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, with two spinners who have ambitions as all-rounders, Mattie McKiernan and Alex Thomson, and with Anuj Dal, who scored his maiden hundred in 2021 and is also the Vice Chair of the Professional Cricketers Association.
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.
This latest interview is with all-rounder Alex Thomson who bounds into the room, looks at my camera and says “Hey, is that an XT30? I’ve got one of them!” which results in a brief conversation about photography before we get onto the main purpose of the interview.
Good morning Alex, any cricketing action for you this morning or are you waiting to get started?
Actually, nothing yet. I’ve just run my dogs to my parents’ house – four white-haired dachshunds. Not the biggest of dogs but they’re a proper handful. Life away from cricket pretty much revolves around them.
We first saw you in Derbyshire’s colours in 2021, but you’ve been playing cricket here and there for many years. Where did it all begin for you?
I guess it was probably through my older brother who was very sport-orientated when he was younger and he joined our local cricket club at Leek. As with many families, where one brother goes, the younger one follows, and so I started going to his training sessions, aged about eleven, and then when I moved to secondary school cricket became my summer sport of choice.
Once at secondary school I formally joined Leek Cricket Club where Ed Jones, Alex Mellor, Tim Tweats, his dad Malcolm, and Kim Barnett, of course, were among the many characters. When I was 14 Kim was the club professional – I can see all his Dukes cricket kit lined up in the corner. He was the real deal.
What form did your cricketing progression take during your teenage years?
I had a bit of a transition. In Year 11 I got a sports scholarship and transferred to Denstone College; the idea behind that was to push my cricket as much as possible because the cricket programme there, run by Jane Morris, was something we thought could push my cricket forwards and I had a really good couple of years there both on and off the pitch.
Unfortunately, as an 18 year-old leaving school, I was still only playing Minor Counties cricket; I had no affiliations with any of the major counties and their age group set ups or academies.
I had been coming to Derby once a month to use the indoor cricket facilities as part of the Emerging Players Programme with other players from Staffs, identified by Alan Hill, the former Derbyshire player, but I think the Derbyshire bowlers saw it as an opportunity to give us a hard time! There were some good bowlers here then like Tom Taylor, Ben Cotton and Pete Burgoyne. The idea was to help us develop our cricket by working with better players here at Derbyshire.
What about your education at this point?
My parents were both PE teachers and I naturally gravitated to anything sports-related and throughout secondary school I was drawn to PE teachers and found real enjoyment in what they delivered and realised that it was something that I would like to pursue.
I applied to go to university and got an unconditional offer to go to Cardiff Metropolitan, but first I went away to Australia to work at a boarding school called Scotch College in Melbourne. I worked there for about ten months; a fantastic school and I was incredibly well looked after. The school produced lots of AFL players, Victoria cricketers – I couldn’t have asked to get somewhere nicer. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t get to play a lot of cricket – maybe six or seven games for the Old Boys team – because I was tied up with coaching, scoring, umpiring, but it was a great learning curve and it gave me the opportunity to stand on my own two feet for those ten months.
What sort of cricketer were you when you started playing the game – we see you now as an off spinner who likes to hit the ball down the order – was that always the case?
I began as an out and out batter. Up until the age of 15 I also bowled leg spin and at one point I lost the ability to bowl leg spin and decided to keep wicket. Then a couple of years later I had a long chat with Dave Cartledge, (an outstanding Minor Counties cricketer) and he said that I needed to make a choice about what type of bowler I was going to be. Primarily, though, I batted in the top order and it was only at university that I kicked on with my off spin bowling. I made it a priority and my batting sat back a little bit as a result. I still think batting is my strongest suit, actually.
Just returning for a moment to your schools cricket. What was the standard like when you played at Denstone?
Well, the side I played in was very good. Aneesh Kapil was bowling express pace and playing for Worcestershire as a seventeen year old; Greg Cork, Harvey Hosein and several good Staffordshire players were also in the side and we played good opposition like Shrewsbury School where the facilities are international quality, and we always seemed to play them in crucial matches. We also played schools like RGS Worcester, Kings Macclesfield – we had a decent fixture list and the cricket was competitive. The pitches were well-prepared by full time groundsmen and good to play on. It boded well for good cricket and that’s what we got.
You mentioned earlier that you’d not gone through the age group cricket sides and therefore that limited your opportunities when you reached eighteen. What was the process, therefore, that got you into first class, and ultimately, the county game?
I came back from Australia in 2013 aged nineteen and returned to Leek Cricket Club where Nadeem Malik had been signed as our pro. He’d played for Notts, Leicestershire and Worcestershire and he was a fantastic person besides being a seriously good cricketer.
I played a handful of games alongside him and he asked me why I wasn’t playing any second team stuff. I replied that there was nothing available to me so he put me in touch with Lloyd Tennant at Leicester and I went to see him, did a few training sessions and played some second eleven cricket there before going off to university.
In the first year I went back to Leicester during the winter break from university hoping that something might come of that once the season began, but nothing did, so I just ticked over with my university stuff, studying sport and PE and with a lot of spare time in my first year I had the luxury of being able to go away and practice my cricket almost as much as I wanted.
You’d taken up your offer at Cardiff, I presume?
That’s right. And the cricket down there was run by Mark O’Leary; we had a playing squad whittled down to twenty-one players after Christmas and that was the squad for the summer. In my first year I was offered the captaincy but that first year didn’t really go as I’d hoped. I struggled with my batting, I just couldn’t get a score, and I wasn’t bowling as much as I needed to. Aron Nijjar, now at Essex, was bowling very well, as was Andrew Salter from Glamorgan, so we had two county-signed spinners which limited my chances.
How did you overcome that downturn in form?
As with any loss of form, you just have to recognise that you got to that level on merit, realise that the cricket is competitive and focus on getting going. I had the responsibility of captaincy and I struggled so much that although I made the squad for the following year, I missed out on selection for the starting eleven. However, when I did get into the side in the second half of the season it was with the specific role of second spinner. I did well but missed out on playing at Lord’s in the one day final, but from that point I decided that I’d push my spin bowling to the forefront of my cricket.
I did one to one sessions where the majority of the time was spent on my bowling and that emphasis worked for me in my third year at university when I came into the game against Hampshire and took six wickets in the first innings and one in the second, and then a few more wickets against Glamorgan. Then I had a mishap when David Lloyd ran down the wicket and hit one straight back at me and I ended up with an open dislocation of my finger. This was on day one and I missed the remainder of the game while I was in hospital on a drip after hand surgery.
So things didn’t go great in my first year, I missed a lot in my second year and then had a really good third year. When I returned after surgery I managed to carry on where I left off, and Mark O’Leary informed me that quite a few people were interested in me and had asked for contact details.
When you were working in your one to one sessions at university and you moved your focus onto off spin bowling, what was it that led to the improvements?
A lot of work with Mark O’Leary, who loves spin bowling – he was a leg spinner – and we spent a lot of time working on trying to develop consistency and also on creating that overspin and extra bounce that is so important. A lot of work went into it and I do think that the more you work on things – and we spent hours and hours – then you give yourself a better chance of improvement. I was also getting the same sort of support which is available in the county game – developing coping strategies and learning how to manage pressure to allow you to maximise performance.
What I did recognise was the need to step away from the game, just to allow you to focus on other things. Having said that, if I have a weekend without bowling I feel the need to get back into it on the Monday!
So, lots of hard work and coaching, and people advising you to look at playing at a higher level. How did that actually come about?
Prior to finishing at university I decided that I’d like to do a post-grad course which would allow me to teach, so I applied for that and secured a place back at university for a fourth year.
I played a lot of Combined MCCU cricket in my third year at university, a side run by Clive Radley (former England and Middlesex cricketer) who was absolutely terrific and instilled a lot of confidence in me.
In my post grad year, the cricket side of things took a back seat because there was so much work to do. I’d still go in and work with the squad at 6am on a Monday morning, but I had to miss the Wednesday afternoon sessions and missed out on one to one cricket.
I still did some work with Mark outside of the core group sessions, but I had to complete 120 days in school so missed a lot of cricket. You couldn’t pretend to have been in school!
Bar two games, I missed the whole season, but did play in the Lord’s final which we won.
Who did you beat and how did you do?
Loughborough, and I took five for forty-five.
You weren’t going to mention that without prompting were you?
I’d also been playing for Staffordshire on a Sunday in the one day cup and I was playing alongside Kadeer Ali, who was at Warwickshire, and who I got on with really well. I asked him if he’d put a word in at Warwickshire and he said he would, but after a couple of weeks I’d heard nothing so I asked him again.
He said, “Oh, you were being serious?”
And on the day we were travelling to Lord’s for the uni final I got a call from Alan Richardson who asked if I was available for a T20 double header at Worksop College. Tony Frost was in charge of the second team and the games went well for me. I was part of the second team set-up for the rest of the year and was then chosen to go with the first team to Headingley where I made my debut against Yorkshire. I batted at seven and got nought in my first game.
Did Warwickshire see you as an all-rounder?
I hadn’t bowled that much for the second team – batting at five – so I think they saw me as a batting all-rounder. Working with Jeetan Patel was a lucky break for me and I was fortunate to be offered a deal by Warwickshire.
Do you model yourself on any particular bowler? I guess that Jeetan Patel must have been a huge influence.
I didn’t initially model myself on anyone although in the back yard as a kid I was Graeme Swann who was England’s leading off spinner at the time. Then Graeme Welch worked with me and talked about working in straight lines and having Jeetan on hand was amazing. I looked at his action and my load up position is similar to his, I get my bowling arm nice and high early. I worked tirelessly with Pop (Welch) for two years and he was a great motivating factor.
I was lucky that Peter Such invited me to go out to New Zealand a few years ago to work with Jeets (Jeetan Patel) and although I was only there for three months, I made big strides in those three months and he advised me to get a notepad and at the end of every day and make key notes about what you’ve done during the day.
Did you do that?
I did, and I’ve still got it and it comes in useful from time to time.
Up to this point, you’ve had something of a rollercoaster ride in the game; did this offer of a contract to play first class cricket feel like a turning point?
Yes, from a very young age I wanted to be a professional sportsman and I’d played academy football for Crewe, where a lot of good footballers emerged. But at 16 I decided on cricket and education, rather than football. I was a central defensive midfielder, and I also loved rugby. I played at Denstone, with some really good coaches, and I really enjoyed playing the game.
So signing for Warwickshire with the safety blanket of my teaching degree, was all good for me. So many young professionals often find themselves having to start life all over again when they don’t make the grade in cricket and don’t always know what direction to go. I’m comfortable in the knowledge that I can give cricket my all and if it doesn’t work out, there’s something else that I can turn my hand to which I enjoy.
Opportunities then, at Warwickshire, followed by a brief a non-playing spell at Durham, and now you’re here at Derbyshire. What was the process which saw you move north and then south?
In late February 2021 I had a chat with Paul Farbrace and Mark Robinson and asked them what the season looked like in terms of selection for me. They explained that new signing Danny Briggs would be their premier spinner and that they would only play one spinner, especially at the start of the season.
They asked if I’d be interested in going out on loan and because I wanted to play first team cricket I was determined to give it a go. I spoke to Marcus North and James Franklin at Durham and while they said that they didn’t often play a spinner at home, and in any event they had Scott Borthwick as a part-time spinner if they needed one, they did say they’d like to have an extended look at me. I went there and enjoyed my short time but didn’t get any first team cricket. I was hoping I’d play in the away game at Essex, but it wasn’t to be.
So Derbyshire beckoned?
Yes, Durham asked me to go back to play white ball cricket and was offered the chance to stay up north or go back to Warwickshire and try to get some cricket there. However, I learned of Derbyshire’s interest, and that they wanted me to play all formats of the game and so it was a no-brainer for me. I came here, was welcomed immediately and thoroughly enjoyed last season here.
And how are you working on your skills during the close season?
I’m doing a lot of work with Mattie McKiernan – we’re different spinners in terms of styles, but we’re both trying to create overspin and we talk a lot about how to improve from approach, load up, position on the crease, follow through. We discuss everything in an attempt to improve and then put it into practice. I guess you’d call me and Mattie the Siamese Twins. Ajmal (Shahzad) is great too. Obviously, he’s a seam bowling coach but he has his input and fresh ideas too.
How do you manage the challenge of being an off spinner when you have to transition from a containment role, for example, in the early stages of a game, to the potential match-winning role on a turning pitch on the final day, and from there to Twenty20 cricket where a whole different set of circumstances exist?
Obviously, in the first innings of game, the challenge is to keep it tight on behalf of the team and let the big boys do their job, and then hope that conditions allow you to play a part later in the game. As far as white ball cricket is concerned, we do a lot of practice alongside red ball cricket so that we get used to moving from one format to the other. Twenty20 cricket needs you to be aggressive and not go into your shell. Often, although you have to adapt your length and line, it’s more about the mental side of the game, being able to hold your nerve, focusing 100% on each delivery.
From a distance, Twenty20 can look chaotic – how do you focus on each delivery when the game is so fast and furious?
Certain games, certain overs, certain balls, bring more pressure than others, and it will depend on the match situation and who you’re bowling to. But I want to enjoy it too – the greater exposure to challenging situations, the better, because it gets you used that kind of cricket.
We’re going into the 2022 season having appointed a new Head of Cricket in Mickey Arthur, and having lost our front-line spinner, Matt Critchley, which presumably presents opportunities for you and your colleague Mattie McKeirnan. What’s your take on the appointment and the opportunities presented?
Mickey’s already had a big impact. The energy within the squad is great, and everyone is keen to impress. Mickey’s got a tremendous reputation, a wealth of experience, and who wouldn’t want to work with him. It’s a really exciting time and in terms of the coming season, well, we’re all just desperate to be on the team sheet for that first game at Lord’s and that’s certainly what I’m working towards.
Earlier you talked about how you saw yourself as a batting allrounder – is that still the case?
I think I would like to mould myself into a spinner who can bat and I’d love to earn the right to bat in the top seven. But everyone is working tirelessly to get into the side.
You began the morning with a run alongside your four dogs. What are your interests outside cricket and dog walking?
I get teased for being a fisherman, an angler – on and off the pitch. I get called an old man, but I love still water fishing. I spend a lot of time carp fishing and I think it’s crucial because if your life solely revolves around cricket it can eat you alive. Sometimes you need to clear your mind, get away from cricket, and that outdoor environment, enjoying nature, is perfect.
Do you record your catches?
Yes, I weigh them, photograph them, sometimes do a bit of footage of them, and then put them back in the water.
Where do you fish – at fisheries?
No, I’m a bit more rough and ready than that. So I’ve done a lot of canals – often the nicest fish are in the canals.
Well, without sounding too cliched, here’s hoping you get plenty of catches – on the field – this summer.
2022 Membership – One Club, Our County
2022 Membership is on sale now, with supporters able to attend a full season of Derbyshire home cricket for the first time since 2019, along with a host of other great benefits.