Cricket interview

Paul Nixon, former England, Leics, Kent wicket-keeper

In recent month’s we have spoken to some of the country’s leading wicket-keepers of the last 25 years and this month we add another to our growing list, former England, Leicestershire and Kent keeper Paul Nixon. What a golden generation we’ve had over the last 25 years.

Paul’s energy and enthusiasm behind the stumps was always second to none and it was of course his contributions, with the gloves, the bat and in the changing rooms which made him a hero among England fans back in 2007, when following England’s disastrous 5-0 Ashes defeat, Paul (or Nico as he’s affectionately known), along with other one-day specialists, arrived down under and transformed our performances to give us long suffering England fans something to cherish on that horrible tour!

“The guys had lost their way a little bit after being heavily beaten by Australia and it needed us one-day guys who were arriving to be upbeat and positive and try to rally the troops; which we were able to do.”

We’ll come on to that series later. Let’s talk Nico’s journey through to international selection.

Before falling in love with wicket-keeping, Nico was a young ‘all-rounder’ who idolised the likes of Ian Botham, Viv Richards and David Gower. “I was around 10 or 11 when I tried wicket-keeping and I loved it. The feeling of being in the game every ball, was for me!”

In Paul’s teens, his performances behind the stumps took off. He played representative cricket for the north of England and Cumbria Schools – a period that he looks back at with a great deal of fondness. “Those days were great fun. I always felt I was progressing on my journey.”

His performances for the north of England and Cumbria Schools, saw him picked up by the Lords Ground staff and it was this period at the Home of Cricket that saw the first-class counties begin to circle. “I went to Middlesex for a few weeks, but didn’t get offered a contract, but then Leicestershire came in. I was fortunate that they needed a wicket-keeper so I took the opportunity to go up there and took it with both hands.”

Nico made his debut for Leicestershire in 1989 against Warwickshire at one of the county’s out grounds in Hinckley. “I remember we were playing on a very green wicket, but fortunately for me I had a good debut! I managed to get six dismissals, which I enjoyed and thankfully I was able to avoid having to face Allan Donald bowling what I’d call, legalised stoning at 92mph!”

What followed was arguably one of the most successful periods of Leicestershire’s history.

In 1992, the Foxes reached a Lords final. Wins against Norfolk, Derbyshire, Durham and Essex saw the Foxes head to Lords to take on Allan Lamb and his Northamptonshire side. “At the time that was the biggest game of my life. Lords was packed out but sadly we didn’t get enough runs. If I’m honest, at times we batted quite safely and although eventually we got up to a competitive total, our bowlers didn’t have a good day. Alan Fordham put us to the sword. I remember he had an aggressive partnership with Nigel Felton and we were always chasing the game after that and they romped home. It was disappointing not to come away with silverware and a winner’s medal, but it was a great experience and I loved every minute of it. Being in the middle with a packed crowd just felt right. It was the kind of occasion you wanted to play in every day.”

Thankfully, Nico and his team mates didn’t have too long to wait to get a winner’s medal - a medal which every county cricketer craves: A County Championship winners medal. 1996 saw the Foxes win only the second County Championship of their history, a feat were able to repeat two years later. And if it wasn’t for a crazy summer of rain in 1997, it could very easily of been three successive county titles – an extraordinary feat for a club the size of Leicestershire.

“We lost over 1,000 overs to rain in 1997, if we hadn’t of done so, I honestly believe we’d have won three out of three.”

I asked Paul what made that team so successful. “Everyone in that team in 96 and 98 had something to prove. Several us had played together in the 2nds so we all knew each other’s games. Alan Mullally and David Millns bowled beautifully. With Gordon Parsons, Vince Wells and Adrian Pearson we had great balance to our side. In 1996, we batted only once on ten occasions, that’s phenomenal and I don’t think will ever be repeated.”

But, it was not just in four-day cricket that Leicestershire were dominating; they were playing great cricket with the white ball and in 1998 they had another Lords final - this time in the old Benson & Hedges Cup. Sadly, the game ended with a runners-up medal for Paul as Essex took the trophy home to Chelmsford. “That final was a damp squib really. Lords was always renowned at the end of the season as a bit of a win the toss, win the game ground. It rained and rained. We waited around for ages and when we eventually did get out there, it was damp under the covers, it was wet and sticky. Essex bowled well to be fair and took some amazing catches, but we got bowled out for peanuts. It just didn’t happen for us. We came back the next day on the reserve day, the weather had brightened up and they put us to the sword with the bat. We were well beaten and again very disappointing.”

But, what a period it had been for Nico, two county championships and two Lords finals, more than I’m sure he could have dreamed of when he first put pen to paper at Grace Road.

With a benefit year looming, Paul was looking forward to building on this success, with a promising group of youngsters emerging. But, sadly for Nico the county had other ideas and he had to make a move away from Leicestershire. “I wanted an extension to my contract for just another year. I was next in line for my benefit year but for some reason Jack Birkenshaw didn’t want to offer me that. I’d played so many games in succession, we were winning things so it was very disappointing.”

Sussex came close to signing Paul, but it was a game against Kent which was the catalyst for Paul’s career taking a new direction to the South East of the country. “We were playing a game against Kent, when Matthew Fleming said to me that Steve Marsh was looking to retire and they were wanted a vibrant keeper; a keeper they wanted to play for England and that, that keeper was me. They ended up offering me a contract I couldn’t refuse. Kent was a big club, who had just finished second in three competitions and were on the cusp of something special. They looked after me well and it was just fantastic to know someone was desperate for me to go there. Chris Adams did want me to come down to Sussex with him and Peter Moores; they had offered more money, but I’d already verbally given my commitment to Kent and I’m a man of my word and wanted to honour that. But I was close to going to Sussex. It just wasn’t the right timing.”

What followed was a debut season that ended with a call up for England’s winter tour to Pakistan and Sri Lanka. “We won the Sunday League which was fantastic and in those two seasons at Kent I was fortunate to play alongside the likes of Steve Waugh, Andrew Symonds and Rahul Dravid – we had some serious players. It was great!”

Paul also scored his career highest score while at Kent, a memorable 173 not out against guess who, Leicestershire! “You always want do well against your home club!”

But his delight with an England call up was immeasurable. “I was delighted. I always knew it was going to be tough to get a game because Alec Stewart was an England legend and he was always going to play. But, it was a case of making myself stay fit, be positive in the unit and make sure I gave as much as I could for the team. I just did everything I could to impress.”

And in impress he did. In one of the warm up games he scored an excellent 47 not out. “I was playing nicely when Nasser decided to declare out of the blue! It would have been nice to get a 70 or 80, but it wasn’t to be.”

Sadly, his pre-tour prediction was right and he wasn’t able to break into the Test side.

I asked Paul how frustrating was it as a wicket-keeper in that era when you knew international chances would be limited, when there is an England legend wearing the shirt and gloves. “Life is about timing at the end of the day. Alec was churning out the runs and his keeping got better and better the more he kept. Jack Russell could and should have played more, so as a keeper it is tough as there is only one place. So, yes there is frustration but ultimately you can only control what you can control and you just have to keep churning out the runs and try and force them to pick you. I tried to make sure that if anything ever happened to Stewie, I was there and ready.”

After two years at Kent, Paul made a return to Grace Road, following the emergence of Geraint Jones at Kent. “I was on a good wage at Kent and Geraint was doing really well in the second team. He was scoring a lot of runs and keeping wicket well. But, I was a senior pro, who although I was playing well, I was on a six-figure salary and it made good business sense for the club for me to move on, because Geraint Jones was developing well and we were doing the same job. He was the younger man so my contract wasn’t renewed. Fortunately, an opportunity came up back at Leicestershire so it was a perfect fit.”

I asked Paul, if things had changed much upon his return and how easy was it to fit back in to the dressing room. “I was lucky that I was able to fit straight back in, which was great. There were a lot of different names, but I was back home.”

His return to Leicestershire coincided with the rise of domestic T20 cricket. For many counties, this new format of the game was a chance to swing the bat and have some fun, but for Paul and his team mates, it was a serious competition and one they felt they could win. “I remember in that first season we had the perfect start because we had a week off in the week leading up to the first game. So, we practised and practised to get some momentum, we played several practice games in the middle. It was fun and we struck upon a few things we felt would help us in games. It was fantastic because we could work on our strategies. I also remember we had a brilliant brain storming session during that week which really proved its worth.”

This preparation certainly paid off as the Foxes went all the way through to the first four ‘Finals Day’ of the competition, winning it in 2004 and 2006. “We should have won that first year, but we had a few players that didn’t stick to the game plan, which we worked on and we were on fire after that. We had a fantastic record. We should have won in 2005 which would have been three in a row but we got beaten by Somerset. We had an easy score to chase, but lost a lot of wickets together and fell a few runs short. I loved T20 finals days as it was the nearest thing you can get to playing for England. It maybe wasn’t the pressure of an international game, but the atmosphere would be as incredible as an international fixture. It was the stage you wanted to play on. A great buzz.”

I asked Paul, if he ever felt at that time, that T20 cricket would grow to the size it is today. “We honestly did. Because it was so accessible for people at weekends and in the evenings and it was just fun to play and watch.”

I asked Paul where he stood in terms of franchise cricket and the proposed new league set to launch in 2020. “It’s what is needed. It cannot just be about the counties. It’s about getting youngsters into cricket and at games. And we need to make sure as many of these games as possible get shown on terrestrial television so the masses can see it. It’s crucial.”

Paul’s form in T20 and domestic 50 over cricket saw his belated recall to the England scene in 2006 as wicket-keeper for England in the Commonwealth Bank one day series against Australia and New Zealand.

“If I am honest I probably had given up thinking about playing for England. Of course, you always dream but realistically, I was 36 and I had given up, so it was a surprise. To be fair when I played against Yorkshire at the end of the summer Michael Vaughan had told me to keep cricket fit, as you never know what might happen. I was in good form but it was a huge surprise when I received the call from David Graveney on Christmas Eve to say that I would be flying out to Australia to be the number one keeper for the ODI series.”

An early Christmas present I’m sure Paul will never forget.

Paul flew out after the Test team had been hammered 5-0. “The boys were struggling and Freddie wasn’t in a great place. They needed characters. They needed a lift. It’s very easy when things aren’t going your way to dwell on the negatives, so the one-day lads just came out and tried to be positive. It was crucial.”

Paul made his ODI debut against Australia at the MCG. Despite being dismissed for a duck (we’ll gloss over that!), he did catch the Australian’s two danger players, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden. “It was magical. My Dad was present as he was already over there following England throughout the winter, he as always does. Being in the twilight of my career, I just wanted to go out, wear the three lions and enjoy it. There was nobody prouder that day.”

England won the series, beating Australia in a best of three match final. The abiding memory of that final was a photo of Paul celebrating with the fans in Sydney. It was an iconic photo.

“To win that series, having lost the Test series the way we did was fantastic. There was so much happiness in that dressing room after that game.”

I asked Paul what he felt was the turning point in fortunes for the squad. “To be honest people just stood up at the right times. Paul Collingwood had a great series throughout, but Ed Joyce scored a brilliant century in Sydney and people started to deliver match winning performances. Our assistant coach Matthew Maynard played his part by insisting that we had a big celebration after every win. It all just worked well.”

Following that fantastic series win, England headed over to the Caribbean for the ICC World Cup. Individually, Paul had an excellent tournament. 9 dismissals and nearly 200 runs win the bat at an average just shy of 40. But once again, collectively, England failed to live up to their potential in a World Cup tournament.

“I’d learnt in Australia that I didn’t get the runs that I should have. When I went out to bat, we were generally always 20/30/40 runs behind, so I too often tried to run before I could walk. In the World Cup, I gave myself more time to get myself in, even if it was just a few balls. It worked well for me. We desperately wanted to keep that momentum from Australia going, but we just didn’t score enough runs at the top of the order.”

England exited the competition at the Super Eights stage. Prior to England’s final dead rubber game against the West Indies, coach Duncan Fletcher announced that he was standing down as England coach. Fletcher had done a huge amount for English cricket and had also done a huge amount for Paul. His departure sadly signalled an end to Nico’s blossoming England career.

“Duncan decided to hang his boots up and then Peter Moores came in. He decided to go with Matt Prior, who was a developing wicket-keeper, but a player who was a world class batsman. If Duncan had stayed on as coach I honestly think I’d have made my Test debut that summer. It was disappointing have played well and been so fit – I was the fittest all round cricketer in the side. I was loving every minute of playing for England and living the dream, but those memories and experiences can never be taken away.”

England’s loss was Leicestershire’s gain and the following year the Foxes appointed Paul as first X1 captain.

“I’d always thought of myself as a leader anyway - you always want your senior players to be leaders – but it was a natural transition for me. It wasn’t an easy period though. A lot of senior players had left the club and the management wanted to go down the line of youngsters, as there were financial rewards for doing so, for me it was frustrating because we weren’t playing the best players we could have played. We were playing youngsters to balance the books. The positive was it gave these youngsters opportunities, but you don’t want youngsters getting used to losing. It was frustrating.”

You can understand Paul’s frustration when you think of the players that moved on from Leicestershire: Darren Stevens, James Taylor, Harry Gurney, Stuart Broad, Luke Wright, Alan Mullally.

While the England dream had died, there was to be a swan song of overseas cricket for Paul when he got picked to play in the Indian Cricket League (ICL), a T20 competition that was a pre-cursor to the IPL. The league eventually folded because of a lack of support from the BCCI and the ICC. Paul played two seasons for Delhi Giants and joined fellow England cricketers Vikram Solanki and Darren Maddy in the tournament.

“The ICL was a great competition. Several young Indian cricketers started out playing in the ICL before going on to pick up big contracts in the IPL. That competition awoke officials in India to the fact that the world’s best coaches and players from around the world would come to play domestic cricket in India and help mentor and develop their youngsters and make them much more rounded cricketers.”

Paul eventually called time on his career in 2011. “My body was getting sore and tired so I knew it was the right time.”

Paul’s final game for the Foxes was against Warwickshire in the final of that year’s T20 competition. A total of 166 was overcome by Leicestershire via Duckworth Lewis and Paul was held aloft by his team mates. “It was very emotional. You try not to immerse yourself in the emotions too much. You just try and get through your routines. I always wanted to go out on a high and I was fortunate to do that. It was funny because you were never sure when your last game would be. My last game at Grace Road was against Kent in the quarter finals, that would have been my last game if we’d lost, but we achieved an amazing run chase against my old team. But to win in the final with the first ever super over was special. There were a few sore heads for a few days after that final!”

Paul scored just under 24,000 runs throughout his career and took exactly 1,600 catches and stumpings – a truly remarkable record.

With all those dismissals, I had to ask which was his favourite. “It was a catch off Alan Mullally to get Robin Smith out. I had to go back and away and it was an enjoyable catch. Others up there were getting Kieron Pollard out just before by 42nd birthday at 10pm at night! I once stumped Alec Stewart at the Oval – it’s not easy to get a stumping at the Oval and then of course my first international stumping off Monty Panesar. Great memories.”

Paul kept to some great bowlers, so who were up there as the best? “Muhammad Asif was an incredible bowler. Alan Mullally was a high class away swing bowler to right handers. Martin Saggers at Kent another high class away swing bowler during my time at Kent. And then of course there was Mike Kasprowicz and Winston Benjamin.”

Aside from these bowlers, Paul played alongside some of the world’s best batsmen, Sehwag, Cronje, Dravid and Waugh - not a bad list!

When you add the players, he’s played against: Lara, Ponting, Kallis, Tendulkar, Richards it’s clear that here’s a man who can look back at a career full of wonderful memories.

But I had to ask Nico about sledging, especially given his reputation for enjoying a few chosen words with opposition batsmen! “For me it was about making batsmen forget about their mental routines. I admit the last game I played I was probably a little bit over the top, but it was something that got me into the game, which I needed. It was a powerful thing for me but I always knew the line not to cross, that was absolutely crucial to me.”

Paul is still involved in cricket, he often appears on Sky Sports, he has a regular column in the Cricket Paper, is involved with the PCA and coaches Jamaica in the Caribbean Premier League. Add to this several after dinner speaking engagements and working for a company called World of Payments, a PayPal type system of the gaming world and Paul is incredibly busy.

He may have only pulled on the three lions jersey a few times, but for England fans and especially those who were on that 06/07 Australia tour, he’s a former player who is held in the highest, highest regard.

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