Martin Bicknell was one of the finest English bowlers of his time but was unfortunate not to get a decent run in international cricket. His outstanding run for Surrey during the 2000 summer earned him a Wisden Cricketer of the Year award the following spring.
He’s tall, six foot four in his cricket boots, and with more physical presence than possibly he imagines. That floppy chocolate fringe is cropped now, and he wears spectacles off the pitch – a hint of the businessman he will become when he retires. But today, aged 32, Martin Bicknell is one of the finest English bowlers of his generation, certainly the best not to have had a decent go at Test cricket. And Surrey have lapped up that selectorial slight.
It’s been hard work over the years, but it has reaped its rewards. Even by his standards, though, 2000 was remarkable. He took 60 first-division wickets and won his second Championship medal in a row, as well as promotion for Surrey in the National League. He also made 500, vital, runs for the first time, at an average of 31. Not bad for a man who doesn’t enjoy batting that much. Then there were the finest match figures in England since Jim Laker’s 19 against Australia at Old Trafford in 1956. Bicknell’s came at Guildford, his home club, during Surrey’s golden mid-summer run. On a beautiful pitch, after his batsmen had conceded a lead, he annihilated Leicestershire with bowling that was hostile, quick and accurate. His seven for 72 in the first innings, which he considers his best bowling of all, became 16 for 119 by the end of the match. A headline-making sensation.
Bicknell is both a stalwart and a stylist. A classic English new-ball bowler: all short run, high arms and high knees, a natural out-swinger with the knack of cutting the ball back into the right-hander. And, like Alec Bedser in the 1950s, he is the rhythmic heart of Surrey. The metronome to Alex Tudor’s scattergun and the Saqlain-Salisbury trickery.
Martin Paul Bicknell was born in Guildford on January 14, 1969. He was just what his older brother Darren had been waiting for. The pair spent their boyhood tearing around, kicking footballs and imitating the 1976 West Indians. Martin’s early loyalty was to Ian Botham’s Somerset, but The Oval brought his first experience of Test cricket – England v Australia in 1977: “It rained most of the day and we only saw about an hour’s play.”
The soggy sandwiches worked their magic and Bicknell went to play for local club Normandy when he was ten, opened the batting and bowling at school, and started playing Surrey age-group cricket. However, it wasn’t until he shot up – Graham Thorpe, who rose through the ranks with him, was always taller – that he made a real and rapid impact. School was not his strongest suit, and Bicknell left at 16, pocketing some O-levels and climbing straight into his whites. They were to prove more useful than the certificates.
That summer he had a smashing season with Guildford, one excellent, seven-wicket Second Eleven game against Middlesex, and was rewarded with a Surrey contract. He made his debut the following year, 1986, against Derbyshire at The Oval, a year before Darren. Wisden tells of the 17-year-old who “swept Derbyshire aside on the final morning by taking three for four in 11 deliveries”. From there followed two overseas tours with England Young Cricketers, one with England A (along with Darren) and, in 1989, his county cap. Then, “probably too early”, he was picked for England’s 1990/91 tour of Australia and New Zealand.
He didn’t play a Test – just seven one-day internationals – but he adored it. He loved being part of the set-up, loved the attention and loved the pressure, despite being battered, physically and emotionally, by Dean Jones at Ballarat: none for 94 while Jones struck a savage century for Victoria. All of which made his subsequently brief Test career in the demoralising summer of 1993 – two Tests, 87 overs, four wickets, two ducks and a dodgy knee – so much harder to take.
Bicknell was hampered by the selectorial blind man’s buff of the 1990s and plagued by a horrific run of injuries: dislocated shoulder, knee operation, broken bone in his side. But it is a mystery that he has never made the England team-sheet since. He has taken 50 or more first-class wickets in a season nine times and been the spearhead of the most potent attack in the country. Perhaps he’s been around so long that he’s always been considered older than his years. Maybe he’s considered too slow to get players out at Test level. That one rankles: “It doesn’t hold much water with me. If you’re good enough and you get people out, it doesn’t matter at what pace you bowl.”
But playing for Surrey brings its own fulfilment. Bicknell has warm respect for his captain, Adam Hollioake, with whom he shares a sixth sense about when he should come on. He enjoys bowling with Alex Tudor more than any of his previous partners. He relishes the mateship of playing with a successful, close-knit side, even if he is different from the young pups who have known nothing but success. He has never been the outgoing sort that a few at Surrey are now. He’s rather shy and gentle and not too forthcoming. “I think that has often been perceived as being a bit arrogant at times, but that’s the furthest thing from the truth.”
Not that he is soft. He is driven by fear, the fear of not being good enough to do it any more. He finds it so hard to switch off that he often wakes in the night, worrying about the next match. His wife, Lorraine, and young daughters Eleanor and Charlotte do their best to distract him. So does the golf course. He plays off a handicap of five and has set up his own business selling clubs and setting up tournaments.
But that’s for the future. His more immediate target is 1,000 first-class wickets. He has 174 to go and reckons on pounding another four or five years out of that battered body. While Bicknell is considered superfluous to England’s needs, he is living, vigorously appealing proof that county cricket is not yet dead.
Martin Bicknell played no more than four Tests and seven ODIs for England, picking up 14 and 13 wickets in the respective formats. In 292 first-class appearances across two decades, he took 1061 wickets at 25.06.