Phil Tufnell is a veteran of the English cricket scene, from his 121 Test wickets to his 17 years and counting as part of BBC’s Test Match Special roster of commentators. With cricket about to make an eagerly anticipated return to terrestrial TV in the UK, we spoke to Phil about the importance of live cricket being broadcast to a national audience, as well as what live cricket has been like without the usual crowds, how England’s spinners are shaping up and whether he prefers commentating on or playing cricket.
“It’s great to have it back on terrestrial TV and for the kids to be able to see their heroes live,” says Phil of the BBC broadcasting live cricket this summer. “After last summer, England winning the World Cup and the fantastic Ashes series, it has really whetted the appetite for it to come back on terrestrial TV. I’m really excited about it and I think we’ll get some great games as well.”
Phil will be part of the BBC’s team for the live matches and has been a fixture on the radio this summer, too, meaning that he’s one of the few lucky souls to have witnessed live international cricket this summer. “It has been a bit challenging and a bit strange, but like the cricketers, you just get into it and you zone in on the cricket which has been very, very high quality,” says Phil of working on and watching cricket in these strange COVID times. “Of course you miss the buzz of getting up and walking to the ground, interacting with people and the noise and the cheers, but it is what it is at the moment and just to have some live cricket, I think its cracking.”
With tours of Sri Lanka and India pencilled in for England this winter, how does he see these tours proceeding? “I think it’s all a little bit up in the air,” suggests Phil. “Joe Root was saying before the third Test against Pakistan that the team should really throw themselves into this Test because it could be the last one for a long time. We don’t know for sure when the next game will be. We’ll just have to wait and see how it all develops with health and safety and guidance from the ICC. It’s baby steps, but it has been great to have it back this summer at least.”
England enjoyed a successful summer, with series wins against both West Indies and Pakistan. As a former spinner himself, where does Phil view England’s current spin options? “Dom Bess hasn’t had a lot of work to do because he’s been bowling behind a wonderful seam attack,” he says. “He’s done his bit but without a lot of opportunity. He’s learning on the job and he’s still young, clearly England are very keen on him and he’s keeping his spot. Jack Leach has had a funny old summer! He’s been locked away in this bubble and it’s very difficult for these guys to get any sort of rhythm to their cricket at the moment. I think they’re doing alright and learning all the time. If they do get the opportunity to go to Sri Lanka and India, that will be their time to shine. They’ll be keen for those tours to go ahead with conditions likely to be more in their favour.”
England’s last tour of Sri Lanka was hugely successful, with Joe Root’s side whitewashing their hosts 3-0. The last tour of India, however, wasn’t so successful, the 4-0 loss owing much to the lack of penetration from England’s spinners. Do England have the tools to prosper this time, or is it a tour too soon for a youngster like Bess?
“It might be (a tour too soon), but you’ve got to go over there and get stuck in, it’s as simple as that,” asserts Phil. “The pitches have also changed a little bit in India, it’s not quite like the old days because they have these fantastic seamers nowadays – Sami, Sharma, Bumrah – so the pitches aren’t quite the dust bowls of old. Our spinners will still be very excited to go over there though, and they’ll be thinking to themselves right, we’ve got a really big part to play in how England do in that part of the world.”
Finally, as someone who has operated on both sides of the cricketing boundary, which is best: playing or commentating? “To be able to watch, to commentate and to have an opinion is fantastic,” says Phil. “Playing was always brilliant, although I don’t miss the Aussies being 620/4, but when it went well and you won games, there’s no better feeling. It’s the second-best thing to be commentating, I really enjoy it.”
England v Pakistan T20 International will be live on BBC One on 30 August from 1.25pm
By Miles Reucroft