Former cricketer turned TV commentator analyses whether cricket is a game for gentlemen.
Interviewed by Jo Reynolds
How long have you lived here?
Since 1995. I grew up in Ealing but when I got married we fancied living nearer the centre and here was nice and green and affordable.
Cricket is the second most watched sport in the world, thanks perhaps to 2bn Indians and Pakistanis, yet some assume it's dull. How would you introduce them to cricket's appeal?
Cricket is the city version of going to the beach. You sit in the sun and look out over a green sea. Occasionally something whizzes by, just like a speedboat, or someone shouts and you look up. You relax into the ebb and flow. And it's the best way to spend a day with someone, more relaxed than going out for a meal because you're not face to face. There are no expectations. And even if you know nothing about cricket, watching is the best way to learn. Watch one player for 20 minutes, watch what they do at the end of each over, and then watch someone else. Or the crowd. It's perfect for people-watching.
Cricket is the city version of going to the beach
Your father, Peter Hughes, still alive at 94, was an actor, a familiar face on TV (eg Bergerac) and many classic films (eg David Lean's A Passage To India, John Boorman's Hope And Glory and Alan Parker's Evita). Were you tempted to follow his thespian footsteps?
Definitely not. I had no talent. Once I was in a school play. I was in the same class as Hugh Grant at Latymer School. He played a girl and I was an extra. I tripped and destroyed half the set. Never again.
Is there any rivalry between you and your younger sister Bettany Hughes, the history broadcaster?
No. I don't particularly like history but I really like her stuff. I admire her passion. We must share a performance gene and a passion for facts. Our mother was a writer and actress.
You were a successful county cricketer (12 seasons for championship winners Middlesex and 2 for Durham). What got you into cricket?
There was a cricket club at the end of our road and my father loved the game. Being an actor, he wasn't always working so often picked us up from school. He had a big estate car and would pick me up plus enough friends to play in the park. It snowballed, his enthusiasm and mine as he watched me improve.
Known for your bowling, which batsmen did you most enjoy bowling out?
Viv Richards, twice, once for nought. And Sachin Tendulkar. When I told my kids, they didn’t believe me and looked up the scores. They all play: Callum (18) is a decent bowler; Nancy (16) played for England Ladies' Under 16s; and Billy (13) captains his school, a clever all-rounder.
Did you pressurize them to play?
No, but I imagine the oldest felt pressure to play. His nickname is Yozzer Junior, like mine. It's a Lancastrian version of Hughes.
Cricket is now big business. Has the pay improved and what do professional cricketers earn now?
Alastair Cook, the England Test captain, might be on £6–700,000. All-rounders like Joe Root and Ben Stokes will be on a million, insignificant next to the Indians. M S Dhoni (India's limited-overs captain) earns £20–30 million. I don't begrudge them a penny. Look at their audience.
The game has sped up to include 20-over matches. Some purists say 5-day Test matches are like classical music, ODIs (one-day internationals) are pop, and T20 (20-over matches) are rap, not proper music. Which do you prefer? Fast or slow?
I love them all. The analogy I'd use is food. Test cricket is a 4-course meal with plenty of time to savour every ingredient, whereas Twenty20 is a drive-through, tasty but doesn't leave you with much. But, it taps into a new market. I would have loved to play Twenty20. It's cricket without the boring bits. Cricket is always developing. In the 1700s they experimented with one-day games and eight-a-side. Cricket's greatest asset is its flexibility.
Are cricketers fitter than in your day?
Massively. We only started training a week before the season began. John Emburey and Phil Edmonds (Middlesex colleagues) would drive from the Lord’s pavilion to the Nursery for nets, about 200 yards. When we went running, Mike Gatting (Middlesex and England captain) often used a shortcut. The fitness was poor but the standard of play in the eighties was staggering. The best, like Botham and Boycott, would be better than the best now.
Did you have any superstitious rituals before you played?
I was notoriously late so had no time for rituals, but some players are odd. Some batsmen won't eat duck the night before. If Mark Ramprakash (England batsman) was not out at the day's end he put his lucky chewing gum on the top of his bat handle and carried on chewing it the next day. Neil McKenzie, the South African, refused to tread on the white lines and Jonathan Trott (England batsman) kept checking his guard, even when the game was over.
You retired in 1993 and became a journalist with columns in The Telegraph, Independent and Times. You're editor of The Cricketer Magazine now. After a life outdoors, how did you handle being stuck inside behind the keyboard?
The adjustment is hard. There's no way of judging how well you've done. In sport, there's the score. Journalism is just a matter of opinion.
Clearly you can write because you won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 1997 for your autobiography, but do you actually like writing? Wouldn't you rather be playing?
You grow out of playing. I miss it but you grow older and realise you can't do it any more. I love writing. I always wrote silly match reports. And long letters home. And I kept diaries. They've been a great source of material since.
You moved to TV and become known as The Analyst, first on Channel 4 and then Cricket on 5. Have you always been analytical?
When we were waiting to bat some players read the paper or slept, but I always watched the game. I'm always analyzing. The other day in the local Co-Op, I took a family pack of Andrex to the cashier and this Indian guy suggested their own brand because it's half price. I weighed the two packs and told him his was less than half the weight and he laughed and said: Simon, you even analyze toilet paper.
Some call cricket the gentleman's game but the levels of 'sledging' (intimidating the batsman) is reputedly on the rise. Do you agree or was it always thus?
Cricket has never been a gentleman's game. I was a fast bowler and if a batsman was annoying or cocky, I'd bowl at his body. It can still be quite bad at club level, but not Test, with stump mics picking everything up. The MCC have been trialing red and yellow cards, and a sin bin next year, but as long as players shake hands at the end I think it's part of the competition.
The MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club, which makes the game's rules and still owns their copyright) were branded sexist for refusing female membership until 1998. Is cricket doing enough to include women?
I'm on the MCC committee, on a three-year stint, and we are trying. We need more women running and coaching the game, and better facilities. For example, my daughter plays for the Ealing Ladies and they have to use the local park ground in Hanwell when the boys are on the club ground. They should take it in turns.
Will men and women ever compete together?
I'd like to see it. There is a strength disparity, and the women's ball is a little lighter, but there's no reason why women can't spin better than men. And if helmets and arm guards are good enough for men... My daughter handles fast bowlers better than the boys.
Sharing the commentary booth with Geoffrey Boycott OBE, how do you get a word in?
It's almost impossible. He doesn't stop talking from 10am when he arrives to 7pm when he leaves. He has the most amazing energy. He watches the game like a hawk. He can be cantankerous but he is also hilarious.
Do great cricketers have a certain aura?
They all have a self-confidence, but it masks their insecurity. All great players want to be adored and if you poke them you'll expose their vulnerability. Except Don Bradman (the Australian, widely considered the greatest batsman ever).
What's their secret ingredient?
There's a genetic advantage, but it's nearly all about character, their determination and focus. Botham blocked everything out. Viv Richards crushed his opponents' spirit by knocking them to pieces and when he'd done that he'd toy with them. Boycott was a machine, pure diligence, endless practice.
What's the future for cricket?
The future is good. People are getting bored of football and cricket is opening up in Nepal, Japan, the USA and China. China's women are quite decent actually. The key here is getting cricket back on terrestrial television – and getting it into the Olympics. Joe Root will become the greatest batsman England has ever had, but today he can walk down the street hardly recognised.
Thank you, Simon. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.
Interviewed November 2016
Headshot by Teresa Walton © teresawaltonphotos.com