A man for all sports, he is, Alan Wilkins. Photo courtesy: Marc Seow’s Flickr account
A man for all sports, he is, Alan Wilkins. Photo courtesy: Marc Seow’s Flickr account

Born August 22, 1953, Alan Wilkins was a prodigious seam bowler for Glamorgan and Gloucestershire. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the cricketer who went on to become one of the most famous commentators across sports.

Sport-lovers growing up in the post-1990 era are familiar with the dignified, analytical remarks of Alan Haydn Wilkins. A man who has been equally proficient behind the microphone while commentating on cricket, tennis, rugby, golf, boxing, squash, football, and Formula-One, Wilkins is easily one of the most respected voices in international sport.

It is as a cricket commentator that has made Wilkins a star in India. Despite not being an international cricketer or an Indian, he is popular in the country. His venerable, laconic voice on the microphone, punctuated by his hobby of browsing the sky with binoculars off it, makes him one of the most loved names in Indian cricket commentary.

Before he switched to his second profession, however, “Wilko” was an excellent seam bowler, thriving in English conditions in the 1970s and early 1980s. His accuracy earned him quite a reputation in the English cricket circuit, and he prospered more in the limited-overs matches.

From 107 First-Class matches Wilkins captured 243 wickets at 30.90 with his energetic left-arm seam bowling. His List A numbers — 130 wickets at 22.91 and an economy rate of 3.09 — were exemplary. With the bat, however, he was a rank tail-ender, and a permanent fixture at ten or Jack.

Early days

William Haydn Wilkins, usually known by his middle-name, was a right-arm medium-paced bowler who was a regular feature for Cardiff Cricket Club. He was good enough to make it to Glamorgan Second XI, and played against Middlesex Second XI.

Haydn married Martha, and Alan was born to them at Rhiwbina, a suburb of Cardiff. While Haydn’s performances influenced Alan to take up cricket, Anne played her part too. Wilkins later wrote in Living Magazines that Anne “played a key role in my early cricketing days because she ensured that I turned out in immaculate cricket whites, always with a crease down the trousers and always with a starched collar!”

Haydn grew up with his brother Howard. He went to Rhiwbina Junior School. The headmaster, a certain Mr Ball, was a keen cricket enthusiast, who drove the students to cricket matches in his own car. The school had an excellent ground, and after school the children went to the Parc-y-Pentre — a ground Wilkins fondly remembers as “our Lord’s Cricket Ground”.

The stage was set for Alan to grow up as a cricketer. He made it to Welsh Schools, and in a match at Cork he bowled out Irish Schools for 136 with figures of 8 for 35.

Glamorgan days

Wilkins rose through the ranks swiftly, making his way past the Second XI. He was given the new ball on John Player League debut in 1975, and impressed with 2 for 35. The First-Class debut came soon afterwards, against Oxford University.

By 1977 he became a regular feature for Glamorgan, and continued to remain the same till 1979. The three seasons fetched him 114 First-Class wickets at 27.08. It was, however, in the limited-overs format that he thrived most, with 75 wickets at 19.48 at 3.97 per over.

The 1977 Gillette Cup was, of course, the highest point of his career, where he took Glamorgan to the final. He also played splendidly in the John Player League. In the entire season he went wicketless only once from 14 matches.

The best performance came at Trent Bridge, where Nottinghamshire, chasing 191, were cruising at 154 for 4. Enter Wilkins. An inspired five-wicket blitz led Glamorgan to a 7-run victory. He finished with figures of 6.5-0-32-5. The next season he routed Worcestershire for 104 at New Road with 11-4-17-5.

Had the form continued for another couple of years, Wilkins may have been a serious contender for the England One-Day International side. Unfortunately, that was not to happen.

The injury, and beyond

Wilkins quit Glamorgan for Gloucestershire at the peak of his form. He later reminisced: “I had left Glamorgan CCC at the end of 1979, which at the time seemed the right thing to do, but maybe in later life, I may have regretted leaving my Welsh county. But two years with Gloucestershire definitely made me a better cricketer and I had hopes of playing for England.”

It was not the only role he took up for Gloucestershire. He headed a small tea that was engaged in marketing to obtain sponsors in and around Bristol, Cheltenham, and South-West England.

Wilkins had an excellent 1980, with 52 wickets at 23.94. The next season was not a great one, but he registered his best figures that season. He claimed 8 for 57 against Lancashire at Old Trafford, and his wickets included those of Graeme Fowler, Clive Lloyd, and David Lloyd.

That winter he had a stint in South Africa as player and coach in Pretoria. A 7-3-12-2 for Northern Transvaal on Datsun Cup debut was impressive. He also played a Currie Cup match, dismissing an unrelated Chris Wilkins of Natal.

The shoulder injury happened in February, but it seemed he had recovered at that point. Unfortunately, when he returned to the harsh cold of England, the pain took a severe form. He could not grip the ball properly. Subsequent surgeries followed, and Wilkins missed the 1982 season.

He went back to South Africa again that winter. This time he went to Johannesburg, playing for The Wanderers Club. He returned to Glamorgan that summer. Opening bowling in his first match of the Championship against Essex at Cardiff, he had Brian Hardie caught by John Hopkins first ball. Unfortunately, he could not sustain the stress of lasting a full English season anymore. He quit First-Class cricket and left for Johannesburg that winter.

Alan Wilkins in action. Photo Courtesy: Goals and Wickets
Alan Wilkins in action. Photo Courtesy: Goals and Wickets

Second innings

It had all started in 1983. Ron Jones of BBC Radio Wales asked Wilkins asked him for a stint at the commentary box. Wilkins enjoyed it thoroughly, but at that point of time he had probably not realised the stature his second role would make him a popular figure across the globe.

There was already a Bachelor of Education Degree in Sports Science, History and Psychology from Loughborough University, an experience that he later mentioned was a life-changing one.

Wilkins worked for South Africa Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), and went on to work as Editor, Sport for English Radio Service of SABC from January 1984 to August 1987. During this phase he commentated on cricket, rugby, golf, and boxing, and hosted Formula One Grand Prix.

Wilkins was named SAB Radio Sports Journalist of the Year, Benson & Hedges Radio Commentator of the Year, and Nissan Media Man of the Year in 1986-87.

Back to the British Isles in 1987, Wilkins worked for BBC Wales. He anchored the Rugby Special Wales Series (later Scrum V) and cricket matches. His stints also included Wales World Cup and European Championship Qualifying Football tournaments and British Open Squash.

SABC asked him to commentate on South Africa’s historic 1994 tour to England as well as World Cup Rugby 1995.

The ESPNStar offer came during India’s 1996 tour of England. The same season saw him make his Wimbledon debut. He joined hands with Vijay Amritraj in 1998, and commentated in Wimbledon, US Open, and Australian Open.

He became a regular feature at ESPNStar in the 2000s, commentating on (mostly Indian) cricket matches throughout the world. He made the news in 2003 when Navjot Sidhu was overheard verbally abusing Wilkins on air during a Bangladesh-South Africa encounter at Dhaka. Sidhu did not work for ESPNStar for very long after the incident.

Alan Wilkins © Getty Images
Alan Wilkins © Getty Images

He was also a host of the ESPNStar golf coverage from 2004 to 2009, and became the leading golf commentator and presenter for golf in the Asia-Pacific region. He covers cricket, golf, rugby, and tennis with equal proficiency, bringing a rare tone of dignity in the madness of Indian Premier League.

Additionally, he has commentated in Formula One Grand Prix, Barclays Premiership Football, Serie A, La Liga, and Champions League Football as well as Vancouver Winter Olympics, 2010 and London Olympics, 2012.

Based in Singapore, Wilkins still makes the customary annual trip to Rhiwbina during his annual Wimbledon tour.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)