982. I did not bowl a single ball in England. The fact (is) that I only played one First-Class match in 1982. I came through the rehabilitation and went back to Glamorgan but I was not the same. It was about that stage that I decided that I needed to do something. I did not want to coach. I went into broadcasting.
Can we assume that you would have ended up playing cricket for long and there was no broadcasting career had that injury not been there?
When my shoulder started going wrong, I was 28-years-old. So I probably had about six more years of cricket left in me or maybe more. I guess I might have gone the same way (broadcasting). At that time, I did not feel like I wanted to coach. I felt too close with the game. It was too raw. I could coach, I loved coaching the younger cricketers. But I thought to get into county to coach at that level, that would have taken a few years. So, actually to get into sports broadcasting was a very natural way for me to go.
What is the most precious moment of your life as a professional cricketer as we know there are a few, including you fielding for Glamorgan as a 17-year-old and also getting the great Viv Richards and Sunil Gavaskar out. Which one do you pick, or there are others as well?
When I took 8 for 57 against Lancashire at Old Trafford. That was a pretty special day. The ball just did things that I have not done. I had bowled well on previous occasions. My previous best was 6 for 79 against Hampshire. This was 8 for 57 against Lancashire, bowling against Clive Lloyd. But highlights would be getting Viv. I played for Glamorgan and got Zaheer Abbas out twice in the match. Even in South Africa, I got Graeme Pollock out. These kind of things stay in your mind. But certainly getting Viv is the moment I still remember. Because he was plundering our attack and he scored 85 and was set to get a big 100. He had such massive presence on a cricket field. Virat Kohli has got it here. Viv was the man everyone feared bowling to. My idol is Garry Sobers. Viv would be a very close second.
Do you remember how you got him out?
The first time I got him out was the third ball I ever bowled at him. I had just finished my exam at Loughborough. I had not got my degree result yet but I came down from Loughborough. Glamorgan was playing Somerset and they had Viv Richards, Ian Botham. I came on to bowl. First ball he smashed past me for four. Second ball, he took mid-off's head off. And then on the third ball, he charged at me, the ball swung a little bit and it took the outside edge and he was caught at third man. It was caught by tall Malcolm Nash and had he been short, it would have got for six. That was amazing day. These are wonderful moments to cherish.
In the book, Vijay Amritraj writes about meeting you for the first time during Wimbledon and he doubted your abilities as a host. But in the end, you ended up impressing him. Do you recall that meeting? What was it like working with Amritraj and covering Wimbledon?
Vijay and I are very close as friends. It started in Wimbledon in 1998-99. I had already done two Wimbledons at South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). My tennis knowledge was like an enthusiastic amateur. I played social tennis. But in terms of being an official ardour of the sport, I was no way near to that. So I hosted tennis and in the next year, the producer started you should do commentary. I said 'heck no'. I don't commentate on sport. Vijay said, 'C'mon, give me a break.' He was commentating throughout the day. I started doing tennis commentary like that.
I was probably a bit raw at first. But I grew to love doing it and I loved working with Vijay. So, our relationship was most unlikely. He was a tall Indian and I was a different looking fellow. We were like the odd couple really but we blended well. I loved his personality, I loved his humour, his integrity. He is one of the best human beings. We are still as close as ever.
As a broadcaster, you have covered many sports? How difficult is it to be a multi-sport broadcaster?
There are challenges. Because I started with the SABC, and we covered multi-sport. You did not have one person for each sport. In a way, you had reporters who reported on horse racing, cricket, rowing, rugby. I myself developed as a broadcaster in cricket, rugby and golf. So those three sports carried me through towards BBC. When I joined BBC, I was a rugby presenter and commentator in winter. I was a cricket presenter and commentator in the summer and I also did golf.
When I moved to Singapore in 2000, I did Moto GP, Formula 1. The only sports I did not get on with was American sports. I can see why they are popular sports but I could not do everything. The challenge is to keep abreast with the knowledge of all sports. I read a lot. I still read a lot about tennis. Can you imagine working in an era of Roger Federer, Sachin Tendulkar and Tiger Woods, it was impossible to not develop interest in all these sports.
Was there ever a nervous moment in your broadcasting career?
There is always adrenaline. Even now I have just done three weeks of IPL. You always get nerves. You never want to take it for granted. There is always a challenge. I don't think I have ever been stuck for words. There have been moments when you have found wrong words. In the commentary sometimes, you know there is a moment coming, so you try and prepare for it.
I was on air when Sachin played his last innings at Wankhede stadium. It was a rather strange dismissal because Darren Sammy took the catch and Sachin just stood there and for a moment in time, everything was frozen. Nobody said anything. I did not say anything. Looking back I think I might have used different words. But I think the words that came out were: 'And that's it, Sachin's innings has closed and so has his career'. I might have said something different. When Sachin had his lap of honour, Harsha Bhogle was on air and it was one of Harsha's finest hour. He described that with such emotion and candour and such aplomb.
Who are you best friends in broadcasting and the sporting world, as well as some who you have been envious of over the years?
I admire a lot of people. Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers are two batsmen who have lifted the bar. I admire the way Sunny Gavaskar played his cricket. I have worked with Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell and Tony Greig. I have admired how they covered cricket. I don't think envious is a word that has been in mind at any time.
How has broadcaster/journalist-player relationship changed over the years?
I think the demands of the modern player are probably greater than ever before. Social media plays a key part here because when I began my broadcasting career, there were no mobile phones. There was a certain element of privacy that belonged to every player. There was no intrusion into your private life or professional life, which I think a modern player is 24 hours a day on guard.
Virat is amazing, he gives very good interviews but modern players, given the pressure that they are under because of social media, I think I have nurtured good relationship and I respect their privacy because I know most of the time, they don't have it. If I have a number of a cricketer, I don't divulge it. Respect comes in that. I don't think any there is any pleasure gained by saying or writing something nasty about someone to sell a newspaper or a radio or TV programme because it comes back to you and bites you. So that's been my mandate.
Has it ever happened to you that you criticised a player on air and he or she came back at you with some words?
In terms of people watching the broadcast, you will never please everyone. Some people like you on air and some don't like you. A very few players have come and said that I did not like what you said. I did not enjoy what you said about me. If it has happened, we have discussed it. Not one example readily comes to my mind (right now). But you need to understand that they are trying to play in their career in the same way that you as a broadcaster are trying to ply your trade.
How much has cricket changed in front of your eyes as a broadcaster?
The game has become faster, more athletic, more demanding. I am not so sure that skill level has increased. Yes, there is AB de Villiers, who is ingenious. But you go back to past, Mike Proctor was a fantastic cricketer, he was my captain. Vivian Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Zaheer Abbas, Javed Miandad, Sachin Tendulkar. What has changed is the range of skills. The bowlers do things with the ball I would have never thought of. We were much more structured with the cricket ball. I think when I was playing, the emphasis was more on Test cricket. Now of course, T20 cricket opens a much more open landscape. In some ways, cricketers are developing new skills, but I don't think the overall level is as good as it was.