In Conversation: Mickey Arthur

Thursday 16th February 2023
Photography by: David Griffin

Twelve months after being recruited as Head of Cricket, Mickey Arthur leads Derbyshire into the 2023 season with a revitalised side and a growing number of followers energised by much improved performances in 2022.

Having discussed his long cricketing career and prospects for Derbyshire in February 2022, Mickey Arthur and Heritage Officer David Griffin sat down once again just a few days ago to look back at the past twelve months and to consider the challenges for the summer ahead.

Almost a year ago we sat down to discuss your appointment and much has happened since. But before we look back to the 2022 season, what have you been up to during the close season, to date?

It’s been nice, I must admit, even though January was a bit of a battle without any real adrenalin rush! When the season ended I had a month in Australia and it was great to catch up with my daughters there, and then I came back before going to Sri Lanka for a month in the Lanka Premier League which was great. I love going back to Sri Lanka – plus it was great to get a bit of heat as well.

And then I came back here to find that the boys have been working incredibly hard. They had October off but from November they’ve worked through their fitness without too much emphasis on skills but since Christmas we’ve had the boys working full time and I’m really happy with where we are at the moment.

When we sat here a year ago you said that real success would be trophies and promotion but that realistically you wanted improvement in each player and if that came, success would follow. How close do you think you got to that?

I look back at 2022 and can’t help the fact that I’m a winner and I wanted to see a trophy or promotion. But I sat back in September and I was happy, and I was happy because I helped to take players to places they hadn’t been to before.

I think a lot of players gradually realised that their ceilings were quite high, that they were better than they had imagined and we took them on a journey to see how high their ceiling was.

A lot of players amazed me at the talent levels they have so as a squad and a team it was exciting to see some serious talent. More than that, it’s clear that we have players who are hungry to be on this journey and I know that along with my coaching team we can take these players with us.

I think above all it was satisfying. At the end of September I was satisfied with what we had achieved but nowhere near completely happy because there is so much more to do.

From your perspective, especially as a newcomer to Derbyshire, how aware were you that your arrival and subsequent actions were having such a positive impact not just on the team, but on the wider cricketing public?

I kind of – at the back end of the season – got the magnitude of what we were starting to achieve. I have a great dressing room, and we took people in there to uncomfortable places in order to improve them. And I could see excitement with our supporters; I was excited! And I’m now looking forward to seeing what we can achieve this season.

I know that last season we went up exponentially – a vast improvement – and we have to temper expectations with reality, but that’s why we are challenging our players, and why we’ve recruited new guys.

We had two players score over 1,000 runs, and two went very close; they’re unlikely to go to 1,500 runs or more, but if we can match our runs tally this summer that’ll be great.

Our bowling stocks were very thin at times last year but we do have an exciting bowling group and despite a lot of inexperience, last year will have been good for them and they take that experience into this summer.

So continued improvement is what we’re searching for while recognising that players have limits. But we will compete, as ever, and we want trophies come September.

You mentioned the bowling unit, and having lost Suranga Lakmal so early in the season it will be almost like having a new player when he arrives next month. Factor in new signing Zak Chappell, plus the experience gained by Sam Conners having been forced to lead the attack when Suranga left, you must feel more confident about your pace attack?

I know how hard Sam worked with Ajmal Shahzad, and with Aitchy (Ben Aitchison) out at the time, Sam had to lead the way and we were forced to go down the loan route. But Sam took the job on superbly and we got lots of overs into him which gives him experience.

We actually spoke with Sam the other day and discussed the fact that he had not been expected to play much white ball cricket in 2022 and yet ended up playing 12 matches in The Blast and six more in the fifty overs competition. In fact, we’d have laughed at each other had we suggested that last April, but, crucially, he is a far better bowler for having gone through that.

He was outstanding the way he shouldered our attack and when Aitchy came back he also showed why he was so highly regarded around the circuit and so to have both of them around this year will be great.

I should mention Nicholas Potts too – we got games and overs into him in a year when he might only have been expected to play in the second eleven. In fact, we only expected him to have a developmental year but we had to throw him in and he bowled some very good spells. I think he’s going to be very good.

You’re right that getting Suranga back in is like getting a new bowler and I saw him in Sri Lanka and he’s fit and strong and wants to do well for us.

And Zak Chappell, who made 96 batting at number ten against Derbyshire on his debut here, has arrived via Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and briefly Gloucestershire, and doesn’t have too many miles on the clock but has huge potential.

A hundred per cent. I really think he is hugely talented and he could play for England. In terms of potential, I think that’s reserved for younger players like Potts and Archie Harrison, for example. At Zak’s age, he’s ripe to perform. Everything he’s done here has been very impressive. He has a very good cricket brain, his work ethic is outstanding, so hopefully we can ignite that spark which takes him to the next level on a personal basis, and of course we as a team would get the benefit of that improvement.

Among your slower bowlers, you now have three full time cricketers, Mark Watt to bowl slow left arm, Mattie McKiernan bowling leg breaks, and Alex Thomson off spin. Was this part of your strategy to ensure you have three bowlers to cover all slow bowling bases in all formats?

Absolutely. We have those options and I don’t intend to pigeonhole our spinners because they each may have a role to play across all forms. But we needed a regular left arm finger spinner as an option for red ball cricket and we have that now. Plus Thommo (Alex Thomson) is bowling injury free having bowled through a lot of pain last year.

Looking at the batting unit can I just mention a player who has left Derbyshire but who had such a wonderful impact on the county in 2002, Shan Masood? Last year you said to me that you couldn’t wait for the rest of the squad to see how he trained, planned and played. Well, I don’t think many players have ever had such a remarkable short-term impact at Derbyshire and while you must have been delighted at your recruitment, did the rest of the squad take note of Shan’s outlook and performances?

He was outstanding and an example to everybody in that dressing room. The guys are still in contact with him – he got married recently and they were all messaging him. His contribution was first class and while I knew what we were getting, he absolutely didn’t disappoint. He was excellent.

Wayne Madsen seems to improve with age and in 2022 he went to an even higher level than we’ve seen before.  I know he talked about targets and ambitions before the start of last season. How did you engage with him?

As with every player, I sat down with Wayne and talked about my expectations. This is important because it means they all know what I expect of them. Wayne and I set up some targets and he was outstanding both on and off the field. He brings amazing value to our dressing room and despite his great record for Derbyshire I felt that in challenging him to go even further there was more to come from him. We’ve given him a further two year contract because his performances and standards have been so good.

He took on board the challenges we set him and the results speak for themselves.

Were there other players who needed challenges setting for them?

Oh yes, I think that whole dressing room needed to be shaken out of a little bit of a comfort zone that they were sitting in, They needed to know that what had gone before would not be up to my expectation.

On that point, Anuj Dal spoke at the Nottinghamshire Cricket Lover’s Society a few weeks ago and was asked where the transformation in his form from 2021 to 2022 had come from and he replied that he could explain it in one word, ‘clarity’. He then expanded by stating that you had laid down his role, along with your expectations and then told him to go and do it. You must surely look at Anuj as a real triumph?

We knew that Wayne was quality and very competitive but I needed to challenge him to go even further. I promised him and his family dinner if he reached 1,000 runs and he got there and I was good to my word.

But ‘Nuj – and Brooke Guest too – these were players who didn’t have Wayne’s record and therefore they didn’t know how good they could be. Brooke wanted to bat at three and that desire alone impressed me. He didn’t want to be down the order like most ‘keepers, but technically he is good enough to bat at three.

But getting back to ‘Nuj, I was immensely proud of his achievements – I said to him in training today, ‘Where’s the next Worcestershire coming from?’

(Dal scored 55 and 112 not out and took five for 40 in Derbyshire’s win at Worcester in 2022)

I’ve never seen a better game from an individual. Ever. He walked in at 14 for five and steadied things to get us to a respectable position, He scored a hundred under pressure in the second innings and then won the game with five wickets. As he walked off the field with a smile on his face, holding the ball up – those are the moments I cherish most of all. Sitting in the dressing room afterwards and singing the team song and seeing them recognise that we are for real and that we can do anything we want to do, just wonderful. But I have to keep encouraging them all the way and making sure that we do not accept mediocrity. Mediocrity is not for us and to see the guys start believing is progress but I have to keep confirming that we have to have high standards and nothing less.

You’ve appointed Leus du Plooy as your captain for 2023. What have you seen that marks him out as a captain?

I’ve seen a guy that hates mediocrity, who hates losing. He wants to win, has a very good cricket brain and thinks deeply about the game. He captained the side in that win at Worcestershire and he captained really well, technically and tactically. Part of our transformation is sometimes to revitalise and refresh. Alex Ferguson used to recommend refreshing your team by ten per cent every year because players – and support staff – don’t want to be in that ten per cent that gets replaced. It keeps everything interesting.

Billy (Godleman) had done a wonderful job as captain in some trying circumstances but to take the team on again we needed fresh blood and a fresh perspective.

And on the subject of fresh blood you’ve brought in Matt Lamb from Warwickshire. How did you secure that deal?

Well he averaged 48 in their championship-winning year having played every game and last year ended the season averaging over 40 but for some unknown reason they only played him for 50 per cent of the games. I wanted him to come here and what I really like about him is that he’s a no frills, no fuss, gets on with the job cricketer. He knows how to score runs and he finds a way often by toughing it out. And he’s bringing that toughness into our dressing room.

Where will he bat in the order?

It’s interesting that you ask that because I think we have a lot of competition for batting positions with a range of players who can bat anywhere from one to six which is a very healthy position for us to be in. If you’re pushing me I’d see him at five or six. But you never know!

And of course, another overseas top order player is coming to Derbyshire in the shape of Haider Ali. What can Derbyshire followers expect of him?

He was always in my mind because when I finished with Pakistan he was captain of the under nineteen team and I remember a training session when I went to watch him in the High Performance Centre and he looked like a man among boys. He looked to me like the next Babar Azam because at that time – and I know it’s a massive leap and I don’t want to put too much pressure on him – he reminded me of Babar at the same stage of his development. He just looked so similar although probably more powerful and stronger. He had an unbelievable PSL (Pakistan Super League) a couple of years ago and although he got into the Pakistan side he was moved up and down the order and I think that being messed about in the order did him no favours.

I chatted to him in Perth this winter after Shan told me that he was moving on and I wanted somebody who could refresh our batting line up. Now Haider is young and has only played 11 first class games, averaging over 50 with a good technique. He’s also an incredible white ball player. Now, his technique might be challenged – I’ve earmarked him to open – by the red ball in April, but if he gets through the early stages he could score a hundred before lunch. He’s exciting and at the top of the order in white ball cricket he could be just what we need to take the game on.

On the subject of white ball cricket, nine wins in the T20 group stages was a record for Derbyshire although after the first few games performances had been quite patchy. How did you turn that around?

I was over the moon when we reached the quarter finals. After that start we just needed something to get us going, to get some momentum and I was very happy with how we went. I still felt we needed strengthening even though we qualified which is why we brought Hayden Kerr in, although he got injured and we hadn’t anticipated not having Lakmal and Aitchison available to bowl up front and at the death.

We didn’t have many white ball seamers so we kind of had to find our feet a bit. Watt came in and did well, as did McKiernan who was outstanding at times.

You said last February that your big question was how will these players react under pressure. You talked about great preparation and a positive attitude but seeing how they would fare under pressure was an unknown at that time. Certainly in the group stages you must have been happy then with how they performed under pressure?

Absolutely. Scrimmy (George Scrimshaw) was a classic example of that, bowling a superb final over here against Lancashire with the crowd going wild. Nineteen off the last over against Yorkshire at Chesterfield was simply amazing, but the game that I was most proud of when we were at our all round best was when we beat The Bears in Birmingham. It was a great effort; we squeezed them with the ball and then Shan and Wayne went out and just batted us to victory before Leus smashed one out of the ground to finish it. We fielded outstandingly well and it was our best performance of the season in white ball cricket. Everybody remembers nineteen off the final over at Chesterfield, but our most comprehensive win came at Edgbaston.

So, to the quarter final. Well, ten other counties would loved to have qualified, but I suspect that was of small comfort to you?

Yes. I had Tom Abell in my team in Sri Lanka and he said he’d never seen anything like it from Rilee (Roussow, who scored 93 off 36 balls for Somerset who totalled 265 for five in 20 overs) and you have to take your hat off to him for such a phenomenal innings.

My disappointment came from the fact that we didn’t play at the level I expected us to play at. So that’s something we’ll re-visit ahead of the season when we talk about how we’ll meet such challenges this season. I think there was a little bit of stage fright, and a little bit of accepting that reaching the quarter final was OK, that it was good enough. What these players now know is that not being absolutely 100% ready for these kind of games can be a disaster. And that was just a reminder for us.

I sit back now and I admit that I laid it onto the players in the dressing room afterwards because I was embarrassed and I don’t like to be embarrassed.

Can you see it now, nonetheless, as a stepping stone, albeit a horrible stepping stone, assuming the players learn from the experience?

That is exactly how we’re packaging it. We’ve got to learn from that. We’re not going to be happy with just reaching a quarter final again. We were one game away from the big dance!

I will still reference that game from time to time, but in a positive light. I want us to really learn from that.

The 50 over competition is a really tricky one to assess ahead of 2023 because this far out you can’t know who will be available. I know you wanted to target it in 2022 but reckoned without losing Lakmal, and only having Shan Masood for five games.

Yes, I was bullish about it because I knew everybody would lose a lot of players but I expected to have Lakmal and Shan Masood available and dominating in that competition, but ultimately we ended up using the competition to give players like Archie Harrison a chance. Plus we only had Watty (Mark Watt) for five games. But the wins at Worcester and Northampton were excellent with superb hundreds from Luis Reece.

We just didn’t quite have the strength in the bowling unit and for me, in white ball cricket, it’s your bowling attack that wins games. You can’t just defend with the ball; you have to attack.

Of course we want to win the 50 over competition this year but I’d also like to see us provide six or more players to The Hundred. That would be recognition for us. And of course, if players aren’t selected for matches in The Hundred this year, they can come back and play in the 50 over games.

So T20, doubtless a quarter final spot is your minimum requirement although winning the competition is your objective. What’s your view on the Blast Off double header at Edgbaston which starts the tournament?

I’m incredibly excited about it. No doubt that next year the South Group will get to launch the tournament but there has been a lot of talk about the Blast not getting the attention it deserves and it not having been marketed enough, especially with the general public not knowing when it starts.

So a Blast Off day, on television, means that more people will know the tournament is on and Derbyshire will be playing in a ground in front of a crowd that should have a Finals Day atmosphere and will offer our players a chance to play in a pressurised situation. It ticks all the boxes for me.

A good win against Lancashire then and we’re off and running!

Absolutely, that would be ideal. The most exciting aspect for me though is that Derbyshire are involved in this. There are three Test match ground counties involved, and Derbyshire. That’s great for us.

You said last year that promotion in the championship was your biggest target. Does that remain the case?

That’s the biggest driver. It’s a tough competition. There are days when it’s a grind and it’s hard. At the moment, we’re ruthless with our players on the basics because that’s what gets you through the tough days in the middle of the season. We’ll also have two games with the Kookaburra ball in the middle of the season and that will be a challenge too.

Last year, I wanted us to be a team that was hard to beat and I stated that. This year, we’ve got to be better than that.

How do you intend to do that?

This year we will look even more closely at our strategy. We may have to play a different style of red ball cricket but that is something I’m discussing with the players and staff. We know that we are harder to beat so the draws last year will have to become wins this year. There are less points for draws this year and so wins are vital because there is greater incentive to win.

Obviously, a lot of talk around the game in 2022 focused on the county domestic structure and you spoke publicly about that arguing that the structure was fine, but the schedule less so. Do you still stand by that?

One hundred per cent I do. I admit that I don’t know how you sort that out. I think maybe it’s just a case of crack on with it.

Moving games from April and September into August would make the schedule more logical, but it would damage the integrity of the championship. Say we lost eight players to The Hundred, would we want to play two red ball championship games with our second eleven?

So do we go with what we’ve got?

Yes. And the challenge for counties and head coaches is to have bigger squads to ensure we don’t burn out players.

Although you came to Derbyshire with a reputation as a world class coach, did anything about county cricket surprise you?

There was nothing that different from what I’ve seen throughout my career. But I loved the cricket season and as much as you feel tired at times, every day was wonderful. Every day I wondered if this was the day which would define our season or would define a player. I love county cricket and I loved my first season.

And you’ve had a busy off-season so far, having signed a new three-year deal here at Derbyshire and coached at the Lanka Premier League.

This for me is the Derbyshire project and it’s one which I’ve started and want to finish, and I really enjoy it. The Board here have been extremely supportive which meant that I could go and do other things in cricket, but ultimately Derbyshire is the project and dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s is what comes next, which means winning trophies. And I intend to do that before I move on.

That’s a great way to finish! Thanks Mickey and here’s to 2023.

Thank you.

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The Falcons enjoyed a Club-record season the 2022, and they’ll be aiming to go even further this summer, with big-hitting Pakistan batter, Haider Ali, joining the likes of Wayne Madsen, George Scrimshaw and Mark Watt in Mickey Arthur’s side.

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