Cricket interview

Peter Such, former England spinner

The 1990s was an interesting decade for English cricket, as characterised by Mark Butcher's recent documentary on Sky Sports. It therefore seemed apt, that this month we speak to a cricketer who experienced the highs and lows of playing for England in the 90s. “I loved the era I played in,” remarked former England off spinner Peter Such, who is now the ECB’s national spin coach. “I was fortunate I played with, and against, some really great players of the game.”

And I think that’s something we often forget when we refer back to the 1990s was just how strong that decade was - some of the greatest players ever were lining up to play England, the likes of Wasim Akram, Curtly Ambrose, Allan Border, Allan Donald, Anil Kumble, Brian Lara, Glenn McGrath, Viv Richards, Sachin Tendulkar, Courtney Walsh, Shane Warne and Waqar Younis. The list goes on and on.

Regular changes of the captain and coach throughout the decade meant Peter only played 11 Test matches for England (over a six year period), yet he was arguably one of England’s most consistent off spin bowlers, picking up five wicket hauls both home and away against Australia, which in itself is no mean feat. “I’ve always appreciated the fact I was able to play for England and seven out of my 11 Test matches were against Australia home and away which are the iconic series to play in so I am incredibly pleased to have done that.”

Interestingly, when growing up, Peter actually had ambitions of being an out and out fast bowler, in the mould of his childhood heroes John Snow, Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thompson and the great West Indian fast bowlers. “I quite fancied being a fast bowler when I started playing as a child. Then everyone else matured a little bit quicker than me and I got left behind a bit so I started bowling off spin in the nets one day and fortunately for my career, my sports master saw me bowling off spin and told me I was playing in a game that evening, bowling off spin and I bowled spin from then on!”

It was sound judgement from Peter’s sports teacher, as a few years later, in 1982, he was making his debut in county cricket, bowling off spin for Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge, playing alongside the likes of Eddie Hemmings. However, knowing he was behind an experienced campaigner such as Hemmings, Peter knew his first X1 opportunities would be limited and in 1987 made the move slightly south, to Leicestershire. “I wanted to play more and more cricket and that was never going to happen for me at Notts so I moved to Leicestershire.”

Despite a good first year at Grace Road, Peter’s stay at Leicestershire was a short one. “The move to Leicestershire worked out well for the first year I was there. I played the vast majority of all the championship cricket and was reasonably successful. But, it was a period where there were a lot of green pitches and following that first year I didn’t get much of a gig and was slowly squeezed out. Essex were looking to sign a spin bowler and I knew if I made the move to Essex there was a proper opportunity for me to play cricket.”

It was a wise decision. Just three years later, Peter was making his Test debut, in the first Test of the 1993 Ashes series. “Playing for England is what you aspire to try and do. I was just fortunate, that my debut was in an Ashes Test”.

However, such was the unprofessional manner in which the game was governed in those early days, Peter found out about his selection through a journalist, who had called him for his reaction. “It was disappointing to find out I was about to play for England that way. I received a call from a journalist who had obviously been a recipient of a leak somewhere and he told me I was playing and wanted my reaction. It was later that I then got a phone call from the England selectors, to tell me that I had been included in the Test squad for the first Test at Old Trafford against the Aussies.”

It was a huge step up for Peter, but from a personal perspective his debut couldn’t have gone better. “With the increased media presence, television cameras, big crowd, it was a nerve-wracking experience. Fortunately, I was given an early bowl and managed to bowl a maiden over first up, which helped settle me down.”

And settle him down it did, as Peter followed up that maiden over with an impressive haul of six first innings wickets. “My wickets were split over two days. I remember the first day’s play started late and so we lost some time. In the evening session on that first day, I managed to get David Boon caught at first slip by Chris Lewis. Then I caught and bowled Mark Taylor and finally I bowled an off-spinner’s dream delivery, one that drifted one way and then spun back through the gate to bowl Steve Waugh’s off stump.”

Boon, Taylor and Waugh – not a bad first three Test wickets!

Despite not sleeping well that night, no doubt because of the inevitable high of taking those three wickets, Peter’s early success continued the following morning. “There was still a little bit of damp in the pitch on that second morning and the ball continued to grip. I got Allan Border stumped, Brendon Julian caught at short leg and for my sixth wicket Merv Hughes had a slog and was caught at deep square. At the end of the innings I received a standing ovation which was absolutely brilliant and as I walked passed the Australian dressing room, both Allan Border and Mark Taylor were stood there to shake my hand and say well bowled, which I thought was a lovely touch.”

It was dream debut. But, sadly, England went on to lose that opening Test, in part due to the exploits of Shane Warne, who of course bowled that ball to Mike Gatting. “I watched it live from the balcony. In those days the Old Trafford pitch was square on, so you saw the shot that Gatting had played, and just thought how did that get past the bat? We had to pop inside to watch the television replays. It was a wonderful delivery.”

England’s fortunes didn’t improve in the second Test at Lords, losing heavily by an innings. The selectors rang the changes for the third Test at Trent Bridge, with the likes of Graham Thorpe, Mark Lathwell, Martin McCague and Mark Ilott coming in for their Test debuts. Despite an improved performance by the side, who achieved a creditable draw, the selectors decided not to play with any spinners for the fourth Test at Headingley and so Peter missed out. The side suffered another heavy defeat and the Ashes were gone. “Graham Gooch resigned after that Test and Mike Atherton took over.”

The fifth Test, Atherton’s first, saw Peter restored to the line-up, alongside veteran John Emburey, as the selectors went from playing without any spinners to fielding two in the same side. But after another heavy defeat, the selectors made yet more changes for the final Test at the Oval, with Robin Smith, John Emburey, Martin Bicknell and Mark Ilott all omitted. This time, the changes seemed to have the desired effect as England finished off their disappointing Ashes campaign with an excellent Oval victory.

Although it wasn’t a successful first series for Peter from a team perspective, at an individual level, his consistency with the ball, led him to being the leading English wicket-taker with 16 wickets.

I asked Peter if he thought all of the constant changes during the series had an adverse effect on both the team and the players as individuals. “I can’t say it really bothered me, it was just one of those things. The selectors pick a team and you go out and play. I was just focused on trying to perform as best as I could.”

Following that series, England went on to tour that winter to the West Indies, the first tour under the captaincy of Mike Atherton. It was said to be the beginning of a new dawn for English cricket. However, the surprise element of the squad was the non-selection of Peter, despite being the leading wicket taker in the Ashes, as the selectors favoured Phil Tufnell and Ian Salisbury as spinners for the tour.

“It was difficult to take from the fact that I had played five out of the six Test matches, was the leading wicket-taker and I bowled well throughout the series. But, what really frustrated me and made me angry was again I wasn’t informed by anyone in an official capacity. I just turned on the television, looked at Ceefax and saw that my name wasn’t there.”

Peter was recalled to the squad the following summer, where he played three home Tests against New Zealand, but then didn’t play another Test match for his country for four years. “I played those three Test matches against New Zealand in 1994 and although I started pretty well, my performances did fade a little bit and by the time I got left out, I probably deserved to be left out.”

Peter went back to county cricket with Essex and regularly took in excess of 70 wickets as he bid to win back in his place. “It was a tough time, but all I could do was do the best I could. I had some big seasons taking 70/80 wickets in three successive seasons, but I just wasn’t the kind of cricketer Raymond Illingworth was looking for. He was looking for a more all-round cricketer and I just didn’t fit the bill. Everyone else was being given a go and it was frustrating knowing I was performing but wasn’t getting an opportunity.”

As luck would then have it, an “average” season, using Peter’s own words in 1998, ended up with him being selected for the 1998 Ashes tour to Australia. “It was quite ironic that the years I was playing really well, I didn’t get picked and then I have one average season, and I get selected for the tour. I often say to young cricketers now that you never know when you’re opportunity will come, so don’t ever give up and try to be ready when it does.” Wise advice.

England headed down under in the winter of 1998 with a completely different set-up to when Peter last played for England in 1994. David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd was now England coach and Alec Stewart was captaining the side. “I really enjoyed that tour. We managed to draw the first Test in Brisbane but then lost the next two, so the Ashes were gone pretty quickly. But, we fought back really well in Melbourne, Dean Headley bowled fantastically well in that final innings to help us win the Test.”

Indeed it was a magnificent win, and if you speak to a lot of England supporters who were in Melbourne for that Test, it was one of the most memorable England Test wins overseas in recent times.

As a result of that win in the fourth Test, England went into the final Test match of the series in Sydney knowing that a win would level the series. A hat-trick by Darren Gough restricted the Aussies to 322 in their first innings, however a five wicket haul from leg-spinner Stuart MacGill saw England succumb to 220 all out, a deficit of 102 runs. England however, scented victory and fought back, as thanks to five wickets from Peter and four from Dean Headley the Aussies were all out for just 184 in their second innings, a lead of 286. 123 of those 184 runs came from the bat of Michael Slater, who scored an outstanding 123. But, it was a brilliant England bowling performance. The only regret was the non run-out of Slater when he was only on 35. “The TV umpire couldn’t see the bails get dislodged because some idiot called Such was in the way of the throw! Headley threw the stumps down from long on and I was stood in a place that obscured the view of the stumps being broken. The funny thing is, Slater had actually given up and started to walk off, when Mark Waugh shouted at him and told him not to give himself out and let the third umpire make the decision.”

England lost that fifth Test but the performances in Melbourne and Sydney made the supporters proud and showed the Aussies that English cricket did have some fight. “It was a wonderful experience to get five wickets in Sydney and I really enjoyed that tour. David Lloyd was a good guy and a coach I really liked.”

Sadly for Peter, he only went on to play one more Test for England, against New Zealand at Old Trafford the following summer, the ground where it had all begun six years previously. Despite taking four wickets in that final appearance, his final Test will be more remembered for his batting. His first innings 51 ball duck was the longest duck in England Test history! “You have to appreciate I wasn’t very good when it came to batting. I was always very nervous about batting and in that innings we were in a precarious situation at 152 for 8 when I went out to bat. We’d had an absolute stinker, having won the toss and batted. It was a case of trying to block it and try and keep Mark Ramprakash company as long as I could, as he was batting very well at the other end. It was quite embarrassing to be honest, walking off to a standing ovation, having scored nought!”

And so Peter’s Test career came to an end with a total haul of 37 wickets, at an average of 33.56 runs and at an economy rate of just 2.38 runs per over.

I asked Peter if he thought one of the unfair challenges for English spinners in the 1990s was the ongoing comparison to the likes of Shane Warne and Anil Kumble, who were all-time greats of the game. “You were always judged alongside them because they were playing in your era, but the fact of the matter was they were great bowlers. Shane Warne is the greatest spin bowler that I’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t say it was unfair, but sometimes we were judged alongside them and people thought we should be as good them, but they were geniuses. We were as good we could be, but we were just not as good as them.”

I also asked Peter of his favourite memories from those 11 Tests. “Nothing tops your Test debut, but the five for in Sydney was brilliant. Also on that same tour I was proud of how I held it together in the Test match at Adelaide, where it was played in sweltering conditions and we had to field for a day and a half. But overall, I was proud of the fact I was worth my place in the side pretty much every time I played in terms of the way I performed.”

After that Test against New Zealand in 1999, Peter went back to play county cricket for his beloved Essex and it was obvious when speaking to him how much he enjoyed his time at Chelmsford. “We won back to back county championships in 1991 and 1992. To me, winning the championship is the one you want to win in county cricket. To win it you’ve got to play quality cricket over 6 months. But we also reached three one day cup finals at Lords and in those days those final were proper massive events with packed houses, the FA Cup finals of cricket. We lost the NatWest trophy to Lancashire, but the following year we went back and beat Warwickshire convincingly and the year after that we beat Leicestershire in the Benson and Hedges final. It was great times and we had some fantastic players. Graham Gooch was the glue that held it all together and he was the outstanding individual and cricketer in the group. But we had some real quality performers in the likes of Neil Foster, Derek Pringle, John Childs, Mark Waugh, Salim Malik, Stuart Law and some quality youngsters who came through like Nasser Hussain, Nick Knight, John Stephenson and Mark Ilott. We had good players and I always believe good players make good teams. We were fortunate.”

Peter finished playing in 2001 and a year later he was invited to apply for the position of academy director at Essex. He was successful in that interview and went on to hold that position for five years before moving out of cricket for three years. But, in September 2009, Peter was asked to lead the spin bowling department at the ECB, where he remains to this day. “I love this role. Spin bowling is my passion so it’s a perfect role for me. Coaching is one of those things that is as close as you can get to playing. I really enjoy working with spin bowlers trying to help them become the best they can be and hopefully go on and fulfil their ambitions.”

Peter works with spinners both collectively and on a one to one basis and is also responsible for coach education in the country.

I asked Peter what kind of challenges the three formats of the game brings to spin coaches. “The basics of the game will always remain the same, but the most important thing you can do as a spin bowler is to spin the ball as hard as you can. That will get you the drop and drift in the air you need to get the break and bounce off the pitch, so no matter what you’re doing you need to spin the ball hard. It then comes down to the different sort of skills and attributes that you need to be effective in the three different formats. But, whatever the format, the basics are the same so with any young spin bowler you must encourage them to spin the ball hard and then if they can put that into a bowling action that is repeatable, they will get the consistency that they need and then you can build things from there.”

The fruits of Peter’s hard work was definitely visible in the recent under 19’s World Cup where some of England’s new breed of young spinners were on show and Peter is definitely excited about the future of spin bowling England and if he can produce spinners who like himself have the ability to take five wicket hauls both home and away against Australia and over 800 first class wickets in a career, we’ll be in a very good place.

Click here for other interviews