By Saj Sadiq
A tall off-spinner with a classically looping action, John Emburey played 64 Tests and 61 One-Day Internationals (ODIs) for England taking a total of 223 international wickets between 1978 and 1995. In 1984, he was named Wisden Cricketer of the Year, as well as having a brief spell as England captain in 1988. Emburey spent the majority of his First-Class career at Middlesex, with one of his highlights being when he took 12 wickets in a single Championship day at Lords in 1980. Having scored 1,713 Test runs, Emburey holds the slightly unusual record of being England’s highest Test run-scorer never to make a century.
In February 2008, he signed on as the coach of the Ahmedabad Rockets, one of the expansion teams in the second season of the Indian Cricket League (ICL), and he has since coached Northamptonshire and Middlesex, both clubs at which he played. Emburey has taken on stints in the commentary box as well as making regular appearances for the club side Lashings.
In an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, Emburey talks about his career highlights, his thoughts on the legality of the doosra, Mushtaq Ahmed’s influence in the England dressing room, as well as England’s spin bowling options in Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar.
PakPassion.net (PP): Starting with your own career, was there any particular spell or day of bowling where you felt things really clicked for you and you would regard as the most enjoyable day of bowling?
John Emburey (JE): I think that was most of the time I played Test cricket — obviously because it’s such a challenge. I suppose one of the most successful days I had was against Nottinghamshire in 1980 in a Championship match at Lords where I took 12 wickets in one day. I think it was on the Saturday and I bowled really really well. At that time I don’t think I was bowling at my peak. I was around 28, so I was creeping up to it. It wasn’t a wicket that actually turned a lot. It offered some spin but not a huge amount of turn. It was one of the times when everything seemed to click into place as I had the control and the spin and put batsmen under pressure constantly. It is probably one of the best days I have had in terms of performance with the ball.
Also in Australia in a Test match when I took seven for 78 in Sydney, I felt as if I could have got eight or nine and in fact I should have done. I just wish we had the Decision Review System (DRS) back in ’86 because I think I would’ve got a few more wickets!
PP: Any particular batsman in international cricket or county cricket who you found a real challenge to bowl to?
JE: I think all the great batsmen that you talk about that played in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, were always a challenge. Doesn’t matter where they come from or what country. I suppose someone that played me particularly well as a spinner was Javed Miandad. He used his feet well and he had shots all around the wicket. He was also prepared to use his feet to come down and hit you over the top and down the ground — He almost tormented you when he played!
Then there were other ones like Allan Border who used to fight it out and grind it out. Also the likes of Viv Richards who could absolutely smash you all over the park, he could play you “properly” and absolutely devastate you as well! How he played depended a lot on what he was going through at the time [mentally]. He could either get after you or just play you out. He liked to dominate bowlers when they first came on to bowl to him and let them know who’s in charge. Then there was the likes of Barry Richards who technically was absolutely superb. I think two of the greatest batsmen I bowled to were the two Richards, Barry and Viv.
There were plenty of others out there as well, I’ve already mentioned Miandad, but also the likes of Sunil Gavaskar, Greg Chappell, Brian Lara, and Sachin Tendulkar. I bowled against Tendulkar in ’93 when he was a youngster, and of course he’s turned into a man with over 100 international centuries! You’ve got to put him somewhere near the top. At the time he was a spectacular player but you didn’t realise he was going to achieve what he has done in international cricket, you’ve got to put him at the top of the pedestal as well. There are lots of great cricketers, some real entertainers such as Brian Lara and Viv Richards.
Another player was Graeme Pollock who I played against when I played cricket in South Africa for Western Province. Again I think the world missed seeing a great player. He scored runs heavily throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. So, a lot of good players were also missed but a lot of them were around too. The likes of Geoff Boycott who was a blocker and got himself in. If you wanted someone to bat for your life, you would probably pick the likes of Boycott because you knew he wasn’t going to give his wicket away.
PP: You’re one of the English cricketers who toured Pakistan in the past. Tell us about some of your memories of touring Pakistan and what it was like for you.
JE: I enjoyed it thoroughly. I toured there with England in 1987 and just before that we played in the ’87 World Cup which was held in India and Pakistan when we were based in Pakistan. I also went there eight or nine years later with England “A”, as coach in 1995. Both times I really, really enjoyed it.
Contrary to all of these stories that came out from other touring sides about not enjoying touring Pakistan, I can say that I enjoyed it. We played up in Peshawar which is right up near the border. We were taken to a place called Darra Adam Khel — we had to have a police escort playing up there where they made guns in various little shops in the street. Pakistan was just a fascinating place and I found the people very interesting, very open and very honest. I’ve always looked forward to going back there but that probably wouldn’t be the case now because of the internal issues there and the risk of going there as well. Although there are a lot of good people there, there are obviously some bad people too.
PP: Tell us about that incident with Rick Darling, when he came close to choking on a delivery when some chewing gum lodged in his throat, and your quick thinking saved his life?
JE: Bob Willis was bowling and he bowled a short one to Darling that hit him in the chest just under the heart and he collapsed on the floor. He was struggling to breathe and we at Middlesex had done some first aid and resuscitation training, so I thought the first thing to do was to see if there was anything in the mouth and of course he was chewing gum. I had to put my finger in his mouth and get this gum that was stuck in the back of his throat out and then sort of press on his chest, waiting, breathing, pressing on his chest again, and all of a sudden he coughed and then he was fine! A few minutes later he got up and was as right as rain. It was just a little bit of luck really. We had three Middlesex players in that side that would probably have done the same thing I did. It’s just that I was the nearest one to him at the time.
PP: Moving on to some of the modern day spinners and coaches, let’s start with Mushtaq Ahmed and the impact he’s had on the England team and the spinners. How influential and beneficial has Mushtaq been in your opinion?
JE: Having the quality of people like Mushtaq Ahmed around is obviously very, very good. He’s like any experienced bowler who has played a lot of international cricket and been successful and taken wickets. He was at the forefront of Sussex’s success when they won the Championship by getting a hundred wickets each season. Having someone like him around as a match winning player is obviously going to bounce off onto other players in and around the England team.
Graeme Swann, in my opinion, is a very, very good bowler. I don’t know how much input Mushy has with him because Mushy was a leg-spinner and most of the boys we have are finger spinners. To me, I think Swann is going to be one of the greatest spin bowlers we’ve actually produced in this country. I think he will go past Derek Underwood’s record. The way he’s got wickets, won Test matches and the fifers he’s taken, he’s got to be rated up there with the best. I think once he goes past Underwood, he can be rated as the best spinner we’ve produced in this country at the international level.
Obviously it’s great having someone like Mushtaq there for guidance but remember, there isn’t a huge amount of coaching you’re actually doing. You are simply a sounding board to the other players because you have the respect of those players because you’ve done it! It’s the same in the case of Swann, in say nine or ten years young spinners will be looking up to him, respect what he’s done, listen to him and get feedback from him. That can help you as a young cricketer. It is the same way as when Swann came through at Northampton. I was coach of Northampton at the time and gave him the opportunity to play there. Even then, you could see that he had the talent. He was a cocky little so and so and I had lots of back chat from him, but I quite enjoyed his character.
Having come from the dressing room of Middlesex which was very similar, I can say that when Ian Gould and Mike Gatting came into the Middlesex setup in 1975, they changed the whole environment of that dressing room. From that point on, we were successful. We had some good players and a good leader in Mike Brearley.
You need characters in your side and Swanny was certainly a character, a young character that obviously fell foul of Duncan Fletcher in the early days when he went on his first tour of South Africa, clearly because he did have too much to say for a young player and he was put on the back burner for a while. It needed sorting out and it needed someone to talk to him. Geoff Miller, when he became Chairman of Selectors, got hold of Swann when he moved to Nottinghamshire, got Stephen Fleming who was captain at the time and Mick Newell the director of cricket and sat Swann down and said “Look, where do you want to go with your career?” Swanny said all the right things and Miller said “Right, ok, if you’re going to play for England you’ve got to do all the things you’ve just said and you will have Mick and Stephen Fleming here to monitor what you do at Nottinghamshire.” From that moment on, I think his career turned around and that was about four or five years ago and he’s now turned into the bowler he is.
PP: Speaking of England spinners, Monty Panesar has been in the news for all the wrong reasons of late. What is your advice for Monty and do you think he’s the type of character who can fight his way back into the England setup?
JE: I haven’t had too much involvement with Monty. I do a mentoring role with the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) in their spin bowling program and I’ve watched him bowl in matches and he’s bowled well. I think there are one or two things he needs to work on to get him back to where he was, but it’s not my job as a coach. You can mention this to coaches at the club which I have done and with England when Monty was last in Australia. I mentioned it there and he still seems to be doing the same things so no one has heeded that. It’s not my job because I am not his coach.
I’d like to do some work with him and get some feedback and see what his thoughts are like. A lot of it has got to come from him and not the coach. It’s got to be the individual. Things haven’t worked out for him down at Sussex and he seems to have one or two problems with misdemeanors off the field which have been well documented. My question is, who’s leading him into doing these sorts of things? He never did such things before and I just wonder what group of people he’s got in with that he does these sort of things.
PP: Simon Kerrigan made his Test debut against Australia earlier this summer. Were you surprised at how he was handled by Alastair Cook on his debut?
JE: I’ll be perfectly honest, I was surprised when he got selected. He’s got wickets in county cricket and he’s probably ahead of lot of the other players that bowl finger spin. Obviously Monty wasn’t considered because of the misdemeanors hanging over him as in what happened down at Hove. He’s now moved on as a loan player to Essex so he’s obviously out of sorts at the moment. I don’t see any problems of Monty being selected for the tour of Australia. They’ll take him.
As far as Kerrigan is concerned, if I were him I would have been hugely disappointed to not have had another opportunity to bowl. I also felt Alastair Cook could have brought him on when a couple of wickets went down and he got a couple of new batsmen at the crease and bring him back on when someone’s going to play themselves in, just to give Simon Kerrigan a little bit of confidence. Obviously, he lacked confidence when Shane Watson got after him. From that moment on, his action went. It was almost as if he froze and didn’t want to let go of the ball. He lost control totally.
He played the week before against Australia for the Lions and he got hit around there so I was a bit surprised that they tried him after he got hit around and then selected him for the Oval, which is generally a pretty good pitch. Immediately, Watson got after him again and from that moment on, he struggled. There was a case for Cook to bring him on at some later stage when things had got a bit easier to ease him back into it.
It’s a difficult one. You go into a match with your three seamers and every time we go into a match with two spinners, it doesn’t seem to work for us. We haven’t had a huge amount of success with two spinners. Obviously it worked in India last winter when they were turning wickets. In fact our spinners were better than theirs out in India. They made a huge mistake, the Indians, in respect of that. That’s the only time it’s really been successful. It didn’t work when we played Pakistan in the Emirates when we lost 3-0. It didn’t work against Australia on their last tour here. I think at the end, Monty blocked it out with James Anderson to help us draw that game and we went on to win the series by the odd Test match. It could have gone all pear shaped on that one as well.
I was surprised that we went in with a new recruit for The Oval. I don’t know where this puts Kerrigan now. I shouldn’t think that he will be in contention for Australia. He’ll probably do something for England A because he’s our best spinner. You can’t just ditch him. You’ve got to give him confidence and back him and I think England will take him away on the Lions tour which is to tour Australia, so, if anything happens to Monty or Swann, he could very well get called up.
PP: You mentioned about England in the UAE. Obviously one of their nemeses was Saeed Ajmal. Your thoughts on Saeed Ajmal and his bag of tricks? What sort of impact is he having on the art of spin bowling and the innovations he’s bringing?
JE: To be honest with you, I’ll question Saeed Ajmal‘s doosra. If you bowl that and you bowl it well and you’re allowed to bowl it if the action is a bit dodgy, it makes everything else you do tricky as a player! You’ve got to read him. When I’ve seen him bowl and he’s not bowling his doosra, in my opinion he bowls very well. He’s a fantastic off-spinner without the doosra. He controls games. He spins his off-spinner. He’s got good control. Like a lot of the other off-spinners like Saqlain Mushtaq, they don’t bounce to the wicket and they don’t get high in their action. They sort of shuffle to the crease. They don’t really get high and pivot. They are very flat on their bowling foot and tend to bowl around their foot rather than over and pivot. Whereas we get the ball up in the air with a bit more flight, they stop a bit more at the crease. They hold at the crease a little bit more and bowl at better changes of pace I think.
Watching them bowl, I made a phone call to my best friend and England’s batting coach Graham Gooch in the Emirates. Having watched it on television, Pakistan’s spinners were out-bowling England because they were bowling back of a length and England were going half-forward trying to play and they had nothing to drive. So the only shots England could play were cuts and sweeps. Of course we kept getting LBW and we had Monty and Swanny bowling orthodox, like we would bowl in England.
So we were pitching the ball up and encouraging them to drive and of course we were getting driven over the top and I think Misbah-ul-Haq hit a couple of sixes off Monty just before the end of the day’s play, or just before lunch and they stick in my mind, because he overpitched. I think that we missed a trick there by not actually learning from the way Ajmal bowled and Abdur Rehman who bowled very well as well. He bowled a much flatter trajectory and bowled back of a length, they got the ball to hold and they made it very difficult for England to get forward — I think they actually bowled for the LBW, they bowled for the DRS.
I think we missed a trick there and I spoke to Gooch about that, to relay it on. It was up to him if he relayed it on but I was a little bit surprised we continued to bowl the way we did in the English way rather than the way the Asians bowl on those pitches. I think we would have bowled much better than we did in the UAE.
PP: On the subject of the doosra, there’s a school of thought which considers this an illegal delivery. What are your opinions on the doosra, do you think bowlers can bowl that delivery legally?
JE: I think we’ve seen Saqlain bowl that ball legally, I think other bowlers have tried to copy it and in many cases are not able to do it. Once you have your elbow pointed forward and the ball is being released behind the hand, there’s got to then be an element of straightening of the arm to get the pace of the ball down the other end of the pitch. It’s a great ball if you can bowl it but there are a lot of modern day spinners out there trying to do it that don’t bowl it legally.
PP: Would you encourage the ICC to revisit the rules and the 15 degree guidelines on that delivery?
JE: Well it’s difficult now because they changed it because of Muttiah Muralitharan who has got 800 Test wickets and now, all of a sudden, you want to change it. What the International Cricket Council (ICC) did is open up a can of worms and have put themselves in a corner. The laws say you’ve got to bowl with a straight arm but then you make a regulation allowing a 15 degree bend which when you see in action, appears as if somebody is throwing it. They’ve opened a can of worms and I don’t know how they are going to get around it.
I coach a young boy up at Totteridge Millhillians Cricket Club and there is a young lad there that bowls exactly like Murali in every way. He’s only 12 but he spins it more than anyone at the club and he beats first team players in the nets. The young boy gets a big smile on his face and you can see that he enjoys it. Now do I look to change him because I think he might throw the odd ball, but there are other balls he bowls where I don’t think he does and his arm stays straight. I can’t judge how far that arm has straightened. If Muralitharan can do that then I’m not going to stop someone doing something that Muralitharan did and bowled all his career doing, well not all of his career but the latter half of his career. It’s not fair on this young boy and I could be stopping somebody from playing cricket. He might try to change and he won’t be the same cricketer and he won’t enjoy his cricket as much. So I’m going to let him bowl and if umpires say he’s got a bit of a funny action, what are they going to do? They can’t prove that he actually throws it. His arm is bent, but how much does it straighten? I’m not going to judge someone on that, I haven’t got a slide rule or anything to make those demands. So it’s a difficult one, this is the problem with what they have done at the ICC.
PP: At the moment you’ve got Graeme Swann and other off-spinners within England who don’t necessarily bowl the doosra. Do you see a time when England bowlers will also be bowling the doosra?
JE: I think it’s inevitable. Some of these youngsters coming through are eventually going to develop a doosra of their own while they are young and as they grow up and develop it more they’re going to be able to bowl it with confidence. Whether they are of British Asian or not, I don’t know but I think cricketers will come through in this country that can bowl the doosra and bowl it well.
Other people have been trying to work out other ways to bowl a ball as well and to do something different. The more and more I see of the Indian off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin and the way the ball comes out of his hand, I am sure he’s a very skillful cricketer and it’s taken him time to develop all these balls. It’s ok having them but you’ve still got to bowl with the control to deliver them properly and he’s able to do that. He’s a very talented cricketer and he’s probably got a few more options than most spinners you see now, in fact probably more than any spinner you see now apart from a leg-spinner that’s got some varieties as well. But as a finger spinner I think Ashwin is lovely to watch, I enjoy watching him because he bowls his off-spinner, he bowls his arm ball, he bowls his little drifter, he bowls that carrom ball out the front of his hand which goes the other way. The one he bowls doesn’t even come out of the back of his hand like a leg-spinner, it’s still coming out of the front of his hand.
So yes I think people are going to do that and I think there is going to be a generation of cricketers in India and all around the world that have watched Ashwin bowl and seen his success at Test match cricket, Twenty20 cricket and ODI cricket — they are going to say “well he’s successful, so I’m going to try bowl the way he does.”