Cricket interview

Craig White, former England all-rounder

We begin our new series of interviews by speaking with Craig White, a former England all-rounder who played 30 Test matches, scored a wonderful Test century in India, took three 5-wicket hauls and became the first bowler to dismiss the great Brian Lara for a golden duck.

Born in Morley, West Yorkshire, Craig was an attacking right handed batsmen who regularly bowled at speeds in excess of 90mph. We caught up with Craig, who is now bowling coach at Hampshire, to talk through: his career, his path to Test cricket for England, an incident that ended up changing his entire outlook towards the game, his fondest memories, together with his thoughts on the current England team and the domestic structure in England.

Although born in Yorkshire, Craig was brought up in Australia, in a small town called Bendigo, which is situated 100 miles from Melbourne. “My Dad was a very, very, very, proud Yorkshireman and he used to take me down to the MCG whenever England were touring. I remember watching the likes of David Gower, Ian Botham and Bob Willis as well as other touring sides like the great West Indies team which included Viv Richards, Malcolm Marshall and Joel Garner.” Like many children, Craig’s passion was just picking up a bat and playing games of cricket. “I was a kid that simply loved cricket, but when I was starting to show signs of becoming a decent cricketer, my Dad promised me that one day he would take me back to England to have trials at Yorkshire. So even though I was brought up in Australia, the influence from my Dad was that I was English and one day I was going to play for Yorkshire.”

Craig’s dream move to Yorkshire became a reality in his teen’s when he moved back to England, and after successful trials, signed for the county.

However, such was Craig’s early promise, he was selected for Australia at both under 17 and under 19 level, in squads that included the likes of Shane Warne and Damien Martyn.

“At the end of that first season for Yorkshire, I was selected for an Australian youth tour to the West Indies.”

Craig knew that he soon had to make a decision on where his future lay, in Australia or in the country of his birth. “To be honest, even though I played representative cricket for Australia I thought there was no way I would reach the standard of being a full international cricketer. I just thought that was miles away and an unreachable goal, but I knew I was good enough for a decent career at Yorkshire and as a first class cricketer. So, that was the decision I made very early, to make my future with Yorkshire.”

What Craig didn’t foresee, was that just a couple of years later, he would be making his England Test debut at Trent Bridge! In 2004, when Raymond Illingworth became the new Chairman of Selectors, he was keen to have an all-rounder who could bat at number six, and bowl first change. It was a shock for Craig to be thrust into the England set-up so soon. "It was just a bit of a shock, but a massive bonus. I had, had a decent year with Yorkshire the year before and I played for Yorkshire in a tour game against New Zealand where I bowled very fast and also smashed a quick 70. Ray Illingworth was there and I guess that is what got me selected.”

In a Test team that included the likes of Atherton, Stewart, Gooch, Smith and Fraser, Craig made his debut against New Zealand at Trent Bridge in a Test where England won by an innings and 90 runs. During his debut, Craig picked up his maiden Test wicket, that of the prolific Kiwi batsman Martin Crowe, not a bad first Test scalp.

“It was a glove down the leg side. But 20 years later people would have classed it as an absolute jaffa!”

Injuries curtailed the first half of Craig’s England career and he regularly found himself in and out of the side. Injuries, which Craig put down to his late development as a seam bowler. “Before I made my Test debut, I’d only been bowling fast for a year or so. When I first came to England I used to bowl offies and then every now again I’d bowl some seamers in the nets and I was doing people for pace. During the odd county game when nothing was really happening, I was thrown the ball and asked to bowl quick to see if I could pick up a wicket and break a partnership. Every now and then, I took some wickets and I was given more opportunities to develop my seam bowling. But, I think that played a part in the number of injuries I got in the first part of my career. My body wasn’t used to bowling quick. I’m not the biggest lad, so suddenly going from bowling off spin to 90mph, my bowling muscles hadn't developed so something was always going to give as my body wasn’t able to cope.”

I also asked Craig if success as an all-rounder comes with experience and if that lack of experience also played a part in some inconsistent performances, early in his career. “Absolutely. If you weren’t bowling well, in practice you’d naturally tend to work more on the aspects of your bowling that weren’t working, but that was often at the detriment then of your batting. So your bowling would improve in the short term, but then your batting would suffer. You’d then work more on your batting but then your bowling would suffer again. As an all rounder you have to train on your batting, bowling, and fielding and it can be exhausting. With experience you learn how to get the balance and how to prepare properly, but that didn’t happen for me until Duncan Fletcher and Nasser Hussain took charge. Once I did figure it out, I had quite a strong three year period in Test cricket when I was at my best. When I look back, there was no way that I was ready to play Test cricket in 1994 and I still believe that if I was given another couple of years getting fitter and stronger with my bowling, before making my Test debut, I’d have played a lot more Test matches for England, but if you get selected at a young age, you’re never going to turn the chance to play for England down.”

In 2000, Craig suffered a mystery blackout, and collapsed in the street. The incident revitalised him as a cricketer, and his county performances earned him a recall to the England team for the series against the West Indies. “I was a different person after that incident. Before then I was always very harsh on myself. I wanted to make a hundred every time I batted and if I didn’t, I’d beat myself up and get very down. That incident made me realise that every day was a bonus and it changed my outlook on cricket. In a funny kind of way, if that had happened earlier in my career, I also think that would have allowed me to have played many more Test matches.”

When Craig was recalled for the West Indies series, the England set-up was a very different place. Duncan Fletcher was now England coach and Nasser Hussain was England captain. This period was Craig's most enjoyable and successful spell as an England player. “Nasser was a fiery character, but that was what was needed at that time. He was a very, very good captain. He had a very strong relationship with Duncan and they worked very well together.”

But what was the catalyst for getting the best out of Craig White, the all-rounder? “It was the communication. They would sit you down and tell you what was expected of you, how good they think you are and that you had a massive part to play for England. Just those words would put you in such a positive frame of mind. They created a new culture for the England team and you wanted to do well for them. Previously, it hadn’t felt like you were in a team, it felt like individuals were playing to keep their places in the side, and that the result wasn’t the important thing. There was no real team spirit.”

I asked Craig if the introduction of central contracts also played a part. “Yes, definitely. They came in, in 2001 and I was one of the first batch and you definitely felt more of a ‘team’ after that and results picked up. People talk about 2005, but Duncan and Nasser played such a huge part in turning around England’s fortunes that they deserve a lot of credit for the successes that happened down the line.”

The new culture certainly coincided with Craig’s most successful period as an international cricketer. In that series against the West Indies he cemented his place in the side, contributing useful runs, and became an important member of the pace-bowling attack, his bowling had improved to such an extent that he was capable of using reverse swing and consistently reaching speeds of 90 mph off his short run-up. He also has the honour of being the first bowler to dismiss Brian Lara for the first golden duck of his Test career. “It happened at the Oval. I’d heard he’d been bowled around his legs a couple of times in the nets, so that had always been in the back of mind. In that series I was bowling around the wicket and taking it away from him, so he came out to bat and moved his guard over to off stump. I attempted to bowl him a Yorker, but it was probably more of a half volley, if I’m honest, but he over balanced and it knocked his leg stump out. I have to admit, when I released the ball, it didn’t come out right, and I thought to myself ‘oh no, that’s four runs’, but because he was so far over, trying to compensate for me usually moving the bowl away, he was so far out of position, his leg stump went flying out!”

After that series, Craig was one of the star players on subsequent tours to the subcontinent, with his most notable achievements being a 93 against Pakistan at Lahore and a 121 against India in Ahmedabad.

“When I started to play international cricket, all I wanted to do was make a Test hundred and get a Test fiver. The hundred in India was obviously one of the top highlights of my career, together with a Test five-for against the West Indies. But my best Test innings was actually against Sri Lanka in Kandy. I only got 20 odd but Murali was turning it square and we only had 4 wickets left in the tank and needed 50 more runs or so to win and Ashley Giles and I knocked them off.”

I asked Craig, what it was like to face Murali and why he felt he managed to play a number of his best games for England in the sub-continent, where many players from England typically find it difficult. “To face Murali was amazing. He would pitch the ball and it would turn a foot and a half, it was a great challenge. I loved the challenge of facing the best spinners in the world in those conditions. I always tried to be positive and just thought you’ve nothing to lose. I think I enjoyed it more when we were up against it, in those conditions and situations. I performed better. With the bowling, I think my bowling was better on the flatter pitches. In England, I wasn’t a big swinger of the ball, so if a pitch had a little more in it, the big lads would be picking up the wickets and I would tend to be more of the 3rd or 4th change bowler. But on Indian pitches for example, which were more skiddy and flat, I was able to get reverse swing and I came into my own more, on those flatter pitches.”

Craig’s final Test series was the 2002/03 Ashes series where he played in the first four Tests of the series before an injury to his side prevented him from playing in the Fifth Test, in Sydney but he later recovered to play in the 2003 Cricket World Cup, his last appearance for the national team.

After the World Cup, bowling-related injuries began to take their toll on Craig again, and he re-invented himself as a specialist batsman for Yorkshire. In 2004, he was appointed captain of his home County and in 2005 led them to promotion from Division Two of the County Championship. However, he resigned as captain at the end of the 2006 season, having helped them to avoid relegation.

During his Test career, Craig faced arguably some of the best players who have ever played the game and I asked him who he found to be the most difficult of opponents.

“That’s a tough question! I played against some of the best players who played the game. Batting wise there was Tendulkar and Lara, but I actually enjoyed and had the most success bowling at left handers. That said, the hardest player I felt to bowl to was Matthew Hayden. I remember the opening day of a Test match in Australia; I was bowling before lunch, and felt in a good rhythm, I bowled a ball to Hayden, and he just took a couple of steps down the pitch and hit me over mid-wicket for 6! He was a bully to bowlers! Bowler wise, as a batsmen I was facing the likes of Murali, Warne, McGrath, Ambrose, Walsh, Lee, Akhtar, every Test had a challenge. I am proud to be able to say I faced those guys, some of the best bowlers to have ever played the game. But certainly the fastest was Brett Lee.”

I asked Craig, firstly as a batsmen, was there much different between 85 to 90 or 90 to 95 mph when you’re facing deliveries of such speed. “It’s a different world. 90mph is obviously sharp, but when you’re facing a Brett Lee or Shoaib Akhtar, it’s a different world. You’re batting on instinct and just trying to protect yourself, as you’re no good to your team mates if you get carried off with broken ribs or a broken jaw. You know as a batsmen, early on those bowlers will try and intimidate you and you have to get your head around that and plan for it and then hope after 18 balls or so it will become easier to score. I always felt it was a great challenge, it’d fire you up and looking back it was a great experience.”

Craig recalled a Test match at the WACA, when Brett Lee was bowling perhaps his fastest ever spell. “In Perth you have what they call the freemantle doctor, which is usually a breeze that blows across the ground; on this day it wasn't just a breeze, but a fall on gale and it was right up Brett Lee’s arse! He was steaming into bowl every delivery and smelt blood. A wicket fell and it was my turn to bat and I remember Alec Stewart meeting me halfway and said ‘Chalks, you know you have to be up for this, he’s bowling seriously quick'. I just said ‘No shit Sherlock I’ve been watching for the last few hours!' But I just remember being at the non strikers end and he bowled a bouncer to Stewie. Stewie was about two minutes too late playing a hook shot and it went through to Gilchrist, but to this day I can remember the sound of the ball hitting the pitch - it was like slapping your hand on concrete, just an amazing sound. But when you face someone like Lee, your first thought is just to protect yourself and then you’ll start working out where your scoring shots will come from. But those first 18 balls are interesting stuff!”

Over the years, Craig played with a number of very good players for England. “Alec Stewart, Mike Atherton and Graham Thorpe were obviously very good players, but I was a big Graeme Hick fan. I just felt it was an honour to play with guys that I’d always looked up to and people I now class as good mates. Darren Gough is one of my best mates and I played a few Tests with Andrew Flintoff, towards the end of my career.”

In total, Craig scored 1,052 Test runs and took 59 Test wickets in his 30 Test matches and I have no doubt that if his Test career had begun a few years later he would have played many more Tests for England and scored and taken, many more runs and wickets.

After Craig’s first class career ended, he moved on to the coaching staff at Yorkshire and also captained their second team, where among the youngsters who played under him were Joe Root, Gary Ballance and Johnny Bairstow. “It’s been great to see how these guys are now doing and you like to think you had a little bit of an influence on their careers and where they have got to now.”

Craig is now on the coaching staff at Hampshire, where three of his players have just been called up for this month’s World T20 (James Vince, Richard Dawson and Reece Topley). “Giles White gave me a call after I left Yorkshire and said they had a coaching vacancy and would like me to fill it. It's been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Hampshire is a great club with some great people and I’m very happy here.”

I asked Craig if he found it an easy transition from player to coach. “It’s been ok. You have to get used to it’s not about you anymore, it’s about making others be the best they can be. I was never really a big fan of the limelight and I am quite an introverted person. I always found it a bit unnatural to perform in front of thousands of people, so to step into coaching has been quite natural for me, where I can sit in the background and help others. I think I am lot more comfortable in coaching.”

The conversation with Craig then switched from talking about his career to that of another young all rounder and the potential of the current England team. “Ben Stokes is brilliant. I remember when he made his hundred at the WACA, I told people that for 20 years we’d been looking for the next Ian Botham, now in 20 years time people will be looking for the next Ben Stokes. And that was after that innings at the WACA! Look how he’s developed since then, he could be one of the best ever. We’ve got an excellent team now and there’s no real weaknesses. Encouragingly, there’s also plenty of players in the background just waiting to pounce and they are all high quality as well, there’s such depth which is healthy and enjoyable to watch.”

I asked Craig if he puts this depth down to the strength of country cricket? “The strength of country cricket is very, very strong. The standard of some of the teams in division one is world class. I honestly believe, we have the strongest first class competition in the world. I sit on the sidelines and what some of these lads can do, is amazing."

Craig though, is concerned about the future of Test cricket. “You’d like to think Test cricket remains the pinnacle, but there are so many tournaments now happening around the world, offering a lot of money, it’s a worry. A player can play three or four tournaments a year, for four or five years and be very, very well off; you can understand why players can get drawn towards that, sadly.”

With the T20 world cup this month, Craig is positive about England’s chances. “We can go a long way. The team is now strong and we have matchwinners. We’ll need a bit of luck, but we’ve a good chance.”

And what could he tell us about the three Hampshire lads in the squad. “James Vince has been doing well in domestic T20 cricket for a few years now. It’s great for him to get an opportunity on the world stage. Reece Topley is a new signing for us, but is highly thought of with a lot of skills and Liam Dawson is a gutsy little cricketer. He has nice control with the ball and is a fighter with the bat who reads situations very well. If he gets a chance, he won’t let anyone down.”

Craig was an allrounder who went on to become an integral member of the England side in the early 2000s and should rightly be proud of everything he achieved. As supporters, we certainly remember a number of those batting and bowling performances with fond memories. He's been a credit to English cricket and someone his Dad can very proud of.

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