The Wisden Cricketer - March March 3, 2006

'Pressure is a journalist's word'

Daniel Brigham
Dan Brigham talks to four of England's youngest debutants about the first experiences of Test cricket

Nerves. Pressure. And that was just rooming with Ian Botham. Daniel Brigham asks four of England's youngest Test debutants how they found the experience

Chris Read: 'I didn't have the chance to settle down into Test cricket because the match was so hectic!' © Getty Images
How did your debut go?

Liam Plunkett (20yrs 237d)
You always imagine making your debut on a green wicket and running up and taking a few wickets with the ball moving around. But it certainly wasn't like that in Lahore - it was a tough wicket; you can't really get much tougher than that.

Chris Read (20yrs 325d)
It was an extraordinary game against New Zealand when Alex Tudor hit 99 not out and was stranded. It was all over about tea on the third day. There was a real feeling that a new chapter was about to begin with Nasser Hussain coming in as captain. I hadn't set myself a target, but I was expecting a bit more time sat down in the dressing room. I didn't have the chance to settle down into Test cricket because the match was so hectic!

Philip DeFreitas (20yrs 269d)
It was the first Test of the 1986-87 Ashes. There had been a lot of hype before the Test because we'd lost all of the warm-up games and Martin Johnson said we couldn't bat, couldn't bowl and couldn't field. I managed to play a part with bat and ball, scoring 40 and grabbing five wickets.

Brian Close (18yrs 149d)
I was a raw young lad and very apprehensive and nervous. But I'm proud of having the record of being the youngest player to have played for England. It'll never be beaten. They're wrapped up in cotton wool now, they don't get out and play. I was playing against grown men at the age of 11.

Liam Plunkett: 'The whole of the five days of the Test seemed a bit of a blur' © Getty Images

What was your reaction to your call-up?

Read I was in Guernsey with Nottinghamshire, playing in a benefit game on the weekend. It probably made it really tough for David Graveney to get hold of me that day. He had to get to me through Clive Rice. I was ecstatic.

Plunkett I didn't have time to call anyone back home to tell them I'd been picked because I only found out an hour before the match, I think my family found out on Teletext! The whole of the five days of the Test seemed a bit of a blur, a bit surreal. It felt like I wasn't there.

DeFreitas There had been a few rumours but I didn't really believe them until I walked in at Grace Road and the gateman Arthur turned round to me and said "Congratulations" and I had no idea what he was on about and he said "You're going on tour with England". To be honest, I didn't really believe him until I went through and there were press and cameramen waiting for me.

Do you think your age had an impact on your performance?

Read Looking back, I don't think I was ready to play Test cricket at the time. Although I'd had a really good season, the step up was greater than I'd been anticipating and I found it tough. Looking at it with hindsight, which is easy to do, it did come too soon.

Plunkett I never really thought about whether my age would make a difference. I just wanted a ball in my hand and I didn't let the pressure get to me.

DeFreitas The pressure only really starts when you've made your debut and you've made a bit of a name for yourself and people start talking about you. Then the expectation levels start getting higher.

Close It didn't create any pressure, there was no such thing as bloody pressure in those days. Pressure is a journalist's word.

Phil DeFreitas: 'They weren't heroes, they were legends. My first room-mate was Ian Botham for the first two weeks' © Getty Images

Did your experience in county cricket help?

DeFreitas County cricket was tough back then. It was a really hard school because every county had two genuine fast bowlers. None of them were friendly and they could bowl as many bouncers as they wanted. I think that helped me step up to Tests. These days, one or two counties are very poor and you need to get that toughness back into it to breed tougher cricketers. But you can't really complain because the national side is doing really well.

Close Well, they hardly play these days, so God knows how nervous these new blokes are because they aren't playing against the best players all of the time like we used to. And the England lads don't play for their counties so the younger players can't chat to them after close of play and learn from them. Now it's all about bloody coaches. Our coaches used to be just our senior players and that was good enough.

How did playing with your heroes affect you?

DeFreitas They weren't heroes, they were legends. My first room-mate was Ian Botham for the first two weeks, then I had the pleasure of Mr Lamb for another two weeks and then ended up with Mr Gower. They were great guys. It was a case of "there you go, good luck, you're rooming with these three". They all looked after me ... in their own ways, both on and off the field!

Plunkett I wasn't fazed at training camps playing with these guys. They just treated me like anyone else.

Close I was thrown in with a load of my heroes - Len Hutton, Denis Compton, Cyril Washbrook. I remember that made me very tense to start with, but I settled in quickly because I was used to playing with some greats at Yorkshire.

How did you feel going in to bat, bowl or keep wicket for the first time?

Close I was supposed to go in to bat at No. 7 but we needed quick runs to make New Zealand bat again. So the captain Freddie Brown sent a couple of others in ahead of me and I went in at No. 9. He told me to take a couple of balls to get my eye in. I took him literally. I took guard to Tom Burtt, padded a couple back to him and then gave his next ball a good go, cracked him like hell but Geoff Rabone caught it one-handed on the boundary! It would've gone for six these days now that the boundaries are in.

Read Alan Mullally bowled one down leg side, which was perfect for me as it got my feet moving early on. I'm fairly certain he didn't do it on purpose just to help me out!

Brian Close: 'I took guard to Tom Burtt, padded a couple back to him and then gave his next ball a good go' © Getty Images

Did you receive enough guidance on and off the pitch?

Read It was at a time when we didn't have a fixed national coach. I remember Mike Gatting and Graham Gooch being around to help out with coaching and I got to work with Alan Knott, who was wicketkeeping coach, on a couple of occasions. But it wasn't an ideal situation not to have a fixed coach. It was quite an awkward period; David Lloyd had left and Duncan Fletcher quite rightly didn't want to renege on his Glamorgan commitments

DeFreitas Basically, the team meeting went like this: "We've had a load of slating from the press, we've been told we can't bowl and can't bat, but it's all right, we'll just get off to a winning start." And they kept to their word.

Plunkett Even though we were in the shit, with Pakistan 500-odd for 4, everyone was still pumping me up and 100% going for it. Even if I bowled a few bad balls, everyone would still support me and tell me to keep going. Without that support, my head might have dropped.

Were you given long enough to prove yourself?

Read There always seemed to be quite a lot of pressure on me, and I felt I'd done OK but had a lot more to offer. I was disappointed when I was dropped.

DeFreitas I felt I belonged because I played in four out of five Tests in Australia, and I played the role that I had been told to play as well as I could do. At the end of every day I got a pat on the back and was told I'd done well by the management. I understood being left out of the fifth Test; they wanted to play an extra batsman. I came home and played one Test against Pakistan in the summer, had a dip in form and I was dropped and it carried on like that. I certainly felt they could have stuck with me, but they liked to chop and change. Luckily, that doesn't happen any more and if I'd started five years ago and played 80 Tests, I'm sure my Test record would've been better.

Close I certainly couldn't complain.

Dan Brigham is staff writer on The Wisden Cricketer