Taha Hashim meets Matt Critchley, Derbyshire’s leading man – with both bat and ball.
To slightly tweak the words of Will Ferrell’s Mugatu: English leg-spin is so hot right now.
Mason Crane has 24 first-class wickets for Hampshire at an average of 22.50 since the start of last year’s Bob Willis Trophy. Matt Parkinson celebrates freedom from The Bubble by bowling Warne balls. And then there’s Matt Critchley: Derbyshire’s Player of the Year in 2020 and, at this moment in time, both the county’s leading wicket-taker (13 at 28.30) and run-scorer (449 at 74.83) this season. This isn’t bits-and-pieces stuff – those are numbers that make you sit up and take notice.
When asked to explain the secrets to his early season success, the 24-year-old doesn’t offer too many: “Just a lot of hard work” is the reply, less than 48 hours after he departs from the field against Worcestershire with eight wickets and knocks of 109 and 84 in the match. Yet the fact that he’s had to work for it is pretty clear.
“I played all of the age groups at Lancashire, from the under-11s, all the way through,” Critchley says. “When I was 16 or 17, I wasn’t getting into the Lancashire academy. I was doing bits and bobs, training with them, but they had Matt Parkinson, who’s obviously gone on and done what he’s done, and Rob Jones at the same age. There wasn’t quite room for me.”
The Preston-born all-rounder found a new home at Derbyshire’s academy not long after and made some first impression when he stepped up to play in the big leagues. As an 18-year-old he became the county’s youngest centurion in just his second first-class game, turning a perilous 103-6 into a first-innings total of 343 against Northants with an unbeaten 179-ball 137. From there consistency eluded him – more than understandable for a youngster making his way – and prior to the start of last year’s Bob Willis Trophy, a glance at Critchley’s first-class record wouldn’t have left you awestruck: 48 matches had produced a batting average under 30 and a bowling one of 50. But those weren’t opportunities wasted away – having always had a way with the bat, Critchley made sure he got his name on the team sheet in those early years, and thus the leg-breaks developed in the thick of it. Now he’s making all that learning pay off.
“[Batting] has definitely allowed me to play more games than I would’ve,” Critchley says. “I’d like to think I’d get picked solely as a leg-spinner now, but definitely not a few years ago. I was definitely given opportunities to get in and learn in the games. I probably played a few games when I was 19, 20, 21, when I wasn’t quite ready to play and I almost learnt on the job. So the stats reflect that a bit. Now I’m getting older and more consistent, I want to be contributing with the bat as a batter and with the ball as a bowler, not bits and pieces like how I might have done over the last few years.”
Despite his fine form with the bat – Critchley is currently the third-highest run-getter in the County Championship – it’s the leg-spin element that offers up the most interest, partly due to English cricket’s mostly troubled relationship with the art form. No wonder then that an Australian has been a close confidant.
“I’ve worked quite a lot with Stuart MacGill over the last few years. I speak to him most weeks so he’s probably been the biggest influence on my career. In 2017, I went on a placement to Sydney with Mason Crane, and he’s unbelievable to work with. Not just technically or tactically, but also just as a friend and supporter. I think he’s my biggest fan, really, after my parents and my girlfriend. He’s brilliant, amazing to speak to. Even watching videos of him bowl are amazing. He’s probably a different type of leg-spinner to what I am, but he’s been unbelievable for me.”
The former Test leg-spinner – 208 wickets in the bag – has been public in his admiration too. Speaking to Cricket Life Stories last year, his endorsement was glowing: “This dude, six foot two, he can bowl.”
Critchley’s height is a point of difference with other English leggies coming through. “He [MacGill] likes that I’m tall and the bounce I get, then the shape on it, and the fact that I do still spin it. I don’t just push it on like a lot of one-day leg-spinners – which is still effective and a good way of bowling – but it isn’t quite as classical. He likes a few of us who try and give it a rip.”
The love for the revs is there, too, even as Critchley looks to contribute equally in both facets as an all-rounder. “That’s the skill I really enjoy doing – I like learning the art of leg-spin and that’s what I get more enjoyment out of.” He doesn’t even mind bowling in the frosty opening chapters of the summer: “The early April pitches are always your friend because one spins and one doesn’t. I think I bowled a ball the other day that didn’t spin and someone described it as a slider and someone else described it as a googly. It was just a leg-spinner that didn’t spin.”
As for higher honours, Critchley’s form and unique skill-set mean his name is likely to start doing the rounds when England selection is the hot topic of the day – and he’s definitely down with that. “I definitely want to play Test cricket. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to be part of the conversation. I bat as well so I can bring something entirely different to the party.”
For now, tearing up the county game will have to suffice, and he’s not doing a half bad job of it.