After a successful career as a seamer at Middlesex, Simon Hughes rose to greater fame as the ‘analyst’ on Channel 4’s award-winning Test coverage. Now he’s a commentator and writer. Ed Kemp met him and talked terrestrial TV, technology, the eight-pint challenge and getting hit for six by Neil Smith in 1989…
Yozzer! What are you having?
It’s 9.15 am… It’s a cappuccino with no chocolate for me.
And how’s life? You seem to have a variety of things going on these days?
That’s an interesting question! I do have a mix of stuff. I have my TV work which is very nice, the Channel 5 highlights, the IPL for ITV and work on the radio for the BBC, and, aside from writing books, the other main one is the Telegraph. I’m trying to find a way to develop the ‘analyst’ brand – although to call it a brand is a bit trendy. Although cricket is what I do and what I love, you can’t necessarily survive on it forever, so I’m looking at stuff outside of cricket too. I have varied interests, I’m really into music and art, I play keyboards in a band [Hughes used to play the church organ at school], I love writing, I love travelling, so I’d be quite keen to widen the analyst ‘brand’ into consumer products, or travel, or food, for instance…
Nice. How did the analyst role come about in the first place when Channel 4 won the rights to the Tests?
I was working for the BBC before that. I was the pitch-side reporter and I was quite frustrated because there wasn’t much to do during the game. There was only something to do at lunch, tea or at the end of play. And there was no room in the commentary boxes, so I spent a lot of time in the VT truck talking to people and watching how they put together the replays and how the whole production worked, and I just saw loads of opportunities for explaining the game with all the tools they had. So when the BBC lost the deal and Channel 4 came in everyone was very gloomy, but I saw it as an opportunity. I wrote to them and said I think, from my experience from being on the BBC and watching the VT operate, I could provide some insight into the game using the pictures in between overs. Channel 4’s production company Sunset & Vine had already thought of having someone in the VT area to use the tools down there, so it was a meeting of minds really, and it evolved from there. We then had Hawk-Eye and more graphics developed. It started off with the basic Hawk-Eye showing the ball track, and then we discovered all this other data that it was producing as well: the pitch maps, the beehives and wagon wheels, which we hadn’t expected, it all came together quite quickly.
You must look back on those few years as being pretty special?
It was very exciting. There was a group of people who worked on the production who just loved the game and wanted to tell more people about it. It was just a wonderful time when everyone felt that their love of the game was being translated and transmitted. I also think Mark Nicholas and I, in particular – we’d been working in cricket for 20-odd years – both found our niche. He found his niche as the front man, very knowledgeable but informative and obviously a brilliant presenter, very good at interviews, very good live, incredibly calm and slick… and I had this role of explaining the game in an enthusiastic way with all these incredible tools. Between us I think we found our rightful little place in the world – luckily. And it was just very sad when it all got ripped away from us.
What was it like when the news came that Sky would have the coverage after 2005?
It was horrible actually, it was really horrible. It had a delayed effect – when it first came out it was devastating enough but as time went on it sank in, and we realised what we’d lost. And not just us, but the country, really. Because suddenly cricket was all on Sky. Lots of people I meet even now, in their 20s, say ‘I got into cricket through Channel 4’. I feel the potential to find even more of a new audience has now been lost. Test cricket is a slow-burner. If it’s on satellite you need to have already planned to have the package, and therefore you’re already a sports fan. It doesn’t tap into those people who are not prioritising sport, but who would be interested if it was there and the mood caught on. That’s where Test cricket is different from football or tennis: it draws people in gradually and the impact of terrestrial TV on the wider audience cannot be underestimated.
How does it compare doing a highlights show, on Channel 5 now?
I’m proud of the programme. The people involved are very passionate about cricket and committed to doing the best possible job in the time available. It can be mental. It’s easy for the commentators, it’s the editors – who Geoffrey Boycott affectionately refers to as ‘the cutters’ – who take the flak. Often you’ve got play still going on until half seven and the programme’s already halfway through. And they’re frantically trying to work out when play’s going to end, how much time to leave at the end for the interview, how to fit everything in. They have to record everything on to four separate tapes, and they’ll still be editing the last bit at ten to eight. It’s a genius thing – they’re very good at it. They take care over every shot, commentary is re-recorded if it isn’t quite right – Boycott doesn’t like it, but even Sir Geoffrey has to do the odd re-take.
What do you think about the way analysis has moved on since your time with Channel 4?
I think it’s fantastic how things have developed. I think Sky have done it brilliantly. I’ve done a bit of work in India which you may not have seen: I worked on ESPN last winter on the England-India series, doing analysis. We used a touchscreen, we went out on the field, did super-imposed virtual reality, pitch-maps, analysed where bowlers were bowling, standing on the pitch, and it was great, I loved it. I really miss being able to do live coverage, because it just gives you so much more scope. And you’re right, the technology has moved on, I think Wardy and Nass particularly are excellent – I would love to be part of that array of people; delving into the game in more detail.There are the tools there available for that purpose, which, unfortunately on Channel 5, we don’t have. And there isn’t time for it on a highlights programme anyway.
Your first book A Lot of Hard Yakka is still held up as a bit of a classic of its kind. Could someone write such an entertaining book about life as a county cricketer now, or has the game changed too much?
Yeah, I think they could. Yes, I think we got away with a lot more, it wasn’t nearly as professional or rigid as it is now, and I think we had a lot of fun. It was quite ill-disciplined but county cricket was a good product that attracted all the best players in the world, plus all the England players. I think the only problem someone would have now would be litigation, because I see some of the stuff I wrote in that book, and I think ‘I’d never get away with that now’. But I’ve no doubt that they still have quite a lot of fun. Perhaps their lives are a bit more regimented by practice and going to bed a bit earlier. Probably their scope is a bit more restricted life-wise than it was in our day. It was quite free, really. We had to turn up at a particular time, but nobody really cared what you did in the evening. The physio at Middlesex one year had this challenge – he’d take members of the opposition to this pub in Paddington which had eight real ales, and you had to drink all eight pints without any food or water and without being sick. And if you managed to do it, you got to write in a book that you’d passed the Royal Oak challenge. I mean, that was an accepted thing that people had a go at! You wouldn’t do that now, you’d get sacked.
You’re often remembered as a player for the Neil Smith over in 1989… (in the NatWest final, with Warwickshire requiring 10 off the last over, Hughes was hit for six by Smith and Middlesex lost). Are you frustrated that people always bring it up!?
No, I don’t mind at all. It’s funny you mention it. It has become the most memorable moment of my career – but I suppose at least something in my career was memorable even if it wasn’t a good thing! Even today I always watch intrigued when a bowler has to bowl the last over of a match like that.