Our interviewee this month is a former England bowler (albeit technically he’s still available for selection!) who consistently had the speed gun over 90mph, who twice removed Virat Kohli (in India) and who if it wasn’t for some terrible luck and timing of injuries, a long international career could have beckoned. As it was, injuries, and horrible ones at that, did mean Stuart Meaker wasn’t able to achieve the career highs his undoubted talent probably deserved, but his story is an inspiring one. One which fought injury, tragedy, mental health and won.
And it was a story and journey that actually began in the southern hemisphere. “I grew up in South Africa watching your Shaun Pollock’s, Allan Donald’s, Lance Kluesner’s, Jonty Rhodes, Hansie Cronje’s and all those guys. I always remember that World Cup when Donald got run out against Australia. But cricket for me began one Christmas when I must have been about 5 or 6. We had family in Zimbabwe, and they were very good friends with the Strang brothers from Zimbabwe. Everyone got together at Christmas and the Strang brothers basically taught me how to bat and bowl. I then received a cricket bat that Christmas and I’ve played ever since!”
At the age of 12, Stuart’s love of cricket saw him get selected for Natal’s under 12 side, but there was one slight snag. His family had decided they were moving to England! “That wasn’t an easy conversation with my teacher! But I came over to England and managed to get a scholarship to go to Cranleigh School. As a kid I just wanted to play cricket and thankfully one of the other lads at the school was playing Surrey regional stuff and he said to come along, and he’d get me a trial. I played one game for East Surrey and then went straight into the Surrey under 13 side and never looked back. I was very fortunate things just seemed to fall into place.”
They certainly did as Stuart’s performances in each of the Surrey’s junior sides saw him gain England recognition at under 19 level. “We actually had a pretty decent side. A lot of the guys are still playing now. My current skipper at Sussex Ben Brown was one of them. It was a good experience. We were out in Malaysia for the under 19 World Cup and it was extremely hot and just a huge honour. And for me another step on the ladder towards where I wanted to go. But being picked for that squad affirmed in my mind that everything was going in the right place and if I kept on improving and doing well, I’d end up where I wanted to be.”
And it didn’t take long to get to that place as within a year of that World Cup he was making his full Surrey championship debut. “That debut was just bewildering! We had Shoaib Ahktar in the side and Pedro Collins who was also playing international cricket, both of whom were meant to be taking the new ball. Then Shoaib got injured and so they threw me the new ball to bowl alongside Pedro Collins. I remember my first over I bowled a ball that beat the bat but nipped and swung back at the keeper and I broke Jon Batty’s thumb! He’s had pins and all kinds of trouble with it ever since! So suddenly we were minus one keeper in the first few overs of the game. At that time, we didn’t have a backup keeper with us, he’d have been away playing for the 2’s so it would be a while before he could get to the ground and there was no one in the side who could keep. So, Scotty Newman took the gloves and kept for the first session. In my third over I managed to knick Will Jefferson off and it went straight to Scotty Newman who tried to catch it, knocked it up in the air and it got caught at third slip!! And that was my debut championship wicket!!”
I asked Stuart what it was like as a youngster to make a debut alongside someone such as Shoaib Akhtar? “As a kid I watched him bowling 100mph, so it was kind of surreal to be playing alongside him, but one thing I do remember about him is that he had the world’s longest run up! I think in my debut we were something like 7 overs, over the rate before lunch because he would literally take 10 minutes to bowl an over!!”
And also of course the experience of playing alongside some of those strong Surrey characters? “Back then there were the Butcher’s, the Batty’s, Scotty Newman, James Benning, Alex Tudor, Saqlain Mushtaq, Jimmy Ormond, it was a serious side. But it was a side coming to its end. That year was the one we got relegated and that sparked a whole clear out and change of management. That was sad because these guys had done so well, for so many years but it was a good time for me as it allowed me to be more involved and bowling. Chris Adams came in as coach and he threw in the youngsters.”
And there was some serious talent amongst that crop of youngsters. “There was a lot of strong talent that came through the academy at that time. Hamilton-Brown, Dernbach to name just two. I think the identity of the Surrey side changed a lot from being the Surrey Swaggers that would turn up and just win, to not really knowing what our identity was. Did we want to be swashbuckling, or did we want to be known for attritional cricket and grinding out wins? I’m not sure we really figured that out for a few years. But we had some really strong players in and around that side, all from the academy and they got us back into contention in division 1.”
And that period of 2011 and 2012, was arguably Stuart’s most successful and how’s this for a freaky stat. In each of those years Stuart bowled exactly the same number of balls, took exactly the same number of wickets, 44, at exactly the same average! “It was a little scary! We had some great times during that period on the pitch, we got promoted back to division 1, we won a Lord’s final – our one-day side was brilliant – the boys didn’t stop celebrating that Lord’s win for a week!”
And Stuart’s bowling was central to Surrey’s resurgence. It was the pace that he was bowling at that made him stand out in county cricket. Not only was he was regularly bowling at speeds in excess of 90mph, but he was swinging the ball both ways. This was also of course a time when English cricket was desperate for a bowler who could generate some express pace, to complement the likes of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad. It was the one spot in that successful Andrew Strauss side that no one had really nailed down. I was keen to hear from Stuart if he at the time felt any added pressure because of that?
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t really think much of it. That said, there were a couple of tours I went on for England and the feedback I received was that I didn’t actually bowl that fast. I found that surprising as on those tours I only had net sessions and I knew I was never going to be playing. As hard as you try, net sessions cannot replicate the intensity of playing out in the middle. It wasn’t like I wasn’t putting the effort in; I just didn’t really know what they were expecting. The only thing I could think of was that these guys were used to facing the likes of Mitchell Johnson and Shoaib Akhtar out in the middle and were thinking why is he not bowling like that, I don’t know.”
Stuart at this point shared what was for me interesting insights into the life of a fast bowler, drawing comparisons to some of the recent criticisms the likes of Jofra Archer has faced. Let’s be honest a number of us at times have asked why Jofra doesn’t replicate that Steve Smith spell, in every spell that he bowls. In truth, I’m not sure many of us truly appreciate how tough it is to bowl genuinely fast.
“When I bowled at Loughborough and broke the record for the record pace or whatever it was, I bowled a spell of something like 18 balls. I bowled indoors, wore trainers so I was all light footed. I hadn’t just spent the whole day in the field. I arrived, I warmed up and I didn’t need to worry about where this ball went because of the match situation. I just had to run up and bowl it as fast as possible. I don’t think people necessarily appreciate that, just because you have bowled in that situation at 96mph, with no pressures you can do that all the time. If I, or Jofra, wants to bowl with any degree of control or try to get shape on the ball there’s absolutely no way you could bowl at 96mph, day in, day out and still be walking by the end of your career. It’s impossible. People need to realise that yes there are guys with serious pace but to bowl it day in, day out is incredibly difficult.”
He also rightly points out the conditions you get in England. “We live in a country where guys like Darren Stevens takes large numbers of wickets and that tells you that actually having the ‘skills’ is the most important thing in English conditions. Homing in on an area is so important. With the pitches we play on having a bit of pace is actually nicer to bat against than someone like Darren Stevens who has no pace, and you have to force a shot which brings in the knicks and LBWs. You look around the grounds now and it’s the players with less pace that are the ones cleaning up. People forget that when Jofra was playing regularly for Sussex the balls that were getting most of his wickets were the ones that were hooping and swinging around. Pace is a fear factor and of course batsmen don’t want to face that and are fearful of it, but bowling ‘skills’ is the main thing that gets you wickets in England. We just have an obsession in this country about pace bowling.”
They are good points that he raises.
Now, Stuart did make his England debut during this golden 2011/12 period, when he was selected for England’s ODI tour of India in 2011, where he played two ODIs in Mumbai and Kolkata, together with two T20 internationals in Pune and Mumbai.
“Towards the end of the 2011 summer I was asked to come down to the Oval to bowl at the ODI side, so I guess I’d been on their radar. But I remember when I received the call from Geoff Miller, I was in my flat and Geoff basically said, ‘Meaks, you’re in the squad’. I remember sitting on a step and didn’t move for about an hour. I just sat there thinking ‘oh my God, oh God, oh my God!’ I remember that moment to this day. I was absolutely elated. The worst bit was I couldn’t tell anyone until they had made it public. All I wanted to do was call up all my mates, but I couldn’t! It was just a dream come true.”
England lost both of the one-day games but did win the T20 international in Mumbai. Stuart didn’t disgrace himself and bowled with pace and heart, picking up Ajinkya Rahane, caught behind and in the T20 in Pune, he had the honour of clean bowling Virat Kohli. A wicket he followed up by trapping Kohli LBW in the next game. Not a bad start to international cricket.
“It wasn’t too bad! It was a shame we lost both of the ODI games, but I remember bowling a maiden in my first over and anyone who knows me knows, I never bowl maiden overs! I was just thinking something is up here!”
Stuart was making a name for himself, and in 2012 he was called up as a replacement, again in India, for Steven Finn who injured himself in the 1st Test. And he was on the verge of making his Test debut in Mumbai, but sadly it wasn’t to be…
“I got called up to come out as cover. I’d been named in the England Lions squad who were to tour India as well, so I was asked if I could come out early. So, I did in time for the 2nd Test in Mumbai. The night before the game, I was told to make sure I was ready as Broady had gone in the guts and the likelihood was I’d be playing. I couldn’t believe it. I’d just flown out as cover and suddenly I was on the verge of making my Test debut. We then rocked up to the ground in the morning and there was Broady out in the middle bowling a ton of overs. I didn’t end up playing so went and joined the Lions and that was when I started to struggle with my knee and was the beginning of the end in terms of international cricket.”
It really does show the part luck plays in professional sport.
“It does. It just felt like someone had shoved a fork under my kneecap and I was being asked to carry on playing. It was horrible and really affected my performance. Don’t get me wrong, some days it would be alright but more often than not, I couldn’t stand up.”
Not only was it frustrating, mentally those injuries had a big impact on Stuart’s career.
“Don’t get me wrong there are people who’ve had far worse stories than me, after all I’m still playing, but I desperately didn’t want to be that ‘unlucky’ player. I didn’t want to be another stat. But often there is nothing you can do about it. It was just rotten timing. I was in some serious form and bowling really well and what was frustrating for me was it was an injury that niggled away for a few years. Even having surgery didn’t stop it for 18-24 months afterwards.”
In addition to the injuries, Stuart also had to contend with the death of his Surrey team-mate and close friend, Tom Maynard. Tom, a promising and popular young batsman, was killed hours after playing for Surrey in a T20 game versus Kent. His death shocked the cricketing public and was tough for everyone involved at Surrey.
“It was so surreal. I remember being called up by Griz (Chris Adams) at about half seven in the morning. I just sat there struggling to take it all in. We all met up at Rory’s (Hamilton-Brown) house and there was just a bunch of grown-up macho men all reduced to tears. It was so tough. But what I’ll always remember is the way all of the players stuck together, it was incredible.”
It was a difficult time, a time you wouldn’t wish upon anyone and understandably there was an effect on Stuart’s performances. “I had two years where I was nowhere. It was like I had forgotten how to bowl. Of course, there were games where I did bowl well. I remember getting an 11-for at Guildford, but overall, I lost my wrist, I couldn’t swing the bowl away anymore. There were some really tough days mentally for me. I had thoughts of if this was the way it was going to be, then I might as well pack it in. I didn’t want to be charging in all day and people saying, ‘what’s going on here’. It was an incredibly tough time. I genuinely didn’t know why it was going on. I looked at footage, I asked coaches and there was just nothing I could do. When I had those two great years, I taught myself how to swing the ball away, at pace. That’s what got me all those wickets. I did have a weird grip and technique, but it was one that worked for me. I had holding positions that allowed me to do it, but with surgery I couldn’t hold those positions consistently anymore. I think that’s what ended up causing me all the issues. I was chasing my tail.”
Stuart did overcome it and he credits former England bowling coach Kevin Shine. “I was going into my last year with Surrey and luckily the ECB threw me an olive branch. Kevin helped me out massively and got me on to a fast-bowling camp with some of the up-and-coming fast bowlers in the country. It meant I was up at Loughborough for most of the winter and I worked my absolute nuts off. I gymed harder than I have ever done in my life. It took a lot out of me mentally and really tested me. It was what I needed. I was still having issues with my shoulder and wrist but that and Surrey’s appointment of Michael Di Venuto as head coach is what I needed. Di Venuto came in and he just said ‘I don’t care about the past. You have real pace, you’ve been working hard all I want you to do is run up, bowl fast and hit the pitch as hard as you can. I just want you to be aggressive. Don’t worry about trying to swing it or anything else.’ I bowled quite well that year, with good pace and I got myself back into England Lions squad. Being truthful, I wasn’t the same bowler who was firing back in 2011/12 but I felt good.”
This alone says something about his character. “I’m someone who’ll never give up. And I learn that with a little bit of fight, going back to basics, working hard and trusting yourself and having faith is so important. It’s the hardest thing to do, but when I speak to youngsters now, I just tell them that it’s not going to be your day every day. There are some bowlers who make bowling look easy, like Ollie Robinson. I wish it was easy for me, but you come to the realisation that players like Ollie aren’t the norm. It isn’t easy and you have to be kind to yourself when it’s not your day. As long as you can walk away from a game and say you worked your socks off and gave your all, you will walk away and be proud of what you did, and people will recognise that.”
It also shows the importance of coaches backing their players and what true ‘backing’ does for players’ confidence. “Massively. It gives you a comfort blanket. Cricket is one of those weird sports you have to have faith and a lack of fear. If you don’t and don’t have that backing from your coach, you’ve lost the battle.”
Ongoing injuries did mean Stuart didn’t get regular cricket for Surrey and in the winter of 2019/20, with a year left on his contract, his long association with the brown caps came to an end. “A lot happened to me towards the end of my time at Surrey. I went through a divorce. I sold my house and there was a lot of change going on in my life. Surrey were really good through all of that. I got through all of it and felt I kept my neck above water, and I was determined to get back training hard. But Surrey ended up signing a host of bowlers, including overseas ones and I just sat there and thought, realistically ‘I’m not going to play an awful lot here.’ It was the right time to leave.”
Stuart made the move to Sussex. “I needed somewhere fresh. Fresh people. New sets of eyes on my game and Sussex fitted perfectly. There were a couple of other counties interested, which was nice. But the real options for me were Gloucestershire and Sussex, and Sussex was where all my family and friends were, so it was the perfect fit. Dizzy was also coach at the time and I’m really happy how it’s worked out. It’s an amazing club. We’ve a young side with a hell of a lot of talent, with some serious prospects coming through. When I was growing up in South Africa, I played rugby for a family-run club and I get the same vibes with Sussex. You’re not pampered, we’re here to play good cricket, work hard and make the best of what we have.”
And how challenging has it been playing through Covid? “Bizarre! I made the move down last year; worked really hard on in the gym and on my bowling – I was in a really good place when we went on tour to Cape Town and then the world was hit by Covid. No one was prepared for what was to come or how long it would last. The sad thing for me personally was that all of that hard work over the winter went by the wayside. That was frustrating and it was difficult playing with no crowds, particularly in the T20 games.”
And what are the aims for this season? “Wickets would be nice! I worked really hard again last winter and was confident of getting a serious number of poles this summer, but in the early games there hasn’t been much movement off the pitch, so it’s been back to hitting lengths and hitting the pitch hard. I’m just keeping that faith. As a club I’m really excited where we can go. Ian Salisbury is a great coach. He knows the game and is a good human being who talks to you at your level and Kirts, I honestly think will be a future bowling coach for England. He works his nuts off and genuinely wants you to do well as player and bowler. He’s a coach I wish I’d had many years ago.
Players like Stuart are the players we can often forget about as England players, but actually they are the ones we can all draw so much inspiration from. He may not have got the international recognition he deserved, but his character and fight are traits all youngsters in the game should look up to. I for one hope he gets to end his career with at least one more season of ‘serious poles’. He deserves it.