Cricket interview

Rob Turner, former Somerset wicket-keeper

We’ve spoken to several top-class wicket-keepers over the past 18 months, so it made sense to add to our wicket-keeper list this month!

With the county cricket season underway, we wanted to speak to someone who could provide a real insight into life as a county professional. So, who better than a cricketer who took over 1,000 catches/stumpings, former Somerset stalwart Rob Turner.

Throughout his career behind the stumps, Rob was one of the most accomplished and consistent wicket-keepers on the county circuit. He was a player that experienced the highs of Lords finals and the disappointments of getting overlooked for international recognition, which many would say his performances (and career statistics) deserved.

Let’s start at the beginning, as we always do. Cricket was part of Rob’s life ever since he was born, but it was the famous Ashes series of 1981, like it was for so many, that really caught young Rob’s imagination. “That was the most extraordinary series, wasn’t it?” recalled Rob. “Although it wasn’t my first recollection of cricket, it was the series that captured the imagination of the whole nation. Ian Botham was my hero as a kid growing up. It was great that in my career I got the opportunity to play against him, when he was still playing county cricket up in Durham – an incredible experience to play against your hero.”

The admiration became mutual as Botham was kind enough, many years later, to write a piece for Rob’s benefit brochure.

But with Botham as the ‘hero’ why did this youngster choose a career as a wicket-keeper? “I always wanted to be a wicket-keeper. My older brother was a wicket-keeper and for a long time I just copied him in everything he did; whichever football team he supported, I supported; he became a wicket-keeper, so I wanted to become a wicket-keeper! All that said, as a keeper you’re always in the game and I just wanted to be involved all the time.”

Rob’s brother actually kept wicket for Somerset, for a while, playing with the likes of Botham, Garner and Richards, so it was inevitable that Rob would want to follow suit.

To achieve his first class aspirations, Rob took up a scholarship at Cambridge University. “I used Cambridge University purely as a route into cricket. Oxford and Cambridge were playing against the counties all of the time, so it was my route into county cricket. Coverage of university games against the counties would be in the national newspapers every day, so if you did well, you’d stand out. If cricket didn’t happen, at least I would have had an education. But, representing Cambridge meant I was able to play a really good standard of cricket and play against many of the first-class counties.”

With the likes of Mike Atherton, Steve James and John Crawley, in his intake, the standard was certainly high. “It was a great experience and I had a great time. I did 4 years in total. I stayed on an extra year so I could captain the side. I did a one year course in computer science just so I could play that extra year of university cricket. I really wanted to get some captaincy experience.”

Sadly, the captaincy plan backfired a little as Rob broke a finger and missed the chunk of the season where games against the counties came up. “Greg Thomas bowled quite quickly and I broke my thumb. I missed the B&H cup, where I was going to captain the combined counties university side. Incidentally the guy who took over from me was Nick Knight, he went on and did alright for himself!”

Injury aside, the university route into first class cricket worked for Rob as a contract was on the table, upon completion of his life at university, with his home county Somerset.

“I was associated with Somerset anyway, as I’d played a bit for the under 19s and their 2nds, so I was sort of on their radar. But as soon as I finished at Cambridge they offered me a contract; that contract would certainly not have been on offer if I hadn’t of gone to Cambridge. University cricket made me a much more mature cricketer.”

Rob made his first class debut for Somerset in a county championship game away at Glamorgan in 1991. “I got called up on the morning of the game because of an injury to Mark Lathwell. Neil Burns was wicket-keeper so I played the game just as a batter. Thankfully I didn’t have time to think about it as I literally received the call and then I was on the motorway driving up to the game!”

A successful debut saw Rob retain his place, but it was a century at home to Nottinghamshire that cemented Rob’s place in the side. “That hundred really kick started everything for me. I remember Chris Lewis was playing and I’d never faced pace like that before. He was very sharp, especially on a quick deck at Taunton! It was an amazing experience. I remember he bowled a short one at me early on and the ball looped up in the air, but the guy under the lid at short leg didn’t see and it just dropped down by his side and I went on to make a hundred. Luck was with me.”

Rob took over behind the stumps and was soon making his name as one of the most promising young wicket-keepers in the country. This promise was acknowledged by the England selectors who picked Rob for an England A tour to Bangladesh and New Zealand.

“That tour was an amazing experience. It was incredible to experience a country like Bangladesh. The people there were all cricket nuts. It was incredibly harsh conditions to play in, what with the heat. But it was great just to witness a third world country for the first time. We started off in Dhaka, which you think is very third world, but then we got a flight over to Chittagong and it was a completely different world. Despite some of the things we saw in terms of how people lived, which was difficult to witness, the people were so happy and just fanatical about cricket. We’d turn up for matches and they’d be tens of thousands of people there watching. New Zealand was a bit more subdued! We were based in Christchurch and we played against a number of guys that went on to represent New Zealand.”

It was a strong England A team squad that Rob played in. Under the management of Martin Moxon and captaincy of Mark Alleyne, others within the squad included Aftab Habib, Vikram Solanki, Chris Silverwood, Chris Schofield and David Sales.

“I started very well in a couple of the one day games in Bangladesh, but then I didn’t get a great deal of batting. My keeping went well throughout, but once we got to New Zealand I didn’t get many runs. I started off well and got a 40 odd not out to see us home in the first game, but then didn’t get many opportunities, and when I did get an opportunity I didn’t make any significant contributions. It was a shame, but it was great fun and it was a great bunch of lads to be on tour with.”

Sadly for Rob, that was to be his only taste of international cricket. With the likes of Jack Russell and Alec Stewart in front of him, a call up to the senior side never came. “It was disappointing, of course, but it didn’t really faze me. It would have been nice, but I don’t think I’d ever have had a long England career but it would have been nice to have played a series of two.”

Rob did come extremely close in 1999, when many had him named in the squad to tour South Africa under Nasser Hussain and Duncan Fletcher. “We played a Lords final against Gloucestershire (we’ll talk more about that final later) and I was up in London two nights before for a cricket writers’ dinner. I was being interviewed by all the main cricket writers of the national newspapers. Throughout the season, I was aware that there were a few scouts watching me, including Alan Knott, so I knew there was a fair chance of me being selected. These journalists were interviewing me and telling me that I was going to be named in it. But then having breakfast on the morning of the final the squad appeared on Ceefax screens in the breakfast room and I wasn’t listed. If there hadn’t of been the hype, I wouldn’t have thought about it, but after all the talk and being told by the journalists I was going to be in the squad, it was a little disappointing. But it’s not something I look back on and am angry about. I enjoyed myself playing county cricket at Somerset.”

Rob’s life as a county cricketer was similar to many others in that period. He played for his county in the summer months and looked for employment for the other six months of the year. “In those days you played cricket for six months and then you were left alone for six months. I had a couple of winters where I played cricket in Perth, Australia, but other than that I was left to my own devices.”

Fortunately for Rob, he got employed by a stock brokers called Rowan Darlington, who employed Rob for a number of winters during his time at Somerset. “A guy who was captain of my local cricket club was a partner at Rowan Darlington and he told me to come down and see what’s it like; I did and I really got into it. I took some exams in stock broking and it was great fun. It worked out perfectly. They always let me disappear off to do my winter training when I needed to and they just really supported me. Thankfully they were all cricket nuts, so they loved having me work there. The company actually went on and became our main sponsor at Somerset for a few years and they supported my benefit year later on down the line. I’m forever grateful to them.”

On the pitch, Somerset were making great strides forward, under the captaincy of Australian Jamie Cox. In 1999, as we mentioned earlier, they reached the final of the NatWest Trophy, where although they lost to rivals Gloucestershire it was the start of a successful period for the west country outfit. “It was an amazing day at Lords, despite the result. The fact it was Gloucestershire who were our big local rivals really made the day. I was good friends with a number of their players, Mark Alleyne, Martin Ball, Tim Hancock and Mike Smith. I remember batting at one point and you could hear the whole crowd singing “stand up if you’re west country”, it was incredible. Usually, you block out the crowd, but there were times like that, when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It was just frustrating to lose!”

Two years later and Somerset righted that wrong with a C&G Trophy win over Leicestershire. “Another incredible day. The crowd were again magnificent, but when you’re winning, you take it in that bit more. I remember after the game we all drifted back to the team hotel and the bar was full of Somerset supporters. We were being treated like Gods. Those were the days you used to be among supporters, spend time with them, chat to them in the bars, you knew who they were. It was very personal, which I think is lost a bit now, which is a shame.”

The team also finished runners up in division one of the county championship, 12 months after the restructuring of the county game, which saw all 18 counties split in to two divisions of 9.

“To be honest, we were nowhere near winning the championship. We won a few games at the end of the season that got us into second place, rather than we were challenging. But it showed how much we were progressing.”

I asked Rob, how different it was to adjust from a division of 18 counties to two divisions of 9. “It made a big difference, especially at the end of the season, when you previously didn’t have too much to play for. Suddenly you could be midtable, but you still had to win games to make sure you weren’t going to go down, or to give you an outside chance of winning it. Also, as a player you wanted to be in the top division. The best players tended to migrate to division one because that’s generally where the England players were being picked from.”

Somerset reached the C&G Trophy final again in 2002, this time against Yorkshire, but sadly they were unable to retain their title. “We were a bit unlucky in that final. It could, perhaps should, have gone our way. I remember we got ourselves into a potential winning position, but a couple of decisions didn’t go with us and we weren’t able to see it home.”

I asked Rob, what made Somerset such a successful side in that period, particularly in one day cricket.

“Our coach Dermot Reeve was brilliant. We used to rock up and everyone knew their jobs and what we had to do. We all supported each other and everyone believed in each other. We used to win games for fun. We had an incredible side. We had lots of bits and pieces cricketers who all had phenomenal seasons; players like Keith Dutch, Keith Parsons, Ian Blackwell and Richard Johnson. Trescothick and Caddick aside, we didn’t have household names, but we came together as a team. We won so many games when we were out of it, but believed we could get over the line. And we had Jamie Cox as captain, who was just sensational.”

It was just after this run of one day cup finals that T20 cricket was launched in England and it’s fair to say many didn’t think it would grow to as big as it has. “I wouldn’t say the competition was treated like a joke, but it was initially felt that 20 over cricket was something you did in club cricket. We of course wanted to win, but it was a bit of light relief in the middle of four day and one day cricket. But it quickly became a major form of the game. The way it has developed cricket is incredible. It’s revolutionised both one day and Test cricket.”

I asked Rob what he thought was the catalyst for the change in people’s perception of this short format of the game. “Financially, people soon started to realise that big money was being put into T20 cricket and with the big crowds it became a showcase and a platform for county players. It allowed specialist players to come through. I remember we started playing the same team that played four day cricket! It is funny looking back. No one believed it would become so big!”

Rob retired from cricket in 2005, following a management change at the club. “I was intending to play on for another year to help with transition to a new younger keeper. But a new management team came in and the new coach Brian Rose wanted to basically clear out the old guard and start refresh. It just made me feel like it was the right time to retire and try and forge a new career elsewhere.”

Rob took over 1,000 catches and dismissals in first class, List A and T20 cricket, not to mention just under 13,000 runs with the bat.

I asked Rob, among those 1,000 catches, and which he would rank at number one. “It has to be a catch I took to get out Shahid Afridi in the final at Lords against Leicestershire. He was a player that could take a game away from you in an instant. No matter what the score was, if he batted for 10 overs, he could destroy you. We’d played Leicestershire a couple of times leading up to that final and they were a very good one day side. But, they kind of relied on him. We felt if we could get him out, the rest of the team would fall apart and because he tried to blaze every ball, you felt there would always be a chance. Before he signed for them I always felt they were always a tight unit but with him in the team you sensed there could be a bit of complacency from others as they thought Afridi would always win them the game. Richard Johnson got him to top edge massively and the ball went right up in the air, a real steepler. People said to me afterwards that the crowd just went completely quiet, as if the whole game hung on this catch. I was back paddling, but the ball was so high, it was extremely difficult to judge. Sometimes as a keeper you can get those horribly wrong if you don’t judge it properly against clouds and stuff. As the ball came hurtling down I just thought this is going to drop behind me and I wasn’t getting back quick enough. In that split second though I must have relaxed and next thing it was in my gloves and we were all off celebrating! It was only the 5th over of the game, but in that moment, we felt like we’d won the game. It was my most famous catch by far. Thank god I caught it!”

Rob scored 10 centuries throughout his first-class career and it was a hundred against Worcestershire during a Somerset festival game which Rob’s ranked as his best. Each year, Somerset would host some of their county games at ‘out grounds’ as part of their annual festival. What happened in this game at Bath was an entertaining insight into county life during those old festival days.

“I was batting with Shane Lee, Brett’s brother, who came over to play for Somerset for a couple of years and we put on a record partnership of 268 or something like that. In those festival days, we would camp out in that town for a week and a half, and if I’m in honest they used to turn into a bit of a party. In this particular year Shane and I, had, had a big night out. We’d had a bit of a laugh in several bars and got in at a ridiculous hour of the morning - completely unprofessional. Shane was batting in the morning and I joined him at the crease 10 minutes before lunch. I walked out to the middle and I’ll be honest I could hardly see the ball! I remember saying to Shane that I was struggling big time but I somehow survived until lunch. After the break though, I lost any kind of inhibitions and just started to play like I’d never played before! Shane scored 160 and I got a hundred. I think it was just a case of being so relaxed that I attempted shots I’d never tried before! But, I wouldn’t recommend to anyone to play in that kind of condition! Truth be known all teams did it. Both sets of players would typically be out together. Nowadays it’s very, very different!”

Rob’s top score was a 144 in a county game against Kent. A score that came while Rob was going through a period of opening the batting.

“That was an interesting innings because Martin McCague was bowling at the time. I knew a bit about him from playing cricket in Perth but in this game, he’d lost it and was bowling flat ones; it just looked like he didn’t know when to release the ball. He got warned by the umpire, but he then bowled another bad delivery and was removed from the attack. So, they were a bowler down. I batted pretty much all day, scoring around 50 runs a session. I was on 144 with six overs of the day left and I had this focus that I wanted to bat all day. I thought it would be such a major achievement to do it. I ended up trying to hook Mark Ealham down to fine leg and got out. I was gutted! Hooking was a common way for me to get out. I used to try and hook everything! Against someone like Mark Ealham you couldn’t do it because he was such a clever bowler.”

I asked Rob if it was easy or difficult to open the batting as a wicket-keeper. “If all areas of the game are going well it’s actually quite good if you’re opening the batting. You’d either get a big score and then still have time to rest up before going out to field. Or, you’d be out early and get time to rest up before going out to field. When you’re batting at seven, it’s hard to completely rest up mentally. It’s difficult to relax if you lose a few early wickets; you’re on edge all day waiting to go out. And then when you do bat, you could bat through and you’re straight into keeping.”

Rob was a one club man, having played all his first-class career at Somerset. So, what made Somerset such a great club to play at? “I was brought up in Weston Super Mare and Somerset used to do festivals down there all the time. When Somerset came to town, as a kid it was a big thing as it was the only time you got to see county cricket. The whole town would come out and see them. As a result, Somerset became my club. My earliest memories were at Weston Super Mare and I always wanted to be part of it. I played in the last festival there which meant a lot. I played against Malcolm Marshall there which was amazing.”

For a county cricketer who didn’t represent his county on the international stage, to face someone of Marshall’s calibre was a big thing. “He was a brilliant bowler. He wasn’t rapid in that game, but he swung the ball over the place. I remember batting with Chris Tavare who was batting at the other end like an absolute god, while I couldn’t land a bat on it. Marshall had such control of the ball and could swing it so late. I remember speaking to Tav in between overs asked him how did he know which way the ball was going swing. He just said that when he got into his bowling action, you could get a glimpse of the ball and could see which way the shine was. I remember thinking I can’t even see that. It might have been a split second that he showed you a glimpse. The fact Tav could spot that, showed me that I was a world away from that top level to be able to see things like that.”

Malcolm Marshall was just one of several great players that Rob played with and against during his career.

“Graeme Hick was incredible at county level and I was very fortunate to play against the likes of Waqar and Wasim, Walsh, Ambrose, Warne, McGrath. It was an utter privilege to play against them.”

When talking through the great players he’d played against, Rob recalled a game in 1997 against the touring Australians – a game which saw a mutual respect emerge. “We played against Australia at Taunton in a three-day game. I was facing McGrath and I remember looking around and there was Ian Healey behind the stumps, and then a line of players in the slip and gully region, including both the Waugh’s, Warne, Langer and Ponting – it was an incredible sight. Greg Blewett was fielding under the helmet at short leg and he used to bowl some filthy medium pacers at times. He got hit for a couple of fours the over before, one of which was a streaky one by me! So, as I was getting set to face this ball from McGrath, he’s under the lid chuntering away me as McGrath was running in. Just as he was in his delivery stride, I walked away and went to confront Blewett to tell him to shut up. What I hadn’t realised was McGrath carried on and bowled the ball; Healey caught it and as I walked out of my crease to confront Blewett, he tried to throw down the stumps, but missed them. As nobody was there, the batsman at the other end called me through for a single. The whole thing turned into a farce and for the next three or four overs I was just abused by pretty much everyone on the pitch! It was constant. I played alright though, defended well and got through it. Then in between overs someone tapped me on the arse and just said ‘well done mate’ and from then on there was total silence in the field. It was like I’d got their respect. Things like that were brilliant to be part of. It’s a shame counties don’t really get these touring games anymore. Both players and supporters miss out. These days the international tours are all geared toward minimal cricket, play the international games and go. It’s a real shame.”

I asked Rob who the best bowler was he kept to and one man came out number one: Pakistan spinner, Mushtaq Ahmed.

“Andy Caddick was brilliant and a delight to keep to as he just shaped it away and got good bounce. Goodness knows how many catches I took off Caddy but Mushtaq was an absolute legend! We became good friends and roomed together when he was over at Somerset. He was a little maestro who massively improved me as a player, especially standing up to the stumps. You had to put so much focus on watching the ball. Sometimes you don’t do that properly but when you have someone who spun the ball that much you had to focus. He could bowl all day, which could exhaust me because of the focus and concentration. It could be so intense but totally worth it. Keeping to Mushy also helped my batting. I got a 50 against Shane Warne when we played Hampshire and I’m sure that was through all of the time keeping to Mushy and learning his tricks of the trade.”

Rob’s friendship with Mushtaq began in Australia when Rob was playing winter cricket in Perth and it spoke volumes for the kind of man Mushtaq is. “I was in Australia when I heard Somerset had signed him and he was out in Perth touring with Pakistan. I went to see him at the WACA, during a Test match and just introduced myself as the Somerset wicket-keeper, even though I was playing in the 2s at the time. I asked him if he minded me video him in the nets as I’d be his wicket-keeper in England and it’d good to prepare myself for the following summer. He was great. In the middle of an international game, he took me over to the nets and let me video him. I must have watched those videos over and over but he was still impossible to pick at times!!”

It wasn’t just Mushy, Andrew Caddick and Marcus Trescothick that he held in a high regard at Taunton however, there were many others. “Mark Lathwell was an absolute genius at times. It was such a shame he didn’t continue and enjoy county cricket. I don’t think it was for him after a while. Keith Dutch, Keith Parsons, Michael Burns and Ian Blackwell also performed so well for us; Richard Johnson was an outstanding bowler who was high class when he got it right and Jamie Cox was a genius.”

Rob doesn’t use the word ‘genius’ lightly when he talks about Cox’s captaincy. “He was very, very clever. He was always relaxed and measured and read a game very, very well. He’d make the right tactical fielding decisions and brought a completely new dimension to our side. When he came in it was difficult for him in that he wasn’t a big name overseas player; he wasn’t an Australian legend. But, as soon as he came over he demanded huge respect and was just a lovely guy. You could have beers and fun with him but you knew the line and everyone had the utmost respect for him. You always knew where you stood.”

Rob is now enjoying life as a school teacher. “As soon as I retired I stepped into teaching. During one of my years in Perth I did some work in a school and helped with a bit of coaching and really enjoyed it. I knew stock broking wasn’t the career I wanted long term, so when I finished playing I wanted to try and get into teaching. I wrote to all the independent schools in the area as I didn’t have any formal teaching qualifications, which were necessary to teach in the state system - there were quite a lot of independent schools at the time in Taunton. I ended up getting taken on by a school and was there for ten years and I’ve now just moved into the state system at a sixth form college in Taunton. It’s really enjoyable.”

Education’s gain is most definitely cricket’s loss. But batsmen beware in the west country as Rob still dons the whites at Weston Super Mare Cricket Club and the catches are still sticking!

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