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Interviews

Trent Copeland: 'My first ball in Shield cricket bounced twice before the keeper'

Following his retirement, the New South Wales seamer discusses a career with an unusual route

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
27-Mar-2023
Trent Copeland remained a potent force in the New South Wales attack throughout his career  •  Getty Images

Trent Copeland remained a potent force in the New South Wales attack throughout his career  •  Getty Images

Earlier this month Trent Copeland called time on a career that brought over 400 first-class wickets and three Test caps for Australia. In this interview with ESPNcricinfo, he reflects on his own journey, the fact he didn't get more chances at international level and offers some wider views on the game
How do you reflect on what you've achieved in your career?
I'm incredibly proud knowing I was nowhere near the level of talent that 90% of the cricketers I played with and against were at. I'd like to think that I gave it everything I possibly had, coming from the country, being a Bathurst kid, and a wicketkeeper-batter until I was 20. Nothing ever really is as it seems. You can always change and set your focus on different things and achieve. Obviously getting a baggy green is incredible. But even just playing for New South Wales after my pathway and upbringing being so different to everyone else. It's really unique and it hasn't sunk in, the magnitude of it. But I'm very proud of it.
How did you convert a rare opportunity for an uncontracted 23-year-old out of grade cricket into a 14-year first-class career?
I don't know the answer to that. I think the one thing that stood out to me was that I'd given the wicketkeeping gloves away, and initially I was focused on batting and getting myself six opportunities in the next grade above rather than just one. That was the focus, and I was constantly then having to dispel people that knew me as a keeper and a batter that I was now a bowler. And then from there, I was also not the 150kph sexy new toy that was going to be the next 15-year superstar at Test level that inevitably is part of the psyche when it comes to picking teams. It was built into me and the way I go about things from a young age that I love proving people wrong.
I'm a determined guy. I'm sure [my wife] Kim will say even when it comes to playing monopoly or scramble at home how bloody competitive I am. When I got my first chance I was literally coaching a kid in an indoor centre for a living, playing grade cricket, not on contract. I got the call I think on a Wednesday and I had to be there on Thursday afternoon to meet Simon Katich at the SCG and was told you're going to play the Shield game against Queensland on Friday.
It drove me to want to just soak that all up and enjoy it, but you get one chance and I've seen so many people miss that or get overawed by it. I guess once I had that sniff and I had done well I never wanted to let that go. And I still don't now to be honest. But it's a reality of life that you have to at some point.
How did you turn yourself from a 195cm wicketkeeper into a first-class bowler with incredible skill level with immaculate control?
I didn't have people teaching me. To be honest, it came from trial and error, failing on the go. Bowling to set batters in grade cricket and having to figure it out, rather than it just being my attributes that got me selected if that makes sense. That's part of the stuff that I see now. Inevitably kids come into a talent ID situation, people see stuff and they want to accelerate that process and get them to try and figure it out almost in Shield cricket. I was so lucky that I had to wait until I was 23. I'd had such a big body of work of learning the skills and being put under pressure, but winning a few competitions in first grade and those grand finals, doing really well personally but also most importantly getting across the line and winning before I played Shield cricket was massive.
Do you think that is part of the reason why you had so much success at Shield level first up? And then how did you find the jump from Shield cricket to Test cricket in such a short time?
My first ball in Shield cricket bounced twice before the keeper. It was one of those things now looking back on that, the ridicule or the how slow does he bowl type narrative is...it was interesting that that was my entry point into first-class cricket. At no stage were any of my team-mates saying things like that but inside your own mind you always doubt, are you good enough? You doubt whether you belong. [Copeland went on to take 8 for 92 on his debut, which remained career-best figures]
I was able to settle in and just have a good time with it and remember who I was as a person, and what I do well. There was a whirlwind stage of success in Shield cricket and we had just come off the Shield final down in Hobart. We didn't win that final but myself and Pat Cummins in particular had bowled a lot together and started to forge what it is to be successful at the elite level. When we went over to Sri Lanka and then I took five wickets in the tour match I felt really confident that I could do a job in Test cricket and I guess the challenge, reflecting back on it when I was picked, was incredible.
It wasn't necessarily the conditions that were most conducive to my success but I think now watching our Australian team playing in the subcontinent, how difficult it is to have success. It was bloody phenomenal that I was able to be over there with Nathan Lyon in our first tour and we could beat Sri Lanka in the subcontinent. It's disappointing that probably about three years after that I was 10 times the bowler I was when I did play international cricket and probably more like 20 times the bowler now. But that's the reality of it.
When I got dropped it was in South Africa, the Vernon Philander famous game in Cape Town. And after that moment, there were some bloody good bowling conditions that I missed that stung me a little. But you think of James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc, Cummins, Josh Hazlewood that all came onto the scene immediately thereafter and credit to all of those guys I just could never work my back.
How did you reconcile the fact that you were a better bowler as you got older than when you played Test cricket and yet there were no opportunities, particularly in conditions that might have suited you in England or South Africa? And how do you feel in general about Australian cricket's preference for bowlers with ball speed over the last 10 years ahead of seam or swing bowlers who have been successful at Shield level?
At no stage do I feel bitter or angry about anything to be honest. People are employed and have their own necks on the line to make these sorts of decisions. It's not easy. And whether you like it or not, there is an arbitrary view that ball speed is essential to success in Test cricket. I'd like to think that there are many guys around even currently that are proving that wrong. Essentially there are multiple tours where I think I was bowling at my best and could have really made a long-lasting difference in international cricket.
The way our contract system is working and the way we pick teams even at the national levels, I think is centered around young kids or elite talent and if they're not already elite by 25 it's hard to find a place. It's not to say that no one will push through that. But really, I think we've lost some good players in that ilk
Particularly the year where we played Victoria in the Shield final [2018-19] and I think I took 50 plus wickets [52] and felt at my peak and was using a Dukes ball in Australian conditions that was flowing straight into an away Ashes. Sids [Peter Siddle] was back in the frame then and did a really good job and they ultimately took guys they thought could play significant roles and [the chance] didn't come. That was probably the moment where I realised that my time at that level was done. Despite my success, there was no avenue back, and as I said, I don't look at that with bitterness.
There's a little bit of frustration that there was no other opportunity. But my hope is that people continue to be seen, be it batting or bowling really, not for the aesthetic, not for the opinion that sort of precludes people from playing, but rather for what they deliver. And that should afford them the opportunity to at least be given the chance to try and succeed at the level. If they fail, so be it. But people guessing on whether someone can be good enough because of ball speed or the way their technique looks when they bat, I don't love that about our sport in this country.
The era of Australian domestic cricket you played in was for a long time led by Greg Chappell as national talent manager and youth development was a priority above performance for a number of those years you played. How did you find being in a system that viewed a cricketer like you as perhaps someone who didn't quite fit the age and style profile in terms of what was trying to be achieved?
I must say I got really lucky. To debut, in my case at 24, outside of the contract system, it's so unique. Not many people got the chance let alone were able to make it stick so I was very, very lucky. Greg Chappell was the one who selected me and was the selector on tour and delivered the message that I was going to make my Test debut. So this is in no way a direct reflection on my relationship with him.
My opinion though is when I started, there was a real fierceness about the contest in Shield cricket. There was a fierceness to the 2nd XI team in New South Wales and whoever we were playing against was the second-best state team that walked out onto the field for the [CA] 2nd XI competition. Whether a kid was 18 or if they were 29, if they were good enough, they were playing in that game. Inevitably you've got to have an eye on the future and look towards who could be a long-term player for us. You've got to look at things like who to award contracts to. That's part of the reality of why you are picking these teams. I get that nature of it. But my obvious impression is that we've lost the 25 to 31-year-old cricketer from our game and whether they're interested in playing because the contracts just simply aren't there and the amount of opportunities simply aren't there.
That to me is something that I've seen diminish over my career and something that I'd love to see come back. I don't know the answer specifically on contracts. But I think you ask any of the elite cricketers, particularly batters, but I would say bowlers as well, what age do you become your best self, the best cricketer, know your method and have the ability to sit in your own skin and just enjoy cricket and flourish?
Batters, in particular, would be saying 27, 28, if not even 30. And bowlers are probably the same. I certainly was the same. My last five years have been so much better from a bowling sense. The way our contract system is working and the way we pick teams even at the national levels, I think is centered around young kids or elite talent and if they're not already elite by 25 it's hard to find a place. It's not to say that no one will push through that. But really, I think we've lost some good players in that ilk.
Do you see a future where someone will play three T20s and 112 first-class games like you did? How difficult will it be now for either a young batter or young bowler or a late developer to have that career arc as opposed to focusing on short-form cricket?
I think there is a lot of things at play here. There are way more opportunities to excel in T20 cricket now. There's way more money available for people which has the natural pull of guys taking that opportunity at the outset to give them the money so they can then focus on this long term and have a full-time commitment to doing it. I don't begrudge anyone for taking that path. The answer is no. And I guess the rationale for me saying that is I have a real concern. And I've voiced this to CA quite a few times and numerous people within the pathway.
I don't know if everyone knows that, but I've never had a locker in my entire career. Something as simple as a locker to go and put my kit in every day.
I see U19s and U17s cricket at national carnivals, and I see a lot of people come through that are just unbelievable cricketers. But there's not a single red-ball game that's being played in domestic underage carnivals. And the requirement of a forward defence for example, is almost a waste of a ball. So temperament and technique which I think are two of the most central characteristics for anyone succeeding at the next level, and particularly Test level, is almost seen as a waste in our pathway. No one would ever be sitting there as a coach and saying don't focus on your forward defence or don't get better at it. But you're also playing with white balls that swing for about five overs. They don't move off the seam. These sorts of things to me are part of the reason why my answer is no to your question.
I really hope that we get to a point where it's a hybrid of both. Test cricket to my knowledge is still in CA's mission statement, to be the number one Test nation. I'd love to see a bit of the focus and a bit of asset management go towards that as a priority. I'm talking about athlete development and not just bums on seats and who's watching. I don't profess to know all the answers. But kids being required to be good at a forward defence or be accurate with the ball for long periods of time, I think needs to become an essential part of our pathway.
How difficult is it then for the likes of Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood to traverse across three formats at international level?
It's tough and I think for those three guys in particular, it's almost a case of what's coming in the next 12 months? Is it a 50-over World Cup? Okay, let's focus there. Is it a T20 World Cup? Let's focus there. If it's the World Test Championship, an India or an Ashes series, and in the case of this year it's all three, we really need to turn our attention there. I think they are, and there are a few batters as well, three of the last people that will be dominant forces in all three formats and able to play all three formats. Not because people aren't capable, but just because I don't think it's possible.
We'll start to see, much like England have already done, almost a completely different unit that's playing white-ball cricket to Test cricket, splitting coaches, things like that. When T20 first started, I think you could get away with just being elite, just in general as a cricketer. Now, conditions, tactics, the prowess of those games are so specific that you really need to be someone that's really focused on it all the time. Otherwise, in the big moments sometimes it gets exposed.
Who are the best batters you have bowled to?
Marnus Labuschagne sticks out at present. I remember a Shield final at Allan Border Field that he got the better of us significantly. But there have been times when having the ability to move the ball around and set plans and work a batter over, I really found it was a good litmus test on whether I am actually up to the challenge and still good enough. Mike Hussey I found a thrill of a challenge mainly because it was never like he just took you down, but it was more that he understood game planning. He understood his strengths intricately and the moments where you're able to knock someone like that over even in amongst the times where he would hit you to all parts, was always a good challenge.
New South Wales has been the gold standard in Australian cricket for a long time and it was during the majority of your career but the state has struggled in recent times. What is happening there currently and what does need to happen for New South Wales to get back to being a domestic force?
My opinion is that the talent is there. So that needs to be dispelled from any conversation, that we're not producing the talent that we always have. There's no doubt in my mind that there is talent. There is the ability to dominate elite-level cricket and be Test cricketers just like there has been for so many years. The interesting part is the programs and the training environment have been what they have been for almost 15 years in my experience.
Essentially we have had no home ground, no training facility that is always our own. That's now changed. So hopefully Cricket Central can be a part of one home, one locker, one place to call your own and train and get better in a consistent environment. I don't know if everyone knows that, but I've never had a locker in my entire career. Something as simple as a locker to go and put my kit in every day. Because we go to the SCG some days, Blacktown, Bankstown, then we're using nets at Olympic Park. It's basically been a bit part process to try and get an elite facility.
Then we're playing one to three games at the SCG and then grade grounds and country grounds where we stand there at the toss and we have no idea essentially on how to build a game plan, what to do at the toss or even a best guess on what the pitch is going to play like, versus our opposition that are walking into the same venue every game. So these are a few of the little challenges that I think are going to start to be naturally fixed.
Outside of that, I see a lot of hope. I see a lot of belief in the ability and the talent. But I still see a lot wanting to aspire to do well rather than getting in, taking it head on, and believing that we're going to just be better than the opposition and not take a backward step. And that's not anyone in an individual sense. But I hope that certainly in a training environment and playing sense in the future that becomes a priority.
Lastly, how did you find mixing playing with being a commentator for Channel Seven and how advantageous was it to still be playing with and against some of the players you were commenting on?
I think it's been a real asset to me in the sense that I'm living and breathing it still and playing with and against these guys knowing what they're practicing, what they're struggling with, who's done well in the last Shield game. Those sorts of things are first-hand information that is just always there for me in my mind when I'm speaking on air, particularly about domestic players. The actual physical nature of doing it whilst I played was a nightmare. To juggle it was a lot of planning. But I'm really fortunate that I had the chance to do it, and I bloody love doing it. So I can't wait to do more of it and dig in and maybe even focus more on the content that we're going to produce and then expanding the horizons. Not just being an analyst but hopefully being a well-rounded broadcaster on all sports.

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo