Simon Doull looked set to have a long career with New Zealand when he made his debut in 1992. Indeed, if injuries had not blighted his career, he would have played a lot more than the 32 Tests and 42 One-Day Internationals he ended up with in a stop-start eight-year career. Doull could work up pace and swing, and ended up with 98 wickets in Test cricket. But once his playing days were done, Doull made a smooth transition to the commentary box. He has quickly become among the best analysts among former players, bringing his deep knowledge of the game together with thorough homework to provide viewers with genuine value when he is on air. On the sidelines of the Champions Trophy 2017, Doull – who is part of the commentary panel – took some time off to chat with Wisden India on a range of issues from whether international T20s should be played to the lack of non-cricketers in commentary boxes. Excerpts:
How do you think New Zealand has handled the transition from Brendon McCullum to Kane Williamson?
The change from McCullum to Williamson was always going to be huge. It was going to be vastly different. They’re two completely different characters. Brendon flies by the seat of his pants. He is an outrageous cricketer, an outrageous talent. Kane is very methodical, very thoughtful about the game, he’s what we’d call a cricket nuffie, a guy who doesn’t stop thinking about the game. Brendon just played it by instinct; he was brilliantly talented at it and still is. The transition has been very different. I don’t think we’re any worse, I still think we’re a good side. We probably lack a world class spinner and that’s something that New Zealand have struggled with. We’re trying to find one in Mitchell Santner. He’s a very good all-rounder but he’s not a world-class spinner. Will he be in time? Maybe. When I look at our domestic scene, it’s just about that next crop of batsmen, who’s coming through that can do a Taylor job or a Williamson job at four or five. That’s New Zealand’s issues at the moment.
Santner has shown a lot of promise. What does he need to do in the next few years to do the sort of role Daniel Vettori did for New Zealand?
The problem with our guys is that they don’t play enough domestic cricket; they don’t play any four-day cricket. Mitchell Santner needs a season of four-day cricket, bowling 35-40 overs in a game for four or five games in a row, and learning the art of bowling. We just don’t get time for that because they’re always playing international cricket. So he’s a young kid who’s played more international cricket than for his domestic association. New Zealand have got some time off after the Champions Trophy, and then we go back to India in September or October for a tri-series or something. It’s some good time off. For Mitchell Santner it’ll just be about playing some cricket in England, getting some overs under his belt. That’s one of the things he really needs to do.
As a swing bowler, what do you make of pitches even in England – the home of swing bowling – becoming as batting friendly as they are during tournaments like the Champions Trophy?
What we’ve seen around the world, and even in India, with the great drainage systems – people are finding it hard to get water into the pitches, to hold moisture in, grow the grass and get seam movement out of them. We’ve seen that in England quite a bit of late. That certainly doesn’t help. As far as the Champions Trophy and the World Cup and those tournaments are concerned, you want to see runs. So, as a bowler in the day that I played, I wouldn’t like it. As a commentator now, I probably don’t mind it so much!
How does one bowl on batting friendly pitches?
You’ve got to find different ways, innovations. Certain sides and certain bowlers get it right. They bowl to the big side of the ground if there’s one, a lot of good slower balls. We’re seeing more and more knuckle balls and different varieties of slower balls. The bowlers are still thinking about it but some of these tournaments and games are going to be massive-scoring and that’s what a lot of people want to see.
India has a good pace attack for this tournament. What are your thoughts on the bowlers?
It is an interesting one for me. There’s two guarantees for me, Umesh Yadav and Jasprit Bumrah. Yadav because of his pace and if the ball is going to reverse swing later on and the wickets are dry, then he’s the quickest of the lot. I think he uses reverse swing the best. But I still think there’s an opportunity to (conventionally) swing the ball, and that’s why I’d go with Bhuvneshwar Kumar. They are nice decisions to have to make as a selector or coach. Because you still have Mohammed Shami, who is very, very good, as back-up, and provides good slower balls and yorkers towards the end. What you might lack a little bit at the death if you play Bhuvneshwar Kumar – who can be good at the death – you pick up at the front. I’d go with Bhuvi just in front of Shami at the moment.
Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin also played key roles when India won the Champions Trophy last time. Do you think spinners can still be effective?
We haven’t seen too much spin; they’re just flat wickets. But good spinners with flight and deception will still be okay. They’ll still be good enough to get wickets and tie sides down, limit one side of the ground etc. Quality spinners, which both Jadeja and Ashwin are, will be okay.
Which team do you think has the best, or most exciting, pace attack?
Australia has got good potential with Mitchell Starc coming back. I like South Africa’s pace attack, (Kagiso) Rabada’s a fantastic bowler. Chris Morris of course, they’ve got (Morne) Morkel for bounce. You throw in the Indian pace attack. Then New Zealand, the key boys are (Trent) Boult and (Tim) Southee. England have lost (Chris) Woakes, which is a massive blow, but Mark Wood to me looks like a really good bowler. So there’s some good pace bowlers around. They’re just going to have to get something out of these surfaces, try and swing the ball a little bit, maybe go cross seam and see if they get some reverse swing towards the back end. It’s about a little bit of innovation and some patience.
Do you have a favourite for the competition?
It’s hard to have a favourite. I can probably say that I think India, Australia, South Africa and England are looking very good for the semifinals. From then on, it’s just a one-off game. England have their best chance — this is the most aggressive side they’ve picked for a long time. It’s a side that’s capable of getting 350 and chasing 350. They’ve played conservative cricket up until the last World Cup. They’ve made a decision now to be aggressive and that’s the best way they can play. They’re a good side. I can see any one of those four teams winning it.
There’s been some debate about the Champions Trophy. Do you think it’s a tournament with context?
I love it. I think it’s got more context than the World Cup because it’s the eight best teams and it’s all over and done with, in three weeks. We all know that to grow the global game you need World Cups but there is a lot of cricket played in a World Cup that is just not as good as what you’ll see in a Champions Trophy. When you get a side like the West Indies missing out, that’s a massive talking point. This tournament has, right throughout, better cricket. And I think that’s why it should remain.
Could the uncertainty over whether the Champions Trophy should exist have been handled better?
Well I think the next one’s in India isn’t it? After that I’m not sure. But as I said, I like the tournament. I’m a big fan of never playing international T20 cricket. I don’t think there should be any international T20 cricket until there’s a World Cup. All cricket at T20 level should be franchise only. The IPLs, the Big Bashes…so what you’re encouraging people to do then is go back and watch 50-over cricket. If you want to see India play, you can only watch 50-over cricket. You can’t ever watch India play T20 Internationals unless it’s at a World T20. Then you’re saying to the franchises, ‘Go and make the money off your T20. We’re not going to disturb that by trying to take gate takings for an international T20 match.’
To me, that would also give 50 over cricket a little more context and a little more relevance as well and more popularity. That’s the way I’d go about it. The only problem I guess with that is that it’s a money-spinner for the boards and that’s where they might lose that.
But speaking of franchise cricket, almost every country has a league coming up now. Isn’t that going to affect international cricket?
No I don’t think so. I think players still want to play for their country. What players have to realise is that you don’t get noticed at these big tournaments unless you play well for your country. Very few players get noticed from a New Zealand domestic competition. The Big Bash may be slightly different, but generally you play for your country, you get noticed and you get paid the big dollars in franchise tournaments. That’s always how it’s going to work. The odd player is going to get picked up from nowhere and paid a lot of money, but it doesn’t happen very often. So I don’t see anybody missing out or degrading the competition in any way at all.
You’ve made a smooth transition from playing to commentary. How much do you enjoy it and how does it compare to being on the field?
People ask about my job and I always tell them that I don’t have a job – I have a lifestyle that pays! Because it’s not a job. I get to do something that I love because I was okay at a game that I played. And that’s how I look at it. It’s nothing like a job. There’s people out there that work a heck of a lot harder (in life) than I do. And I get to travel the world and talk about an amazing product, an amazing game and still catch up and meet with a lot of people I played with and against, make new friends. And I don’t have to train! (Laughs) Don’t have to practise, don’t have to do any of that stuff that we didn’t like when we were playing. Look, it’s wonderful. People do daily jobs around the world that are a lot harder than what I have to do on a daily basis here.
You seem totally prepared when you go on air. How much homework goes into it?
Look, I prepare a lot. I make sure that I know (what I’m talking about). I think having a surname like Doull can be mispronounced a lot. That’s something that I try working on a lot. Particularly in India, try getting the pronunciation of names right. I ask the player how do you say it, talk to people and get that right. I think it’s just common courtesy in a lot of ways. I look at games a day and half two days prior to going on air. I won’t be sitting hours and hours studying it but I want to make sure that if a new player is coming on the scene or a young player is coming on the scene, I want to know a little bit about him. I want to know where he is from, has he scored 50s, 100s, has he taken wickets. So there’s study, enough prep goes in to get me by. But also I don’t want to be too prepared where it sounds staged. I want to be able to lift for a moment of madness. To me it’s about the emotion. If you come straight from the field to the commentary box, I think the emotion takes a long time, it takes a while to get there to be able to be excited about the game. I was out of the game for long enough — six-seven years — before I got into the commentary, so I was able to distance myself. I no longer thought I was good enough to play. I knew I couldn’t play the game anymore, so therefore I could talk in an exciting manner about the game and get excited about it.
What do you make of the fact that we don’t have any non-cricketers in the commentary box?
I think that’s the way broadcasters go. I went to radio after cricket. I spent seven years doing radio. So I consider myself a broadcaster now, not an ex-cricketer. The fact that I played cricket has certainly helped. The radio guys around the world are still very much broadcasters who might have played some cricket. Even if they have not played the game, they have good knowledge about the game. What I see from head honchos, the broadcasters, they want ex-players. It gives the modern game relevance. I can understand the T20 concept though I didn’t play T20 and I retired 15 years ago. The guys that have come out of the game now – I look at them and I think we need them, we need to understand this modern game. Because it has changed dramatically in the last 15-20 years. I never feel threatened by a player coming off the field into the commentary box or if there are broadcasters who are good enough who are fully deserving of the job. Unfortunately it’s not up to me.
People tend to have idols as players. Did you idolise anyone in the commentary box?
I’ve never modelled myself on anyone. I’ve tried to be myself. I’ve learnt a lot from Ian Smith over the years in New Zealand. I think he’s very professional. I love listening to him commentate and the way he works and the way he’s performed with Sky in New Zealand. But apart from that I didn’t really listen or try and copy anyone. There are certain guys I love working with, couple of English guys like Athers (Mike Atherton) and Nasser (Hussain) are brilliant to work with. The crew we have got here is exciting. There’s new talent. Brendon McCullum, I’ve mentioned before. The other day, he just wanted to sit down, he wanted to ask me all about how it works. He’s walking into a new realm. But he’s not afraid to ask how it’s done. I think that’s the sign of the modern guy as well. They don’t walk off the field and think they can do it as a right. They want to learn about how it’s done. I think that’s good. So I don’t think I’ve idolised anyone in particular. I really admired Ian Smith, I’ve learnt a lot from him and I’ll continue to do so.