Ken Piesse is nuts about cricket.
‘Cricket is the most important thing in my life, other than my family,’ he says matter-of-factly. ‘I wanted to be a cricketer— or as good a cricketer as I could be— but it’s really an elite club. The next best thing to be close to the game was to be a cricket writer and commentator.’
He started by landing a sought-after cadetship with The Age and spent five years as an apprentice and three years studying journalism at RMIT. After accumulating broad reporting experience, he worked as chief writer at Sporting Globe and for seven years at the Sunday Observer before going freelance in 1987.
Today, Piesse is a member of the Melbourne Cricket Club, the President of the Australian Cricket Society (a position he has held for more than a decade), and runs Cricketbooks.com.au. He has written (or ghost-written), edited or published 74 cricket and footy books, making him Australian sport’s most published living author. A member of the Australian Football Media Hall of Fame, he has also edited more than 500 sports magazines.
And he carries a cricket ball in his pocket for cricket greats to sign.
‘I love that as a journalist I get to meet famous people and be on first-name terms with them, to be there live every day, going to the matches, mixing with the players.’
One day he was chatting to Darren Jolly about the impending AFL grand final. Jolly said he was ‘not sure about Deanne’, his wife.
‘What, is everything OK?’ Piesse asked.
‘Well, she’s due,’ Jolly explained.
Piesse’s ears pricked up immediately as he realised he had a scoop. The story ran in the News Limited papers with the headline ‘I’ll put baby before final’. As it happened, the birth was induced two hours before the final. Piesse was in the right place at the right time, he says, but he was ‘also just treating someone well, being friendly, showing genuine concern for Deanne.’
Piesse likes human-interest stories. ‘You name a cricketer, I’ve done him,’ he says of his journalistic track record. He particularly enjoys talking to veteran sportsmen because ‘they’ve always got time to talk. Usually you just ask one question and off they go, they’re happy to talk.’
Sports journalism can sometimes be as dramatic as the sports and players that keep it running. Remember cricketer Chris Gayle’s recent attempt to cosy up to Channel Ten reporter Mel McLaughlin during an interview?
Piesse considers the incident ‘an overreaction from the papers and from the players.
‘I’m not saying it was harmless but it was the wrong forum,’ he adds. ‘[Gayle] was grossly out of line and people took umbrage, but in the world we live in now there are bigger sheep than to worry about a throwaway comment. People are getting carried away with political correctness.’
So, where is journalism heading?
‘It’s bad for the newspapers at the moment, isn’t it?’ Piesse observes. ‘The Age has gone from being the quality broadsheet of Australia to what it is now, and lots of people get it on the iPad each day. The actual newspapers, the hard copies, could be gone within two or three years.
‘It’s hard to get the same quality of journalism with just a few hands working on it. In The Age there are some brilliant feature writers but not as many as there used to be; they tend to rely more on the agency reporters.’
And sports journalism is ‘so much harder’ these days because the players are not as accessible as they used to be.
‘With the cricket magazines these days it’s different to what they were. [In the past] I was able to do a four- or five-page article (basically a 4000-word essay) on cricket nostalgia and every word would be published. That wouldn’t happen nowadays.’
Then again, as editor of a cricket magazine for the last 15 years, Piesse gets to decide what material goes in and what doesn’t.
While he doesn’t envy the new crop of aspiring sports journos, he’s confident that ‘the best young journalists will always come through if they’re tough and they work hard.’
His best advice to those starting out? ‘Going into an interview you need to know your stuff really well and you need to listen and really bounce off the answers. It shouldn’t be too set. [Interviewees] enjoy it when you bounce off what they’re saying. You need to be quick on your feet and ask the right question at the right time.’
One special memory is of an interview with Bill Ponsford. The cricket legend hadn’t done an interview in 25 years, so Piesse couldn’t believe his luck when Ponsford agreed to have him over for a chat.
The seasoned journalist kicked off with his half a dozen prepared questions, all of which drew monosyllabic responses. At a loss, Piesse looked around the room and wondered aloud that there was nothing there to show that Ponsford had been an icon of Australian sport.
‘What have you done with your blazers, your memorabilia?’ he queried.
Ponsford laughed and said, ‘The blazers have been keeping my dogs warm for years!’
‘That broke the ice and we chatted for ages from there.’
Piesse later found out that test cricketer Leo O’Brien had talked Ponsford into the interview. ‘Bill was 79 turning 80 and Leo rang him every day until Bill, who was very much a hermit, said yes.’
After that, Piesse started doing interviews with every living Australian cricketer of note. (Arthur Morris was ‘92, 93, not out’ when Piesse interviewed him.)
I first came across Ken Piesse when he gave an author talk at the Nunawading Library two years ago [in April 2014]. He used no notes, spinning yarns in the fast-paced, compelling style typical of a journalist, and fielded an enthusiastic series of questions from the audience.
He started doing author talks of his own initiative, about 10 years ago.
‘[It’s] another forum for people to buy books, for me to share my interest and entertain people with some of the anecdotes,’ he explains. ‘As a freelance writer you’re very much at the beck and call of the newspapers. When [the global financial crisis hit in 2008] if you weren’t on their payroll you were off. I had to go and find other things to do; hence talks.
‘The key to author talks is to give your audience a taste of the stories in your work, the human interest elements here, and leave them wanting more.’
His stories are full of colloquial sports chat and studded with sports statistics.
‘I can quote the stats but I can also quote the actual stories,’ he points out. ‘I’m a cricket nut, that’s just the way it is.’
Ken Piesse’s books are available at <cricketbooks.com.au>.
The original version of this article was published as ‘Writer at Work: Ken Piesse’ in The Australian Writer issue 391 (March–May 2016).