Cricket interview

Dean Headley, former England fast bowler

This month we are pleased to interview a former England fast bowler who famously bowled England to victory in the MCG Test of 1998. Needing just 175 runs to win, Dean Headley’s 6-60 steered England to a win, that supporters still talk about to this day. It was one of those ‘Do you remember when...’ bowling spells.

“They actually outplayed us for a lot of the game but then we just got on a bit of a roll,” recalled Dean. “Ramps took a great catch off Alan Mullally to get rid of Justin Langer and I then started to take wickets. It was just one of those days when you felt good and the ball was coming out all right!”

While that Test match was an obvious career highlight, there were a number of others in a career that yielded over 600 wickets.

Born in Stourbridge, Dean is a member of a famous cricketing family. He is the son of former West Indian cricketer Ron Headley and grandson of George Headley, widely regarded as one of the best batsmen to play for the West Indies and one of the greatest batsmen of all time.

“Growing up people knew who I was because of my family. If I played games of football, you could hear ‘that’s so and so’s son’, the reference to the family name was just part of everyday life for me. Quite often I was in the company of the likes of Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall and Viv Richards, but they were just normal people to me as a youngster. The family name was never a burden, it was just the way it was. People often ask if it helped or hindered me, if I’m honest probably both. I would come across people who didn’t necessarily like my Dad that much, for whatever reason and then I’d come across people who wanted to help me in my career because of my name.”

One of those people was West Indian legend Clive Lloyd. Dean started his career at Worcestershire, but at the end of his initial contract, he wasn’t retained. On the advice of Clive Lloyd, Dean headed north to play professionally for Leycett Cricket Club, who were based just outside Newcastle-under-Lyme. “Clive Lloyd advised me to go and play league cricket for a year and set me up with a club up north. I was earning more money playing club cricket for two days a week than if I’d carried on at Worcester. It was crazy. I felt a lot of responsibility but it was good grounding for me. The club played in the Staffordshire and Cheshire League and they have a Talbot Cup competition – we were the first second division club to win it. It was an enjoyable year. I ended up with 800 runs and 80 odd wickets. To give you an idea of how small the village was, eight of that team were related!”

At the end of that season, Clive Lloyd, intent on guiding Dean in the right direction, career-wise, arranged net sessions at three counties, Somerset, Derbyshire and Middlesex. It was the latter that secured Dean’s signature. “I had a two-hour net session with all of them and each of them offered me a contract. I chose Middlesex. Clive, felt they would be the best option for me to get myself in the spotlight.”

With the likes of Mike Gatting, Mark Ramprakash, Paul Downton, John Embury, Phil Tufnell, Angus Fraser and Desmond Haynes, Middlesex were one of the strongest sides in county cricket.

“It was a good side, with nine internationals. Playing in that dressing room was interesting, as it was so volatile. When you talk about honesty, nobody in that dressing room held back.”

Dean made his first-class debut in a season curtain-raiser against the MCC. “As county champions, we played the MCC, in the traditional curtain-raiser for the season. I didn’t think I would be playing in the first team so soon, but because of injuries to the likes of Neil Williams and Norman Cowans I was suddenly bowling to the likes of Graeme Hick and Neil Fairbrother.”

But it was his full county debut where he began to make a name for himself by taking a wicket with his very first ball. “The ball went down the slope a bit and Ashley Metcalfe nicked off. It was a nice start. People often ask if that was one of my most memorable moments, but if I’m honest we all have loads don’t we and they are all as memorable as the others. When I got in to my county side at under 13s it was a memorable moment, then going from under 13s straight to under 15s was a memorable moment; when I made my debut for the second team it was a memorable moment and so on. Every new stage is memorable as you begin a new challenge. I cherish them all.”

Middlesex won the Sunday League in Dean’s time at Lords, a campaign that saw the county win the first 12 games of the season. “We just teed off in every game. I loved playing in that competition. The games were sandwiched in the middle of the county championship games. You played three days, then the Sunday league game, and then the fourth and final day. Because you knew what you were going to face on a Sunday, 100 overs, you knew you could enjoy a Saturday night and know what was coming the following day!”

After two years at Middlesex, Dean made the move to Kent. “I was offered a contract extension, but I’ll be honest I refused it. That was probably unusual for Middlesex as no one ever really turned down a contract, but they just didn’t offer me a very good contract. I wasn’t being greedy at all, it just wasn’t a good contract offer.”

It was a great move for Dean. What followed were a string of career highs and doors being opened on the international front.

“I played my best cricket at Kent. We had good pitches and we developed a strong squad. At the beginning, it was a hard team to break into, but Daryl Foster and Mark Benson were great at giving me the confidence to kick on.”

I asked Dean what the main differences were between Middlesex and Kent. “Middlesex had international players ready to play, while at Kent we had hard working players. It was a great place to play cricket and we did well. I enjoyed playing with the likes of Carl Hooper, Aravinda de Silva, Andrew Symonds, Mark Ealham, Matthew Fleming, Alan Igglesdon, Martin McCague and Min Patel – we had a good team.”

And it was a team in which Dean thrived. Hard work in the winter of 1993 saw Dean add a few yards of pace which in his words took him from “someone reasonably above medium to someone who could be quite potent”. Kent got the rewards as the team won the Sunday League and finished runners up in the county championship on a few occasions.

But individually, Dean was developing himself nicely into an international-ready bowler.

The 1993/94/95 seasons yielded over 120 first class wickets and despite being ready in many people’s eyes, the national selectors thought otherwise and Dean didn’t earn a place on an England tour in the winter of 1995. “It was very disappointing but all I could do was just get on with it. Selection is subjective at the end of the day. I saw Wayne Morton, England’s physio, in a game at Scarborough, just after the announcement and he said I’d been a bit unlucky not to be selected and to keep myself fit.”

But a week later, an injury to Middlesex seamer Richard Johnson on England’s main tour to South Africa saw a place for Dean open up on the England A tour to Pakistan. “Peter Martin got called up to the seniors so Tim Lamb phoned me up and said would I like to tour Pakistan. We played against the likes of Shoaib Akhtar, Shahid Afridi and Azhar Mahmood. It was a tough tour, but I struck up a good friendship with Nasser who was captain. I played a few warm up games and got selected for the First Test and didn’t look back from there. The pitches were good for seamers and in some cases, were a lot quicker than we’d expected. It was interesting tour off the field as well. There wasn’t a lot to do in Pakistan and there was only one public bar that you could drink in. To get served you had to sign a form saying that you were alcohol dependent – the entire squad signed!”

Back on the county circuit and Dean returned from that tour to Pakistan and equalled a world record the following September by taking his third hat-trick of the season in a game against Hampshire, at Canterbury.

Dean’s career was progressing nicely towards senior England recognition.

The winter of 1996 saw him selected for his second A team tour, this time down under in Australia. “That was a great tour. I enjoyed it immensely and we all had a lot of fun! And we were successful.”

The team won 2 of the 3 first class games they played and won 2 of the other 3 list A games played.

Both A-team tours saw Dean return as top wicket-taker and a senior call-up was surely not far away.

“I hoped it would be on the tour to New Zealand but it wasn’t to be.” But the debut did come in the Ashes summer of 1997. With the series level at 1-1, Dean was called up for the third Test match at Old Trafford.

Four wickets from Dean saw the Aussies reduced to 235 all out in their first innings. It was only a Steve Waugh hundred that rescued the Aussies. “The wicket was a little bit green and I thought I bowled as well as I could have done on debut.”

As was often the case in the 90s England’s batting failed and England went on to lose the Test by 268 runs. “I got 8 wickets overall and got all of their left-handers out. It was funny, I was suddenly the best bowler in the world to left handers!”

Dean went on to take 16 wickets in the series but the Ashes were lost. I asked Dean what it was like facing that great Australian team and how wide he felt the gulf was between the sides. “It was good to play against them as they were the best team in the world. If you want to pit your skills against somebody, it might as well be against the best in the world to see if you can or can’t bowl at that level. For me it was just fine lines. Their fielding was outstanding and that was a big difference. I remember on my debut we dropped Paul Reiffel, he went on and got 30 odd which allowed Steve Waugh to get a hundred and suddenly we had a deficit, when we shouldn’t have. That kept happening and happening and happening. At Headingley Matthew Elliott got dropped and we didn’t take another wicket for 300 runs. If that catch was taken they were 50 odd for 4. It really was fine lines and you need good fortune against the best sides. And good fortune continues to this day. Would we have won the last Ashes if Joe Root wasn’t dropped on nought at Cardiff, before he and made a hundred? Would we have won in 2005, if they’d have got those two more runs at Edgbaston? They were the breaks and good fortune the Aussies got in that period. You need breaks in sport.”

Dean was also making a name for himself in one day cricket. In the winter of 1997, England’s one day team won the then much-famed Sharjah tournament, under the captaincy of Adam Hollioake. “Adam Hollioake was a really good captain. He led from the front and we played well in that tournament. We had a very good squad and a great team ethic. But we then went to the West Indies, lost a few games and the team got dismantled. It was no coincidence that the best teams were consistent on selection, while if we lost a couple of games we’d have a clear-out and change our whole strategy. As a player, it was hugely frustrating. In my time, I always said England were a team I’d be going to represent, now it’s very much a club you join. If you ask Jimmy Anderson now who he plays for, he’ll say England and Lancashire, it won’t just be Lancashire. Success is based on continuity of selection. Take the football world cup, Iceland did well because they picked the same group of players, in England we’d use 45. We may have had better quality players, but Iceland played as a unit, they knew their jobs. Playing for England in the 90s was like going into work and every Friday you’d get told if you were still in the job for the following week. You’d go in, work hard, but the uncertainty meant you could only perform at certain levels for so long. You can only manage people with a stick for so long. All that said I wouldn’t have changed any of it, it was great times.”

As well as that Sharjah tournament, the winter of 97/98 saw Dean tour the West Indies for the first time as an England Test player. It was a special moment for Dean and his family. “It meant three successive generations of our family had played Test match cricket. Only a family in Pakistan have done the same. It was a good tour. The wickets were slow. I received a good reception in Jamaica but because of the big inter island rivalries, Barbados was a completely different story!”

This was the series when the first Test match had to be suspended after just 10 overs after the England batsmen had been struck several times by balls which lifted dangerously off a length. After lengthy discussions, the match was abandoned. In its place the teams played two Test matches in Trinidad. The West Indies won the first and England bounced back to win the second. A victory which included Dean taking an important 4-77 in the West Indies’ second innings. The West Indies fought back in the next Test and England headed into the final Test of the series in Antigua trailing 2-1.

“That Antigua Test was over for us on the first evening. They left the covers off the pitch and it rained heavily. We missed two sessions of play and then the umpires felt it was fit enough to play; it wasn’t. The ball was taking diverts out of the pitch. We batted that evening and found ourselves 5 down for next to nothing. The following day the pitch was all rolled out, became flat, the sun came out and that was the end of our Test series.”

Straight after that defeat, captain Michael Atherton announced his resignation as Test captain. “Athers was very well respected and liked by everyone when he captained England for five years. It was quite an emotional moment for a lot of the players.”

The following summer the South Africans were in town and if any of you watched Mark Butcher’s excellent documentary on England in the 90s will have heard the story of Dean’s hilarious encounter with Allan Donald at Lords. “We had a plan that series to try and take him out of the series by bumping him. I followed the plan, others didn’t! We bowled them out with 35 minutes to go of the day. Everyone was telling me well done as I’d followed the plan and bowled several bouncers at Donald, but it had clearly ruffled them and the whole South Africa team reacted. We were reduced to 48-4 and I’m told to go out as night-watchman. I just thought are you kidding me! I had to walk out to face Donald and co who were hell bent on revenge. I was literally just thinking survival! I heard that one commentator said that Donald wasn’t trying to bowl me out, but just to hit me! But, if you give it out, you’ve got to take it. I guess it was one of the more amusing stories. The thing is in his book Donald said that he’d hit me at Canterbury once with a ball towards the throat and that my bowling was some kind of vendetta, but it was honestly the plan that Bumble had given us.”

I asked Dean if, that spell aside, he enjoyed the role as night-watchman? “Let’s just say as a bowler you work your socks off bowling all day the last thing you want to hear when you get in the dressing room is that you need to be a night-watchman! It’s no different in my mind to a bowler turning up one morning seeing the wicket is flat and so you ask the batters to have a bowl instead! Bowlers should bowl, batters should bat!”

In the winter of 1998, the Ashes had come around again. “That Ashes tour was brilliant. But again, we didn’t have the breaks. At Brisbane Gus Fraser dropped Ian Healy and Healy went on to make a big hundred – he didn’t score a run all series after that. We gave a good account of ourselves at Perth and Alex Tudor bowled well. We then go to Adelaide and on day one it’s 46 degrees so both teams know whoever wins that toss will win the game. We lost it and had to bowl and field in those conditions. It was ridiculous. By the time, we got them out, they were so far ahead and the pitch was turning square. Just a horrible Test match.”

Then came Melbourne and Dean’s heroics. “It was such a memorable win and we then went on to Sydney knowing if we won we’d level the series. Goughy took a hat-trick and I bowled well again. But then in their second innings the umpire didn’t give Michael Slater out when he was clearly run-out. He went on to score 66 percent of their runs in that innings, which was the highest percentage anybody had ever scored in a team’s innings. We should have been chasing 180 to win, in the end it meant Mark Taylor could put men around the bat and you couldn’t do that against Australia in that period.”

The team lost the series 3-1 but they came out of it with credit.

Having cemented his place in the side, Dean sadly played just two more Test matches for England as injury brought a premature end to his career. “It all happened very quickly. I had been complaining throughout that following year that I couldn’t bowl, but I was being told I had no obvious injury symptoms. I shouldn’t have played those Tests against New Zealand. I went on the tour to South Africa and the warm up game against Oppenheimer was my last game of professional cricket. My back went and finally I was told that what I had been saying for so long was right. I had a crack in my spine which was opening up. I was cooked. It was hard to accept. I had come back from Australia and a lot of people thought I had cemented my place in the team, but that Test match against New Zealand at Lords was awful. I was bowling and not knowing where the ball was going it was not nice to play like that. It was disappointing not to have played more Test matches for England, but who knows I might have had a stinker and they might have dropped me anyway, I’m happy with the memories I have.”

Looking back at his career, I asked Dean who were the best players he played with and against. “Domestically, Ramps, Graeme Hick and Darren Gough. Overseas, Brian Lara and Steve Waugh, but for different reasons. I admired Steve Waugh’s toughness and Brian Lara was just immense. He was a nice guy and it was a total privilege to play against him. It wasn’t just the amount of runs he scored, but the way he scored them. A beautiful player to watch.”

And the best captain? “Difficult one. Nasser got the most out of me. I loved playing under Adam Hollioke, but Stewie, Athers, Mark Benson they were all very good captains and I was fortunate I didn’t not like any of my captains.”

Looking at the England team now, Dean sees a bright future. “England have turned a corner in recent years. They hunt as a pack and a unit. I love the way our one day team approach the game. The likes of Buttler and Billings have lifted the lid off our game. One of the criticisms in all our sports is that we are conservative; trust me these boys aren’t conservative. They’ve been great to watch.

And what’s Dean up to now. “I’m at Stamford School where I coach. I really enjoy it. It’s a nice life and good to be involved with the kids. I get to coach rugby and hockey, as well as cricket which is nice. It’s good fun and I get some nice long holidays which allow me to do stuff for the PCA.”

So still pulling on the whites? “A few games but I’m definitely getting to the end. When you don’t practice, you don’t warm up and you’re playing against 25-year-old cricketers it’s not easy!

Dean may have only played 15 Test matches for England, but his haul of 60 wickets is full of memories that supporters will long cherish and talk about.

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