Easier Said Than Done by Alan Wilkins (Roli Books)

Alan Wilkins has been a familiar face in the Indian cricket circuit for over two decades now, at times the only foreigner on the panel. Everyone knew that face. Everyone knew that voice, warm yet formal, with a delightful word here and a droll sentence there without going overboard. Everyone also knew that familiar pair of binoculars anywhere in the world.

He has also been there at Wimbledon, teaming up with Vijay Amritraj. He was a part of A Few Good Men, the ESPN-Star troupe of commentators. He also seemed to be the least-known among them. For some reason no one seemed to know anything about him. In fact, they did not till very recently, till Easier Said than Done: A Life in Sport came out.

The book, broadly speaking, is in two parts. The first covers his career as a left-arm medium-pacer for Glamorgan, Northern Transvaal, and Gloucestershire. Every English (and Welsh) county seems to have a perennial supply of seamers in the Wilkins mould — professionals who are supposed to send down over after over to extract every bit of assistance from conducive conditions.

Wilkins presents this part delightfully. He is aware that he was never a giant of the sport, but is also aware that he was thoroughly competent. He does a wonderful job of expressing his glee at being unexpectedly called up as a substitute fielder when the Indians came over in 1971; of dismissing Viv Richards four times (the photograph of one of the dismissals graces the back cover); of bowling Sunil Gavaskar round the legs; and of his elation at the perfect executions of those well-planned little plans.

Then is also the disappointment and anguish, from being hammered by Graham Gooch to letting Mike Procter down to the agonising shoulder injury that ended his career at its prime. Perhaps the one that stands out most is the utterly unprofessional mistreatment by Glamorgan the night before the 1977 Gillette Cup final (where you get to see, for a change, an angry Wilkins).

The gradual fallout with Glamorgan coach Tom Cartwright (immortalised by Stephen Chalke in The Flame Still Burns) is worth a mention. Cartwright’s shoulder injury, one of the most significant in the history of all sport, is part of folklore. Wilkins’ stint in South Africa did not go well with Cartwright for near-obvious reasons. That, and other differences, ensured Wilkins was left out of several matches before he considered a move to Gloucestershire.

There are also some amusing tales, like Malcolm Marshall’s County Championship debut. Wilkins bowled Marshall, and had a word or two for the youngster. He took 6 for 51, but as per the harsh laws of cricket, his role did not end there. He had to go out last to face a raw, no-holds-barred Marshall. Hampshire did not intervene despite Wilkins’ delayed arrival at the crease. Trevor Jesty explained: “Wilks, yes you were going to be timed out, but we asked the umpires not do that. ‘Macca’ really wanted to bowl to you … and we wouldn’t have missed this for the world!”

Amidst all this, Wilkins’ earnestness stands out. The matches are also narrated in an unusual way. It is always about the others, always about the match, always about the situation, and seldom about the man himself. Does this have to do with his current profession? One can merely speculate.

Wilkins is a natural explorer, which means that the book is rich in local flavour. He vividly describes how his heart resonates with India, even at 48°C; or his astonishment at the sight of gold dumps in South Africa; or his awe at the astonishing rise of Singapore as an economy; and more.

There are also mentions of the Wilkins family, of his parents (especially his father’s influence on his career) and his siblings, and his three marriages. He is especially dignified while recollecting the disastrous first marriage.

I had mentioned two parts of the book. The second, of course, is about his commentary days, from rugby to cricket to tennis to golf. He also mentions his somewhat unconventional debut, with the Transvaal Ladies Bowls Union Annual Championships.

The transition from cricketer to commentator involves an amusing tale. Wilkins, a rank tail-ender, was not expected to bat anytime soon. He used that time to stroll around the boundary line to talk to Ron Jones (of BBC Radio Wales) on a career in commentary. Unfortunately, he was summoned by Mike Selvey to bat as night-watchman, against a rampant Joel Garner, no less…

There are numerous anecdotes from his commentary days, from Navjot Sidhu’s infamous on-air cursing to Tony Greig clutching his chest, predicting he had the “Big C” (from which he would pass away a few months later) to the prelude to that emotional Sampras vs Agassi match at Flashing Meadows a year after 9/11.

The stint had not been all seamless, either. To begin with, he was in South Africa, and was turned down because his accent was too South African, which would not have gone down well in that era. Imagine that happen to a Welshman!

He was snubbed inexplicably during the 1999 Rugby World Cup, when he was inexplicably reassigned from the high-octane France-Fiji encounter to a Canada-Namibia dead rubber at the last moment.

But his has been a smooth career in general. And his book is as smooth — well, almost. You cannot really replicate that voice in print.

***

Easier Said than Done: A Life in Sport
Written by Alan Wilkins
Roli Books
278 pages