Cricket interview

Nick Knight, Former England Batsman and Sky Sports Presenter

This month we are pleased to be speaking to a former England opener who scored over 3,500 one-day international runs - at an average of over 40, a batsman who played in 17 Test matches and who is now excelling as a presenter on Sky Sports. It is of course the man who faced the 100 mph ball, Nick Knight.

Over the last 2 years I’ve interviewed many former players but from speaking to Nick one thing is abundantly clear, no one matches his passion for cricket!

“I am just absolutely absorbed by all things cricket!” he told me. “I fell in love with the game at such an early age. I remember at school, cricket was such a big part of my sporting education. I was fascinated by all aspects of the game and it’s a fascination that continues to this day.”

We spoke to Nick on his return from New Zealand where he had been commentating for the under 19 World Cup. And so, it seemed the right place to start: his career at Sky Sports. Was it where he saw his career heading once his playing days came to an end?

“It was. I did quite a bit of commentating while I was still playing and I got very interested in it. When you’re as passionate about cricket as I am, having a job where I can talk about it and listen to others talk about it, is a dream. To be honest, I don’t really see it as a job. I just see it as an extension of my playing career and I love it.”

Such has been Nick’s rapid rise in the media, he now fronts many of Sky’s cricket productions. “I’m really enjoying the presenting, it’s different to being a guest or a pundit and I really, really like that.”

As fans we get used to switching on our TV sets and seeing the polished productions, but I was interested in finding out just how much work and preparation goes on in the lead up to big matches and series. “A lot. It’s funny when you speak with players who don’t do a lot of media work and come on to do a day with Sky, it’s amazing how many of them afterwards tell me that they didn’t realise how much was involved. But why should they? Take things like the man of the match interviews, pitch reports or interviews at the toss, it’s amazing how much preparation goes in for those few minutes. It’s important that you’re asking the right questions, you understand and know the person you’re going to be talking to, all to get the moment right. Of course, you don’t always get it right and you can’t always control what goes on, but as long as you’ve prepared properly that’s all you can do.”

And what about those dreaded rain breaks that can hit at any time in an English summer? “I love the rain breaks! They give you an opportunity to do an in-depth analysis into a topic that you would normally only get a couple of minutes for. So, when it rains and you have some really good guests, which we always have, I love, as a presenter, to have the opportunity to really get to the bottom of a problem. Don’t get me wrong you don’t want to do it all the time, it would get dull, but there are times when those breaks are great for us.”

Cricket commentating has evolved hugely in recent years, particularly with the advent of T20 cricket. Commentary teams can be speaking to different audiences for the various formats of the game and also in different environments from the studio in Test match cricket, to the now famous T20 ‘pod’. “I love the pod! And I love T20. It’s great being so close to the boundary edge and not being behind a glass screen. You can really feel the atmosphere and it's great fun! I played the first year of T20 cricket in England and loved it. I wish I could be involved now, it definitely suited the way I played!”

Nick’s playing career is one he can be incredibly proud of. He was one of the most consistent opening batsmen England has ever had in limited overs cricket, and while he only played 17 Test matches, he can count himself unlucky that he played in an era when England had established Test openers such as Michael Atherton, Alec Stewart and Mark Butcher, with whom he was competing for a place.

“It’s actually quite funny that Butch and I played a lot of cricket for England at the same but never in the same team! He played Tests and I played the ODI’s and while I played 17 Tests, he incredibly never played a one day international. But he was a better Test match opener than I was, there was no doubt about that and the selectors were right to go with him over me at that time. That said, I do feel when I look back at my Test career, that I could have done a good job batting at number 6. I was better in my first-class career - at that time - batting at 5 or 6.”

We’ll come on to Nick’s international career later, but I was keen to learn how Nick’s love for the game began.

“When I was young I was inspired by the likes of David Gower, Ian Botham, Graham Gooch, Allan Lamb and Robin Smith. Cricket was always a massive part of my life. I think it’s fair to say that by the time I was 6 or 7 I was completely obsessed by the game.”

And it wasn’t long before people realised this cricket obsessed youngster had some serious talent. “I was at a public school in Essex where Gordon Barker - who is well known in Essex cricketing circles - was the school professional; so, I was incredibly lucky that I was able to work every day I chose with Gordon, who knew everything about the game. To have that expertise enhanced my game in those formative years. To get that kind of guidance at 13 or 14 I was extremely lucky.”

Nick was quickly part of the Essex youth set up, and he excelled in their under 15, 16’s and 19s. “I know I keep saying the word ‘lucky’ but it was true. I knew that I was lucky to get the opportunities I did and I’m very thankful to Gordon for a lot of those. Gordon clearly had an influence at Essex, so I can well imagine he would have said to Essex that I was a lad they should take a look at. I always had sympathy with lots of talented youngsters who didn’t make it because they didn’t have that lucky moment to be seen at the right time, at the right place, by the right coach. I was lucky and I’m happy to admit that. Of course, I had to be good enough but there’s no question that I was lucky to be given the opportunities that I was.”

Nick was offered a professional contract by Essex at 18 years of age, a contract he was excited to sign. But he did so with a degree of maturity. “I wanted to get a university degree so I signed a summer contract, which allowed me to go to university and when I finished my studies in June I could then play for Essex. At that time cricket wasn’t what it is now financially and I felt it was important to always have a plan b.”

Nick’s early success as cricketer saw him named as the Daily Telegraph’s young cricketer of the year in 1989. It was an award that gave the young Essex opener a huge amount of confidence. “Awards like that gave me confidence and a boost that I was doing ok. But when I look back I was proud that I never tried to get ahead of myself. I also played for England under 19s at the time, but I viewed all of those accolades as a good starting point for my career rather than think I’d made it and then become complacent and take things forgranted.”

Nick spent four years at Essex and using that word ‘lucky’ he recounts the influence of two Essex stalwarts, Keith Fletcher and Graham Gooch in his early development, another example of the opportunities that were presented to the young batsman. “Keith Fletcher was a great player and when I started playing in Essex’s 2nd XI Keith was still playing and I had the opportunity to travel a lot with him to games as he lived not far from me. That was great for me as we’d talk cricket all the time and I was just soaking everything up - I loved all that. Then having the opportunity to open the batting with Graham Gooch was fantastic. Not many players can say they did that. He was one of my heroes growing up and it was a fantastic feeling to walk out at Chelmsford to open the batting with him. He was such an amazing player and when you’re standing 22 yards away from someone like him, you learn and learn very quickly. It was a great way to develop my game. Also, at the time, Essex had a terrific side. Probably the best side in the country at the time. It was a squad of players where the majority of them were reaching their peak together. And we were led by Graham Gooch, who at the time was playing the best cricket of his career, so to be around that environment as a youngster I again was very fortunate.”

The strength of that squad had its drawbacks however. Because of its strength, nailing down a regular start spot was difficult and in 1994 Nick made the switch to Warwickshire in search of regular 1st XI cricket. “Essex had such a good side that I didn’t always play. As well as Gooch, we had the likes of Nasser Hussain, Paul Prichard, John Stephenson and Mark Waugh was our overseas player. There was a stable top six. I knew that I wasn’t always going to be a regular at that time. There was two or three of us competing for that openers birth. Warwickshire came in for me. I’d made a big hundred against them earlier that summer and they were keen to snap me up. It was a big decision to go from a big club to another big club who played at a Test match ground. Warwickshire at the time were winning a lot of titles under the captaincy of Dermot Reeve, who was a quite brilliant captain. But it was a decision that I had no regrets over. I'll always have a huge gratitude for what Essex did for me.”

Nick spent 10 plus years at Edgbaston and it was a period of successes and transitions which culminated in a two-year spell as captain which saw him lead the county to another county championship – more on that success later.

“We had a tremendous squad of players when I first joined. I remember walking into a dressing room which had won 3 trophies the previous year. We then won two trophies in my first year - it was just an incredible feeling. We would take to the field knowing that any one player could do something special on any given day. We had Allan Donald and Brian Lara in those early years and Dermot Reeve was tactically the best captain I played under. It was great times.”

Nick’s form for Warwickshire brought international recognition in 1995 when he was called up to make his Test debut against the West Indies. If you want to test your abilities at the highest level I guess opening the batting against Ambrose and Walsh is one quick way to see if you’re good enough!

“I was petrified! But it was a dream come true. I’d been on a coupe of A tours so I thought I could be getting close. However, I was always realistic that other players were around. There were a number of injuries at the time so it was slowly getting around to the point where I was thinking I might be next in line and I was playing well. I got the call and the West Indies had a brilliant attack with the likes of Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose, Ian Bishop and Kenny Benjamin. I opened the batting with Michael Atherton and just being in that environment was a real thrill, but incredibly nerve racking. I didn’t eat much the night before, or at breakfast, but we fielded first which I think was good as I could settle into the game.”

‘Luck’ again became evident as Nick was out first ball, caught at short leg, off of the bowling of Ambrose, but thankfully it was a no ball. “I managed to bat for an hour and a half until I got out to a slower ball from Courtney Walsh. A little ironic given I’d worked so hard against all that pace to get out to a slower ball! But it was a terrific experience and a dream come true. I scored 50 in the next Test, which was a real moment for me. I think whenever you get your first milestone you start to believe. I think that was the point that I thought that I could do this international cricket.”

12 months later and Nick enjoyed arguably his best summer in international cricket. He scored two one day international hundreds against Pakistan, which was followed by his first Test century. “I was in the form of my life. My game just felt in good order. I was so confident in my batting that year I just had a fearless attitude. I was very technical early on in my career, but the more I played the more freer I became, in my mind and attitude.”

That winter England travelled to Zimbabwe. Think David Lloyd and his ‘we murdered them’ comments. This was the Test match that England were chasing a win and fell just short. Nick was man of the match thanks to his outstanding 96. “It was a run chase we got close to, but we should have won the game. My view is slightly different to others in that I should have won that game for my country.”

England visited New Zealand after that Zimbabwe tour and it was there that Nick, using his words ‘lost his way a bit’. “I was thinking too much about my game in New Zealand. Technically I was all over the shop and I just lost my way a little bit in that series. I then got a badly broken finger, which put me out of cricket for 5 or 6 months.”

It was during this period that Mark Butcher emerged in Test match cricket and Nick found opportunities to win his place back, difficult to come by. “I don’t know whether the selectors would have stuck by me for the Ashes series that summer but injury made the decision easy for them. Before that injury I played 8 or 9 Tests in a row and it was a great feeling to be part of the side. But, I lost my way in Test cricket for a couple of years after that injury. I’d get picked then dropped, picked then dropped. It was fair enough if I’m honest. I wasn’t where I needed to be technically to open the batting in Test match cricket.”

Nick’s journey in one day international cricket however was a different story. His approach to the game suited the shorter format and he became a mainstay at the top of the order through until his retirement in 2003, notching up exactly 100 one day international appearances. But as I spoke to Nick about his one day achievements he was honest about areas he could have done better, despite an average in excess of 40.

“When I came into the one day set-up it was a great time to be involved. New powerplay regulations had been introduced encouraging players to give the ball a trash; they wanted teams to make flying starts and that suited my game. I’d done it for Warwickshire and felt I revelled in it. Alec Stewart and I were both keen to have as much fun as possible. In my first 20 games I got a lot of runs and it seemed to be a format that suited me. But the game changed in terms of our approach. I played 100 games and scored 5 hundreds, yet I got past 50 on thirty occasions. I began viewing myself as a main player and the approach changed to if I got us off to a good start, it was important that I then saw us through to the end. I think I took that the wrong way and I wasn’t quite as imposing once I reached 50 as I was at the start of the innings because I was conscious about preserving my wicket. The fact I only converted 5 of my starts into hundreds highlighted to me that I was getting obsessed about being there at the end. In hindsight I should have just carried on in my attacking vein. It was what brought me my initial success. But overall I look back on my ODI career with great fondness. It was great going down the wicket to the likes of Ambrose in Barbados and scoring a century; to take on Allan Donald and Brett Lee; to reverse sweep Shane Warne in Sydney and get a hundred. Those audacious things brought some great memories I’ll never forget.”

Nick’s final appearances for England came in the 2003 World Cup in South Africa and one of those appearances went down in history as he became the first batsman to officially have a ball bowled to him at over 100mph.

“I just remember opening the batting with Marcus (Trescothick) who looked comfortable sitting on his bat at the other end. I think he was happy to take on Wasim bowling at 85 mph!”

I asked Nick to talk through that experience as Shoiab Akhtar was getting faster and faster with each delivery. “It was definitely a quick spell. I remember thinking I had to go backwards in my crease – there was no way I was going forwards – and to make sure I had my off stump covered. But it was almost like a game within a game. I’m not sure he was too bothered about getting me out and his focus was more on reaching 100mph. In that period, they had a speedo which showed the mph bowled. He was looking at it after every ball, and the faster the ball the more the crowd were cheering. His run up was getting longer and longer with each delivery. The ball before I remember I was late on to it and it hit the top of my bat and went over the keeper for six. I think that was the moment I realised just how quickly he was bowling. The actual 100mph ball I managed to ride it down to square leg, but I couldn’t get Michael Vaughan to take the single! Shoiab is a good friend and he actually joked with me before the game that he was going to bowl quickly at me and he was a damn difficult bowler to face a bit like Wasim. It was always difficult to pick up the ball out of their hands.”

Rather him than me. I asked Nick could he tell the difference between the pace of that spell to others he’d faced who bowled in the early to mid 90s. People say there’s a big difference between 85mph and 90mph but was there a noticeable difference in pace between 90mph-100mph?

“To be honest, you’re just atuned to playing fast bowling. You’re not thinking about hitting the bowler over his head for 6 you just have to figure out how to get through that spell. If there was no speedo in South Africa would I say that ball was the fastest I’d faced? I’m not sure. Brett Lee has bowled some incredibly quick spells. And sometimes if you’re a batsman out of nick you think a ball is quicker than what it is and if you’re in nick you think it’s slower than what it is. I’d just say that 90mph+ is pretty quick bowling!”

Nick retired from international cricket straight after that World Cup in 2003 (and the winter tour to Australia where he had a fabulous series). “I knew the time was right. Many people said I retired too early and I could have carried on playing international cricket. I’d had a really good tour of Australia but I was just mentally shot, I knew I was done. I’d actually said to my family before I went to Australia that winter, that, that was going to be my last tour. I wasn’t one of the most gifted players so it took a lot out of me preparing for games and series, mentally. I had come to the end. So, I put everything into that last tour and as I walked off at Port Elizabeth when we lost that game against Australia that we should have won, I lifted my bat up and no one knew apart from me and my family that that would be the last time I would play. I just knew myself. I was also of the opinion that I wanted to go out when I was at a high with my batting.”

As Nick reflected on his international career I posed two further questions, did he think central contracts would have made a difference to his international career and how frustrating was it in that period that the ODI side wasn’t more successful, given the players they had at their disposal?

“I think we’d have loved to have been on central contracts because really we were just a disparate bunch of county cricketers coming together to play for England. On any given Sunday we’d listen to the radio to find out if we’d been selected to play for England on the Thursday. There was the core group of players that would play regularly, Atherton, Stewart, Thorpe, Hussain, Gough, but there were 3 or 4 of us that were always in a revolving door and that was a hard place to be at times. Central contracts would most definitely have helped that, but I’d never blame the system then. That was the system we were in and it was up to us to make the most of it. In terms of the one day side it was incredibly disappointing. When I look back at that dressing room we had players like Hick, Stewart and Gough. We had everything we needed. We’d head to tournaments and people would look at that England side. But we didn’t know how to win games, and that’s what cost us. We changed the team too often and there wasn’t enough continuity with the group of players we had. And because of that we were fearful as a group and not fearless. We’d think 250 was a good working score rather aim for 275. We became conservative and that’s what crept into my game after my first 20 or so games. As a group we didn’t have the right approach. However, if we’re honest its only really been the last couple of years that any of our ODI teams have got the approach right and you can see the dramatic difference in the results. There is no question in my mind that we had the players, we just weren’t able to beat the big sides often enough when it came to tournaments.”

With Nick’s international career at its end his county Warwickshire, who had by then gone through a period of transition after their mid 90s successes, appointed Nick as first team captain. “It was a great honour, but I’ll be honest, I wasn’t keen on accepting it. I just didn’t feel it was something that I would be good at. As a player, I was always a bit selfish and quite obsessed with my own game. It’s very different being a captain. But as I’d finished my international career I thought if I was ever going to give captaincy a go, now was the time. So, I took it on. I told the club I’d do it for two years. I didn’t want to do it any longer than that, and I’d give it my all but they’d have to let me do it my way. I wanted my own team and I had some very strong views on how I wanted to do things and the club were terrific and said yes to everything and it worked out. I had a good core of senior players around me such as Dougie Brown and Ashley Giles and I had some quality youngsters emerging including Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott. Players who could push the squad on.”

It certainly did work out as The Bears once again won the County Championship. Nick’s retirement from cricket followed not long after and in 2006 he put his bat back in the case for final time. “Similar to international cricket I could have carried on, but I had achieved everything I wanted to achieve and the thought of going back to the nets, fielding practice, preparing for games, just didn’t appeal to me anymore.”

And so Nick headed off into the world of media and cricket’s loss was Sky Sports’ gain.

I had to ask Nick who was the toughest bowler he faced, as during the course of our interview he’d named so many great bowlers. “Only one name for me. Wasim Akram. He was so skilful with both the new and old ball. He had such a difficult action to face, he had a quick arm, and he always made me feel quite uncomfortable. It was quite ironic that I actually had quite a lot of success against him, but I always found it a really great challenge facing him. So, to have success against someone who I found difficult to face gives me a great deal of satisfaction.”

And what about the best player he played with? “There were so many good players that its difficult to name one but what I would say is I always had a huge regard for those players that played regularly in that Test side. Atherton, Stewart, Hussain, Thorpe, Gough. I always had huge admiration for those guys because they were doing something that I wasn’t able to do. To keep a place in that side and score runs and take wickets in Test Match cricket against those oppositions. I hold them in high esteem for that, and they just achieved more than I did because they were better than me.”

Nick already listed Dermot as his best captain but what were his reflections on the other captains he played under? “They were all so different. Dermot really was outstanding in terms of game awareness and tactics. Nasser was a very, very good captain for England. I thought he was always very honest with the players and he made the dressing room a more honest place to be. If someone hadn’t done well it wasn’t someone else’s fault. The environment set by him and Duncan Fletcher was a good one. I always had a huge amount of respect for Michael Atherton. His great strength as a leader was that you wanted to follow him. He wasn’t someone who would stand up in front of the team and shout at them but you just watched him quietly go about his business and think I want to do that.”

I closed our conversation by asking Nick about his thoughts on the current England sides in Test and limited overs cricket. “The ODI side is a special team of players. I think they could become one of the finest sides to have ever played one day cricket. I said publicly two years ago that this was the best ODI side that I’d seen and they have come on considerably since then under the leadership of Eoin Morgan. They have a little bit of work to do on some of their smartness in certain situations but I’d be massively surprised if they are not one of the favourites for the World Cup next year. I think Joe Root is the right man to captain the Test side. I think he will become a terrific captain. They had a tough Ashes tour but they have some special players. The interesting challenge for this side will be the transition of the bowling attack over the coming few years after Anderson and Broad. They need to find an attack that can stay fit and strong. That will be key. If they can maintain a 5/6 man attack which is strong and ready to play they will have a real chance.”

Nick’s playing career brought many great memories for supporters and it terrific that because of his excellent presenting his experience has not been lost to the game.

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