'England should have people who want to win'
When Paul Nixon called time on his playing career, he put every ounce of the energy that had driven him through 22 years as a professional cricketer into making sure he went out at the top and pulled it off as his final game in England ended with Leicestershire crowned Twenty20 champions for the third time.
The veteran wicketkeeper had made a major contribution too, snaring a brilliant catch to limit the destructive West Indian Kieron Pollard to just a single, as Somerset failed to chase down the 146 runs they needed to win the final at Edgbaston. That catch - an extraordinary one-handed effort diving full length to his right - and the feel of the trophy in his hands gave him images that would forever illuminate his memory.
Hardly surprising, then, that the letter he found on the doormat a few days later left a nasty taste. It was from Alan Fordham, Head of Operations (first-class cricket) at the ECB, and Nixon recalls the contents in his newly published autobiography, Keeping Quiet. Essentially it was a reprimand - but one delivered with a bizarre admission.
I write further to your conduct in the Friends Life t20 Final last Saturday.
Your persistent verbal behaviour directed towards the opposition (sledging) was totally unacceptable.
Whilst this has not, as yet, drawn any official complaint from any party, it is important that you are aware that it has been noted and placed on your record."
Nixon knew that something was afoot. A perpetual chatterbox on the field, he was known for trying relentlessly to get under a batsman's skin, but this time there had been a report in the Times, written by the paper's cricket correspondent Michael Atherton, that had made specific reference to "unacceptable levels of sledging" by Nixon, in particular towards Jos Buttler, Somerset's then 20-year-old batsman, who was, according to the report, "visibly upset at the close". And Paul Haywood, the Leicestershire chairman, had told Nixon that "something had been picked up from the stump mic" to the effect that he had said "something derogatory about [Buttler's] mum".
"It left a bitter taste for a short period," Nixon said at the launch of the book at Grace Road. "For years England have talked about breeding tough cricketers, people who want to win. The English public love characters who show their emotion - Gazza, Stuart Pearce, Daley Thompson, Ian Botham.
"For me it was my last game, in a final. I had to win because it meant so much. So to have a bit of banter with a batsman, without an umpire telling me off, without anyone complaining... and I get a letter like that.
"When Jos shook my hand as we came off the field, he was so disappointed they had lost the game he wouldn't look me in the eye. I kept hold of his hand and said, 'Come on, you're better than that - I knew you could win that game because you're a good player. We play hard on the pitch and have a beer together afterwards.'
"When I saw him after the game at the drugs test, we had a chuckle about it. He told me he was just gutted that they didn't win. He said, 'Well done', I said, 'Good luck', and we parted on decent terms."
Nixon was only 19 when he made his Leicestershire debut, but so far as he recalls, he was never shy about giving verbal expression to his competitive edge, even in a dressing room in which the fearsome Peter Willey could reduce a young player to a trembling wreck with little more than a stare.
"It was never something I was timid about doing. I used to give a bit of stick to help keep me focused. As a wicketkeeper you use it as a tactic. Batsmen work on their mental drills, their routines. If you can interrupt his mental routines you've got him.
"I have always been like that. I was brought up in a very competitive environment, playing village cricket in Cumbria, and people cared about winning. There was always banter. Sometimes there was close to fighting. The rivalry was huge.
"But there is a line that you don't cross. You can have funny comments about things but you don't abuse people about family or illnesses or things like that.
"The suggestion that I said something about Jos' mother was ridiculous. Whether it was something that sounded that way on the stump mic, I don't know, but as soon as I heard that this was what it was about, I phoned Tres [Marcus Trescothick]. He said he had heard nothing and then he called Jos, who said he had heard nothing either.
"I was disappointed with what Athers had written because I really respect his journalism. I think he is a magnificent writer and broadcaster. As I said in the book, if he had asked me what had happened I would have told him.
"I can laugh about it now but I think England should have people who want to win. I've played in international games where the opposition have ripped me to pieces because they want to win. In my experience the Sri Lankans are the worst - more so even than Australia. When England played Sri Lanka in the 2007 World Cup, a game where Ravi [Bopara] and I got runs, it was the most mentally disintegrating experience I have had against any opposition, but I respected them for it because they wanted to win. They push that boundary as far as they can because ultimately our jobs are about delivering victories."
Nixon's participation in the World Cup to which he referred came about because, late in his career, England did recognise his competitive edge, calling him into the one-day squad sent to Australia in January 2007, charged with salvaging some national pride after an Ashes whitewash.
It was an experience that began with a handwritten note under his hotel room door from Duncan Fletcher, whose concern about the mental state of England's Test players was sufficient for him to ask the newcomers to stay away from them for as long as possible. "It was a strange introduction but he did not want us to be infected with any negativity," Nixon said.
Fletcher asked Nixon to address the senior players about his approach to the game, particularly with regard to T20, in which he had enjoyed success already with Leicestershire. It was a moment Nixon recalled for Andrew Flintoff "looking bored and distracted throughout" and noted that "at one point I thought I saw him roll his eyes". Yet he developed a respect for Flintoff even though he was party - as a member of the same late-drinking group and fined for his trouble - to the pedalo incident that earned the ex-captain the biggest dressing-down of his career, after which the players were summoned to an 8am team meeting to explain themselves to Fletcher, with Flintoff lying on his back on a physio's bench in the corner of the room, sand still sticking to his legs.
"In some ways Freddie was unfortunate to have played in an era when players' behaviour is under so much scrutiny," Nixon said. "When I was a young player, if someone did something a bit naughty it might be on the back page but the next day it was fish-and-chip paper. Nowadays it goes online and stays there forever.
"Freddie is a guy who can go out for a beer and rock up the day after and bowl at 90mph and be a class act on the field. But times have changed these days and you have to do everything right."
Doing everything right is a theme through the book, from Nixon's now well-documented rejection of a match-fixing attempt to the extraordinary steps he took to overcome a condition - something between dyslexia and attention deficit disorder - that for many years left him muddle-headed, forgetful and unable to read more than a few pages of a book without developing a headache. Now he has written one of his own and it is an absorbing, informative and honest account of a rich life in the game.
by Paul Nixon
The History Press Ltd, 2012