This month we’re delighted to be speaking to a former county player who was one of the characters of the circuit in the 1990s. A player who’s last three opening partners were Michael Slater, Matthew Hayden and Mike Hussey – former Derbyshire and Northants player Adrian Rollins.
Not a bad list of opening partners! “It’s certainly something not many people can properly say,” Adrian joked.
Now, I was looking forward to this interview for a few reasons. Firstly, Adrian was a player who picked me up a lot of valuable points in my old Daily Mail Fantasy cricket team back in the mid-90s. I also always enjoy interviewing cricketers from the 80s and 90s because let’s be honest, cricket was more fun back then. Plus, the quality of the domestic game was far stronger, and we cover all that and more in this piece.
But our conversation started with life growing up in the East End of London and his cricketing heroes growing up.
“So, my grandparents were part of the Windrush generation. My Mum and Uncles came over to the UK a few years later. My Uncles all played local cricket and one actually played with Graham Gooch for Essex schools. He was a proper, proper local cricketer – an all-rounder who used to take me and my brothers everywhere. We grew up in East London, in an area that at the time wasn’t particularly diverse. We were subjected to a lot of racism which at times made you question your own self-esteem and identity.”
Adrian, and his brothers Gary and Robert, overcame that racism, thanks in part to the great West Indian side of that era. “My love of cricket was fuelled by that side. I would watch 11 West Indian men standing proud and play extremely well across the world and they became my role models. I remember I used to love watching Somerset who had Richards and Garner playing for them – as well as Beefy of course, and Hampshire who had Marshall and Greenidge. Cricket gave me purpose.”
Adrian and his brothers grew up playing club cricket and by the time he was 12 he was representing Essex schools. However, interestingly at that age becoming a professional cricketer wasn’t on his radar. “There were a number of lads at that age who were so passionate about becoming a professional cricketer, but from my perspective we were poor and I all I was thinking about was worrying about having enough money to go and buy the cricket gear I needed. Becoming a professional cricketer was never in my mindset. It remained that way until I was 18. Even when Robert who was two years younger than me got signed by Essex, it wasn’t in my mind.”
However, by the time he reached 18 and aware of his obvious talent it became clear in Adrian’s head that he was indeed good enough for a professional career. He just needed an opportunity. And that opportunity came from Derbyshire – at the second attempt – following an important period at Haringey Cricket College.
“I first got invited to a trial with Derbyshire when I was 18. I was invited to their outdoor nets, but nothing ever came of it. I then joined the Haringey Cricket College who’d regularly play against county second teams. The college had been a breeding ground for county players, including the likes of Mark Alleyne, Frankie Griffith, Carlos Remy, Keith Piper and many others. Because we mostly played against county second eleven sides it was like each game was a trial. This allowed me to build up some good numbers against county second teams. That put me at an advantage over others looking for trials as my numbers weren’t just against local club sides. Derbyshire invited me for another trial in ‘92 and I made my second team debut for them against Worcestershire where I scored 99 in the first innings and 77 in the second. In my next game I hit a 50 against Surrey and Derbyshire registered me until the end of that season. I assume to stop others coming in for me and shortly after the end of the season they offered me a full-time contract for the ’93 season.”
It was all happening very quickly. And early in that ’93 season, less than a year after playing club cricket, Adrian was making his 1st XI debut for Derbyshire in a one-day game against Warwickshire. Who was waiting at the end of his run-up? A worked-up Allan Donald!
“My debut coincided with when coloured clothing came in. The winter of 1992 had seen the World Cup in Australia and in 1993 sides in England officially played with a white ball in coloured clothing for the first time. So, my 1st XI debut was in the first round of matches with a white ball at a full to capacity Edgbaston. Everyone had come out to see this coloured clothing. John Morris had got injured so I was pulled into the side. I won’t lie, it was pretty nerve wracking. This might sound weird, but I actually went into that debut without any cricket boots! It wasn’t because we couldn’t afford them, but I have size 15 feet and I couldn’t find any at such short notice that would fit! I think I batted at seven or even eight, but the first ball that I faced in first-team cricket was against Allan Donald. I remember arriving at the crease and Keith Piper who was wicketkeeper for Warwickshire was standing so far back he was on the edge of the circle. I stood my ground waiting for him to get into position because he just wasn’t moving. Allan Donald then asked what was going on, so I told him and the umpire that I was waiting until the wicketkeeper was in position, to which Pipes yelled ‘well, I’m ready’. I couldn’t believe how far back he was and that made me even more nervous for what I was about to face from Donald. I also think my delay agitated AD a bit! The first ball went through at chest height and honestly it was like the matrix when I turned around and saw Pipes taking the ball so far back and above his head. I just kept thinking that this is a little different from club cricket!”
It was a baptism of fire and although he didn’t get another crack for a few months, Adrian was loving being involved in 1st XI cricket. “That Warwickshire side had a seriously good bowling attack with the likes of AD, Gladstone Small, Dermot Reeve and Neil Smith. I was only playing because John Morris was injured but I loved it and wanted more. Two months later I made my first-class debut.”
Now, this was an interesting one as Adrian, a batsman, made his first-class debut as a wicketkeeper and his brother Robert – a wicketkeeper, made his county championship debut on exactly the same day no less for Essex, as a pure batsman. You can’t write these scripts. “To be fair I had kept for Essex schools up until I was 15 but then I started having issues with my back, so I gave it up. Earlier that year I’d played in a testimonial game for Derbyshire, and I kept, and they were quite surprised that I could. Prior to the B&H final of 1993 we played Lancashire in a championship match – which I didn’t play in – Wasim Akram got a lot of wickets and broke our keeper Bernie Maher’s foot. Bernie had only come into the side because of an injury to Karl Krikken. We had no other keeper on the books other than the under 19 one. Kim Barnett approached me and asked if I wanted to play and I said, ‘yeah I’ll play’. He then responded, ‘I’d like you to keep wicket.’ At first, I thought it was a bit of a joke but then I realised he wasn’t joking, so I made my first-class debut in a championship match against Worcestershire batting at number 9 and keeping wicket! Following that game, I then reverted to type and played as a batter, but in ‘94 Krik picked up a few more injuries and I actually kept quite a bit either in one- or four-day cricket. That was hard work at 6ft 5 I can promise you!”
In total, Adrian spent 8 seasons at Derbyshire, and he got the opportunity to play alongside some unbelievable talent – John Morris, Kim Barnett, Devon Malcolm, Dominic Cork, Philip DeFreitas, Dean Jones, Ian Bishop, Mohammad Azharuddin and Daryl Cullinan to name just a few. I was keen to know what were some of his highlights from those 8 years?
“When we won the B&H Cup in ’93 I wasn’t in the team, but I was in the changing room. Frankie Griffith bowled incredibly well in that final and especially in the final over. I think they needed something like 10 or so to win with Neil Fairbrother and Wasim Akram at the crease and they only manager to score 6 or 7, so we won the game. I was so proud of Frankie. And what people didn’t necessarily realise was Frankie and I were actually related, on my father’s side. So, he was like a cousin to me and that was such a great memory lifting that trophy together at Lord’s. Another highlight in my early years was a game against Northants. We were bowled out for 140 or so and Curtley took 6 or 7 wickets that day, but I managed to score 40 odd not out. It was such an important knock for me, but the icing on the cake was Curtley and Allan Lamb coming up to me after the game to congratulate me for my innings and say well done. That meant so much and made me feel like I belonged in first class cricket. So even though it wasn’t anywhere near my highest score, that innings and those words from seasoned international players were a pivotal moment to me.”
Two knocks I knew would also make Adrian’s highlights list were his maiden hundred and double-hundred…
“My maiden first class hundred was against Glamorgan at Derby. We always had slightly bowler friendly conditions at Derby, which let’s be honest was no surprise when you had had the likes of Malcolm, Bishop, Cork and DeFreitas in your side. But it took me about 35 matches to get that hundred, so it was a great release of energy when I did it. The thing is I scored loads of 50s prior to that – 13 or 14 I think, but I just couldn’t kick on. I think what spurred me on was my brother scored his first ton the week before so that that made me determined to get my name up there. I think that was the only time I was competitive because of my brother.”
Weeks later Adrian added to that maiden hundred with his maiden double hundred (200 not out) – an innings that remains a Derbyshire record for the length of time at the crease. “I opened the batting and batted all the way through the innings against Gloucester in ’95. We might have lost the game, but it was incredible for me to open and bat through the innings. I think I did it twice in my whole career, but this felt the most special. To this day that innings remains the longest innings in Derbyshire history and that’s something I’m proud of.”
Another interesting highlight from those Derbyshire years was the first time he and his brother Robert played against each other in a competitive professional fixture. “He caught me out. We’ve both got a picture of it. ‘Rollins caught Rollins off the bowling of Peter Such’”
When Adrian represented Derbyshire, it was fair to say that county cricket was so strong, and I was interested to hear from him how he compares the county game then to what it is now.
“There was a stark difference. Obviously, there were no England central contracts then, so competition was extremely high. People talk a lot about the stability of the England side now and how back then there was a lot of chopping and changing of the side, but to be fair one reason for that was because of the strength of the county game. There was so much competition and so many good players. If I look back to my first-class debut against Worcestershire, they had Kenny Benjamin as their overseas player, plus Phil Newport, Neil Radford and Richard Illingworth. The next game we played Durham, they had Simon Brown, David Graveney and Phil Bainbridge, plus Anderson Cummins as an overseas. Somerset had Andy Caddick, Neil Mallender and Graham Rose who was a top, top cricketer and Mushtaq Ahmed as an overseas. Northants had Curtley Ambrose, Kevin Curran, Paul Taylor and David Capel. Middlesex had Tuffers and Gus, and Ramps and Gatt with the bat. Yorkshire had Gough, White and Silverwood. It goes on. Whichever team you played there were no easy games. I think that’s where people miss out today. There just isn’t that quality in county cricket and that’s having the adverse effect on the Test side. I couldn’t tell you who the quality batsmen are that will say ‘I’m going to help myself to a hundred today’ in the way players did back then. I’m not disrespecting Darren Stevens at all, but he is dominating county cricket at the moment at the age of 45. I’m not sure he still would be if he was facing a Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis or Curtley Ambrose in their prime. Warne, Murali, Kumble they all played country cricket and that doesn’t happen today.”
No one can argue with that. And it’s certainly what us members miss about the county game.
“Of course, if we were comparing the eras for one day cricket you could argue today’s era is far better. There’s no question about it. What they are doing is phenomenal, but it has been to the detriment of Test cricket. Players are struggling with poor techniques. They struggle with the moving ball, and they struggle with the spinning ball. In my day there was no hawk eye of course and other stuff and players were playing with their pads but putting that aside there were no easy games.”
Back to Adrian’s playing career and following his 8 years at Derbyshire he made the move south to Northants.
“I needed the fresh challenge. There were the usual Derbyshire politics at the time. I was the professional cricketers’ association rep for the county and that involved me standing up for certain players which didn’t necessarily go down well. But the reality of professional sport is it’s a bunch of young men who don’t necessarily have the maturity to take on board what being a professional sportsman really is. You’re young and you don’t necessarily understand the responsibilities that you have. There were a lot of politics surrounding Derbyshire in the mid ‘90s which was always evident when I joined to be fair. John Morris left in my first full season. The following year Pete Bowler went. We were losing players year after year. Chris Adams and Devon were two more that left because of changing room politics. I didn’t move to Northants for money, I just wanted the fresh start. Matthew Hayden contacted me and said he’d like me to come and open the batting with him. That was an attractive offer.”
Adrian’s time at Northants only lasted three seasons and was cut short by a career ending wrist injury. And his biggest regret? Not making the most of the opportunity.
“There were opportunities for me at Northants that if I’m honest I didn’t necessarily take in the end. Looking back, I perhaps wanted to do so well that the downside of my game was I would tend to overthink things, when really, I should have just gone there, enjoyed it and backed myself. Confidence was a thing that I didn’t necessarily have an abundance of. We won the county championship division 2 in 2000 which was great and that first season, personally, started off really well. I nearly scored two centuries at Lords. I got a hundred and then 96 in the second innings. But the second half of that season I averaged something like 10. Winning that title of course meant a lot but there was disappointment in the way I finished the season. That winter I had a long chat with Matthew Hayden about my game and he just said to keep it simple. I stripped everything back to what I used to do as a kid. There were no more pre-determined moments, no triggers presses, etc. It worked and I was averaging over 40 and then I got injured and had to retire.”
Fielding at short-leg to Graeme Swann in a game against Notts, Adrian took a diving one-handed catch landing badly on his wrist and that was the end of what was a promising career – he did hold on to the catch though! “Firstly, what a big guy such as me was doing in there I don’t know! (Ed – Adrian is 6ft 5!). but joking aside, I had really good reflexes and I wasn’t scared to field in there. I always took a few blows as I was a big target. But on this occasion, I caught Chris Read and my wrist just swelled up. The doctor took a look at it and said that something wasn’t right. They taped me up though, gave me some painkillers and sent me back out. Funnily enough I took another catch at short leg but the following morning I could barely feel my fingers. I remember we were batting the last innings and in the last over of the day I was due to bat and open the batting, so I had another injection, took some painkillers and was batting more a less one handed. I ended up getting 40 odd in that innings which wasn’t bad with one hand! I had keyhole surgery at first and the surgeon then said I’d need two more operations and I wouldn’t play cricket again. I was gutted. I was released from my contract, and I was sent to see another specialist and he said at best if I rest for two years, I might be able to play again but if I did, I could have arthritis by the age of 35. He advised me to retire, so I did. I was upset for two days but then just got on with it. My mum had always been clear to me about the importance of studying so I always had something to fall back on. In my last year of playing, I actually had begun studying for my degree with the Open University. So, I’d always been planning post-cricket. I registered with a ton of recruitment agencies to do admin jobs etc, but I didn’t get anything. Then I was offered the job as a school sports coordinator. I did that for two years and I thought it would be my way into education.”
And that is where Adrian has ended up. Forging out an extremely successful career in education – he’s now a Deputy Head. “That first role gave me a real understanding of what it was like. I worked as an unqualified teacher for five years before completing my degree, which was a maths-based degree. I did all of my teacher training qualifications, and I became a maths teacher. It just felt like something I wanted to do. Something that was in my heart. I wanted to do something where I could give back.”
You can imagine there are a lot of kids who would list ‘Mr Rollins’ as their favourite teacher, given his infectious personality.
Adrian finished his cricket career with nearly 9,500 first-class and List A runs to his name. A first-class batting average of 34 is no mean feat against the great bowlers he was often opening the batting to.
“You know what I had 10 years of professional cricket and I never thought I’d get 10 minutes, so I’d have bitten your hand off my for my runs! I had the opportunity to watch Brian Lara get hundreds. I’ve been on the field when Viv Richards and David Gower were batting, and I’ve opened the batting against some of the best international bowlers from around the world. I’m happy!”
Adrian Rollins – a top guy!