Cricket interview

Calum MacLeod, Scotland batsman

It’s not often you get to speak to someone who has opened both the bowling and batting at an ICC World Cup and who earlier this year scored one of the finest ODI hundreds against England, a mightily impressive 140 not out, off of just 94 balls - Scotland’s Calum MacLeod.

Calum’s story is an interesting one. An out and out ‘tearaway’ fast bowler, who got banned at the age of 19 because of his action yet was able to completely remodel himself as a batsman to such a stunning effect.

“If I’m honest, it was the best thing that happened to me,” remarked Calum. “I was a tearaway fast bowler and in my quest to bowl faster and faster I picked up some questionable habits in my action that I just never paid enough attention to. My coaches also didn’t pick anything up early enough and as a result I ended having a quite a bad kink in my action which eventually got me banned.”

At the time, Calum was on the books of Warwickshire, a period that coincided with Allan Donald being the first XI bowling coach and two batsmen, Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott who were entering into the peak years of their careers. “Being on the staff at Warwickshire opened up doors for me which others in my situation might not have had. There were 3 and a half months left of the season, so it meant I could follow the 1st XI pick the brains and chat cricket with the likes of Allan Donald and Ashley Giles and just sit and watch the way Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott went about scoring their runs, the methods they’d use, etc. It stuck with me the amount of work those two would put in. So that period, while banned, allowed me a season of ‘education’. It was invaluable.”

9 years later and Calum scored one of the best one-day innings as Scotland beat an England side that were ranked number one in the world. And to put that innings into context, England followed that game by whitewashing the touring Australians.

“What an absolute brilliant game of cricket. Leading into the game our captain, Kyle Coetzer, pushed us quite hard saying that someone had to beat England at some stage. Why couldn’t it be us? I think that built up a bit of momentum. The way that Kyle and Matthew Cross started the game was absolutely crucial for us. Being 100 for 0 and putting them on the backfoot was one of the key things.”

Scotland scored 371/5. England chased hard but their total of 365 fell just short in one of the most entertaining games of one day international cricket that has been played on these shores. “Getting the game so close meant people couldn’t say England didn’t turn up. They played some great cricket. I said at the time that Jonny Bairstow’s innings was one you just had to walk away and learn from. He hit the ball so hard and there was so much I learnt from his levels of intent. They played well enough to beat us, but in the key moments, we managed to stay calm enough to win it.”

And what was that moment like when victory was achieved? “I’ve never seen cricket have that much impact in Scotland. The Grange was absolutely bouncing. If you watch it back, you get goose-bumps. There was raw emotion on everyone involved in Scottish cricket. We flew to Holland a couple of days later; it’s usually quite a quiet affair for us when we travel but we were having people come up to us at the airport. It was hugely exciting to be involved in and a proud moment to look back at.”

Everyone now knows Calum for ‘that’ innings, but that innings was the icing on the cake of 9 years of re-modelling himself as a batsman. Other notable innings included a 175 off of 141 balls in a win over Canada and a 150 away in Afghanistan on a difficult spinning wicket. “If I’m honest that was probably my best innings, better than England. It was a spinning wicket, I batted to a plan and I’d put in so much work leading into that tour.”

But, it hasn’t all been plain sailing with the batting. “I hold the record for the most ducks for Scotland, so the game does have a funny way of bringing you back to earth!”

So how did Calum’s eventful journey start?

“Growing up my heroes were all fast bowlers. I loved watching Glenn McGrath and Darren Gough. Both were quite aggressive who always gave their all. They had amazing skills and were just two players I’d always look forward to watching.”

Calum’s form as a bowler at Warwickshire, got him international recognition and he made his ‘debut’ against England. “I was in a team that played a four-day game the year before, but it got rained off.

The England game was massive. They had a lot of big characters and the first ball I faced, batting at number 11, was against Freddie Flintoff! I remember when the 9th wicket fell, I picked up my helmet, one of the old plastic ones, and it was broken! Here I was, about to go out and face Flintoff and my helmet was broken! I just stuck the broken bit back in and went out and batted. I was too nervous or shy to tell anyone else!”

Unfortunately, rain hit again, and the game was cut short.

Calum’s spell at Warwickshire came to an end after 5 years and he left Edgbaston not long after his suspension. “By the time I left I was neither a batsman or a bowler. I was unsure what I’d be doing, so it was the right time to leave. When I look back, I think I was very lucky with the timing.”

Scotland had put their players on full time contracts and as Calum admits they were in a middle of a transitional period which gave him the time to ‘re-find’ himself.

“Scotland had just come off of quite a successful 10-year period and a lot of players had retired at the same time. Scotland hasn’t got the pool of players that England has but I was put on a part time contract for the summer and told that there was a full-time contract here for me - show us what you have got. They showed a lot of faith in my batting which I probably didn’t see myself. I thought of myself as a bowling all-rounder, but they showed a lot of faith in me. I was given the space and I probably played 15-20 games without much success, but it allowed me the time to learn my job as a batsman without the pressure of worrying about my place.”

Calum rewarded the selectors for their patience. His performances went a long way to securing appearances for his country at the 2015 ICC ODI World Cup in Australia and New Zealand and the 2016 ICC World T20 in India.

“The qualification tournaments and those World Cups were the best trips I’ve been involved in. Kyle Coetzer’s 156 against Bangladesh was a real highlight. It was probably the first time someone from an associate nation has taken a game away from a full member. It gave us all confidence.”

The Scots may have not won a game in the 2015 World Cup, but they left the tournament with a number of friends, for the refreshing way they approached their games.

It is therefore extremely sad that at next year’s World Cup in England and Wales, that Scotland won’t be present after the ICC reduced the number of competing teams down to 10.

“The strength of cricket in the level below the top 10 has never been stronger. And when you have had the experiences like we had in World Cups it really gets to people. You go on these trips around the world, work so hard to qualify for these tournaments, it’s what we play cricket for. So, for the ICC to take that away from us is so heart-breaking, not just for the players but supporters and kids in our countries. My first real memory of top-class cricket is the 1999 World Cup watching Scotland versus Australia at Worcester. Bruce Patterson clipped his first ball for four off his legs, and that memory has always stayed with me. The ICC has done so much for the associate members with the money they have put in but it’s so heart-breaking that having reached the stage where countries are putting in competitive performances against the full members, that our opportunity to play on the World stage gets taken away.”

It is crazy. Some of the most memorable games in recent World Cups have been giant-killings by the likes of Ireland, Afghanistan and the Netherlands. Some people may argue that some games between a full member and an associate member have been one-sided at times. “You’re always going to get the odd hammering, but if you look at any team in cricket now and they suffer an absolute hammering every now and then. It’s part of the game now. England and Australia have been bowled out in double figures in recent years.”

It’s a valid point. Cricket is a sport we all love, and that love shouldn’t be confined to 10 full member countries. Our sport needs to grow and expand. Let’s hope the powers that be do see sense after this next World Cup and give the associates their dream back.

Calum’s form for Scotland gave him another shot at county cricket and in 2014 signed for Durham after a month-long trial. “I trialled at a couple of counties after leaving Warwickshire. I trialled at Kent for a couple of weeks but that was far too soon after I left Warwickshire and also at Northants. By the time the 2015 World Cup qualifiers came around Paul Collingwood had come on as Scotland assistant coach and that was at a time when I was playing quite nicely. He said why don’t I come down to Durham and have a month-long trial to see where it leads. I had a brilliant month. I scored a lot of runs and from there I had an opportunity to go into the first team. His first XI career at Durham had its highlights. Durham won the 2014 Royal London Cup at Lords.

“It was great to win a Lords final. Lords has that special feeling about it and it was an absolute showpiece. I’d played in some pretty big games for Scotland, where if we didn’t win, we might not qualify for a World Cup or if lost we might lose out on funding that was critical for the game in Scotland. However, walking through that Long Room at Lords is something else. And it got to me. I’m not afraid to say that the moment got too big for me. I ended up playing a couple of rash drives and I ended up nicking off and then walking back having got a duck.”

Calum admits he found it difficult to get out of a run of low scores. “I think I’d be a lot calmer now. It amazes me to think how much batting you do in a county season. If you’re in a good run of form, it’s great. You cash in. But when you’re in a slump of form, it’s very tough. I’d never experienced a tough period in my batting career where I wasn’t scoring consistent runs, so for it to happen in my second season back playing county cricket was disappointing. As sportsmen we’re not the most open people. You’re never going to go to the captain or coach and say I’m struggling a bit, which is of course the right thing to do and I would probably do it now and say I need a bit of help here, I need a couple of weeks out to work on some technical things. I was too nervous. I got caught up and it was purely because the games come so thick and fast. Now I’m a little bit older, I understand the game so much more.

A new county opportunity arose this year and Calum played T20 cricket for Derbyshire. “It was unexpected! We had no cricket booked in with Scotland and the opportunity came up. As a squad we were probably a little disappointed with our performances. We had the chances to make the quarter finals, but we didn’t take the opportunities we had to win certain games. It was a good experience and good to be back in county cricket that bit older, where I understood my game a lot more. If an opportunity comes again next year, I’d be more than happy to do it.”

As we spoke Calum had just returned from a spell in the Afghanistan T20 league. “It’s a very strong league. The local talent out there is amazing and any tournament with Rashid, Gayle and McCullum is going to attract attention.”

Looking ahead to next year, what does 2019 hold for him and Scotland?

“Well, welcome to the world of associate cricket, we currently have zero fixtures booked in! But, in general we’ve got to build on what we have done this year. It’s imperative we find a way of continuing to grow the game in Scotland. We don’t want 2018 to be the year that was brilliant with landmark wins and did nothing with it.”

And what is the strength of cricket in Scotland, below the national side?

“One of the things the administrators have done is a better formalisation of a regional system. There’s now a much stronger domestic game which bridges the gap between club cricket and the international team. We’ve also had a lot more professionalism in recent years. Players are full time and we have full time strength and conditioning coaches etc. There’s a proper development programme in place. Players just below the full team now have more access to top quality coaching and we’re starting to see new guys filtering through to the full squad which is really encouraging, and more players are beginning to pick up county contracts which is great. We’re in quite a strong position.”

Are there ambitions to follow Ireland and Afghanistan into Test cricket?

“I’d love one day to play Test cricket for Scotland. Anybody who plays the game wants to play Test cricket. But, whether that is achievable with Scotland you have to be realistic and think you might become a full member through one day cricket and T20, that’s probably more realistic. But if you ask anyone whose is involved in cricket, whether it’s someone who retired 30 years ago or someone picking up a bat for the first time, the majority want to play Test cricket. Ireland and Afghanistan have opened the door for associate members.”

I was also keen to hear from Calum on which other associate nations are strong? “The Netherlands are strong. The UAE is strong - cricket is really growing there; there’s a big passion for the game there. Nepal are on the way up. To be honest, all teams are producing good cricket. There are no easy games now in associate cricket.”

It’s great to see how strong the associate nations are becoming. I for one hope the ICC do see sense and give these countries the opportunities to test themselves on the World stage. They deserve it. We all want our sport to grow and now is the time to build on the strength of the associate nations. Players like Calum and his Scotland team-mates deserve it.

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