“It’s not the sports journalists you need to worry about,” I think to myself, “It’s the ex-players who go into the media once they’ve finished playing.
“They’re the ones you need to worry about.”
No sports journalist I know, for instance, would come out with the sort of stuff we routinely see and hear from those who have swapped the dressing room for the press box/commentary box/television studio.
You know who they are – in cricket, such people may or may not work for the Daily Telegraph, for example.
But whereas I have always believed in exercising discretion (i.e., trying to couch criticism in general terms rather than slating individuals, keeping certain opinions to myself, and not defecating on one’s doorstep, so to speak), that is not a philosophy displayed by too many poachers-turned-gamekeepers in the sporting media.
Or, to put it another way, if I wrote some of the things that some ex-players come out with, I would invariably receive short shrift from those with whom I have to deal – and rightly so.
That is not because I tiptoe around difficult issues, but because I believe I have a responsibility to be fair to all – the readers, my employer, and the people I am writing about.
Which brings me to Bob Willis.
Now I have never met Bob, one of England’s greatest bowlers.
I interviewed him once on the phone – unsurprisingly, it had something to do with Headingley ‘81 – and I have nothing against him.
On the contrary, I detect from watching him on television a wonderfully dry sense of humour and many estimable qualities – not least a pin-sharp reading of play.
But with his recent criticism of Yorkshire’s players – particularly Jonny Bairstow and Adil Rashid – I believe he is doing them, the sport in general and himself a great disservice.
Are we really to suppose, for example, that Rashid is “completely useless”, a man with 418 first-class wickets to his name at 34 and 5,781 runs at 35?
Or that Bairstow, a 26-year-old who scored 1,108 County Championship runs last summer in nine games at 92 “can’t bat above No 8 in an England Test team in the future”?
Granted, Wills is fully entitled to his view and neither player has yet performed to the standard of which he is capable in Tests.
But these are young men with the capacity to get better and they deserve more than cheap shots from the so-called Lord Chief Justice of Cricket while his fellow TV pundits (ex-players, of course) giggle in the background.
Perhaps Willis thinks he must live up to an image, but he is talking about young players with feelings.
Rashid, a 27-year-old purveying the hardest and most difficult art of all, leg-spin, is a terrific talent and has been a breath of fresh air since his debut nine years ago.
As Martyn Moxon, his boss at Yorkshire, so rightly says – just let him bowl, spin the ball as much as he can and back him to the hilt.
The rest of it – pace through the air, improved control – will hopefully come through increased exposure and confidence.
Give him a good run in the side before writing him off (the sort of run Jos Buttler enjoyed) and get off his back.
Bairstow is another exceptionally gifted player and a rapidly developing wicketkeeper.
Very few players have such natural skill, something that should be celebrated and encouraged, not rubbished by those who should surely know better. There is a big difference between constructive and destructive criticism, and Willis belittles himself by venturing into the latter.
Willis says that only Joe Root has shone at international level from the Yorkshire side that won back-to-back Championships, although Root has played precious little Championship cricket recently.
His point is fair, but who are the alternatives?
Are there really better options in county cricket, for example, than Adam Lyth and Gary Ballance, both of whom were discarded by England last summer?
Moeen Ali has predictably done no better than Lyth, who has a Test hundred to his name, while Ballance averages 47 from 15 Tests and was the third-fastest England player to 1,000 Test runs.
True, they struggled this year against some very good bowling – bowling as good as they are likely to face at international level – but are there genuinely better options out there or just more lambs to the slaughter for Willis to savage?