Wicketkeeping master shares his thoughts on 2015 Ashes.
His genial tones are now part of the soundtrack of our summer, routinely piped into our lounge rooms via the Nine Network’s cricket coverage, but it’s easy for anyone under 30 to fail to appreciate what an outstanding cricketer Ian Healy was. Thrust into a faltering Australian team in 1988 after just six first-class appearances, he found himself touring first to Pakistan under the captaincy of Allan Border, then the following year off to England for the 1989 Ashes in the famous “worst Australian touring side ever” – only to win 4-0 and reclaim that funny little urn. Healy would be literally at the very centre of Australian cricket’s revival through the 1990s as they collected the biggest prizes in the game and took over the world number one ranking in both forms of the game. He was a fastidious operator, competent back-up captain, immaculate gloveman and more than handy batsman, with four Test centuries to his name. He was one of Wisden’s Cricketers of the Year in 1994, claimed the world record for most dismissals by a wicketkeeper in 1998, and has since been inducted into the Cricket Hall of Fame. This month, he’s one of the key commentators behind Nine’s coverage of the Ashes Tour, which will be broadcast on Gem when it isn’t being broadcast on Nine. He took time out to yarn with Inside Sport editor Graem Sims.
How does it feel to be chosen again to represent Australia on an Ashes tour?
Hah, yeah, very good. It’s exciting to go over there and have a look.
Any tension when you’re waiting for the big call to see if you’ve been selected for the commentary team?
Not really. I’ve got plenty to do. It was the same when I was a player. If you get picked you get picked and if you get dropped ... bad luck – you haven’t done your job. And if you don’t get picked, keep going with what you’re doing.
So, who’s going to win?
I think Australia will win. I don’t know how convincingly. I don’t see England beating us in any Test unless Broad really has a good two-hour period like last series in Durham. Anderson will be the rock-solid one – but their third bowling option and their spinner is a worry for them. And they’ve got this new batting line-up at the same time as Australia is very set in their line-up. So I don’t see them winning a Test match against us. But I wonder just how many we will win. England will probably be able to hold their own on a couple of occasions, so whatever the win is to Australia, I’m predicting it will be to nil.
Is Stuart Broad the guy most likely to rattle us? Do you put him ahead of James Anderson as a danger to the Australians?
No, I don’t. Anderson is world-class and in his own conditions he’s at his peak – he’s a given. We know how well he’ll play. But they need Broad to come good from last summer here in Australia. And they could thrive when the ball starts to reverse swing. So those two are a handful. But I worry about the rest of their bowling attack.
Who are the Poms going to be worried about on our side? Is Steve Smith going to be keeping them awake?
No, you have sleepless nights more about the devastating players. You know: Warner at the top of the order. Then the consistency of Smith and Clarke is a handful, but you grind away against that, because they hurt you slow. It’s the explosive players who can hurt you fast. They should be a relentless force to play against – just that constant pressure should be enough to wake a few Poms up at night.
You were famous for your dedication to training drills in your playing days. How do you prepare for commentary? Are you as fastidious about your work now as you were when you were playing?
Well, it turns from physical and technical to the psychological – so not much that needs to be done. You brush up on the current form of players – though the IPL confuses me every year. I’ve got no idea how people have gone and who they’ve played for. I try to find out about it but then I forget about it – it doesn’t stick in the head.
So what does your morning look like on the day of a Test match?
Generally it’s a bit of exercise, a bit of breakfast and off you go. You get into the commentary box an hour before on-air. And we generally go on air an hour before the game, so two hours before the game starts, you start preparing your content and delivery for what you’re going to do in that pre-show. You prepare for what might happen on this given day – who’s bowling, who’s batting, when the big moments are likely to be on.
Any alcohol ban during a Test match?
No. Only during the hours of play (laughs). Though in the past there wasn’t! I believe (Alan) McGilvray drank scotch, maybe (John) Arlott – the best boys loved it through the day. I don’t think it would hurt – you’d just need to be careful to manage it the right way. With the social media that’s around today, if you make a blue you’re in trouble ...
I imagine it’s been a sad time for the Nine team losing Richie Benaud this year. Can you give us a Richie story about how he influenced you?
It was his general persona – just refusing to get lazy, to always look into things in the game of cricket. He was forever reading and forever writing, which required research and further reading. He just refused to get lazy. And that’s what I mainly took out of Richie Benaud. But yeah, it’s another hole in the commentary box, that’s for sure; following up Tony Greig with Richie is not good. Tony was very, very heavily missed by us around the commentary box and the media circle. He was a man who always had a theory going. He always had a contact or two talking stuff in Sri Lanka or India – there was always something bubbling around Greiggy, and that is seriously missed. Again, he was a wonderful lover of the game.
Ever been starstruck meeting your cricket idols? I’ve been watching old footage of your testimonial match – you gathered quite a line-up ...
I was starstruck early in my first Test on my first tour when I was catapulted into the side. I don’t think I’d even played against everyone that was in the team. And certainly didn’t know anyone to any great extent. And yeah, there were a few times at my testimonial game when I didn’t really know what to say, hanging out with all the boys from around the world.
Brad Haddin. How good is he?
Well, he’s good. I was disappointed with his first 25 Tests where he didn’t transition from NSW to Australia comfortably; he just wasn’t keeping for Australia the way he kept for NSW. So there was work to be done on him. But he’s got it right now. He got through some injuries and he came home once. But he’s really settled into a great rhythm and has been a better than consistent performer the last three or four years and that’s great ... he’s a consistent performer with brilliant days. And that’s what you want.
Do you know him well? Has he ever asked for your advice?
Yeah, we’ve been working together closely for the last couple of years. We’ve always been close, but there’s always been ’keeping coaches in there – so he’s had “Stumper” (Steve Rixon) at NSW and other ’keeping coaches along the way. But the last couple of years he’s come to me and we’ve worked very hard together, actually. We’ve had sessions for the last 10 or 15 years, but a few things have finally dawned on him in the last couple of years where he’s gone, “So, that’s why you did that ... ”
Got an example of that?
Well, I have a golf ball drill that I always teach to kids and elite ’keepers. It’s one drill as a wicketkeeper you don’t need anyone else to do; you don’t need anyone to throw or hit something, which is what some team-mates get cranky with. So you go and work on a lot of valuable things on your own, whether it be your posture or your leg power or watching the ball into your hands. But it takes some time to feel the rhythm in that drill, and he’d never really given it enough time. It was only prior to the West Indies tour this year that I said, “That’s as good as I’ve seen you do that.” And he said, “Yeah, I’ve just worked out how good it is!” I reckon I first taught him the drill about 15 years ago at the Academy in Adelaide and he hadn’t really given it the time or felt the value of it until now.
You used to find a basement car park, didn’t you?
Yeah, anything. Anywhere with decent surfaces that would allow you to practise what you need to. Plenty of time cricketers leave practice and they didn’t quite get enough or weren’t happy with how they went – that’s a drill that can top that off for you.
Who’s going to be our next Australian wicketkeeper?
I think they’ve got it right. Once they demonstrated that they weren’t going to pick Chris Hartley, who I thought was the best gloveman in the country and had been for some time, I think Peter Nevill is the next one. I think they’ve got the right man in the wings anyway, so let’s see if and when he’s ever needed. Haddin and I would say you wouldn’t finish after an Ashes series – unless you get dropped. But Ashes series, on to summer – that might pull Hadds up.
I know you’ve probably been asked this a hundred times. But you were behind the stumps when Shane Warne delivered his first ball in an Ashes series in England (‘93). Did you get as big a surprise as Mike Gatting did?
No, I didn’t. I mean, the freakish thing about it was that it swung viciously and then spun just enough, and Gatt was just slow enough, and it just clipped the off stump, so it was all a series of just perfects. We’d seen him bowl that ball before in New Zealand on the tour just prior to that, so that type of shape and control, line and length and spin didn’t surprise us. But to do it against the batsman with the biggest reputation against spin, and to just clip his off stump, on your first ball, that was the freakish thing about it. It was on that NZ tour when he had to start pitching the ball outside leg, because they were missing the ball by six inches. So that shape he’d already worked on.
Any other bowler give you that sense of anticipation that something amazing might be about to happen when they took the ball? Was Warne the best bowler you ever kept to?
Yeah, he would have been the best. And a delight to keep to for the first three and a half days. The last day and a half becomes a real challenge. And a delight to captain through all that, I’d imagine. He was able to stay economical on day one in Perth, for example; bowl into a breeze and let the quicks come downwind. It still wouldn’t have worked as well if the bowlers at the other end weren’t that flash, so the young McGrath was great to come through and bookend with Warne, and then you put two other quicks in there who could really let rip, so those two bookended some great performances for a long, long time – mainly after I finished. I thought the side just after 2000 should be called one of the best sides in the history of cricket.
Who were the others?
Well, they’d go next to Chappell’s era, Bradman’s era and the Invincibles, Armstrong. But I think the best cricket side there’s ever been, the strongest combination, was the West Indies between 1980 and 1995 – certainly the early ’80s. You have to be careful because not all the greats played in the one team, but I think the West Indies could assemble the best side cricket’s ever seen.
And there you were knocking them off over there in ’95 ...
Well, they were pretty weak then by comparison. I mean Viv, Gordon, Dessie, all finished. And they were down to Curtly and Courtney, so Malcolm wasn’t there. It wasn’t the side we wanted to beat – we tried to have a go in ’91 at beating them when that team was there, but we couldn’t. So we had to wait till the team changed. And that’s why England’s been pretty disappointing, I reckon. Since 2005 when they beat our good side in that great Ashes series, they then lost the next series five-nil. That’s just unacceptable. If you beat the number-one side, you’ve got to be close to the number one side ... And they just dropped off the earth.
Tickertape parade in ’95, though. There was a lot of celebration of that win.
Yeah, well, we had a couple – the ’89 Ashes, when we reclaimed them back after a while. But the West Indies hadn’t been beaten home or away for 15 years, so it was big. Looking back, we should have won in ’91, but it was just so foreign to think you could beat the West Indies in the West Indies.
When was the last time you trotted out your bowling impersonations?
Long time ago, but I’m the right shape for a lot of them now. I don’t need the cushion up the shirt for Merv!