The 2022 season should offer opportunities for a number of Derbyshire’s younger players to enhance their credentials as county cricketers under the eye of new Head of Cricket Mickey Arthur.
In a series of one-to-one interviews to be published in the approach to the new season, Heritage Officer David Griffin will chat with opening bowlers Ben Aitchison and Sam Conners who both impressed during 2021 after first coming together in the shortened 2020 season, as well as with two spinners who have ambitions as all-rounders, Mattie McKiernan and Alex Thomson.
A wide range of topics will be up for discussion including their formative years in the game, successes to date, hopes for the future and much more.
Ben Aitchison, the young fast bowler, is the latest player discussing his career to date.
Ben, Six Nations rugby union is upon us and I know you have more than a passing interest in the game, and that you’re from a sporting family. So before we get onto cricket can you explain more about your sporting background?
Yes, well my dad played rugby for London Irish, Waterloo and England Saxons in the amateur era, at fly-half or inside centre. Holly, my sister, plays for England at rugby and should be taking part in the Six Nations and then the World Cup in October. And my mum enjoyed playing sport as well.
So which sports did you play as a youngster?
I’ve always played golf and tennis, rugby union, football and cricket. In rugby union I was a fly half, occasionally full back.
Good enough to go on and play professionally, or was cricket always the main attraction?
Oh, it definitely wasn’t always cricket. With all my sports I was a late developer and cricket only became a priority for me when I was about eighteen. Rugby-wise, I did play Lancashire stuff but I don’t think I’d have been good enough to play professionally.
And your golf handicap?
I play off five (laughs) – and I do enjoy it.
Have you played in the club golf day yet – everyone will want you in their team!
We had one last year and we had a good day although we didn’t win. Wayne (Madsen) is also a single-figure golfer, and Woody (Tom Wood) is good as well.
You said that cricket only became a priority in your late teens, but when did you first play the game?
At Formby, my local club in Liverpool. I went down on a Friday night as a nine or ten-year-old; I think my parents wanted me to go out for an hour and I went down with a few mates and just enjoyed having a game. I played regularly but I wasn’t any good until about the age of fifteen and even then, I was only a batter; I didn’t bowl seam until I was sixteen.
What were you bowling?
Off spin, if anything, so I played as a batter for Formby in the Liverpool and District competition.
So did you play any age group cricket in Lancashire?
No, I only got involved at Lancashire in the under nineteens, all my teenage cricket was at club level. Then I had a couple of winters in Australia playing cricket.
What about your education?
Well if I did focus on it, it didn’t go too well, but even at primary school I always said that I wanted to be a professional sportsman although it wasn’t until I came back from Australia that I thought it could be as a cricketer.
When did you leave education then?
Well I finished my A-levels at eighteen and had a place at university but I always was going to go to Australia, partly to play cricket, but also to broaden my outlook on life. Stephen Parry played for Formby and he put a mini-academy together in Melbourne so I went with a couple of mates and had a season there and then got back involved with Lancashire.
Who from Lancashire had spotted you other than Stephen Parry?
Iain Cockbain senior was my first captain at Formby and he knew Paul Allott and Glen Chapple well and that was the route which got me into the Lancashire set up.
Presumably, now as a pace bowler?
Yes, I started bowling properly for Formby and it came out OK – I was sixteen and enjoyed bowling and also batting down the order, scoring a few runs.
What expectations did you have at this stage?
To be honest, I just wanted to play cricket and enjoy it, which I did. Tom Hartley was a mate and he was playing for the Lancs under nineteens with Gary Yates running it.
So the next step was Lancashire seconds – how did that arise?
In 2018, Chris Benbow, who was the second team coach, selected me for a game against Hampshire at Northern Cricket Club in Liverpool – a four-day game. I actually played against Harry Came in that match, and there were other really good players like Rob Jones, George Lavelle, Liam Hurt, Tom Hartley and Lewis McManus in that game. I bowled alright.
Fast forward to August 2020 and you’re opening the bowling for Derbyshire on your first-class debut at Trent Bridge and dismissing England Test players including Duckett and Hameed. How did that meteoric rise happen?
In 2019 I wasn’t really looking to play cricket away from Lancashire, although I knew I’d be going to Sydney to play Grade cricket in the winter and started to get a bit of interest from Sussex who suggested that I might have a trial when I got back. However, I got back on 19th March 2020 and the Covid lockdown hit four days later. At that point I was disappointed that having worked hard in the winter and hoping for opportunities in the summer here in England, it might all come to nothing.
So, you weren’t contracted to Lancashire at this stage?
No, I just hoped to get invited back to play some more second eleven cricket, but I’d got an agent looking after me at this time and I understand that he sent some footage of me bowling to Houghts (David Houghton) and Steve Kirby, and then it was a case of being offered a three month contract for the shortened 2020 season. I expected to be back up to be fair, but I trained well and they obviously liked the look of my bowling in practice.
You appear to have a very repeatable action, well-grooved. Is that a natural thing?
I’ve been told that from when I was sixteen and have always been advised to maintain it. However, it is just natural – I just run in and bowl and that’s how it happens. Obviously, I’ve had a bit of coaching now but I’ve not really changed my action, it’s just a natural thing.
What was it like to make your debut – albeit without a crowd – against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge. Were you nervous?
Yes, I was nervous, not bad nerves, an excitement really, although my first three overs probably did show that I was nervous. I was a bit all over the place. It was all very surreal though – out of nowhere to playing at Trent Bridge in first-class cricket, and to take the new ball, it was all pretty special.
That game at Trent Bridge must have been a remarkable experience? As Derbyshire were moving to that climactic win, what were you thinking, padded up in the dressing room?
It was very, very nervy. I wasn’t sat still, I was pacing around the room, but I think if I’d got out there I’d have been OK because I think I’d have just concentrated on what needed doing. It would have been great to hit the winning runs on debut, but thankfully I didn’t need to; Mikey (Cohen) did it for us.
What was the whole experience of playing first-class cricket for the first time like?
I was really lucky having played at Formby because I know Haseeb really well and there were the other players I mentioned earlier which meant I had been around first-class players for a while. That helped me a lot in this environment, but it was still a challenge.
In 2021, you took thirty-four first-class wickets averaging just twenty-three. They’re impressive figures and you must be pleased with the start you’ve made. You also take a lot of wickets caught behind or at slip. In many ways you’re like the archetypal English seam bowler. Is that a fair analysis?
Yes, in red ball cricket I want to keep it as simple as possible. Get the right line, the right length and nip one back, although I naturally get the ball to move away. It really is as straightforward as keeping it simple with no complications.
You sometimes open the bowling, at other times you’re first or second change. Who makes those calls?
Usually the captain or coach. I’m not fussed when I bowl. I really enjoyed the end of the season when I bowled with the new ball for two or three overs while Sam (Conners) had a full spell at the opposite end, and then I replaced him when the ball was still quite new. I enjoyed that. I’m definitely one of those bowlers who always wants to bowl – I feel sorry for Billy (Godleman) because I’m always saying, “One more, one more!” I suppose that’s not a bad thing.
Your real breakthrough moment was surely your 6-28 against Durham here at Derby last season. They’re the best innings figures by a Derbyshire bowler against Durham. It must have given you some satisfaction and pride to get your first five-for and walk off with the ball held aloft?
That was the first game back with spectators and so it was very special for me – even though we only drew – it was great to get my first five-for. Really special.
I hope you’ve kept the ball.
Earlier you talked about how batting was your priority as a youngster, and you showed signs of some real batting talent with that quickfire half century against Nottinghamshire here at Derby. Do you see yourself batting higher up the order in time?
Yes, I definitely do. I wasn’t happy with the number of times I gave my wicket away last season because I do want to get up the order. I don’t see myself as a nine, ten, eleven, and my target is to get up to seven or eight. I’ll certainly be trying my best to achieve that.
And what about white ball cricket. Are you looking to become an all formats cricketer?
Definitely, I want to play but I’ve only played a couple of second eleven T20 games, but I’ve been working hard at white ball bowling and I think I can be effective in the shorter formats.
We don’t see fast bowlers fielding at slip that often, but you’ve quickly been promoted to the slips and in the process taken some blinding catches. Is that another natural element to your game?
Yes, I enjoyed the catch to dismiss Mullaney at Trent Bridge and I’ve always backed myself to take catches wherever I field. I do like fielding in the slips, I always did at Formby. In 2020 I didn’t field at slip, but Houghts spoke to me ahead of last season and said he’d noticed I was catching well. It always helps to have a bowler at slip – we understand how hard fast bowlers work to get those edges!
We have a new coach, and presumably you’ve had a chat with him. What’s your take on having such a high profile and well-travelled Head of Cricket coming in?
Really, really exciting. Even though we’ve not worked with him yet, there has been a marked difference in training even without him being here, just knowing he’s the new coach. When he does get here I suspect it’ll push us on to another level. I think he’ll be good for me and I can’t wait to learn from him and play cricket under him.
And on a personal level – what are your ambitions?
I obviously have the aim of playing for England. There’s no point beating about the bush on that; if you’re playing county cricket and aren’t ambitious about playing for England then I don’t see the point in playing. I want to improve on what I did last year, try to get selected for a Lions squad. Test cricket is definitely an aim of mine.
Recently a cricket magazine highlighted you as ‘one to watch’ for 2022; you must feel a sense of achievement that you’re at least on the radar, so to speak?
Yes, it’s good to get mentioned but it doesn’t mean that much if I don’t get out onto the pitch and prove my worth. So it’s nice but I need to produce the wickets now. I’ve not let it go to my head at all, I’ll just try and get noticed by results.
In terms of fitness, has a longer, less Covid-affected pre-season helped you?
Obviously, it’s massive to be resilient and fit, and circumstances meant pre-season in 2021 wasn’t perfect. But this time I feel stronger and fitter now than I’ve ever been.
Derbyshire have you and Sam Conners as young developing fast bowlers. What’s your relationship like?
We get together well off the pitch and we bowl well in tandem. We talk about the game and practice together – it’s a good partnership.
Any cricketing heroes?
The obvious one is Jimmy Anderson, and Andrew Flintoff too. Oh and Ian Botham. If I can have even half the career they’ve had…that would be amazing.
And away from the game, how do you relax?
A lot of golf – in fair weather anyway; I spend a lot of time with friends and family. In the long term outside of the game, I’m interested in wealth management but my focus for now has to be cricket.
All being well, you’ll be opening the bowling at Lord’s in a few weeks’ time. What sort of cricket can Derbyshire followers expect to see in 2022?
I’d say we’ll be a lot more aggressive, taking the game to the opposition. We drifted at times last year so we’re definitely going to be more competitive and if we do get beat we have to make sure it’s the hard way.
Ben, it’s been a fascinating chat, enjoy the season.