In Conversation: Matt Critchley

Friday 4th December 2020
Photography by: David Griffin

Heritage Officer, David Griffin, has seen every one of Matt Critchley’s games for the first team, and in this interview, looks back, and to the future, with Derbyshire’s 2020 Player of the Year.

Critchley scored a remarkable 137 in only his second game for Derbyshire in 2015; he calmly smashed Tim Bresnan all over the ground to take Derbyshire to a breathless win against Yorkshire in a Vitality Blast game at Chesterfield in 2018, and in 2020 he produced match-winning figures of 6-73 in Derbyshire’s comprehensive three-day win at Leicester.

Awarded his County Cap in 2019, and with 151 all formats games, almost 3,500 runs and 154 wickets to his name, Critchley is now an established first team regular in all forms of the game.

When and where did you first play cricket?

My dad used to play at Brinscall Cricket Club in Lancashire, and I bowled to my uncle in a game when I was about seven years old; in fact, I bowled the first ball of the game.

As a young amateur cricketer, which discipline did you favour – batting or bowling?

I always liked both and did both in junior club cricket. At Lancashire, to start with in the age group sides I opened the batting, but then aged 13 and 14 I was doing more bowling, and batting at eight, and by the age of 16 I began to do both.

I started bowling off spin actually but Alviro Petersen saw me at a summer school bowling leg-spin and urged me to do it more. I never actually joined the Lancashire Academy and they had good leg-spinners anyway – particularly Matt Parkinson – but I played for Lancashire Under-17s against Derbyshire Under-17s at Staveley. I’m not sure who recommended me or spotted me, but the next contact from Derbyshire came from Howard Dytham in the Derbyshire Academy.

Just returning to leg-spin bowling, what motivated you to start bowling leg-spin?

My dad has a video of me aged about ten bowling off spin but flicking the ball out like a leg-spinner, so I suppose I was never really bowling traditional off-spin. Then there were those three great bowlers, Shane Warne, Stuart MacGill and Anil Kumble and I watched them a lot on TV. And in 2005 when England won the Ashes, I watched Warne not realising he’d been around for a decade already. I was only 11 years old and his bowling fascinated me. And lastly, half decent coaches love leg-spinners because when you’re a young cricketer, all the bowlers want to bowl fast, and a leg-spinner is so different. It’s a skill many young bowlers don’t want to learn.

And what about the process which brought you to Derbyshire?

Howard Dytham invited me to work with the Derbyshire Academy. I was only 17 and as I said earlier, I’d never been on the Lancashire Academy although I’d played in age group sides, and he just told me to get to Derby when I could and so I went once a week for training in 2013/14 and then played some games for the Academy in 2014. That was the time when the support of my mum and dad was so important. Their sacrifices and support offered me the opportunity to become a first-class cricketer and I’ll always be grateful for their endless car journeys up and down the country just to get me to a game of cricket, or practice.

Your arrival at Derbyshire was spectacular – 137 against Northamptonshire on your home debut – batting at number 8; what was it like going in to bat that day at Derby and to make such huge impression?

I didn’t feel like I was ready for first-class cricket, but I did back myself, I was confident and while I really wasn’t ready to bowl leggies at 18, I felt that I probably was ready to bat. I really enjoyed it and played with no fear and no perception of what the opposition might do to counter me. I just saw the ball, hit it, and had a bit of fun; I just thought so positively, and that positivity helped me to feel like I belonged right at that early stage. I’d not played much second team cricket, so I was thrust into county cricket quite quickly. But I felt that I could do it.

You were – and remain – the youngest player to score a century for Derbyshire. Did that early success ever make you feel pressured to perform every time you went onto the field?

I didn’t put expectations on myself – but maybe others did. It’s interesting because as I’ve matured and improved, I’ve tried to focus on how to contribute to the team winning but even in a team sport, when you do well, others talk about you as an individual not the team. When I made my debut, I was still really playing principally as a bowler and so it was great to get a hundred that early in my career. But yes, it brought a bit of media pressure although the coaches were very level-headed, and supporters and members were very encouraging.

You have opened the batting in white ball cricket, but you seem at your happiest in the middle order. What’s your favourite or preferred batting position?

I definitely want to go higher – I’d like to open in white ball cricket in the future although the way I play is probably suited to the middle-order in white ball cricket where I’d like to develop as a finisher in T20 and one day matches; in four-dayers, I’m happy at five but would like to go a spot higher eventually.

Leg-spinners are notorious for taking time to develop although you have clearly improved over the last couple of seasons. What do you put that improvement down to?

Probably a lot of hard work that others don’t see. I’ve spent countless hours in India and Australia bowling loads of overs which people don’t see; working with Stuart MacGill – teaching me the mentality of bowling. He’s explained the game to me, how to become more accurate, and how to bowl at certain players in certain situations. He’s been invaluable to me, encouraging me to attack and try to take wickets. Sometimes in England there can be a tendency to bowl defensively – which you have to do occasionally – but I feel that if I bowl well, I’ll take wickets anyway. Keeping runs down is good but taking wickets wins matches. I do appreciate the need to complement the seam bowlers at the same time though.

How much is knowing your job and responsibilities within the team part of that development?

Yes, that comes from confidence and working with the same captain and from easy conversations with the captain. I’m happy to tell Billy (Godleman) that I can win a game in a given situation and he then backs me. However, he’ll also sometimes say that we’ll sit in for now and wait for the right moment.  The most important thing is being ready when needed.

Watching you from the side-lines you appear to have an incredibly positive approach to batting and bowling – and fielding – is that just how you naturally want to play the game?

That’s probably just the real me! I don’t work on it. I do try to adopt a presence at the crease but not in an arrogant way. I try to put the pressure on the opposition at the crease and I trust my technique and temperament. But I want to win. My mum and dad watched the video of when I got the Player of the Year Award and they said I looked miserable. I told them I was happy winning the award, but we’d just lost, (to Yorkshire at Headingley) and I take losing seriously. And winning.

Many Derbyshire supporters recall that amazing last over against Yorkshire in a T20 game at Chesterfield in 2018. What do you remember about that final over; you were batting with Billy Godleman?

I recall that I got 20-odd before the last over; the rate was pretty steep and then Rashid bowled an over and I thought if I could see him off, I could trust myself to do it. I don’t bat with Billy much, but he kept me calm and kept me focusing on what the job was. The final over was great; I’d had two or three overs to look at what was needed and felt set and ready. I remember Plunkett bowled a couple of overs before and was bowling short, so I decided that if he pitched it up, I’d hit him over the top. With Bresnan in that last over, I didn’t worry where the five fielders on the boundary were, I just had to decide where the ball was going and get it over them or between them. I kept it simple. It was amazing, I ran off past Billy and it was great because members and fans were starting to expect us to win in T20 cricket so running off having won that game was remarkable. Losing in that situation would have been disappointing actually.

In the final game of 2018, you scored a century at Lord’s and my abiding memory of it was the calm manner in which you moved into the nineties and then to a hundred. You appear almost nerveless when you’re at the crease. Is that really the case?

I want to get a few more hundreds but it didn’t bother me that I was in the nineties, I just wanted to keep batting. I try to keep chilled and calm.

You also hold the record for batting in the greatest number of innings for Derbyshire before you recorded a duck.

I think getting off the mark is a bit different; I do try to concentrate on getting off the mark. Nobody wants to get a duck.

You spend a lot of the time at slip in first-class matches, and – gauging by the reactions of your colleagues – you appear to be the joker in the pack. What goes on in the slip cordon?

It’s sometimes about the cricket, but more often it’s me just enjoying the cricket. I play cricket for a living, but I also play cricket because I love it and enjoy it. Wayne and Harvey are both sensible, so they sometimes find my comments funny.

You are an important player in T20 cricket for Derbyshire; what’s it like coming on to bowl in those middle overs, knowing you need to keep it tight, when there’s often a pair of batsmen just wanting to smash you all over the ground?

To me it’s enjoyable – I don’t think about the pressure or the crowd. It was made easier in 2018 and 2019 with players like Ravi Rampaul taking wickets up top; this year there were a few tricky powerplays, so it made life a bit tougher. But I enjoy that pressure – if they’re trying to whack me there’s more chance of me getting a wicket. As I mature, I have learned to read situations a lot better; and I can bowl in the Powerplay now.

A lot of all-rounders tend to be stronger in one of the two main disciplines, batting, or bowling, but you’re a frontline batsman and a frontline bowler – which do you prefer?

I don’t, but I think I prefer to do well bowling because if we won a game and I didn’t bat I wouldn’t be too bothered, but if we won and I didn’t bowl, I would be bothered! Leg-spin bowling is a cool thing, and it helps teams win games.

You enjoyed some success playing for the England Lions in one day cricket a couple of years ago; what ambitions do you have regarding the international game?

My ambition is to play for England in all formats; I’d like to do it as soon as possible but if it never happens then fair enough. My numbers haven’t always reflected what I’ve been doing but this year averaging 25 with the ball and 40 with the bat means my numbers are now more compelling. After my first two years I was averaging over 100 with the ball when I wasn’t really ready to play first-class cricket as a bowler. That’s thankfully coming down now. When you’re young, your numbers can look bad and it’s important not to totally focus on them; winning games should always be at the forefront of your game.

Just over a year ago you played in your biggest game – a semi-final at T20 Finals Day – what do you recall about that day?

It was cool. I’d watched it on TV and I always aspired to play at a Finals Day. I was buzzing and happy to be there, but I want to get back there to win it, not just to take part. The fans seemed happy and seeing people in the stand cheering us was amazing, imagine how they’d be if we won it! It was a success to reach Finals Day, but we want to win it.

You’re remarkably still only 24 years old and yet have become an ever-present in the Derbyshire side; where do you think you and this current crop of players can take Derbyshire in the next few years?

I don’t see any reason why we can’t win something. Me and Harvey (Hosein) are young and have played lots of games. Wayne (Madsen) and Billy have scored thousands of runs, Luis (Reece) and Alex (Hughes) and others like Leus (du Plooy) are really talented and produce the goods so we do have a chance in the future. I see no reason why we can’t keep improving. We now have players in our side who would get in other county sides – which is only a good thing in a small talented squad.

Have you ever fancied the captaincy?

Yes, definitely; I’m not ready yet and Billy’s doing a fine job, but I have mentioned to Houghts (David Houghton) that if an opportunity arises, I’d like to do it if only in a friendly match.

What sort of captain would you be?

Aggressive. I’d want to take wickets all the time and my field placings would be attacking.

Derbyshire were forced to play all of their games in 2020 away from home; how did that affect the players and you in particular?

I think obviously playing in front of nobody was weird. Even in a full ground, unless you’re on the boundary, you don’t always notice the crowd, but our games were really, really quiet. Playing all our games away was a hard slog because we were away from families all the time. I understand how difficult things have been for others because of the pandemic so I’m not going to complain for being paid to play cricket. But it was still unusual being at away grounds all the time and missing the comforts of home.

You’re Derbyshire’s Player of the Year in 2020 – you’ve seen several of your colleagues step up to receive that award. How does it feel to win it?

Obviously happy and privileged and at the end of the year I can now reflect nostalgically and look back over 15 years at the work and the effort which has brought about a personal award. T20 cricket was disappointing overall but I got the award for my performances in the Bob Willis Trophy where other players were playing well too, so I am very proud. Wayne’s name is on there 4 times, so I’m going to try and emulate him. For me now I need to keep believing that I can score runs and take wickets, especially at crucial times. If I keep working hard and maintain good preparation with a good mindset, then I hope to maintain my consistency of 2020.

What do you like to do outside of cricket?

Obviously, I enjoy spending time with my girlfriend Laura, and I follow Liverpool FC, which was great last year, but not so great last Sunday (Aston Villa 7 Liverpool 2). I try and get home when I can to visit my family because I spend a lot of time away. I don’t play golf – I don’t like being bad at stuff, so I’d have to play it and then work at it all the time. I go to the gym and go running, but that’s still really non-negotiable work.

You’ve signed a new two-year deal with Derbyshire which takes you to the end of 2022; any particular personal goals and ambitions?

Win a competition and be as consistent as I can and win games for Derbyshire. I’d also like to get mentioned in conversations about being an England player. I want to play Test cricket for England.

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