Daryll Cullinan was one of the most accomplished batsmen of his generation and equally underrated. Probably the best in his team when it came to playing spin, his mastery over that variety too got overshadowed by a string of failures against Shane Warne. In India as coach of Kolkata Tigers in the Indian Cricket League, Cullinan spoke to Hindustan Times on Sunday. Excerpts from the interview:
Being heralded the successor of Graeme Pollock in your formative years, how difficult did things become for an upcoming batsman?
It was an unfair comparison to begin with because you can never have another Graeme Pollock. It put a lot of pressure on me initially and it also made me cautious that I should never get into this habit of labelling anybody. It can be detrimental at that period of your career when you are supposed to progress naturally. Having said that, I am very proud to have held the record first-class and international scores in my playing days. (Apart from being the youngest South African to score a first-class hundred, Cullinan holds the record for the country's highest first-class score and also had their highest Test score of 275 before Graeme Smith bettered it).
Coming from a country known for its fast bowling resources, how did you become such an accomplished player of spin?
I learnt on the job. Initially, I wasn't a good player of spin. There wasn't enough of it back home to practice with either. We had no idea of the angles and how it would be with the ball spinning off the rough outside leg stump because the pitches we grew up on were so conducive to seam bowling. I would say Bob Woolmer made us better at playing spin. He broadened our horizon and taught us the importance of the sweep shot. We used to practise on the outfield where the bounce was uneven. There was enormous emphasis on learning different types of sweeps including the reverse shot, and those with and against the spin. When I was young, I was reluctant to play the shot but these days when I coach kids, I teach them how to sweep.
How did Shane Warne become such a riddle then, which you couldn't solve?
He was a great bowler who troubled batsmen far better than me. With me, it was a psychological thing as well. He had tremendous variation, bowled very few bad balls and got the better of me in Test matches. But it's a wrong perception that I was a failure against him. My one-day record against Australia speaks for that. (In 28 ODIs, he scored 750 runs at 32.60 with six half-centuries. In 7 Tests, he scored 153 at 12.75, highest being 47)
What about Muthiah Muralitharan and his action?
I'm not in a position to comment on his action, but he is an exceptional bowler, who has done the game a lot of good. I had some success against him early in my career and our ploy of playing the sweep and slog-sweep against him worked. But you have to watch him very closely, every ball. The best way to play him in fact is to be at the other end. With him around, you have to be a moving target instead of being a fixed one.
For a country that was out of international cricket during the inception and proliferation of one-dayers, how did South Africa become such a strong ODI side despite grappling controversies like match-fixing and a selection system based on racial divides? And how united has been the effort of the erstwhile United Cricket Board?
We always had a feeder system in place thanks to a very competitive domestic circuit. We had problems but they didn't affect our internal structure. Having a multi-sport culture helped too. Apart from cricket, kids are involved in soccer, tennis, athletics, squash and rugby, which helps them prepare for any discipline physically.
As far as the board goes, I think they have done a good job. You do read reports of tiffs between the establishment and players, but that happens in every country. It was a question of overseeing a period of transformation and the good work done will show in the next generation of our players. As far as assimilation goes, you will see more black players than white in junior provincial sides these days. This shows that the progress has been along the right path.
How significant was the appointment of Graeme Smith as captain, who took charge at a very young age and at a difficult time?
He has grown smarter as captain. He has an attack at his disposal that makes him look better, but he has improved a lot. And he is THE captain South Africa needs, there is no one else. Yes at times he seems to be over-aggressive, but it comes naturally to him. He will always think of attacking before sparing a thought on defence. He had to learn how to balance the two and it seems as if he has learnt the right lessons.
If you take Jacques Kallis out of the equation, how does the future of South African batting look like?
Since you can't replace Kallis, I think A.B. de Villiers will have to play a big role. Apart from him, we have Ashwell Prince, who probably has to be more attacking at No. 5 and there is Neil McKenzie who should have averaged better than what he has in the 30-odd Tests he has played. I think Hashim Amla has improved a lot and has a good Test career ahead of him.