So there I was, watching the highlights of the Test with a glass of wine in hand and seeing the English batting unit collapse in a heap once again. Many of our parish know that this isn’t exactly a rare occurrence, in fact it is more surprising these days when the English top order actually make some runs. I have my own theories around this as do the rest of the editors on the site, but I wanted to get an understanding from someone who has been there, someone who has not just played at the highest level but also who was renowned for his batting technique throughout his time in the English game. Even more though, I wanted to hear from someone who is still passionate about the game and has some strong views about what is currently going wrong.
So I got in touch with an player who I had seen come through the Middlesex ranks as a youngster and one who I had a number of fond memories of watching when I was still a member of the county and who I felt was cast aside from the England setup far too soon, especially when he was still in his prime: England’s former top order Test batsman, Nick Compton.
I was delighted when Nick agreed to speak even though he was due in hospital on the same day, even if it was for 5 or 10 minutes. I’m lucky that there is a passion that still burns with him and 5 minutes turned into 15 and 15 into nearly half hour. It was great to pick the mind of someone who has seen it all in both the Test and county arenas and I cannot thank Nick enough for sparing the time to speak to me.
The one thing I would ask is for all to read the interview with an open mind, whether you think Nick was discarded too soon or not. He has some great opinions, some strong views and a fantastic cricket mind. With that said, let the interview begin.
Sean: As a former Test opener, what are the main flaws that you can see in the English top order?
Nick: “Essentially, I think there’s a lack of the application and wider batting aptitude that is vital to be a successful test cricketer. Really, it begins with patience, technique and above all, an understanding of your game. That’s how you learn to play the angles and have the ability to survive long enough so that you can contribute with big runs later on in the game. It’s become fashionable to focus only on scoring shots and taking it to the other team rather than playing the moment and building an innings. It works well enough when the wickets are flat but when the ball is moving around, then it’s absolutely the wrong approach.
“Test cricket has been around for 150 years and hasn’t changed that much in its fundamentals – especially when it comes to batting at the top of the order against a high quality pace attack. Ben Stokes was magnificent of course, but it doesn’t mean the wider problems aren’t there. Overall in this series the techniques of many of the batsmen on both sides aren’t that special. Of course, it’s easy to carp on from the sidelines and highlight the flaws of others, but I’m talking about a wider issue that affects our game, not pointing fingers at individuals. There’s a shortage of high-quality fast bowling in our domestic game, meaning those who come through it haven’t had enough exposure to the kind of level they’ll face in Test cricket. So many of the dismissals this series have been poor, both technically and in terms of application. The batsmen aren’t fighting to keep their wicket intact – Test batting in other words – they’re going after the bowling and paying the price. The standard of Test batting has to be a concern – there are a few really high quality players around, Smith, Pujara and Kohli for example, but the drop off below that group is a bit alarming. Joe Root is clearly a fantastic player, but I think the whole move up the order to number three has affected his game more than people are prepared to admit. The “second opener” nature of number three isn’t his natural position, he’s better when he can attack, and that’s because he’s a middle order player.
“David Warner got a few in this last Test, but he’s struggling over here because the ball is doing something both in the air and off the pitch, and he’s just not used to facing it because he’s never really had to, especially in white ball cricket. He’s just an example, but countering the moving ball requires a technique that batsmen these days don’t have and can’t instantly apply. Everyone is trying to score quickly and hit through the line on the up, but they can’t stay in long enough against the best fast bowlers because they take too many risks in attack, their defence isn’t good enough and they struggle to judge what to play, and more importantly what not to play.
“The point is that I’ve played with and against these guys for years in county cricket, and when the ball does something, they’re as normal as the rest of us. On flat tracks like Perth or at the Adelaide Oval, they’re going to out-bat me because that’s what their technique is geared towards, but I can tell you most of the time I’ll survive longer than they will when facing the moving ball. It’s not me boasting, it’s because I spent a lifetime building the qualities needed for that into my game, but the way cricket has gone that kind of approach has become deeply unfashionable. It’s not they can’t, it’s that they don’t.”
Sean: Did you see it creep into the international game when you were playing?
Nick: “Yes I think so. I was a bit startled to see players who have had long international careers suddenly looking out of place. Even Alastair Cook in the last couple of years seemed to have moved away from the highly successful Test approach he’d had all his career, and it wasn’t just a matter of form. So you pause and wonder how it can be that the most successful opener we’ve had in decades is struggling in the Test arena and playing shots that he’d never have considered in previous years. It’s because the mindsets of the batsmen have changed so much, and I felt that Cook was far looser with his technique towards the end of his career. His defence was nothing like as tight as it had been, he was far less patient, especially early on and nothing like as watchful during an innings. I don’t know if he felt some sort of pressure to become a “modern player” and tried to transform his game into this attacking breed of cricket that we’re all supposed to be playing, but I really hope not. In my case, I found as soon as I tried it, I lost the very qualities that made me the player that I was and gained me the success I achieved.”
Sean: England’s focus at county level has shifted from red ball cricket to white ball cricket, are we now seeing the results of this?
Nick: “Fundamentally, the powers that be believe that an “aggressive brand of cricket” equals entertainment, and that’s what they want to see. If I was starting out in county cricket now, why would I want to work my backside off to survive a couple of hours for 20 runs when there’s more concern about the strike rate than anything else? As far as developing players for Test cricket is concerned, these are the innings that are the most educational and useful and imbue batsmen with the kinds of qualities best suited for the top level. However players these days just don’t do that, and don’t place as high a value on their wicket anymore, they prefer to try and score quickly when it’s difficult because they don’t feel they’ll last too long anyway. Patience as part of the art of batting – for the later rewards – is something that’s rather been forgotten these days, as is building an innings. Instead there’s this desire to dominate, so after an over or two of struggle, you get this big booming drive and a wicket.”
Sean: Do you think you’re a dying breed of batsmen? I look at Trott in his prime and Pujara now for example and see very few else out there whose technique is based around defence.
Nick: “Yes but that’s the point isn’t it? Given the direction modern cricket is going, why would you want to go to all the effort and work involved to become that kind of player? T20 has meant that if you can hit the ball a long way and score rapidly, you can make a lot of money from all the T20 competitions around the world. To add to that direction of travel, now we’ve got the Hundred: the players are professionals and need to earn a living and win contracts so how can anyone blame them for developing their game in the way that benefits that? I certainly wouldn’t, I just went left-field a bit and it was a deliberate choice.
“I came to a crossroads in my career when I was 25 or 26, and I remember sitting down with my mentor for a talk about where I was going. T20 had been going for several years, and a lot of the younger players coming through and some older professionals had either decided that Test cricket wasn’t really their passion anymore or had been found out by the longer form of the game. They saw the money that was on offer in the short form of the game and their heads were turned, so they decided to place all their focus on the T20 competitions. Me though, I did it the other way, I looked at my career and felt that there was a dearth of individuals who could bat for a day around the county game, and even fewer who could potentially bat all day for England. Trott and Cook were the main guys and I decided that I wanted to be the third one, renowned for being able to bat and bat and bat.
“At that time in my career Cook and Trott looked impregnable, and England were making huge totals on the back of them laying the groundwork. I felt I could be a part of that and spent months working on building a world class defence. People say I was slow, but I wasn’t that slow a batsman at all, I just weighed up the situation and played normal cricket. I had all the shots, but a lot of the time what was required for me in all the teams I played in was to take the shine off the new ball and let others bat around me. When I was at Somerset I can clearly remember my coach Brian Rose saying to me “Nick, I’ve got you down here for one reason and that’s to bat; bat all day and every time you think about doing something else, think again and just bat”. He wanted me to do that in all forms of the game and every morning the look in his eye would remind me what my role was. His attitude was that he had Trescothick, Hildreth and Kieswetter to play all the shots, he needed someone who could hold the batting line up order together. That was so helpful to me, if that’s how he wanted me to bat, then that was what I going to do. That kind of backing makes all the difference – I knew what my role in the side was and I was determined to go out and do just that. And because I had some talent, I would be supremely confident knowing I had that support for the way I was playing. I’d be on automatic pilot much of the time, which is a great position to be in when batting; if there was a short ball, I’d just either duck or put it away, I’d been doing it for 20 years by then anyway. I didn’t need to practice hitting a ball off my legs or pushing a half volley through the covers because they were my go-to shots anyway and my key strengths, so I wouldn’t have to think about playing them and didn’t need to practice those in the nets – it had just become second nature and low risk. In one day cricket, you’re going after the 50/50 balls because you have to be scoring all the time, and as the format gets shorter, it moves to 40/60 balls or 30/70 balls. This is absolutely fine in those formats of the game, but in the longer one you should be looking to leave those alone or defend them, and they don’t.”
Sean: I remember being coached particularly poorly at club level; do you feel that players are no longer receiving the right sort of coaching to play at Test level?
Nick: “Unfortunately, the standard of coaching is fairly poor across the board at the moment. A lot of people are spending time throwing balls down at batsmen, so it looks like they’re putting in the hours, but that’s not coaching. You could pay a 16 year old lad on his summer holidays to come and do that, but that wouldn’t be coaching either, it would be practice. Coaching should be about improving players and helping them get the most out of themselves. At the end of the season young players need to know where they are and have a full review of their game and what to work on; Instead they’re either told well done or told nothing depending on how the season went. That means they disappear for the winter to do what they want until the start of pre-season when they turn up and do some running around and receive throw downs. How is anything going to have changed in that time? The off season is such a good opportunity to go away and work on specific things, but there’s no structure around the period when more than at any other time they can make material changes. What has he worked on? Who has he done that work with? This is the kind of specialist intervention that sets a good coach apart from the rest, but it doesn’t happen anything like as much as it should. There absolutely are some coaches who do it, but nothing like enough and that’s extremely damaging.
“All players need help and support throughout their careers – even the very best in the world can get into bad habits, but when they do, they go back to their trusted coaches to work out the kinks in their game, and unfortunately much of the time that doesn’t happen for everyone else, even though it should.”
Sean: Why do you think this is? We’ve supposedly got all the brains in world cricket at Loughborough, why isn’t this cascading down to the county level?
Nick: “It’s a question of accountability and job security. It’s much easier to simply follow the instructions of the county and tick the required boxes so they stay in post rather than take on the responsibility of trying to make a major difference to a particular player. Numbers are also important here, because they’ve got large squads to handle, little time and the kind of one on one coaching of a young player that’s needed requires a huge amount of work and a lot of investment both in time and money. I also believe that there is a fear that if they do coach properly on an individual basis, they’ll get the blame if a young player keeps getting out and decides to blame them for it. Coaches too want to have a job next year.
“Instead the approach is to deflect it back on to the player; instead of working with them they ask them questions – “how do you think you should be playing, what do you think you’d do in this situation?”. It’s a way of avoiding responsibility – a player who has a concern about their game doesn’t seek out a coach to be asked questions, they go to learn where they’re going wrong and how they can improve their play. A player is often the least able to understand the mistakes they’re making, and that’s why a coach is so valuable.
“If I listen to what the coach is saying, understand and implement it and still don’t score a run, that’s my fault, not his. It could be that he’s not a great coach, but I still chose to listen, or it could be that I didn’t implement what I was told properly. Either way, that’s still ultimately my responsibility – I choose who to listen to and what to do, but I’d still prefer a coach who gave me bad advice but put his heart and soul into me to make me better than a coach who just stands there and asks questions. If nothing else, my mental state is going to be far better from one who has worked with me in detail and bought into me and what I want to achieve. If it ends up not working, never mind, we both tried extremely hard and put in huge amounts of work in good faith to make me a better player. It just didn’t work out.
“That’s also where the player responsibility comes in, and partly why coaches are the way they are as it’s definitely also down to the player to play a role and work to make themselves better. I look around the counties and I see guys who think that they are so much better than they really are. They don’t put the work in, they don’t look outside of county cricket, they do their training session and go home and play on the Xbox thinking that they’re doing their job to the best of their ability. But you aren’t going to become a better player just by playing for your county, any more than a club player will get better just by playing for their club. You’ve got to go and travel, mentally and physically – you’ve got to go to other countries and work on things. You’ve got to get other advice because no coach is perfect, and ultimately it’s about finding what works for you.”
In Part Two, I will be speaking to Nick about his own experience as an England Test Opener and the rigours and challenges that come with it both on and off the pitch.
Nick is an ex professional cricketer who played for England, Middlesex and Somerset during his career. Nick can be followed on Twitter via his account @thecompdog. Nick is also a passionate photographer and his collections can be found here: https://nickcomptonphotography.com.
As always, please feel free to leave your comments below.