Home Interviews James Kirtley, former England and Sussex swing bowler

James Kirtley, former England and Sussex swing bowler

by Freddie

Our interviewee this month was one of the most consistent (and successful) bowlers in county cricket in the early ‘noughties’.

In a professional career that spanned 15 years, James Kirtley took over 600 first class wickets, just shy of 400 List A wickets, represented England across all 3 formats of the game, including 6 wickets on Test debut, and won every domestic competition in which he played. Not bad, right?

So, this month we wanted to get to know more about James’ journey from schoolboy cricketer through to coaching Jofra Archer…

“I was quite a late developer,” remarked James. “I played a bit of cricket at junior school, but I was actually going to give it up. I became a specialist number 9 and wasn’t get any opportunities. I remember phoning my Dad and saying I wanted to concentrate on athletics – my Dad was a successful athlete. He told me to stick with cricket, and after that winter I came back and was bowling quicker than anyone else at the school. There was no reason to it, it just happened. Everything changed from there. I had an excellent coach at school, Jim Andrew, who played a bit for Gloucestershire and he really helped me. Also, at 15/16 I loved watching Curtly Ambrose, maybe because of the name! who was dominating cricket at that time and I loved the way Darren Gough bowled. Darren was just starting to break through at that time and he was a short, skiddy bowler, similar to my size; so, I always took an interest in those two.”

Despite always living in Sussex, James’ route to the county came through playing cricket for his school side in Bristol, but once he was through the gates at Sussex, he didn’t look back.

“I was around 16 when I went down to Hove for a trial, I then played for the under 17s, and from there very quickly got into the second XI and then to the 1st XI. It all happened quite quickly, and not necessarily through the tried and tested route through of playing every age group.”

And that unexpected 1st XI debut came in early 1995 in a Sunday League game against Kent at Hove. “I had no idea I was going to play. Alan Wells came up to me about an hour before the game to say, ‘good luck, you’re making your debut’! I was suddenly scurrying around the dressing room looking for kit! But looking back I think I preferred it that way, otherwise I would have over thought things ahead of the game. I didn’t disgrace myself and I took a couple of wickets which was good. And for me it was nice to get that opportunity early. I knew when I went back to the second eleven, what was expected to play in the 1st XI, I knew the intensity I needed to bring to my game and if I performed in the 2’s with that intensity, I’d get more opportunities in the 1st XI.”

Over the next few years those opportunities came James’ way more and more, and the club were at the start of what was to become, an incredible journey.

“I steadily started to get opportunities. In 1996 I played 3 or 4 championship games, in 1997 I probably played about half the games, and then from 1998 onwards, it was pretty much non-stop. But it was interesting times at the club in those early years. It went through a lot of turmoil and change. There was an exodus of players, there was a takeover with the committee, there were two or three coaches, but then Peter Moores came in and Chris Adams signed, and things started to change. As youngsters we started to get more opportunities, and we were the first club to have permanent floodlights, you could sense something was building.”

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I asked James, how key Peter Moores was, to developing that winning culture. “Massively. Peter invested in people; people who had the attitude the energy and the desire. If I’m honest, I probably didn’t recognise it at the time. I enjoyed it enormously, but I don’t think you always recognise the influences when you’re ‘in the moment’. It’s when you look back you realise how important the likes of Peter and Mark Robinson were to mine and Sussex’s development. They built a winning culture.”

And win they did. Often. In 1999, Sussex won the then one-day division 2 league title, and James lists that win, as the win that gave all of the squad the mentality needed to enjoy ongoing success. “It was brilliant to finally win something, even if it was a second division title. To be successful, you have to learn how to win. And to win a league is different to a cup. You have to learn how to win consistently against every side and that title stood us in good stead for the years to come.”

The second division of the county championship was won in 2001, and despite clinging on to their division one status 12 months later, the success kept continuing, culminating in the club’s first division 1 county championship in 2003. A player at the centre of that success was of course Pakistan leg-spinner, Mushtaq Ahmed. “He was a little magician for us. He gave us the x-factor. We knew we had a good seam bowling attack, but we knew we just lacked that bit of x-factor and Mushy gave us that. He allowed us to take 20 wickets regularly. And that was important, because we knew we had the batting line-up with the likes of Chris Adams and Murray Goodwin and of course we had Prior, Ambrose and Yardy emerging. Everything fell together for us at the right time.”

But as James points out, it was more than pure talent on the pitch. “We trained harder and practised harder than every other team. Opposition teams would turn up for games, and we were already out there, training, doing this that or the other, when their coach turned up; that immediately gave us an edge, as the opposition could see our intensity as they walked through the gates. And that was the environment that Peter Moores and Chris Adams built up, but it took four or five years to build it, it didn’t happen overnight.”

I also asked James, if the poor performances of 2000 spurred on the side. “At the backend of the season we were bottom of everything. I remember we had to do the end of season awards on the pitch, and it was humbling and not nice. We had long conversations into who we were, who we wanted to be and what we wanted to stand for. That experience helped us.”

And what was it like to win that first championship? “It was incredible. You reflect back on some of the great names that had played for the club, the likes of Dexter, Snow, Imran Khan, top players who didn’t win a title, and we were the side that managed to do it. I remember the game actually stopped! Murray Goodwin scored the runs to get us the bonus point we needed, and the game literally stopped for 10/15 minutes! I led the remainder of the side on from the pavilion as Chris was out in the middle and we did a lap of honour. It was mad really, looking back. But, for Sussex who are the oldest county to finally get that moment and knowing all of the emotional and physical energy that had gone into it over a long period of time, it was incredible.”

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Sussex followed that title win with further championships in 2006 and 2007, together with a string of one day and T20 successes.  “We won every domestic trophy in that period. The side just kept delivering. As a coach now, it’s interesting to reflect back. We had the culture. The players trusted each other. We cared for each other. We enjoyed each other’s successes. Those building blocks are so important. And of course, we had two excellent coaches in Peter Moores and Mark Robinson, and two outstanding captains in Chris Adams and Michael Yardy.”

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What was impressive from the outside looking in, was that Sussex achieved their success across all three formats. Not an easy thing to do. “It is tough. But I think we were also quite forward thinking. It was quite apparent after we did the double in 2006 that we weren’t going to sustain it. And not long after a few of us went on to white ball and red ball contracts only. That really helped as it always gave the side energy. For those of us on one day contracts, we’d travel up to a game, as the championship game was finishing, and we’d add that energy and intensity. You have to remember for us, those were our days, we wanted to win and win one day trophies. And the same with the red ball only players. That mix, stood us in good stead, to go on and continue to be successful. We also had some very fit and able players that could play every format and were incredibly adaptable.”

James’ success for Sussex brought international recognition and although he might not have played as many games as he’d have liked, he still represented his country across all three formats, taking 6 wickets on his Test debut, and being selected for a World Cup, no mean feat.

“I toured with the England A side in 1999 when Steve Harmison flew home from Bangladesh, and I flew out as a reserve. But my call up for the full team, came about after I actually bowled England out playing club cricket in Zimbabwe!”

I asked James, if England was always on his radar? “For a couple of years, I found myself glued to Ceefax when the end of season tour squads were being announced – we didn’t all have mobile phones in those days! But then a few players were getting called up, such as Matthew Hoggard and I wasn’t really sure, if it was quite going to happen. But then in 2001 I got that call.”

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James’ debut started well, picking up wickets against Zimbabwe, before he had to endure the emotion of his action being called into question by the match referee. “That was really tough. I was told I’d been reported, and it was something I had to deal with.

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Suddenly you’re thrust into the public eye, more so than just making you’re debut, and having to deal with press conferences etc. I felt I was being eyeballed as a cheat, and there was never for one moment a conscious decision on my part to take advantage of anything. I had to go through all kinds of tests and thankfully it was found all clear. But what that period did give me was an incredible insight into bowling. There is probably no one in English cricket that has had to understand their action as much as me, and again those experiences have certainly helped my coaching now.”

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We’ll come on to coaching later.

James got through that dark time and went on to enjoy success at international level, starting with some early one-day games against the likes of Australia and India. “Darren Gough was coming to the end of his career and there was perhaps a thought in one day cricket I could potentially be that similar bowler who could get success at the death. It was a big step up, suddenly I was bowling to the likes of Ponting, Hayden, Gilchrist, Tendulkar and Sehwag! Whilst I probably didn’t deliver as well as I’d have liked to, to play against the quality of those players was an amazing experience.” And 9 wickets in those games, against that opposition is nothing to be sniffed at.

But it was Test cricket where James made his biggest impact. In 2003, he was named in Michael Vaughan’s first England side for the 3rd Test of the home series against South Africa at Trent Bridge, a Test match that England won, thanks to James’ outstanding 6/34 in the second innings. “I’d been in the squad for four Tests that year, before making my debut. I’d seen Jimmy Anderson and Richard Johnson be given their debuts earlier in the summer, and I got the nod along with Ed Smith at Trent Bridge, a ground I’d always bowled well at. Again, I don’t think I knew until the morning of the game, and suddenly there was Michael Vaughan in his first Test as captain, presenting me with my cap. The lads had done really well to get us a good total and the pitch was starting to misbehave. I thankfully was able to wrap it up. It was wonderful feeling to get a man of the match award on your debut.”

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And the memory will always live on, as James’ son’s second name is ‘Trent’.

Following that series against South Africa, James went on tour in the winter of 2003 to Sri Lanka, not every fast bowlers dream first Test tour. “To be honest, even though I only played 11 one day internationals, I’d actually been around the environment for 50 or so games, including an ICC Trophy in Sri Lanka, so I knew what the conditions were going to be like. I didn’t play in the 1st Test but played in the last two at Kandy and Colombo, which were both incredibly hot. You learnt how to bowl, in those conditions. I remember having to wear ice vests to cool down. In the second Test at Kandy, Freddie and I were the only two out and out seam bowlers, so I certainly clocked up the overs. It’s funny, even though I only played 4 Test matches for England, I think I actually averaged 40 overs of bowling a Test match! But I loved it.”

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James didn’t play another Test match for his country, post that Sri Lanka tour; was that a difficult thing to come to terms with? “Some people say to me, it was harsh to be judged after our four Tests and that’s a little premature, but I was aware there were some very talented bowlers who were breaking through during that period. Matthew Hoggard went to the West Indies the following winter and took a hat-trick. Steve Harmison took those 7 wickets in the West Indies. Fred was doing wonders. Simon Jones was breaking through. Jimmy Anderson was back in the side. So, I was always in the background and never quite featured. It was shame, but honestly, I was extremely grateful for the games I did play, and when I look back, I think my stats stand up pretty well.”

It wasn’t the end of James international career though, as in 2007, he was called up for the very first T20 World Cup. “I think everyone was a bit unsure about T20 in those early years, internationally.  I remember India rested a number of players for the tournament and took a squad of youngsters. And they went on to win it, and I suspect from there the IPL was born. However, for us, we took a number of so-called T20 specialists. I was called up, Jeremy Snape, Darren Maddy and Chris Schofield were others who had this T20 tag. The squad didn’t perform. I bowled one over and I got hit for 17 by Hayden and Gilchrist, it just didn’t happen for us.”

James called time on his career in 2010 and was one of the fortunate ones to be able to go out on his terms. “Sussex won a T20 in 2009 and I remember in November of that year thinking to myself, I’d played for England in all three formats. I’d won every domestic competition for Sussex. I’d captained games for Sussex in the absence of Chris Adams or Michael Yardy. There wasn’t really anything left for me to achieve in the game. So, I had a conversation with Mark Robinson and said that I wanted 2010 to be my final year. I felt in myself I could do one more pre-season. Although I never announced it publicly, having told Robbo privately, meant I could enjoy that final year and I actually think it gave me renewed energy for that season, and importantly for me it meant I could finish on my terms, and that can be pretty rare for players.”

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Post retirement, James has made a successful move into coaching and is now Sussex’s lead fast bowling coach, a role that includes the continued development and nurturing of the likes of Jofra Archer, Tymal Mills, Chris Jordan and Ollie Robinson. “I did a bit of coaching (player coaching) with Namibia earlier in my career and really enjoyed it. Jon Lewis got me involved with the bowlers at Sussex originally, under Mark Robinson and then Mark Robinson got me involved with the England women’s team, which was great for my coaching development. Ian Salisbury then invited me to support him with the England disability side, which was wonderful and a real challenge for any coach. It forced me to think differently, from a coaching perspective. Jon Lewis then got appointed as head coach of the England Lions, and I’m now full time at Sussex where I looked after all of the fast bowlers from Jofra Archer through to those playing in the under 9s. In Jofra, Chris Jordan, Tymal Mills, George Garton and Ollie Robinson we have a great cartel of fast bowlers who are very exciting to work with – probably some of the quickest bowlers around and when we get them all together on the pitch at the same time, it’s so exciting.”

And what is Jofra like to work with? “His humility is striking. The way he watches games and other bowlers and his desire to learn is incredible. People see this very relaxed and laid-back guy who can bowl with the speed of light, but his humility and strength of character is very impressive. And he’s very loyal to Sussex. One of his principles is loyalty. It can be very easy for young players to be attracted to the brighter lights, but he recognises that Sussex gave him his chance. He’s settled here and truly appreciates the support he gets.”

I was intrigued to know what Jason Gillespie is like to work under, especially for an aspiring young coach? “Jason is a very experienced and highly regarded coach. Every time a job comes up, he’s one of the first names that get punted around. His ability to put players at ease and his ability to create the right environments are unrivalled. So, for me, as a coach who is perhaps more technically minded it’s great to be around someone like Jason to learn from him.”

And what does the future hold for James Kirtley? “I’ve only had a year or two with Sussex and I really want to build something here. I want to be a bowling coach and Sussex have given me that opportunity, and let’s be honest there aren’t many bowling coaches who get to have Jofra, Chris Jordan, Tymal Mills and Ollie Robinson in their side!”

Very, very true!

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