April 8, 2014

Chapple goes once more into the breach

Two decades and then some into his Lancashire career, Glen Chapple is on top of his game, skilled and motivated, and with the knowledge that only years on the job can bring

Grizzled vet: Chapple with the Division Two Trophy in 2013 © Getty Images

Glen Chapple doesn't look like an institution, though that's what he is. He is too jaunty, too smiley, his pumpkin hair slightly fairer than it once was, with that sportsman's way of wearing clothes - smart and neat and tucked in.

He sits in a coffee shop in Hale, a well-to-do Cheshire village where they still have a proper bakers with piles of syrupy hot-cross buns in the window, and where smart-looking women eat expensive salads alongside men in sports jackets.

This year, for the first time, Chapple enters the cricket season the wrong side of 40, bones creaking into their 22nd season at Lancashire. His birthday was in January - he celebrated with friends in San Rocco in Manchester, where the staff forgot to pass on the champagne phoned in by Andrew Flintoff - and although Chapple won't be quite the oldest county player this summer, he will be the longest serving. He was capped in 1994 alongside John Crawley, Jason Gallian, Gary Yates and Peter Martin, all long retired to civvy street.

And yet, these last years, his twilight overs, have been his most successful. He has become the supreme seam bowler, both highly skilled and motivated and with the knowledge that only months, years, of turning and running, turning and running, can bring. In the autumn of 2008 he was appointed Lancashire captain, and in the last session of the last day of the 2011 season, he led his unfancied team to Championship glory, for the first time outright since 1934. It was and remains the highlight of his career.

He doesn't know if this summer will be his last in whites; doesn't want to think about the next six months like that. Lying tantalisingly on the next branch, just out of reach, is 1000 first-class wickets, last achieved by Robert Croft in 2010.

"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't of some importance," he says, supping at his latte. "I don't generally like the idea of individual milestones but, because a thousand is becoming harder and harder to achieve, I could be the last one to do it for a while. But I need 64 wickets, and barring an exceptional season it would mean playing next year, and I would never take on another season purely for that reason so, we'll see."

But how has he kept going, anyway, season after season, at an age when most pace bowlers have hung up their boots and let out their trousers?

"I think it is luck and motivation. I've had the good fortune not to receive any career-ending injuries and my motivation has increased over the years, partly because of the added responsibility of captaincy. I adopted the philosophy that it doesn't matter really who you play for, it's how well you play. I've had to do that because obviously my ambition to play for England didn't really happen. I do understand that a lot of the players who retire in their mid-thirties and who have played international cricket would have lost their drive, whereas for me it was the case of getting the most out of my body and talent."

Ah, the great disappointment. Chapple was unlucky not to be among the many hands of Test bowlers picked by England between 1992 and this winter. He played a one-day international against Ireland in Belfast in 2006, where he picked up an abdominal strain, and was 12th man for the Trent Bridge Test against South Africa in 2003, but that was it, perhaps never quite good enough at the quite the right time. Does he ever think what might have been?

"Now and again but you really have to be careful not to become bitter. It has gone now and it literally isn't the end of the world. It's something maybe I can use to help other players avoid some of the mistakes I might have made.

"It's so difficult for young players to realise the importance of little events, the odd nets session here and there, the mindset to take into a season. Some players are old before their time and they get it, but some don't see how quickly a career can pass you by.

"I would always say I gave 100% but did I give 100% to the right things? There was always effort but was there clear thinking? Did I understand how to come out of bad form quickly enough? These are things I understand much better now."

So what advice would he give to that flame-haired young man of the mid-'90s, surrounded by big-name colleagues - Wasim Akram, Peter Martin, Michael Atherton - bowling second or third change for the majority of his career.

He pauses. "I'd tell myself to have less respect for international players. I thought they were unbelievably good, a league above, and if I had believed less in that big step up everyone talks of, I would have probably been a slightly different cricketer. I was always very competitive but when it came to my ambition I always felt like I was a couple of years off it, and it was only when players younger than me started getting into the England team that I gave myself a shake and said, 'What have I been doing?'

He is certainly the old man of the dressing room, nearly double the age of the virtual, social-networking generation. He looks younger than his years, with his full head of hair and scatter-gun freckles, but there are times, he admits, when he wonders what he is up to

"Also, I was always experimenting in practice but you also need to be competition-focused. We thought that if you were strong and technically bowling well that was enough. We didn't give much credence to psychology and mindset but it is massive. You find yourselves in all different scenarios on a cricket field and have to learn to take your mental state to where it should be: on a cold Monday afternoon you have to pick yourself up; at a Lord's final, you have to calm yourself down, focus on the stumps."

If this sounds like the words of someone who has read a coaching manual or two, it is. He has passed all the certificates and spent two weeks this winter out in South Africa on the Potential England Performance Programme (PEPP) fast bowling camp as an assistant coach, which he really enjoyed. There is idle talk of him taking over as Lancashire coach if England hire Peter Moores for a second term, but at the moment he and Moores make a good team, two down-to-earth blokes who respect each other, with cricket in their lungs.

"Twenty years ago I'd have thought a lot of the talk was psychobabble," Chapple says, "and there is a part of me that still thinks it is an adult's game, there is no room for behaving like a kid, but I fully understand that people need help. You could have someone who loves a challenge but that doesn't mean they are composed on the pitch. You might have someone else throwing up beforehand but out there, totally on it.

"Getting the team dynamic right is important. You've got half the team bouncing around patting you on the back, and half the team sat down contemplating and if you get the wrong two people sitting next to each other… these are all little things I find quite interesting. You need more to think about as you get older."

He is certainly the old man of the dressing room, nearly double the age of the virtual, social-networking generation. He looks younger than his years, with his full head of hair and scatter-gun freckles, but there are times, he admits, when he wonders what he is up to.

"There is a generation divide - psychologists would say there is. I try and stay as young as I can but ultimately you just get on with your stuff. The lads take the mickey out of me and you accept it.

"I liked being one of fittest in the team and sadly have to acknowledge that's not the case any more. I don't mind a bit of self-punishment, but there are days I think, 'Why am I doing this?' But then I have to think, 'What else would I be doing?'"

There is nowhere to hide in professional cricket any more. The passing of time is cruelly exposed by the yo-yo test, the bleep test's more horrible brother. Age and decrepitude are measured in electronic pulses for everyone to see.

"It's horrendous, my turning is just not that good now. I'll probably be in the last two or three in the yo-yo this season. I'll just have to win some of the other events, as they say."

This season is Lancashire's 150th. There is a celebratory book and a dinner at Lord's in May. They're back in Division One, after demotion the year after winning the championship. The rain that flooded much of southern Britain during the winter was kind to Manchester. Chapple, who missed the first game with a hamstring sprain, can't wait to start.

"I think we can win any one of the three competitions," he says. "That's the thing about being at a big club like Lancashire, you are always chasing trophies."

And then he is off, home to bowl ten overs in the street to his kids, a son, eight, and daughter, ten. "They need to fail a bit. I don't mind knocking them over in the street or putting them over next door's house."

Chapple's boyhood dream may have eluded him, but he made the very most of the talents he was given. A third seamer who became the finest practitioner of his art, an inexperienced leader who made history as captain. And through staying at Old Trafford for more than 20 years, he played with and learnt from some of the greatest bowlers of his generation: Akram, Muttiah Muralitharan, Flintoff, Jimmy Anderson. Not a bad little career. Not a bad little bowler. Catch him while you can.

Tanya Aldred is a freelance writer in Manchester