Matt Critchley: 'Legspin is a niche market in itself but I bat in the top six, too'

Derbyshire allrounder is PCA's April MVP after defying early-season stereotypes

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Matt Critchley has enjoyed a fine start to the season with bat and ball, Durham vs Derbyshire, April 23, 2021

Matt Critchley has enjoyed a fine start to the season with bat and ball  •  MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The stereotype of county cricket in April is perhaps unfair, but not entirely unfounded: green pitches, thermos flasks, cable-knit jumpers, hand-warmers for slip fielders, and bags of wickets for medium-fast seam bowlers. In early-season Championship games, young English legspinners are nearly as rare as Fabergé eggs.
But this April - thanks to unseasonably dry weather, surprisingly good pitches, and a revamped competition format - Lancastrian legspin was the flavour of the month: Bolton-born Matt Parkinson was the Championship's joint-sixth-highest wicket-taker despite missing the first game of the season, and Matt Critchley, adopted by Derbyshire but brought up in Preston, was not far behind.
And while Parkinson is a specialist in his craft, Critchley's success has come on two fronts. Batting at No. 5 and adding much-needed balance to a young Derbyshire side, Critchley scored between 40 and 109 in his first six innings of the season; only three men have managed more than his aggregate of 483 for the season so far.
As a result, Critchley was an obvious choice for the PCA's Most Valuable Player (MVP) award for April, romping home with 61% of the public vote after earning a nomination alongside Craig Overton, David Bedingham and Ryan Higgins via points earned through the PCA's algorithm - revamped for 2021, following input from CricViz and focus groups with players.
His flying start will come as no surprise to those who saw him in the Bob Willis Trophy last summer, or to anyone who has heard his mentor, Stuart MacGill, wax lyrical about his potential as an allrounder since they got to know one another during an ECB spin placement in Sydney. Critchley was thrown into the Derbyshire side as a teenager, and at the end of 2019, his first-class averages were 28.05 and 49.55 with bat and ball respectively, but since then, they have flipped: they are now 51.21 and 29.65 respectively over the last 12 months.
"It's been a nice start to the season, obviously," he told ESPNcricinfo. "Not only to score the runs in April, but also to get the wickets - when you wouldn't expect spin bowling to be quite as prevalent in these conditions - shows that the hard work I've put in over the last few years is hopefully coming off.
"I played a lot of games when I was pretty young, and was probably a bit too young and inexperienced to have been playing. Mentally, I feel more established now: you play in more games and there aren't as many situations that are new to you, and that you haven't been in before. I'm pretty proud to get an award, especially at the start of the season."
Critchley's personal success has not quite translated into results for Derbyshire, who drew their first three Championship games before last week's defeat at home to Nottinghamshire, but it is clear that he is held in high regard at the club. Last summer he signed a contract extension that will keep him at Derby until the end of next season at least, in spite of interest from elsewhere.
Having grown up playing for Lancashire's age-group teams, Critchley was thrown into the deep end at Derbyshire weeks after signing an academy deal. "Parky was ahead of me," he explained, "and Rob Jones bowled legspin and batted, just like I did, so there wasn't really room for me. At 16 or 17, Derbyshire showed a bit of interest so I ended up playing a few games for the academy.
"When I was 18, I went to New Zealand for the winter, came back, signed an academy contract, and two weeks later I played my first Championship game. I had some tough times early on - playing young when you might not quite be ready and you're playing against guys that have been around for years is going to be tough - but I do try to remember how lucky I am to be playing."
And after being stuck behind him in the Lancashire system, it is possible that Critchley will be competing with Parkinson for an England spot before long, with the ECB previously showing enough interest to give him opportunities for the Lions. "We both bowl legspin, which is a niche market in itself," he said, "but at the same time, I bat in the top six for my county so I'd like to think we could play together. I don't see it as competing against anyone else: I see a little niche spot for myself, if I can keep performing with bat and ball.
"I'm 6ft 2in and I think that height is an asset for my bowling. Typically legspinners are a bit smaller, throwing it up and getting it down, whereas I can do that from higher so it doesn't have to go up as much, which then helps with bounce and speed off the pitch. Just to be involved in the [England] conversation shows that I'm developing."
Along with Durham, Derbyshire are the first team to have a week off in the Championship, but Critchley is already looking ahead to their fixture against Essex on May 13. "I'm pretty excited to watch Simon Harmer bowl, and to pick his brains," he said. "He's the gold standard for spinners in county cricket at the moment so it'll be good to come up against him and see how he goes about it.
"There's still a bit of that going on, even with everyone in different bubbles: after the Nottinghamshire game, Sam Conners and Ben Aitchison were speaking to Luke Fletcher and Stuart Broad, trying to pick the odd thing up. I spoke to Scott Borthwick after we played Durham, about batting in the top six and bowling legspin, and he was really good. Hopefully I can do the same with Rashid Khan in the Hundred - that'd be cool."
Critchley's involvement in that competition - he earned a contract with Welsh Fire after missing out in the initial draft - is a reminder that he holds white-ball ambitions, too. "I'm definitely looking forward to it," he said. "In the Blast, sometimes the England players might be around for a game or two, but in the Hundred I'll be playing with and against international superstars.
"Rubbing shoulders with them over a period of time will give me a good idea of what level I'm at." On the basis of his early-season Championship form, the answer is a high one.
Ahead of the 2021 season, the PCA reviewed its MVP algorithm, partnering with CricViz and gaining expert insights from the players themselves. The four players with the most points across a month are nominated for Player of the Month, before a public vote decides the winner. For more info, follow @pcaMVP or visit the PCA website.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98