Cricket interview

Neil Burns, former Essex, Somerset, Leics Wicket-keeper

This month, we talk to Neil Burns, a former county cricketer, turned coach and Professional Mentor, who was arguably one of the most talented wicket-keeper/batsmen not to play Test cricket for England.

And while the England selectors didn’t give him the opportunity some thought he deserved, he was certainly a top professional that the members at Essex, Somerset and Leicestershire, firmly took to their hearts.

“I was very lucky to have played in the era that I did, with so many world-class players involved in county cricket” remarked Neil. “From when I started in July 1982 after my GCSE’s, through to the end of 2002, it was a period that was arguably one of the best for county cricket. Playing cricket professionally offers the individual a unique opportunity to experience a range of emotions and be part of some spontaneity that you wouldn't normally experience in the workplace. The camaraderie at times can be hilarious.”

“Over the period of a career, you have a full spectrum of experiences that offer opportunity for powerful learning about yourself and life. From a personal point of view, these days I try to recall only the best ones! When I think about some of my better days, I am proud to reflect on the fact that I scored first-class centuries against the some of the best fast bowlers such as Malcolm Marshall, Courtney Walsh, Franklyn Stephenson, and Simon Jones, and half-centuries against other bowling ‘greats of the game’ such as Shane Warne, Wasim Akram, Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock. And I look back with immense pride that I took the field and played against the likes of Ian Botham, Imran Khan, Jacques Kallis, Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar, Murali, Rahul Dravid, Richard Hadlee and Clive Rice, as well as my early cricketing heroes Sir Vivian Richards and David Gower. I feel fortunate to have played against some top teams including the brilliant Australian teams of 1989 and 1993, plus the all-conquering West Indies teams of the late 80’s/early 90’s too. I am proud to have kept wicket successfully to Anil Kumble and Mushtaq Ahmed, and privileged to have played alongside the likes of Allan Border who was at the crease in each innings of my first-class debut, Steve Waugh, Michael Bevan, Jimmy Cook, Martin Crowe, and Graham Gooch. Taking the field for Essex under the captaincy of Graham who was also an influential role model when I was growing up in Essex was a big thrill. I have been very fortunate.”

Was there ever just a tinge of disappointment about not representing his country? “Yes, of course. When you have a dream and it doesn’t come true it is disappointing. I set out with a clear vision of what I wanted to do in my career, but as you grow older and wiser you realise that success is more about getting the best out of yourself in any given situation rather than purely the realisation of a childhood dream. As a professional person, you must be honest and with the likes of Jack Russell and Alec Stewart around, I wasn’t good enough to present a strong challenge to either of them – Jack was a brilliant keeper and Alec was a superior batsmen to all of us ‘Keepers in the game at the time. However, despite my early promise and initial success at Somerset, I think I played my best cricket at the end of my career, and became more consistent in every aspect of my cricket. At this time, there were some very promising young Keepers around like James Foster and Chris Read so the opportunity to be a serious candidate for international selection, despite my record at the time, had passed me by. England were unlikely to replace a 38 year old Alec Stewart with a 36 year-old Neil Burns! But, I would have loved the chance to play at that time in my career because I felt I had developed the temperament to have a big impact on a team. I found comfort in some kind things that Jack Birkenshaw, Michael Bevan and Anil Kumble said about my cricket and went into retirement as a cricketer feeling I had given my best at all times. Because I gave it my very best shot in terms of dedication to excellence, I feel I succeeded on another level.”

The disappointment aside, Neil was the kind of wicket-keeper that teams loved to have in their side – a keeper with an ability to score important middle-order runs as a genuine all-rounder before it became the norm for ‘keepers to bat so well.

So, where did his journey begin?

On the playing fields of Chelmer Park, home to Chelmsford Cricket Club. “From the age of 7, our house backed on to Chelmer Park. As children, we had 30 acres of sports fields that we could play our own Test matches on.” And these were competitive ‘Test’ matches! The ‘Tests’ comprised of seven youngsters from Neil’s road, including his older brother Ian, and the now famous academic Professor Robert iliffe. “We’d play all day and into the evening. We only went in when we were called in for food – often timed to coincide with Peter West introducing the Test match coverage. This is where I first watched Rod Marsh and Alan Knott perform behind the stumps and I find it remarkable that I have come to know both men and have played cricket with each of their sons too! Our ‘Test matches’ were highly-competitive games, so much so, five of those seven lads ended up representing Essex County-Age Group teams, with four also progressing to play in the Essex 2nd XI eventually. I was the only one to turn professional, but looking back, those early days were very influential in my development.”

Neil recalls these days with fond memories. “Playing all sports with others that were older than me gave me a head-start over others who were my age and I was able to dominate my own age group in school games.”

And why wicket-keeping over batting or bowling? “I always admired Alan Knott and Rod Marsh as a schoolboy. I also liked the fact that as a wicket-keeper you were always centrally involved in the game. Plus, with our ‘Test’ matches on Chelmer Park, I worked out that if I kept wicket, with only seven of us playing, it meant I wouldn’t have to go and chase the ball!”

Another of Neil’s influences as a child was Kent captain Mike Denness through watching Kent appear regularly on BBC2’s John Player League live coverage when Kent were a brilliant one-day team under Denness’s captaincy. Soon after, in 1978 Denness made the move from Kent to Neil’s home county of Essex. “This was quite big news at the time and in no time at all he added some experience to a developing team and helped to make them serial winners. A few years later, I was making my debut as a 16-year-old for the Essex 2nd XI under the captaincy of Mike Denness!”

But, Neil’s biggest influence was his father. “He has been an inspiration and incredible supporter of me.”

Neil admits he was fortunate as a youngster that he often got to play in age groups above his own, which accelerated his own development. “Paul Prichard was a year older than me and was an outstanding young batsman who also kept wicket. Paul’s ability and high-promise meant he was selected for many representative teams in both his own age group and above, which enabled me to play County Age-group Cricket up a year. So, I always played a year ahead of my age group, and when I look back things like that helped me further on in my career. You knew that if you could perform at a higher age group it would enhance your reputation, but it also added to my inner confidence that I could compete successfully against older and better players.”

Someone who played a big part in Neil’s early development was his coach Ray East. “When I was in junior and youth cricket Ray and former Essex cricketer Graham Saville took a great interest in coaching the highly promising youngsters. They took a real interest in my development.

Ray went on to become Essex’s 2nd XI coach. “I was lucky that for three of my four years as a full-time professional at Essex CCC I had Ray in a position where he could guide my ongoing development. He had such a warm personality, cared deeply about the game, and was great fun to be around too.”

Although his 1st XI appearances were limited at Essex, he learnt a huge amount from his spell at the county. “The club won the county championship for three out of the four years that I was deputy wicket-keeper. The whole culture of the club was about winning. Essex won championships, one-day titles and we had players in and around the England team, such as Graham Gooch, Neil Foster and Derek Pringle. It was a very significant time to be part of Essex Cricket – the culmination of hard graft and fostering a collective spirit that took them from being ‘a cinderellla club’ being transformed into serial Champions. The club’s ambition was always high. I look at that time as ‘serving an apprenticeship’, the timing of me being there could not have been better for a young, ambitious, developing professional sportsman.”

The biggest shift in Neil’s development came when he was 18, when he spent the winter months playing cricket in South Africa for Northerns in the Western Province. “It was terrific. I learnt quickly that as an overseas player/coach I had to prove my worth. There was a core of good young cricketers in the region, including the likes of Eric Simons, Dave Rundle, Brett and Craig Matthews John Commins and Daryll Cullinan, who became good friends. Plus, there was a core group of other English pros like Colin and Alan Wells from Sussex and David Turner from Hampshire small group of ‘Test’ cricketers like Peter Kirsten Kenny McEwan, Garth Le Roux, and Stephen Jefferies, Hylton Ackerman, and Bob Woolmer playing in the competition. Graham Gooch had previously played in it, and his influence was always in the back of my mind as I set off for South Africa because I knew he respected the cricket down there at that time. The cricket was highly competitive and the standard was strong. That boosted my confidence in my playing ability and made me realise that I was good enough for higher-level of cricket.”

And prove it he did. He hit an impressive 150 on his debut, and in the following six weeks followed that up with a couple of other excellent tons.

But on his return to Essex, it was tough for Neil not being involved in the 1st XI due to David East’s excellence behind the stumps. “It was frustrating that I couldn’t break into the team, particularly as the standard of 2nd XI cricket wasn’t as tough as what I had been playing in the winter. But what it taught me was that I had to be patient and I had to keep my standards up. Ray was terrific for me and he kept telling me that I was good enough to play in the 1st XI, but I just had to bide my time. It fuelled my appetite to get better, to take the chance when it came and keep doing all I could to knock the door down.”

Neil knocked hard on the door, but came to realise that for his game to develop further he would have to make a move to another county, despite his long-held ambition to play for his home club.

And that new county was Somerset.

“I had the opportunity to go to Surrey, and I really liked Mickey Stewart and Geoff Arnold’s vision for Surrey cricket and how they thought I could develop further. Somerset were a very similar club to Essex. Their ground was situated in the centre of the town, they were very well supported and had some similar successes to Essex, albeit they had lost their way for a few years after being dominant in the late 70’s/early 80’s. I think the fact they were looking to re-build and develop another winning team was exciting. It was also a tantalising prospect for me to play with Viv Richards and keep wicket to Ian Botham and Joel Garner.”

Brian Rose made a strong impression on me around the same time. He was passionate about Somerset cricket and it was very clear they wanted to build a new, young team. They wanted runs from their wicket-keeper, It was all very persuasive.”

However, it didn’t quite turn out that way! “Not long after approaching me they announced publicly that things at the club were changing and they were not going to re-engage Viv and Joel and in their place, were going to sign Martin Crowe and were intending to sign other ambitious young players too.

I felt quite uncertain about the move despite the opportunity to play regular first team cricket. I met Martin up in Scarborough when I was up there playing for Essex in the Asda Trophy and he was up there playing for New Zealand. He was very impressive – and shared a vision for Somerset County Cricket Club in a very articulate and helpful way.

It was the right move for Neil and what followed was eight years of enjoyable cricket for the young wicket-keeper. “I loved it. It was fun to keep wicket to someone like Vic Marks – a canny bowler, and delightful man. Steve Waugh came over from Australia and played for two seasons – we’d played together previously when he had a year for Essex 2nds so it was great to reconnect with him, and we just had a strong group of youngsters, all of whom were of similar ages. It was good times. We reached a couple of one day semi-finals and quarter-finals and on big match days at Taunton, the ground would be rocking. There was just always a big buzz around the town. At some clubs, there isn’t the following for the game that there is in the west country, and I soon learnt that Somerset Cricket means a lot to so many people. I suppose it’s similar to Essex, and in many ways to what people say about Yorkshire. It is always a great feeling to be part of a club that really mattered to the both the local and also the broader community.”

I asked Neil about some of his most memorable games at Taunton. “My debut in 1987 v Lancashire was memorable on a personal level for making 52 at a vital time on the first day, but another 4-day game against Lancashire stands out, and not just because it was all over on the second day. They needed 88 to win and we bowled them out for 72. A young Andrew Caddick got 9 for 32 – and it was also the match in which Marcus Trescothick made his first-class debut.

But, my biggest personal highlight was my 166 against Gloucestershire in 1990. We were 5 down for 87 and I was 16 not out at tea. By the close of play I was 148 not out! Somerset v Gloucestershire were always big matches which meant a lot to the locals so to pull out a career-best performance in one of those matches was something pretty special.”

Another personal highlight was my first time back at Chelmsford against Essex in 1987, where I scored my maiden hundred. I got a lovely reception, and it was special to have family witnessing it at the ground too.

And the disappointments? “Losing in too many semi-finals! It wasn’t until I left the club they managed to win a final. “They beat us at Lord’s when Keith Parsons played really well. It was fantastic to have enjoyed the experience of a final but no one really wants to remember playing in a Cup Final and not winning.” But, a small consolation was that for Somerset I knew what it meant to the club and their brilliant supporters.”

In between those counties however, was a period where Neil thought his first-class cricket career was finished for good. “Somerset released me in 1993. It was a very tough period in my life. It was difficult and caused quite a lot of turmoil in my personal life. I wasn’t sure whether to continue playing because full-time coaching was something I always wanted to eventually do. So I took the opportunity to be Player/Coach for Buckinghamshire in the Minor Counties Championship. I was then appointed Director of Cricket for the county and it gave me the chance to influence the whole system from top to bottom. We would go on to establish some proper structure with some clear principles. For example, we decided to only select people who either went to school in, lived in or played cricket in the county to represent the county. It was about putting down some foundations that would allow the county to focus on its emerging talent as opposed to hiring in players from outside the county to enhance the 1st XI’s playing potential on a short-term basis .”

Many Minor Counties didn’t have such criteria back then, while Neil wanted to ensure he had a genuine Buckinghamshire team of cricketers. One of the other processes that Neil introduced was to pick the best 10 cricketers and then make one place available for the most promising player from the county age group teams. It was an innovative idea that paid dividends. “I really wanted the age group teams to know that one spot was available to them. I really wanted to broaden their cricketing and social education by incentivising them to earn selection and be around more established cricketers. In a smaller way, I also hoped the coaching philosophy of inspiring greater opportunity for highly-promising young players would filter through to the clubs in the area too. I often felt that young players development is stultified by lack of opportunity to perform in more dominant roles in league teams because established middle-aged cricketers refuse to give up their ‘privileges’.”

“I hoped we, as the peak of the county’s cricketing pyramid would be an exemplar in this regard. The way it worked was this: a young player has one season to play in the team ‘with grace’ and then he has to make the spot his own the following year by gaining selection in ‘the best 10 cricketers in the county’. The ‘grace’ position would then move to another player the following year and so on, year-on-year. We had three young players from that process who went on to become professional cricketers.”

I asked Neil what the quality of minor counties cricket was like compared to the professional game. “It could be challenging as you had to play 120 overs in a day, which is a serious amount of cricket. It could be very demanding physically but it also encouraged plenty of overs from spin bowlers, which must be a good thing to have more variety in the game, especially young ones. The standard of quick bowling is obviously very different to first-class cricket but there were some very good, accurate seam bowlers as well as some highly-promising young bowlers like Alan Richardson emerging at the time. Obviously, the lack of pace and bounce in most of the pitches affects the type of cricket played and some teams could be quite defensive with ring-fields and medium-paced accurate seam bowlers bowling to effectively ‘strangle’ the opposition through run-starvation’ as opposed to bowling a delivery that could dismiss a batsman purely on its own individual merit, which is what is needed at the highest level of the game. The competitive nature of many teams was a feature, and I believe more young county professionals would benefit from playing minor Counties cricket against established cricketers than just playing for the first-class county 2nd XI team on an exclusive basis. Today, 2nd XI Cricket looks like an under 19’s match to me – with all players knowing each other since county-age group days. Sometimes, being in the mix with strangers who are very ‘savvy’ with their game can be transformative to an emerging player’s development. If a possible future England player can dominate Minor County cricket at 18/19/20 then I think it says a great deal about their ability to adapt their game at such a young age, and augurs well for their future progress. Plus, there are some solid, experienced ex-pros in the competition who can be most helpful to an emerging cricketer’s ‘game intelligence’, as well as offering independent encouragement of a player’s potential. I liked the responsibility of being the Player/Coach and because of the experience I had and the responsibility of the role I had, I think the Minor Counties period of my career was invaluable to my overall development as a cricketer, and as a coach. There were some tough games, and none more so than the Natwest Trophy 1st Round matches against professional teams. I really enjoyed preparing my teams to play in these fixtures, and I am proud to recall how competitive we were on occasions against some very good teams like Essex, Surrey and Warwickshire.

After five years in the role and at the age of 35, Neil received a call from Leicestershire and so came his return to the first-class game. “I received a call from Jack Birkenshaw at Leicestershire saying that they wanted an experienced cricketer in their team. The call came completely out of the blue. It was wonderful.

I think playing with top batsmen like Jimmy Cook and Chris Tavare at Somerset was both a joy and also a hindrance. The hindrance came from playing ‘second fiddle’ to better players and how easily one can lose a sense of self as a front-line player in such circumstances. My development as a batsman with serious pretensions to become a top player I envisaged becoming in my earliest days as a professional. But simultaneously, it was a joy because it enabled me to see ‘up close and personal’ how good each of these two outstanding players were, especially in one day cricket. On reflection, as a middle order batsman I had become accustomed to playing around others contributions and had lost the sense of responsibility for being ‘the main man’ that had characterised much of my junior cricket and also my early days as an overseas pro in South Africa.

Playing in the Minor Counties Championship demanded that my level of personal performance was key to my team’s overall total in each and every innings – this level of responsibility enhanced my cricket no end. It was as if I returned to my youth, and it re-activated thinking patterns which had probably been laying dormant. I think the process really enhanced my accountability as a professional cricketer. I went back to having high expectations and took on the personal responsibility to win matches. I brought this attitude into my cricket at Leicestershire, even though I returned to life as a middle-order batsman again.”

The move to Grace Road was a great move for Neil and he describes it as his most successful period as a cricketer. “I broke records for the number of one-day dismissals in a season, the number of first class dismissals by a Leicestershire wicket-keeper in an innings, I made my highest one-day score, I played in a Cup Final, topped the list of first-class dismissals among all the country’s wicket-keepers in each of my last two seasons, I scored more first-class hundreds and played my part in some significant victories. There were a lot of highlights.”

Despite the 2001 C&G Trophy defeat to Somerset another highlight was the ‘Road to Lord’s’. We played some brilliant cricket along the way, especially the televised semi-final victory over Lancashire at Grace Road when Pakistan all-rounder Shahid Afridi played a sensational innings, after Scott Boswell’s inswingers had sliced through the all-powerful Lancashire top order of Atherton, Lloyd, Fairbrother and Flintoff.. “We’d played really good one-day cricket that year and we had a group of wonderful cricketers, led very well by Vince Wells and Jack Birkenshaw.

Dan Marsh was our overseas player in 2001, and what a wonderful team man he was. He was also a very savvy cricketer, mature beyond his years. Unfortunately, he missed the second half of the season due to a fractured cheekbone but his contributions helped the team become consistent winners from all manner of positions. We developed a super-confidence that whatever they got, we could get, and if we batted first and ‘under-scored’ we felt that few opponents would be able to chase down a winning target against the competitive bowling and fielding unit we had developed into. Shahid Afridi came in and was such a game-changer of a cricketer for us. His scoring rates were ahead of his time and the violence of his play caused havoc in the minds of most opposition players. His incredible ability to score at 10 or 12 runs an over from the start of an innings was unheard of, and in those early days, suggested he would become a world sensation if he could harness his talent to perform at the highest level of the game. His leg-spinners were very fast-paced and his quicker ball was frightening pace to be stood up to. His throwing was remarkable too – what a gifted cricketer we had in our midst. Unfortunately, he was ‘outfoxed’ by Somerset in the Cup Final – their smart strategy of bowling hard into the pitch to hit the splice of his bat caused frustration and he played an injudicious shot which caused his dismissal and gave them a belief that the game could be won from that moment onwards. Despite our efforts to stay competitive, we fell away as the innings unfolded and left ourselves too much to do. Having said that, 8 runs per over in the last 12 overs today would seem like a cakewalk to the modern cricketer!”

In Neil’s time at Grace Road, he had an excellent bowling line-up to keep wicket to, including the likes of Philip DeFreitas, Devon Malcolm, Chris Lewis, James Ormond and Anil Kumble. I suspect the current Leicestershire faithful would like a return to those days.

I asked Neil what it was like to play in a Lord’s final in a period when finals were truly like the FA Cup final of cricket. “It’ was everything I dreamt about, I remember in the final against Somerset, there was a moment in between the first and second overs when I looked up at the pavilion, as I waited for the slips fieldsmen to take their positions and just took it all in. It was beautiful summer’s day; the pavilion was packed and it remains a moment.”

Neil retired from the game after the 2002 season, and as mentioned earlier, it was a 20-year career that spanned a golden era for the game so I asked him who was the toughest bowler he ever kept wicket to?

“There was a lovely Dutch lad at Somerset called Andre Van Troost, ‘better known as Rooster’. He was very, very quick indeed. And his bowling was very challenging to keep to because he got incredible bounce, especially at places like Taunton, The Oval and Old Trafford. And, his radar wasn’t always working as well as it did on his best days, which made ‘keeping ‘interesting’ to say the least! The speed of footwork and the range of movement needed, added to the complexity of the challenge on some occasions. The hardest deliveries to take were his ‘unintentional off-cutters’ when he was unable to get his wrist properly behind the ball – he got excessive movement so with the distance you had to stand back, it meant that the angle of deviation got bigger and bigger by the time it reached me stood back. In fact there were other occasions when I had to stand MUCH too close for comfort, especially on slow, low-bouncing pitches which made the reaction time if the ball was nicked really short. So all in all, ‘The Rooster’ was a mix of difficulty and also real thrill. He offered an exciting dimension to the team and to my life as a ‘keeper.

Richard Snell the South African paceman played for us in 1992, and used to make the ball wobble and dip horribly once it went past the bat, like no one else I had kept wicket to – so he presented a real challenge and the odd very difficult moment when the ball would ‘aeroplane’ from its initial height and climb towards your throat at pace! The contrasting opposite experience to this was ‘keeping to Andrew Caddick, who was a dream to glove – you could see the ball so clearly from his hand with an immaculate wrist position and controlled outswing which made you feel you were likely to get an outside nick from almost every ball he delivered. Javagal Srinath was the best seam bowler I kept to, although I think he would have been a tougher proposition to glove earlier in his career when he was much quicker through the air. By the time we played together at Leicestershire in 2002, he was a master of swing and control – a really skilful and intelligent bowler. But, by some distance, my professional pride is reserved for the success I had ‘keeping to the variety of leg-spinners from Nasser Hussain in the Essex county age-group teams through to Andy Clarke in the Minor Counties, and Mushtaq Ahmed, Anil Kumble and Shahid Afridi. Anil’s pace combined with big bounce made his bowling very difficult to glove at times, but we struck a great partnership in 2001. It really boosted my confidence upon my return to the first-class game that a world-class bowler was so complimentary about our partnership. Next to Shane Warne, I rate Anil Kumble as one of the bowling greats of the game, and it was a genuine privilege to play with him and become good friends too.”

I also asked Neil if he thought the art of wicket-keeping had changed much since his playing days. “Definitely. Nowadays it’s not just runs from your wicket-keeper that are important, but runs scored in a certain way. Keepers are now picked first because of their batting; Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler have reached the heights of Test cricket through their batting first. That’s very different to the careers of Bob Taylor, Alan Knott and Jack Russell.”

Neil is now involved in the game via London County Cricket Club, the club which was originally founded in 1899 by WG Grace. Despite its name, the club is much more than a cricket club. They are in fact a professional mentoring organisation and Neil is the Managing Director. “When I finished playing, I had thoughts about coaching full time, but I felt coaching was in danger of becoming ‘role justification’ in some ways. I felt it was becoming less about empowering players to find their own answers and inadvertently, it was becoming increasingly a culture near-dependency on support staff and shared responsibility for performance outcomes. I firmly believe that cricketers and captains should run the team, and be accountable – the coach should act as a consultant asking incisive questions at relevant points in time to stimulate better quality reflection in players. I believe cricketers play their best cricket when they do so in their own particular way.

The mentoring process is about helping people to develop the trust and confidence in who they are and how they want to play and thus empowering them to get there through their own self-inspiration. If we don’t empower people to find their own answers, then we are eating away at their ability to become self-learners and develop the all-important characteristic of self-confidence.”

Across various sports, not just cricket, London County - through its performance coaching programmes - has enjoyed a track-record of transforming the careers of professional athletes, and in business they have provide learning events to stimulate people’s thinking around ‘Inner & Outer Leadership’. Their professional support is designed to offer leaders ‘a safe place’ to think so they can return to their normal working environment with more clarity about how to inspire better results from their own people which in turn will deliver better results for their company.

“Through our bespoke mentoring programmes, we intend to create greater opportunities for people to understand and realise their full potential.”

The work that Neil and his colleagues have done is fascinating and you can read more here:

Neil’s story is a wonderful one. A cricketer, who through sheer dedication and drive, made the most of his abilities and was rewarded with not only 7000+ first class runs and over 500 dismissals, but a career full of treasured memories. It’s great that he continues to give so much back to so many people. But, as he says: ‘when you give, you receive.”

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