'Twenty20 is baseball'

Former South African batsman Daryll Cullinan, now a commentator, shares his thoughts in an exclusive chat.

Former South African cricketer Daryll Cullinan.   -  S. DINAKAR

'It is difficult to replace a player like Jacques Kallis.'   -  Getty Images

A.B. de Villiers and Virat Kohli... a treat to watch them bat.   -  VIVEK BENDRE

A gifted stroke-maker in his time, Daryll Cullinan was a key member of the formidable South African line-up in the 1990s. He was someone who coaxed the ball through the empty spaces, possessed footwork and timing.

Cullinan’s numbers in international cricket — 4554 runs in 70 Tests at 44.21 and 3860 runs in 138 ODIs at 32.99 — does not quite reflect his ability.

Now a commentator, Cullinan shared his thoughts in an exclusive interview with Sportstar.

Question: South Africa is the No. 1 Test team in the world but has lost giants such as Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith who have retired from international cricket. Can South Africa retain its top place in Tests?

Answer: No. I think South African cricket is going to experience a lean period. It’s going through a transition phase. I don’t think some of the cricketers coming through are going to be quality Test players. I think the whole transformation process is going to hamper our players, in terms of players coming into the system and advancing quickly. Test cricket is not a finishing school. We are seeing players in South Africa who are not even at the top of their game in first-class cricket. I think South Africa will slip to be a middle of the table side. I don’t think South Africa will again regain the heights of the past. South Africa will have periods, we will have good teams but overall we will slip in standings, competing between five and six.

Kallis has stunning numbers as an all-rounder. Given his record, don’t you think he is often under-rated as a mutli-dimensional player?

He was a cricketer who amassed amazing figures. He wasn’t a game changer. If I have to be critical of him, Kallis never turned a game on its head with the bat. You never saw him grab the ball and take four or five wickets in a spell. He was an accumulator of runs, never really destructive. That’s the way he chose to play. There were moments when the side needed him to take the game away from the opposition. He chose rather to accumulate his runs. His place in the list is questionable if one asks ‘Who is the most match-winning all-rounder?’ It’s questionable if he is up there with the likes of Sobers, Miller, Kapil, Botham, they could change the game.

Around 1998-99, Kallis was quick with the ball and swung the ball late. But he was developing back problems and so he had to modify his action where he lost a bit of pace.

But all said, Kallis was a remarkable cricketer. Just look at his fielding, he was outstanding. You don’t and can’t replace a player like him.

What are your impressions on India’s Virat Kohli?

He is an attacking player. I like his style. I like the way he takes the game to the opposition. He also strikes me as a batsman who may go through periods where he struggles. He seems a little bit vulnerable outside the off-stump. There again, he is playing all three formats. Mentally, that’s going to be his challenge, moving effortlessly between the formats. But like A. B. de Villiers, if you sit down and watch him bat, he will grab your attention. He’s a good player off the back-foot.

How would you compare the two great South African pacemen, Allan Donald and Dale Steyn?

Different sort of bowlers. Allan wasn’t really a swinger of the ball. Allan was quicker. Steyn is a shorter, skiddier bowler. He bowls a genuine away swinger. It swings off his hands but good batsmen who pick it up early can cope with him better. The dangerous ball is the one that is coming at you, swings late. That’s been Steyn’s great strength. He gets a lot closer to the stumps. Allan bowled more from wider of the stumps. Steyn is more skilful than Allan, but not as consistently quick as Allan. But then, Allan could bowl a lot of overs. His value in terms of pinning down the opposition, getting breakthroughs, is just as good as gold. Two different types of bowlers.

In contemporary cricket, Steyn and England’s James Anderson are two of the top pacemen. How would you assess them?

Anderson still does more with the ball. To me, I would still rate Steyn higher. He offers more pace more regularly, has late swing which is a great attribute. Look at his strike rate, if you give him a spell you are almost guaranteed a wicket.

We are seeing the overall quality of batting come down. What is the key to good footwork?

I think you have to be athletic. You got to be quick on your feet. I always remember Bobby Simpson’s quote. He said, ‘You got to move quickly, you got to move late, you got to move once.’ That in my opinion creates the illusion of time. Bradman wrote in his book that his reflexes were no better than an ordinary cricketer. He didn’t see the ball earlier than the other cricketers. But he moved quickly, late and only once. If you look at the great players, they didn’t shuffle around much. Their head was still. Again, you got to be athletic, you got to have strong legs. Look at Tendulkar or a Kallis or a Vivian Richards, they could move.

Your strength isn’t under the eyes anymore. Nor are you playing with soft hands. You are not getting to the ball. There is a lot of pushing at the ball, a lot of that comes from guys spending so much time on the bowling machine. They are more upright, they push harder at the ball. That’s what we saw from the Australian batsmen. Good footwork has to complement your defence. The ability to leave the ball… you don’t see that so much now. Because of the Twenty20 and one-day cricket, batsmen go at the ball.

Leaving deliveries outside off is an art, isn’t it?

Your head got to be still, it has got to be in a good position. If you set up your eyeline in your stance, if the ball is outside your right eye at the point of delivery, you know it is outside the off-stump. Anything outside your eyeline is outside off-stump. There is a method to it. If your head is moving around a lot, you lose where your off-stump is. Steve Smith’s dismissal at Trent Bridge — he was so far outside the off-stump. If he had stood still, the ball would have missed off-stump by a foot and a half. I have never seen the great defensive players of the past move so much as some of the present day batsmen.

Who were the great defensive batsmen you saw in the last decade?

In recent times Kallis and Tendulkar, when they wanted to be defensive, if you take their records around the world. Jacques to me was the No. 1, defensively. He batted through some difficult times for South Africa in difficult conditions.

Many believe making runs in Test cricket has become easier.

In Test cricket today, there are some easy runs, some soft runs. Pitches are better today than they ever were. I have spoken to many past cricketers who are watching cricket today and not one person has said to me that the pitches were easier then. At times, in South Africa, we played on pitches where we could not distinguish the outfield from the wicket, both were so green.

How would you rate Hashim Amla, such a smooth-stroking batsman for South Africa?

I think he is a wonderful player. The great thing about him is that he has sorted the technical issues out. He’s so valuable, has an excellent conversion rate. But he has been playing for South Africa in all three formats. He’s not a Twenty20 player. He’s become a bit loose, technically.

Don’t you feel the heavy bats that many of the present batsmen use today are hampering them instead of enhancing their overall game?

Everyone makes such a fuss about how thick the bat is. I don’t think it has to do with the thickness. It’s about the weight of the bat. The heavier bats are not good, you hold on to it too much, you tend to push at the ball. You see more hard hands as well.

The lighter the bat, the more comfortable it is in your hands. If you see great strokemakers like Vivian Richards or Barry Richards, they never used bats more than 2.6 pounds. Now there are no bats lesser than 2.8, and we are talking about junior bats.

Which are the Test innings that you cherish?

My innings of 275 in New Zealand, which was a South African record. That gave me a lot of satisfaction. A hundred against England at the Wanderers was nice too.

You were considered as someone with prodigious talent. Are you satisfied with your returns?

No, I should have scored more runs. There were times when I gave it away easily. I was an attacking player, that’s the way I wanted to be. I should have played for ‘not outs’ with the tail (laughs) but I always wanted to score runs.

You had your problems against Shane Warne.

Obviously, he is a great bowler. If I look back now, I would have swept him. That was a shot I was stubborn not to play against him at that time.

The batsman who has impressed you most in present-day cricket...

Joe Root, probably. I think he is quite organised. The most accomplished all-round player would be de Villiers.

Where do you think South Africa has fallen short when it comes to big moments and big matches in the ICC events?

In the 1999 World Cup, Zimbabwe, a team that we never lost to before, beat us at Chelmsford. That’s where we actually lost out. In the big moments, we haven’t thought well, we haven’t had the right sort of thinking, and I think it has been more of that than anything else.

What can you tell us about South Africa’s nightmarish debacle against Australia in the World Cup semifinal of 1999? You were a part of the side.

Not a word was said after the match. We were so stunned. We looked like winning, they (the Aussies) looked like winning and we came back from the dead. The score was tied. With four balls remaining, a single would have done for us. Probably one of those things best left, not understood. It happened, it’s gone. It was a big blow.

You believe that cricketers should not be playing across formats.

I definitely think so. It is something I have spoken about for some time. The difficulty the modern batsmen face is they are playing three formats. A lot of them want to play Twenty20 cricket because it gives them the opportunity for IPL contracts, which are lucrative.

Many struggle despite batting becoming easier on flat tracks. In the 1990s, in South Africa, it was recognised as the most difficult place to bat in the world. We are great fast bowlers and the conditions were prepared to suit them. Batsmen trying to be equally good in all three formats today, has led to deterioration in defensive technique and appreciating the value of defence. This is getting exposed more and more now. I was among the first players to opt out of one-day cricket after a particular stage of my career. Now we see selection across formats.

Leave Twenty20 out. Twenty20 is baseball in my opinion, it’s not real cricket. In one-day cricket, you are playing at lengths and lines that you would normally defend or leave. The balls outside off, you would leave in Test cricket. As much as technique, it’s the mindset. In my humble opinion, a player playing in all the formats has his technique and mind-set adversely impacted. You get some rare exceptions. A. B. de Villiers is one. He can move so comfortably.

I think your top five in Test cricket should not be playing Twenty20 cricket. That is something I would not compromise on.

Should the respective Boards compensate these cricketers for missing out on Twenty20 cricket?

That could be one way but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they would get IPL contracts. It doesn’t necessarily mean they have a game suited to that. I would have said that if you want to play for South Africa, and we feel that’s where you are best suited, take it or leave it. Ultimately your value to the country lies in Test cricket. As a player, Twenty20 could be your biggest source of income, it is a big source of income to the Boards as well. It’s an interesting one. But as a cricketer, your value as a cricketer, not just the financial value, is in being recognised as a very, very, Test cricketer. It may not give you the financial rewards, but it would certainly earn you the respect of the cricketing world. What can help is categorising and telling the cricketers, “You are a Test player, you are more a one-day cricketer and you are a Twenty20 specialist.” Even from one-day cricket, I will be very selective about players who play Twenty20. In my opinion, the one-day and Twenty20 cricket are eroding defensive cricket.

A majority of contemporary batsmen in Test cricket often struggle in conditions where the ball seams or swings. We saw that with Australia in the decisive third and fourth Test of the recent Ashes.

Having played county cricket, if you look at, probably, the middle of the 1990s, things started to change for the worse. Earlier, a lot of the batsmen plied their trade in England, even the great players. It gave them the advantage of playing against the moving ball, through the air or off the pitch. The great West Indian, Australian and cricketers from other counties… they all played county cricket for the entire season. You played more tour games then when you toured England.

The batsmen of today are not getting exposed as much because of the amount of cricket. There is not a lot of time spent, playing county cricket. Those who are there are not your ‘A’ list players and some of them play more Twenty20 cricket there. The confidence of dealing with the swinging and the moving ball declines. The guys who play county cricket, they do it all day there. It can only improve your game.

Too many batsmen today are getting caught at the crease, play away from the body.

Playing late, under the eye, not big back swing, is crucial. We see Steve Smith, he has a massive backswing. The hands have to travel quickly into the ball. Look at a Gavaskar or a Tendulkar, a Kallis, everything was compact. The hands and the bat never got away from the body. It was all down the line, good footwork, bat and pad together. Too many players are playing out in front, contributing to that is a lot of bowling machine practice. Playing deliveries from the bowling machine is easy. You just have to hit through the line. There is not enough emphasis on footwork.

Where do you think the Ashes was won and lost?

England, to beat Australia, quickly worked out, to their credit that they had to play the Australians on pitches with some life. That was a bold approach by them. It exposed some of the Australian technique.