As franchise leagues kidnap the game, Test cricket must find windows: Mark Nicholas

Mark Nicholas wears many hats. The latest one is that of the president of the MCC. He is among cricket’s finest commentators — he succeeded the legendary Richie Benaud as anchor of Channel Nine’s cricket coverage — and a perceptive writer on the game. He never played for England, but skippered its ‘A’ side. For a decade he was captain at Hampshire, where he led the likes of Malcolm Marshall, Gordon Greenidge, David Gower and Robin Smith. He spoke to The Hindu at Cape Town during the second Test between South Africa and India. Excerpts:

Are you concerned about the future of Test cricket, as many people are?

I think Test cricket is going to have to find windows. As the franchise tournaments continue to almost kidnap the game, in a way, and then demand ransoms, probably the best thing everybody can do is find a couple of windows a year, maybe Christmas and New Year into January and June and July, maybe July and August, where you play Test match cricket.

Test cricket is very important because the skills that you develop to be a Test player are the skills that make you an attractive short-form player. So if every short-form player is only developed on batsmen clearing their left side and being able to score 360, and bowlers having a variety of balls to contain batsmen that includes yorkers and into-the-pitch slower balls, the great skills of the game, the cover-drive and the out-swinger and the in-swinger and the back-cut… all those things will be compromised over time.

How important is the MCC’s role today?

Well, I think it needs to be more important again. There is a need for some global relevance, not a power grab, not at all. And what India has done for cricket is remarkable, too many people question it because they like zoning in on the fact that India makes all the money, but India makes all the play.

You know, India is the country that sets everybody else up. So, I have no problem with that. What I do think is that the game could receive more pastoral care. And the ICC could make a better thought of sharing its annual income. The MCC can have a global ambassadorial role. It can connect people. It can maybe bring the game together.

Anything you would particularly like to do as MCC president?

Yes, I want to bring the world game together, to talk to one another. I want to improve or modernise the Cowdrey Lecture. I want to do [more] with the charities and the hubs. I want to look closer at getting women into MCC quicker than it is happening at the moment. It is ridiculous how long it is taking. I want to explore the possibilities of MCC. I want MCC to be owning a franchise in The Hundred.

Brothers in arms: At Hampshire, Nicholas had the fortune of leading the great West Indies quick Malcolm Marshall. Seen here with the Benson and Hedges Cup in 1992, the two enjoyed success together. The Englishman calls the Barbadian ‘his closest friend in cricket’ and the best fast bowler he has seen in all conditions. | Photo credit: Getty Images

You were close to Malcolm Marshall.

Marshall was, you know, in many ways my closest friend in cricket. I gave the eulogy at his funeral. He was an incredible bowler, and an incredible man, a brave man when he was ill, a strong, committed man when he played cricket. He was fantastically skilful. He had natural ability, but he worked very hard to develop his talent. You know, mastering the out-swinger was then followed up by mastering the in-swinger.

I would say that it was the graft. It was the hours put in. Even with Shane Warne, you know, the hours put in. I knew Shane very well. I wrote his book. The hours he put in to become the bowler he became really told you the most about him. You know, these things don’t come easy, however gifted you may have been born.

How was it facing Marshall in the nets at Hampshire?

Well, I got exposed a fair bit. You know, he would zip it around, really. He would work on moving the ball. The only person I saw him really run in quickly to was Gordon Greenidge, who asked him to just get his feet going. And I think in the confines of a net, in that claustrophobic environment, to have a fast bowler running in is pretty horrendous. But I used to get hit on the inside thigh a lot and play and miss a lot, like the rest of us, I think.

Where would you put Marshall in the list of great fast bowlers?

Dennis Lillee, Malcolm Marshall and Wasim Akram are the three greatest fast bowlers I have seen, with Andy Roberts close behind and Imran Khan close behind that. Probably in all conditions, I would say Marshall would get the nod, primarily because of how good he was on the subcontinent.

Now, you might say, Akram was pretty good on the subcontinent, but I would say that from England to Australia, to India, to Pakistan, to the West Indies, to New Zealand, Marshall probably had the most game, the most options. Lillee was a master of his art without any doubt at all. 

Glenn McGrath, who was a very simple bowler, a bit like Curtly Ambrose, a bit like Richard Hadlee, just came in, hit the right lengths, hit the seam, and could work batsmen around the crease. They were three great bowlers too. And I would include Roberts in that group of bowlers with extraordinary levels of skill.

Rubbing shoulders with greatness: Nicholas succeeded the legendary Richie Benaud as anchor of Channel Nine’s cricket coverage. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Rubbing shoulders with greatness: Nicholas succeeded the legendary Richie Benaud as anchor of Channel Nine’s cricket coverage. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Did you imagine that television commentary would become your career?

Well, I always hoped so. So I went to Sky and asked them for a job. I was told to bugger off.

And I rang them in Australia. I was working as a journalist for The Telegraph in Australia. And I kept stopping the producer and saying, I am here if you want me. And he rang me during the second Test and said someone had taken ill. I can’t remember who. I was staying with a friend in Brisbane. And I hadn’t gone to the first day of the second Test. He said, ‘Get your backside down here and you can have a day’s work.’ And the next Test he offered me two days of work. And the next Test, three days of work. And by the fifth Test, I was doing the whole thing. And then they offered me a job.

In your decades-long association with cricket, what has surprised you most?

World Series Cricket. It just burst on the scene from behind closed doors. And Kerry Packer changed everything. He was the most influential man arguably in the history of the game. I thought World Series Cricket was amazing. I left school and went to Australia in the second year of it. Played some club cricket and I watched every ball of it. I couldn’t get enough. I loved it. I would say that it is probably the most momentous thing to have happened to cricket in my time.

I mean, there have been some less pleasant things, like the sort of sudden explosion of match-fixing, and the awful publicity for the game.

When I go to my grave, I can’t believe I will ever be more amazed by the impact that one man could have. And that was Kerry Packer in World Series Cricket.

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