Dale Steyn close-up
© Getty Images


The art of the interview

It can be adversarial, revelatory, somewhere between conversation and interrogation. This month we showcase a triumph of the genre

Osman Samiuddin  |  

Of the many aspirations of an interview, one is that it be as much like a regular conversation as possible. Sadly, that rarely happens. A conversation is a consensual experience, with a sense of equality usually underpinning it - it does not happen if one does not want it to, and, in principle, it is not competitive. Unlike a conversation, an interview is not necessarily an exchange of ideas and arguments.

Interviews, built on prompts and queries, are intrinsically adversarial in nature, a sport by themselves. And if there was, or ever is, any doubt about this, then here are some words from Oriana Fallaci, the legendarily combative Italian journalist and intrepid political interviewer.

"On every professional experience I leave shreds of my heart and soul," she wrote in the preface to An Interview With History, a book of interviews with 14 world leaders. Much like, we may add, an athlete leaves bits of himself on the field. She went into each interview with "a thousand feelings of rage, a thousand questions that before assailing them were assailing me". These are the motivations of a battle.

The interviewer has triumphed when he has secured candidness, confession and perhaps a little intimacy from the subject. For most interviewees, meanwhile, victory lies in as little personal and professional revelation and as much empty cliché as possible. Why should they, after all, put all, or any, of themselves out there?

Fallaci's triumphs were plenty. The most famous was Henry Kissinger's response to her assertion that Vietnam had been "a useless war". "On this I can agree," Kissinger began and none of what else he said thereafter really mattered. Kissinger would concede later it was "the single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press".

Steyn is thoughtful on his profession and soulful on his life. Not only to fans of Steyn, and fast bowling, but also to those of great interviews, this story is a joy

From Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Fallaci wrought multiple wins. First she got the headline, when Bhutto called Indira Gandhi "a mediocre woman with a mediocre intelligence", and this not long before the pair were scheduled to hold peace talks. When Gandhi read the interview she announced she would not be meeting Bhutto; Bhutto, who had invited Fallaci in the first place to interview him (an interviewee sent from the gods), panicked and tried to convince Fallaci to write another story in which she would say the entire interview was a figment of her imagination. She did not, and Gandhi and Bhutto met anyway, although that didn't turn out to be of much use really.

But during it she also drew from Bhutto this lovely reflection on romance: "I don't think you can be a politician without being a romantic - and as a romantic I think there's nothing wrong with falling in love and conquering a woman's heart - woe to men who don't fall in love."

Triumphs in sporting interviews are, alas, of a smaller scale. Mohammad Asif will not remember it, I am sure, but when I interviewed him almost a decade ago he told me of a single tip Dennis Lillee had given him at the MRF Pace Academy in Chennai that changed his life as a bowler. I tried repeatedly, not just that day but for years and years afterwards, to extract the tip from him but he refused. I haven't stopped trying.

Fallaci's role, of course, was of a different nature. She was questioning men of real power, so she had to be adversarial. With sport, interviews can get close to conversational, somewhere between, in fact, interrogation and conversation - that is the point of the Talking Cricket series, begun in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine and still continuing. It can never fully get there because once a recorder is turned on, or a TV camera, the nature of the interaction changes, a staginess that cannot be ignored sets in.

The grand inquisitor: Oriana Fallaci in 1977

The grand inquisitor: Oriana Fallaci in 1977 © Associated Press

Fortunately, Dale Steyn is a candid man. That is the opinion of Nagraj Gollapudi, who has interviewed the world's best fast bowler multiple times, and has done so again, in great depth, for this month's cover story. It is not necessary but a degree of familiarity between hunter and prey does no harm, and the chemistry the pair strikes propels a wonderful interview: lively, frank, revealing, funny, and yes, intimate too. Steyn is thoughtful on his profession and soulful on his life. Not least of the highlights is an unexpected, but always respectful, interlude into his private life. Not only to fans of Steyn, and fast bowling, but also to those of great interviews, it is a joy.

For readers familiar with Gollapudi's work, this will be no surprise. As is well known to those who work with him, he is relentless in pursuit of his subjects and meticulous in preparing for them. All the while he gives off the air of being neither. During the interview, he is especially good at choosing his silences, which I can say from personal experience is one of the most challenging aspects of the art of interviewing. The natural urge between humans not familiar with each other is to not let there be silence; you are strangers, why make it more awkward? Restraining the urge to say something, a prompt, or an input in the hope of steering the direction of the exchange may distract the subject's train of thought; in the void of that distraction slips away a precious detail, a headline, or a stirring anecdote.

Steyn talks in plenty of detail about bowling in limited-overs cricket, formats in which we have not, perhaps, seen the full spectrum of his genius. This month he will be in India, trying his utmost, no doubt, to help South Africa win a world title, as the sixth World T20 gets underway.

Consider that it took 50-over cricket 21 years to hold its sixth World Cup. In contrast, it has taken T20 less than a decade to hold this many. Throw in the various domestic leagues from around the world and it feels necessary to take stock of the rapid advances - or otherwise - cricket has made since the birth of the shortest format. Five panelists come together in this month's Jury's Outfeature to write about what they feel is the most significant on-field impact T20 has had on cricket. As one of the writers says, we are still only scratching the surface.

Osman Samiuddin is a sportswriter at the National and the author of The Unquiet Ones: A History of Pakistan Cricket