Cricket interview

Neil Carter, former Warwickshire all-rounder

A big hitting batsman, a wicket-taking bowler and a cricketer who made his international debut after he’d announced his retirement from first-class cricket – our interviewee this month is former Warwickshire all-rounder and PCA cricketer of the year in 2010, Neil Carter.

“It’s great being the only person in the history of cricket to have retired from first class cricket and then made my international debut!” joked Neil. But jokes aside, Neil’s call up for Scotland was the icing on the cake of a county career that brought county championship success and a host of honours in the limited overs game. But we’ll come on to all of that later.

Neil was born and grew up in South Africa (to a Scottish mother) and was a late developer in cricketing terms. “I got into cricket quite late. Allan Donald, Stephen Jeffries and Peter Kirsten were big heroes of mine. I used to get my Dad to buy me a Gunn and Moore cricket bat, because that’s what Peter Kirsten batted with! The school I went to made it compulsory that you had to play lots of sports. So, as well as cricket I played tennis, squash, rugby, soccer, hockey, pretty much all sports! I never had any major representative honours in cricket growing – I did for other sports, but not cricket!”

Yet, his love was cricket and thanks to his British passport he had a pathway to the UK. “I came over to the UK to play some club cricket in my gap year which was great for my development, but when I returned I hurt my knee quite badly in a water skiing accident and so I was in rehab for a couple of years.”

Despite this set-back when Neil started bowling again, his speed had increased and was asked to go for a net with the Boland state side and soon after his cricket career was underway!

Neil’s potential with both bat and ball was evident to all, and he soon became seen as a genuine all-rounder, so much so that it wasn’t long before he was batting high up the order. “I loved giving it a bit of a whack at the top. People talk about the ‘pinch hitter’ today, but I was doing it for many years!”

Neil’s early success for Boland, whetted the appetite for a return to the UK in search of a professional county contract. “We were on 12-month contracts back in South Africa and they weren’t worth very much, so people were always keen to try and get a club deal in the UK. I managed to get a 2-year deal playing club cricket and then the rules changed that if you had been born outside of the UK and had a British passport you could play county cricket as a local player. Myself, KP and Greg Smith were the first three who signed. KP and Greg went to Clive Rice at Nottinghamshire and I went to Warwickshire.”

I asked Neil, how the Warwickshire move came about. “Former Warwickshire batsman Andy Moles was a coach of Free State, which is now known at the Knights in Bloemfontein. Andy said he had a good mate at Derbyshire, Tim Munton, who could sort me out a deal, but then a week later Warwickshire coach Bob Woolmer, who had been back home in Cape Town, phoned Andy out of the blue and mentioned they were looking at bowlers. Andy said you have one on your doorstep out here in Cape Town. Bob then phoned me as I was driving home from a club game. He mentioned he’d spoken to Andy and would like to offer me a contract and that he’d bring it to the game on Friday. It was all that quick!”

It was the start of a wonderful 12-year career at Edgbaston. Two county championships, the Clydesdale Bank 40 over league title, the Benson & Hedges Cup, and numerous other Lords finals. What were Neil’s personal highlights?

“So many! Winning the Benson & Hedges Cup in 2002 was a big highlight. I didn’t play in the quarter-finals against Sussex. But, in the semi-finals, we were drawn against Lancashire at Old Trafford. They had the likes of Flintoff and Chappell in their ranks so were a strong outfit. We bowled well and then began chasing the total down. We ended up needing 3 runs off the last ball, when I came in at number 11 after Dougie Brown was run out by Flintoff on the boundary. Fine Leg was up on the 45, Glen Chappell bowled, and I paddle swept him over the fielder for four to win the game. That got us through to a Lords final against Essex, which was massive for me as it was my visit to Lords. What an amazing atmosphere. Essex were a strong side and I remember it was start of the free hits for a no ball. Shaun Pollock bowled a no ball and Graham Napier hit him on to the roof of the grandstand with one free hit! Two young batsmen Ian bell and Jim Troughton knocked off the runs to win us the game. I remember nothing about the celebrations that night though!”

That Benson & Hedges success was followed by the County Championship in 2004, a success under the captaincy of another of our interviewees, Nick Knight. “We won the championship with a week to go, which was a nice feeling not to have the pressure in the last game. Our closest opposition didn’t get the number of batting points they needed. We weren’t playing so I found out we won from watching Sky Sports at home!”

Warwickshire were back at Lords a year later, in the golden summer of 2005, but this time it wasn’t to have a successful ending for the Bears. “I was pissed off after that game! When we bowled they were allowed to change the ball; back in those days you only had the one ball. They were allowed to change it because apparently it had gone soft and brown. We then bowled with a harder ball, which was so much easier to hit. When we went out to bat, we got off to a good start. I opened the batting and hit Chris Tremlett for a massive six on to the clock tower there. Nick Knight got a hundred but towards the end he couldn’t hit the ball off the square, because it got so soft. We ended up 20 runs short. If they wouldn’t have been allowed to change the ball and had to bat with a soft ball, I’m convinced we’d have won that game. Afterwards, I kept our ball as I’d taken five wickets, and I asked if I could see the other ball as I wanted to compare it against the ball we batted with, but they wouldn’t give it to me.”

One amusing aspect of that final though, was Neil’s dismissal. Not only was he run out; in trying to make his ground he slid in and removed all three stumps! “It wasn’t an ideal way to go!”

Neil’s final season at Warwickshire saw them again lift the county championship and it could so nearly have been a double. “We had another Lords final, and we needed 5 runs to win from two balls. I hit a four which put the scores level, but because we’d lost more wickets, we had to win the game. So, with one run needed, I missed the ball and we lost. Gutted. There was a lot said at the time, and it would have been a great way to go out, but that’s cricket.”

Neil scored nearly 7,500 runs in first class, List A and T20 cricket, which combined with 648 wickets made him one of the most talented all-rounders on the county circuit.

Individual recognition came in 2010 when Neil was named as the PCA Cricketer of the Year. “That was a very proud moment as the award is voted for by your fellow players. At the time I think, across the history of the award, I was the only player to have won the award who had never played international cricket for a Test playing nation.”

I asked Neil, what made that season so special? “To be honest I was just nice and fit and felt good charging in. I managed to get the ball swinging consistently and I scored a lot of runs. I think I was the second or third top run scorer that year for Warwickshire. Everything just gelled nicely. It helped I opened the batting by then in limited overs cricket as you do get noticed more, especially when you’re in form. When you’re on that wave you have to ride it and be confident and back your own ability.”

And what made Warwickshire such a special club to play at for all those years? “Players make the environment. And we had a strong environment. There were no selfish guys and we had a good blend of experience and youth. We were very fortunate to have youngsters come through like Ian Bell, Jim Troughton and Jonathan Trott. We also had some phenomenal coaches, like Bob Woolmer. Bob was just a great man. Nothing was ever too much for him. If you had a bad day, he’d still make you feel good and perform better next up. He brought the best out of his players. The one year we got relegated, we had Mark Greatbatch as coach, but his man-management wasn’t good, and the players hated it. Those same players had done well the year before, but that year everyone had a shocker. Having a strong environment is so important.”

In 2008, the loyal Bear, switched allegiances for two weeks, when he was invited by Middlesex to play for them in the now infamous Stanford Series. The now disgraced businessman Allen Stanford invited the domestic T20 champions from England and the West Indies to play warm up games against England and Stanford’s own Xl and their own Champions Cup match. “Dirk Nannes wasn’t available for the tournament and Toby Radford phoned me and asked if I would be interested in going over to play for Middlesex. I came home from South Africa and flew out with Tyrone Henderson to the Caribbean for two weeks! I wasn’t going to say no. If I’m honest it was pretty much a two-week holiday! There wasn’t much practice as they only had one pitch. We had a great time at Jolly Beach harbour, lots of swimming and jet skiing. It was all very much about the big game and we were just the curtain-raiser. I knew a lot of the Middlesex boys from playing against them. We played the warm up games against England and the Stanford Xl and then our match against Trinidad and Tobago. I thought we might win but we dropped a few catches. It’s strange looking back at everything now. You wouldn’t have suspected anything at the time. But little did we know. Stanford was quite an intimidating figure, 6ft 8 tall and came across quite arrogant. You only had to look at the stuff with Matt Prior’s wife. It was an experience that was great to be involved what with all of the media coverage at the time but looking back, you feel so sorry for the people out there.”

Neil retired from first class cricket in 2012, but that wasn’t to be the end of his career and he nearly had the swansong of all swansongs! “It wasn’t a difficult decision for me to retire from first class cricket, I was 38 and coming to the end. A few months earlier, the rules had changed regarding international qualification and it meant that if one your parents were born in a country, so for me Scotland, I could qualify with an ICC exceptional circumstances letter. And so, my international career with Scotland begun. It was good fun. My first trip was to Dubai to play against Afghanistan in T20’s then a trip to Edinburgh to make my ODI debut vs Pakistan. My last trip was to Dubai for the T20 World Cup qualifiers.””

Sadly, Neil and his Scotland side didn’t make it because of a net run rate mix-up.

“We played Denmark who were the lowest ranked side left in our qualifying pool in our final game. A win by a big margin would give us two bites of the cherry to then qualify. We’d play Hong Kong and even if we lost that, we’d then have a second bite of the cherry to qualify by then playing Papua New Guinea. Anyway, we got sold down the river in that Denmark game as we were given the wrong net run rate. Because Nepal who were above us had already played, we knew we had to score over 200 to win and keep them below what we assumed would be 130. We scored 203 and at the interval our manager couldn’t get gold of an official to tell us what we needed to restrict them to. So, I opened the bowling not knowing. After six overs, we had them 18/1 and I came off, pretending to change my shirt as it was hot, but it was to find out if we knew the score yet that we had to restrict them to. They still didn’t know. It came down to them needing 20 odd off of 3 overs and eventually 8 or 9 off the last over. Word got around that they needed 125 so we brought players up to defend and they hit the ball over top of the field and ended up on 131. When we went off there was a voice message on our manager’s phone apologising and saying that the target to restrict them to was actually 130 not 125. They ended up on 131. If we’d have known, it wasn’t 125 we would have left the field back and would have kept them to 127 or 128. It was soul destroying knowing that one run had cost us a chance of playing at the World Cup. We ended up having to play Holland who were the second ranked team and they ended up beating us. After that, the coach resigned. He’d always been great to me, allowed me to still live in South Africa, travel back when I needed to, miss the odd game because of work. A new coach came in and he just ignored me, I never heard from him and that was it; the end of my career. Such a shame as I really wanted a swansong at the 50 over World Cup in Australia early in 2015 in which Scotland qualified for.”

I asked Neil that after this taste of international cricket, were there any regrets about not playing international cricket for South Africa or England earlier in his career. “I never really played too much cricket in South Africa, I thought I had a good chance of playing in the Hong Kong sixes. This was always a big tournament in those days. England were never going to play their current internationals, but as one of the most consistent all-rounders in county cricket in that period, I thought I might have had a look-in there”

Neil played with and against a host of talented players throughout his career, but which players were the best he came up against? “In the dressing room at Warwickshire we always talked “the Warwickshire Xl” players from other counties who all did well against us. Graeme Hick at Worcester and Mark Ramprakash at Surrey were certainly in that side. They pretty much dominated against us for many years. I remember my first five wicket haul for Warwickshire, I bounced Hick out... he was on a double hundred! We dropped a sitter off Ramprakash early on one game, and obviously he went on to make a hundred!”

And what about the best captain? “Nick Knight was good, I really enjoyed playing under Jim Troughton, whose now first team coach, he understood his players. Michael Powell was good. They were three very good captains.”

Cricket has changed a lot in the last few years with a lot of emphasis on the T20 game and people questioning the longer formats. I asked Neil for his views. “Test cricket is still the pinnacle for sure in England, Australia and South Africa. It’s just the world is evolving and is such a busy place. People don’t have the time necessarily to watch a whole day or take time off work to watch a whole day’s cricket. As such, crowds are dwindling everywhere pretty much bar England, or Australia over the holiday season and in Cape Town, which tends to always get full houses days 1-4. There’s just so much technology around that people don’t have to get down to the ground now. Also, there is a lot more cricket played with added T20s and one-dayers. People have more options. So, it’s not necessarily they don’t like Test cricket, it just they can’t watch everything.” Some valid points.

And what about cricket in South Africa. With the recent retirements of Morkel and De Villiers, what’s the state of cricket in South Africa? “It’s interesting times. I suspect Amla and Du Plessis might follow after the next World Cup and there just isn’t the talent coming through. Our domestic first-class competition isn’t strong. The international players rarely play in it, which is probably similar in most countries, but we have issues with Kolpak players and even our domestic T20 competition only gets one or two thousand people. In two years’ time there will no longer be Steyn, Philander, Amla or Du Plessis so a lot will ride on De Kock, Rabada, Aiden Markram and Ngidi. They will have a lot of responsibility on their shoulders. It will be interesting times.”

It certainly will, and I think we all hope for the health of the international game, that South African cricket remains strong.

Neil’s continued love of the game sees him working as the cricket professional at the Bishop’s College in Cape Town. “I love it. We get a lot of touring sides come to play us and play loads of day night games as we very fortunate to have floodlights. Because of our good indoor facilities, the Cape Cobras as well as Dale and Morne often train here. I’m also assistant coach for the Western Province U/19 team and do a little bit of work with the bowlers at the Cape Cobras, so it’s great still being involved in the game.”

And so, it should be. Neil brought a lot to the county game and I know for sure that current Warwickshire side would love to have him back in the ranks as they push for promotion back to the top flight.

Click here for other interviews