Paul Nixon October 17, 2008

A lot of hard yak yak

He's got a mouth on him, Nico has. The sledge-a-minute former England wicketkeeper talks about the joys of getting up the opposition's nose

Nixon celebrates England's victory in the second CB Series final last year with some chums from the Barmy Army © Getty Images

Paul Nixon is talking about bedrooms.

"You don't have an untidy bedroom and go and play tidy cricket. You can't. You will find that all the best sportsmen are the people who have disciplined and planned lifestyles. That's what I want these boys to develop quickly."

Nixon, the former England wicketkeeper who made annoying opposition batsmen something of a calling card, is in India playing in the ICL for the Delhi Giants. He's trying to get the local Indian cricketers to make the transition from amateurs to professionals quickly.

In his own life and career he's had plenty of waiting to do. By his own admission he understood his mind and his game only at 30; the England cap came when he was 36; and just when he and his wife had resigned themselves to childlessness after seven years of marriage, they had a baby, Isabella, who came along 21 weeks ago.

Every night he logs on to Skype to look at his daughter. The days he spends harassing batsmen. The stature of the player doesn't faze him. Once, Graham Gooch was batting serenely in a county game when Nixon, the keeper at the time, noticed Gooch had this superstition about placing his foot in certain areas of the crease. What did he do? He planted his foot in those very areas. "Goochie got quite cheesed off and told me to concentrate on my cricket and went blah blah blah." Nasser Hussain said it was the only time he saw Gooch get upset on the field.

"He's like the mosquito buzzing around in the dark of the night that needs to be swatted but always escapes," Steve Waugh, who played with "Nico" for Kent, said about him. "He should have been born an Aussie." A friend and a fan of Waugh's, Nixon takes that as a compliment, but he isn't too enamoured of the current bunch of Australian cricketers. He has in the past called them a standoffish lot.

Did he say that just to wind up the old enemy? "You can be hard on the pitch and give it your all. Like rugby players - they are at each other for 80 minutes and then say cheers and walk off the pitch together," Nixon says. "That's what sport and cricket is to me. Things shouldn't be taken off field."

So what was it that got to him? "This was in the World Cup. When I was in the lift with [Andrew] Symonds, who I had played two seasons of country cricket with, he didn't even want to say hello to me. That's not mindgames to me; it's just plain bad manners. I guess it must have been John Buchanan's plan. If that's what they are about then good luck to them.

"I could stand up and give it to anybody, but if you can't be well-mannered off the pitch then that's sad. Just not Symonds, nearly everybody - Symonds more so than anybody. I mention him because I knew him already."

Nixon developed his value sets in the little village of Eden Valley in Cumberland, where he grew up. "It was a great work ethic. Every season you had to make sure you did the right job for the next. If stones were not picked then barley couldn't be sown. There was always a process, just as in life.

"I had a family very close to me. The next-door neighbour's four sons were almost like my brothers. It was a small, nice place to grow up in - only 500 people, and the door was always open."

At 16, the farm boy left for London to become a professional cricketer. "There is a saying, 'Shy boys don't get sweets.' London toughened me up."

Bring up the 'Can't bat, can't keep, can't shut your mouth' line that has been used to describe him and Nixon roars with laughter. "Well, if 330 first-class games don't mean anything then...

"I don't think I missed a chance in Australia, I averaged over 40 in the World Cup, and I would have loved to play more.

"I can only control what I can do. I don't read lots of newspapers."

Just why does he sledge so much? What's the point? Does he think he can get a wicket every time? "I'm a big believer in the subconscious," Nixon explains. "If you can keep dripping negative thoughts - and positive thoughts for your own team - it plays a part. The subconscious can't tell between what's imaginary and what's real. Hopefully if you keep at them, they will start believing, or at least get distracted, and that might lead to a wicket.

"Sledging is not about humour or abuse all the time but just a type of chitchat about this and that to upset the batsman's concentration. You have to choose your player, time and place carefully.

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The best of Nico
  • To Matthew Hayden: "Hey, Matty, this could be your last knock for Australia, mate. Hey mate, don't throw it all away, not in your last knock for your country."
  • "Hayden was very scratchy. He was under pressure in the press and it got to him. It looked like it was a matter of time before he got out. Ricky Ponting was at his very best, though. He farmed the strike, talking to Hayden nearly every ball. Ponting helped him out, got him off strike. Hayden hung in and eventually the cricket ball turned from a marble to football."
  • To Andrew Symonds: "Ah, Symmo, great to see you, mate. How's everyone - the family? I know you, Symmo. If you edge and I take the catch, I'm going to send you a copy of the scorecard to your home every day for a year."
  • "It was in the Commonwealth Bank series. Symmo is a very good player but he is a very nervous starter. He can push his bat, not move his feet, and be all arms in his strokeplay."
  • To Michael Clarke, who had changed the sticker on his bat: "That old sticker, Michael, it was always lucky for you. The new one's not going to bring you the same luck, wait and you see." Clarke responded that Nixon was nothing but a club cricketer. Nixon shot back: "How's it going to feel, Michael, to be caught by a club cricketer? You know what, you're going to make a club cricketer's day."
  • "And he did nick it to me!"
  • To Ricky Ponting: "Ricky, I don't think you're that good at picking up a slow ball. What about the team for next week, Ricky - picked it yet? I saw those jazzy shoes you made for yourself - very cool"
  • "With players like Ponting, Tendulkar - who I played against when he was at Yorkshire - you don't sledge. It only makes them concentrate harder and perform better. You just try to make them laugh and get them off the present."
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"And it's not always a wicket. Your team's morale improves, the opposition know you are in the game, and the batsman might change his style of play, which can suit us."

Which team gave him the hardest time on the field? The Australians, surely? "No, actually, it was the Sri Lankans. It was the World Cup game when Ravi Bopara and I took it down to the wire. I had earlier given the likes of [Sanath] Jayasuriya a bit of stick and they were unbelievable. They were on me every ball. Not just Kumar Sangakkara, everybody. They were like tigers. Unbelievable." There's admiration in his voice.

Did he plan any of his sledges beforehand? "Only one. There's a big football show called Soccer AM on Saturdays. They asked me whether I could ask a batsman if he breathes in or out. Apparently there was a darts player who put off another guy in the middle of a game by asking whether he breathed in or breathed out when he threw.

"I tried it with Marlon Samuels and he got out next ball! I should try it more!" Immense joy spreads across his face.

Has he ever abused someone on the field? "I don't abuse unless they have given me a lot or they have acted very badly. I am a fair guy: if someone crosses the line, I will too. Two wrongs don't make a right, but it's just passion I guess." Any examples? "Ah, dunno... I'm a bit dyslexic you know."

He really is. Nixon can't remember a large chunk of his early career. It wasn't until a couple of years ago that he realised he could get help for his condition. Now every night he does some simple eye-tracking and balance exercises with little beanbags, and some for mental skills, like doing the three-times table. He's involved with quite a few charities. "There's one for Parkinson's Disease called Movers and Shakers," he says. "Very clever name."

Nixon is a fitness fanatic - he has trained with rugby teams, run up steep hills in Sri Lanka - but he knows he's getting along. Eventually a day is going to come when even his body will say enough. What will he miss? "The banter of the team dressing room, being out in the middle batting, taking control of an ODI game. You miss being in the 90s and getting the satisfaction of a hundred, and the nervousness and tension of big games. I will miss singing the England team's victory song. I can't tell you about it; it's a secret until you play for England. Everyone stands in a circle and shouts their heads off. I will miss all that."

The conversation is at an end, and as he gets up, he throws down a bit of advice, originally from his grandfather: "When you are green, you are ready; when you are ready, you are ripe; when you think you are ripe, you rot." Nixon may be 37, but it's difficult to imagine him ever turning ripe.

Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo