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Couch Talk

'Realising my England career was over was the beginning for me'

Former Sussex and Surrey captain Chris Adams on his brief Test career, and discovering his leadership skills in the county game

Subash Jayaraman: You have a new book out. It starts with a scene from your debut Test, at the Wanderers. You are walking in with England 4 for 2 with only 2.5 overs bowled. You were 29 years old and had been in the English domestic set-up for 11 years by then. Why do you think it took you long for England to give you a go?
Chris Adams: Probably my own inconsistency in the early part of my career. I was a good player, an exciting and aggressive player. I played in Derbyshire, where the pitches were a tad greener than in other counties, and we had a very strong four-pronged seam attack. That was our plan: to go and attack other teams, so batting wasn't very easy on it. But it did promote an aggressive and exciting way of playing cricket, which is how I played it, but with some inconsistency in my game. It wasn't until I was 25 or 26 when I started to find that consistency and that is when I started knocking on the door for England. I had a great year in 1996, scored bucketloads of runs and finished just behind Graham Gooch, but I got picked for nothing. That was a big blow. It made me want to knuckle down even more and go that extra yard. I made my debut a couple of years later.
SJ: In the book you've talked about your move to Sussex after spending a decade in Derbyshire. You believe that gave you the opportunity to knock on the doors of the selectors and have them pay more attention to you. How unfair is it, not just to you, but also other cricketers in the smaller counties?
CA: Look, Derbyshire had a history for producing fast bowlers for England - Devon Malcolm, the most famous. That was our policy - to promote and win games with a four- or five-pronged seam attack on green pitches. Derbyshire has always been one of the slower counties, not a fashionable county. Back in those days it was that much harder to get recognition.
SJ: In a sense, it is counter-intuitive. If a batsman is making runs on a pitch tailor-made for seam bowling, you would think he has the tools to survive at the highest level.
"For 11 years it was this one ambition to play for my country, and then having achieved it, it was almost over before it began. I had to adjust and become far more aware of myself and the impact that I was having on other people"
CA: Absolutely. The quantity and quality of runs is what gets you further on in the game. When I look back in my career, technically, there were some aspects in my game, which, had I had an opportunity earlier in my career, I could have mended. It would have made me survive a longer period of international cricket.
When I came up against the South African team in that Test series, they were as good a bowling unit as the world has seen since the great era of West Indian cricketers. I am talking about Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, a young Jacques Kallis bowling at excess of 90mph. If you haven't got a rock-solid technique at that level, then you get found out - and that is what happened to me. Had I played earlier and gone on A tours, I would have played with the best coaches around the country. Perhaps that might have helped identify the areas I needed to improve on.
It was a privilege to represent my country in ten matches. I am really grateful to those who gave me the opportunity. Many don't make it. It didn't happen long-term for me, but it meant that my focus could shift to other important things, like captaining Sussex to many, many great successful trophy campaigns.
SJ: You mentioned that it wasn't until the end of the Test series in South Africa that some senior player put an arm around you. There were four England captains in the side, and Michael Vaughan and Andrew Flintoff would go on to be captains in the future. Considering there was so much leadership there, it was bizarre that there wasn't guidance or encouragement for a younger player.
CA: This was the dawn of Duncan Fletcher's new era. Nasser Hussain had just taken over as captain. Even the senior players back then were establishing where they fit in the new regime. It was not fragmented but it wasn't a tight, close-knit unit of players who could openly and honestly discuss all aspects of the game and help each other through difficult periods. It was almost an experimental time in Fletcher's new regime. You felt that you were being judged and tested, which is pretty much what Test cricket is all about.
I suppose the timing for me could have been better. I could have played against a lesser opposition and had a better start to my international career. That might have made me more comfortable in the environment and made me ask more questions of the senior players.
I can't stress enough that I don't have any regrets about that period. I was given five Test matches. At the end of the day, no matter how much help you are given, if you are given the opportunity and you are not able to take it, I don't think you can look back with any regret. Had I played again a couple of years later, I would have reflected and analysed differently. I might have been much greater or better then. I won't castigate anybody in that dressing room. They are all good friends, all great cricketers. They had great careers themselves and they have their own thoughts and reflections about that particular Test series.
SJ: Any thoughts on what might have been if you had got a start in home conditions?
CA: I think it was Michael Atherton who put his hand on my shoulder after the fifth Test. He gave his reflections on my Test, which I played very much off the back foot and not on the front foot, with a very vertical bat, which is very great in England, where the ball does not tend to bounce much and skids on and allows you to play on the back foot and punch through the covers. But in South Africa, where you have a much harder surface and the ball kicks off the surface at a much greater pace, you have to play technically different, particularly off the back foot. You have to play later and with a horizontal bat. These were things that I was not thinking about at that time.
I guess I had my way of playing - my one way of playing - and I tried to implement that in that environment and it didn't work. I tried to drive balls that I felt were there, which, in England would have hit the middle of my bat. But here in South Africa, they were taking a bit of extra bounce and a little bit of movement off the seam and in the air. I was edging everything to the slips. Likewise, on my back foot, trying to force through the cover point with a vertical blade, the extra bounce was doing for me.
"When we had Mushtaq in our side, he was gold dust for the seam attack, because he basically wanted to keep bowling. He took one end out of the equation, which meant we could rotate and keep the seam bowlers fresh"
Even though that was quite a long tour of nearly four months, because of the nature of the programme in between Tests, I didn't really feel any opportunity to sit down and properly go through with the coach and senior players what technical changes I should be looking at and making. Had I done that, there also might have been a view that I had lost confidence in my own abilities.
It very much was a case of trying to knuckle down and score a lot of runs. I have no problem staying at the crease. I didn't feel at any stage that I was going to get bowled out by the South African side. I had come up against these guys before. I was a good player of fast bowling in county cricket. But when it came to scoring runs, I worked out my areas to score and they shut them down brilliantly. I struggled to come up with a mental plan and how I was going to get myself not just a couple of hours at the crease but a couple of hours with a positive contribution to the game. That was really where I was trying to manufacture shots to areas where I might score some runs. A better technique would have delivered that for me.
SJ: You came back and you were already resigned to the fact that you might not play for England again. You play the domestic game because you want to go on and play for the country. But when you feel that that door is closed, how does your life change and how do you dedicate your life to cricket again, knowing that you may not don the national colours again?
CA: I would say that the season following that tour I was in a really bad spot. I was scoring runs, definitely. I was hell-bent on trying to prove to all that I was still worth looking at. I was angry with everything. I was angry with the umpires, with the players, with myself. It was just an awful year. It was reflected through my captaincy. We had a really poor season there, and I take full responsibility for that. At that time it was really difficult to see what was happening to me. But it was just purely the fact that I had to come to terms with.
For 11 years it was this one ambition to play for my country, and then having achieved it, it was almost over before it begun. I had to adjust and become far more aware of myself and the impact that I was having on other people - not just my players, but the officials and the supporters, and my position as well. This is where it becomes a fantastic story for me, in that it was by no means the end. Having realised that England was over, it was almost the beginning for me.
That is really where I embrace Sussex for giving me that home and opportunity and support and love and care and environment that enabled me to rediscover the values of playing the game that would get me through eight fantastic years. We formed a formidable team of… not superstars but really strong, team-ethic-oriented, hard-working, grasping characters. We just played the game as hard as we could on the game but tried to enjoy it as much as we could. We formed some very strong friendships, which will last forever. That era was probably the happiest times of my life. Myself and Peter Moores started to construct a team of individuals who were really focused on delivering whatever it took to be successful and beat the other 17 counties out there. When I reflect back on those years, that is when I start to discover how strong my personality was, and my abilities to lead and get others to lead as well.
SJ: You dedicated yourself to the first-class game, you transformed yourself into a leader and won three Championship trophies with Sussex. These days they identify a young player and pull him out of the first-class system. He goes into the academies and on Lions tours. How do they learn to lead when they are not surrounded by grizzled veterans and younger players and playing five to six days a week? Alastair Cook had to learn the job of captaincy while he was doing it.
CA: It is a really valid point. It is very poignant in English cricket at the moment, and maybe also in world cricket. What the captains need more than anything else is time. Just think about Alastair Cook and the pressure he has been in, the scrutiny that he has been under during his time as England captain. Credit to him for having the strength to go through that when many other captains may have folded and given it to somebody else.
"When I reflect back on those years, that is when I start to discover how strong my personality was, and my abilities to lead and get others to lead as well"
Character forms a massive part of that, not just about knowledge and being able to make tactically the right decision - that is probably just a small fraction of the job. The huge elements of the job are personal characteristics - understanding yourself, being self-aware about what you do and how you present yourself. And then taking that to another level to understanding your team - who they are, what makes them perform to the best of their individual efficiency - and then moulding that into a collective. That takes time to understand. You need help, you need outside assistance, you need good people around you, and you need the right players as well. That formula doesn't happen overnight.
Andy Flower has this in his agenda in his new role at the ECB. Can we take the element of coaching even further and coach captaincy skills? Is that possible, or is it just about unfortunately being in the job than on the job? I think they should canvas and use people who, like myself and Graham Gooch, David Gower, Michael Vaughan, have been in the captaincy seat. Everyone will have different views and opinions from their time, but I am sure it will also be a correlation of elements that can be identified and then passed on, and maybe coached into young captains.
SJ: In the book you mention the one overseas spot in a county side usually reserved for an overseas spinner. At Sussex there was Mushtaq Ahmed. But how do you develop spin bowling in England if you keep giving a top-level spot to the overseas spinner?
CA: It depends on what criteria you live and exist under. Let's say, if I am in a county and the bosses there say that the criteria here is not about winning competitions and competing to win everything, but development of players and developing 11 home-grown talents: we want seam bowlers, allrounders, batsmen and spinners. That presents a very different way of putting your teams together and developing your players.
In my time at Sussex, and in the beginning at Surrey, it was very clearly presented to me that this is about putting up the very best team to win games and being very consistent at winning and providing silverware. Let's face it: Sussex had not been there for any length of time in terms of the Championship. Surrey had been on a ten-year gap of any silverware. So it was about immediately having an impact.
If you are going to be a strong, competitive force in county cricket, you have to be strong in your home territory. You identify how the wickets are and then you play to your strength. At Hove and The Oval, if you don't have quality spinners in your side, you will struggle to win. I strongly believe that that was the balance. Get the best spinner in the side. We will always find enough runs and enough plans to score runs out of them. We were a good fielding unit, fit unit.
The good spinner also - this is a key - buys precious time to rest for the seam bowling attack. When we had Mushtaq in our side, he was gold dust for the seam attack, because he basically wanted to keep bowling. He took one end out of the equation, which meant we could rotate and keep the seam bowlers fresh. They could stay fit all season. Keeping your seamers fit is a real skill, and we were able to do that purely because we had a world-class spinner.
SJ: Who would be the best English bowler and batsman that you played with or against? And the best non-English batsman and bowler?
CA: Probably the best English batsman was Graham Gooch. As for bowler - I remember walking out to bat at New Road at Worcester and coming up against a childhood hero, perhaps in his final year, not as fiery as he was when I was following him, but I was completely mesmerised by him and he bowled me a juicy half-volley, which I chipped to extra cover and got out for very few. I was in a trance. This guy, for me, epitomises everything that is great about the game. That was Sir Ian Botham.
As for overseas, there are only two names that come rushing out. Batting, I was privileged to see on more than one occasion some magnificent innings from first slip - Sir Vivian Richards. He was magnificent. The best bowler I ever faced was Malcolm Marshall.
SJ: What does the future hold for you, in terms of coaching, batting consultant, or a cricket management position?
CA: I have been working with the Netherlands team. They had been years without winning a tournament, and we have won back-to-back tournaments with the qualification to the T20 World Cup in March, which should be a very exciting event. I am always open and searching, and looking for a more permanent role of coaching in English cricket, or as a specialist who helps with batting, or with an all-round skill coaching. It is an open world at the moment. I love coaching. I love cricket. It is in my DNA.