Matt Critchley seeks immediate impact as Essex's new allround pivot

Big shoes to fill for legspinner-batter in absence of new club's trophy-winning stalwarts

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Matt Critchley's legspin has developed in recent seasons at Derbyshire  •  MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Matt Critchley's legspin has developed in recent seasons at Derbyshire  •  MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It's been lovely weather for legbreaks lately. Matt Critchley rolls his eyes in acknowledgement.
"We've already had about three seasons in our pre-season so far," he says. "It was 40 degrees in Abu Dhabi. Then two weeks ago here, it was lovely for about two days. And then last week at Middlesex, it was snowing… minus-one, seven layers on, five handwarmers in the pocket. It wasn't ideal, but I managed to thaw out a bit on the last day and bowl a bit."
There, in a nutshell, is the thankless challenge faced by county spinners up and down the country. You can hone your skills in as many off-season camps as you wish, but if - come the start of the season - the conditions are likely to offer you as little traction as your frost-numbed fingers, you can be fairly sure which facet of your county's attack is going to take centre stage.
And yet, in spite of the invidious circumstances at Merchant Taylors' School, it turned out to be a productive three days for Critchley - whose winter switch from Derbyshire to Essex was arguably the most eye-catching of the year's county transfers. His fluent 64 in Essex's first innings turned out to be the only half-century of the contest, and having demonstrated his value as a top-six batter, he popped up on the final day with the tidy figures of 2 for 31 in ten overs of legspin - an opportunity he probably would not have been on the pitch to grab had it not been for his many-stringed attributes.
"Watching how the seamers have been bowling pre-season, I don't think I'll have to be doing too much bowling in April, hopefully," Critchley adds with a smile. "I'm sure I'll be all over it when needed, but watching Sam Cook, Jamie Porter, [Shane] Snater, [Aaron] Beard, [Mark] Steketee, and the rest of the lads bowling, hopefully I'll be spending some less time in the field than at Derby..."
However, Critchley is under no illusions about the scale of the challenge, and of the opportunity, that awaits him at Chelmsford. After six seasons of stealthy development as an allrounder, he joins the serial red-ball champions off the back of a brace of break-out years - first with the ball in 2020, when his 17 wickets at 26.88 proved a major factor in Derbyshire's spirited challenge in that summer's Bob Willis Trophy, and then with the bat last summer, when he made exactly 1000 runs at 43.47, including a century against Worcestershire.
"For a club like this to want to sign someone like myself, it's a huge vote of confidence in itself," Critchley says. "I remember when I started in 2015, they were with us in Division Two, but then they got promoted and won all those Division One titles, the Bob Willis Trophy, that Finals Day [in 2019] when they beat Derbyshire in the semi-finals to win it in the end as well. That was something that I want to be a part of: not only progressing my own cricket, but being part of a squad that's challenging in every format of the game to win trophies, and play with some of the best players in the country."
Critchley already knew he'd have one sizeable set of shoes to fill at Essex, following Ryan ten Doeschate's retirement at the end of last season. Less predictably, however, he is set to be their senior spinner from the season's outset, against Kent at Chelmsford on Thursday, following Simon Harmer's recall to South Africa's Test set-up. And given Harmer's immediate impact, with seven wickets against Bangladesh in his first appearance since 2015, the club can expect to see rather less of their stalwart than has been the case throughout a trophy-laden few years.
"I definitely came thinking that Harmer would play every game," Critchley says. "And I'm looking forward to playing with him eventually and seeing how he goes about things. But this will be the role that I've played throughout my career anyway - batting in that top six, then playing as your first spinner behind probably four seamers.
"I think that's probably one of my biggest assets," he adds. "The fact that, by doing both to a certain level, you can change the balance of the side to however they want to play it. But whatever role they get us to play, or not play, I'm quite open to learning and keeping improving. Ultimately I've come here to win Championships, so whatever role that fulfils, I'm more than happy to partake."
Critchley's under no illusions that he's a work in progress. Currently aged 25, he reckons it won't be until he's past 30 that he becomes a fully-rounded red-ball legspinner - with the tactical nous to work his fields and angles in accordance to the changing match situations. But as his fellow leggie - and former age-group rival at Lancashire - Matt Parkinson is discovering while waiting on the cusp of Test selection, there's not much development to be had unless you can secure a place in the team in the first place.
"Ultimately [being a batter] gives you another way in," Critchley says. "A lot of spinners now are a lot more valued in the white-ball stuff, if you're being brutally honest, rather than in April and May and September, when seamers generally do most of the damage. You tend to play the batsman who can bowl a bit of spin, rather than the spinner that can take 20 wickets, because you probably don't need them as much, which is another whole kettle of fish in itself.
"But it's definitely helped me play more games than I probably should have in my career development stage," he adds. "In my early stage, I was probably more of a bits-and-pieces player but I feel like I've grown into a genuine version of both now, and that gives you more of a chance of being in the field and contributing to a win."
Critchley's first-class stats speak to that gradual improvement - overall he's taken 114 wickets at 43.05, but 104 of those have come in the four seasons since he attended an ECB spin camp with Stuart MacGill in Sydney in 2018, including 32 at 38.43 last summer, his joint-biggest haul to date.
Shane Warne, inevitably, was a huge influence in his developmental years - in 2016, Critchley missed Derbyshire's final game of the season to attend a spin clinic with Warne at Lord's - but in terms of his technique, he regards himself as more of an Anil Kumble-style spinner.
"I'm a little bit taller, with a bit more bounce and over the top, but I've spent hours watching Warne, watching McGill, trying to spin it as far as I can," he says. "So I do like to try and do both, and now you watch the subcontinent legspinners that spin it both ways and bowl flat and quick. And you see how effective that can be, especially in white-ball cricket.
"So you try and take as many ideas as you can from your contemporaries, including the English lads, and fit that to suit you, because you can only be the best version of yourself. If you try and be someone else, you'll be the second-best version of them. I'm sure there's stuff I'll learn from Simon Harmer, although he's a fingerspinner, and ideas that Adam Wheater has behind the stumps, or Alastair Cook at first slip or whoever. I'll try to listen but the most important thing is to be authentic to yourself."
In terms of his environment, Critchley is on a familiar footing already when it comes to Chelmsford's low-key surroundings. "At a smaller ground, there's probably a bit more of a community, family feel about it," he says. "You see the same people around each day, the office staff, the chief executive and chairman, your supporters as you walk in through and around them, and something that I'm obviously used to at Derbyshire. I've never played a white-ball game here, but I'm looking forward to that as I've heard it can be a good atmosphere."
For the time being, his base remains near his family and girlfriend in Derby - "It's a nice part of the world round here but house prices are a bit more expensive than up north!" - but he's found himself a flat for the season so won't be "living out of suitcases 24/7".
"The biggest thing coming here is that you want to be here every day," he says. "It's such an enjoyable atmosphere to be in, because you know you're going to come and have some fun and learn around the lads."
And in terms of his higher ambitions, Critchley is realistic but hopeful too. His retention by Welsh Fire for this season's Hundred is a reminder of the burgeoning value of his white-ball game, but given the state of flux within England's Test team, and the sense that a new generation of contenders may be required to reboot the country's red-ball standards, the coming run of Championship opportunities is his only focus for noe.
"I scored 1000 runs last year but only scored one hundred," he says. "So if I want to try and contend higher up, I've got to try to score big hundreds. It's probably a mindset thing, really, learning how to bat for long periods of time - sessions, two sessions, three sessions, days - as a solo batsman, let alone as a team.
"That's probably the main learning point for us as young batters throughout the country. But the beauty of it at the moment is you've got seven or eight games in a row at the start of the season. Obviously people who have done well in the past will probably be at the front of that queue, but it's definitely a time where a lot of county cricketers will be thinking there's spots to be had.
"Seamers, spinners, batters, allrounders. There's probably spots throughout the team, and only a couple that you'd say are nailed on at the moment. But I just want to compete for a batting spot against the batters and a bowling spot against the bowlers, look at constantly improving, and see where that goes."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket