Ahead of a potential Test comeback, Craig Overton talks to Taha Hashim about how he’s changed as a bowler, the long queue ahead of him, and the racism allegations that marred his early career.
The numbers are frankly ridiculous. Since the start of last summer, Craig Overton has taken 66 first-class wickets in 12 matches at an average of 13.12. Five five-wicket hauls and sheer relentlessness with the cherry-red Dukes – no wonder he’s in the Test squad for the New Zealand series.
If he plays, it’ll be an opportunity to right some wrongs. Four Test appearances so far have resulted in four defeats and nine wickets at 44.77. When he last turned out – against Australia at Old Trafford two years ago – it looked to be a step too far for a domestic powerhouse, with his 6ft 5in frame still lacking that something else to break through the next ceiling.
After that Ashes series, Overton wanted to know what to do next. He approached then chief selector Ed Smith, who said a case could be rebuilt if the Somerset quick married his accuracy with a little bit of extra pace. “I want to be improving all the time,” the 27-year-old tells Wisden. “I wanted to be playing for England, I wanted to be playing at the highest level and I needed to find out what they thought of me. They thought that, and I’ve gone away to try and work at that and that’s all you can do as a cricketer.”
Overton sought the help of his county’s coaching staff and found those extra knots. Was it a difficult process?
“Not really!” he says nonchalantly. He explains that he’s always had a little bit extra packed in the reserves. “Because the seamers can bowl so much week-in-week-out [in county cricket], you tend not to bowl at 100 per cent all the time just because it’s not really possible.
“I’ve had to learn to bowl at 100 per cent all the time, and it’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s something you’ve got to get used to – because as soon as you get to Test level and you’re bowling at 80 per cent, you’re not going to be very effective. That’s something I’ve worked really hard on in the nets, and in training I’ve been bowling harder than I’d even tend to do in a game, which makes it a little bit easier when I get to a game.
“I haven’t really changed my fitness [regime]. I wouldn’t say it’s any different to what I did before, I just needed to get used to bowling at that intensity for spells – not one spell a game – but for almost every spell.”
So now he’s back and ready to take on Test cricket from a far better base than before – he knows his action better, he’s more experienced and, crucially, he desires the chance to show it. But the main issue lies in the time and place Overton finds himself in. Beyond the Anderson-Broad axis there’s the 90mph lightning of Archer, Wood and Stone; the carpe diem attributes of Sam Curran; and the under-appreciated brilliance of Woakes. And then there’s Ollie Robinson, the parsimonious miser from Sussex pressing for a debut against New Zealand.
While recognising that such depth is both “what you need as a good side” and “frustrating” on a personal level, Overton can also see a void that will need filling down the line, when those two new-ball wonders finally call it quits.
“I understand that there are numerous bowlers, and two of England’s greatest ever bowlers still in the side. You’re not going to be able to replace them just like that. I’ve got to bide my time and learn as much as I can when I’m in the squad and around them because that’s only going to help me perform better when they decide to give it a rest. That’s something that, we’re not all waiting for, but it’s something I’ve got to be ready for when it does happen.”
The evolution of Overton the cricketer has been evident for some time now; how the man himself has changed may be harder to discern but it’s no less important to his story.
In September 2015, Overton was banned for two matches after an accumulation of disciplinary offences that season. The third and final misstep had come during a County Championship fixture against Sussex which led to Overton being reported for a Level One offence for using “obscene, offensive or insulting” language.
Three months later, the Guardian reported key details of what had happened at Hove: that Overton’s Level One sanction had been issued after the bowler was heard telling Ashar Zaidi, Sussex’s Pakistan-born all-rounder, to “go back to your own f***ing country”. The claims were made by umpire Alex Wharf and the batsman at the non-striker’s end, Michael Yardy. Herman Ouseley, the then chairman of Kick it Out, told the Guardian that Overton’s punishment was “outrageous” and that he should have been met with a more serious sanction for abuse that was “clearly racially offensive”. Overton denied making the comment.
In recent years Overton has talked about maturing with age, sessions with a psychologist and lessons learned regarding his on-field behaviour. He reiterates this once more: “As you get older, you mellow a little bit, understand what you can and can’t do. I’ve realised that you can’t go around doing what I was doing then and I’ve learned ways to deal with my emotions.” But anger cannot be used to mask allegations of racist abuse. “I don’t believe I said it,” he says when I press him about the Zaidi incident and the alleged remark.
“I don’t believe that I’m that sort of character. We’ve had Azhar Ali in our changing room and I’m the first one to go up and speak to him in the changing room and have a chat with him. I’m not that sort of person. Sometimes in the heat of the moment, when I was younger, I could be a bit feisty, and I’ve definitely calmed down as a person from then.”
The use of a Pakistan batsman’s recent presence in the Somerset’s dressing room, as some sort of defence against allegations of racism, is both jarring and unfortunately worded. But there does appear to be a level of sincerity in Overton’s next few words: while steadfast in his own innocence, he understands the need to continue educating himself in matters that go beyond the game.
“We have chats about racism every year and I’m making sure I’m learning as much as possible because we can all learn more about what’s happened in the past and what we can do in the future. It’s something we all have to deal with and we have to make sure everyone’s accountable for what they do.”
“We made sure as a side that we spoke about it before we played West Indies,” he adds, referring to England’s decision to take a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement prior to the first Test of last summer at the Ageas Bowl, where Overton was present as a reserve. “We spoke about how we were going to make a stance there and we decided what we were going to do as an England side. I came back to Somerset and before our first game we had a chat about what we could do, and we decided that taking a knee was a good thing to create more awareness. We know it’s a small thing, but it creates awareness, so that when people see someone taking a knee they can understand the deeper meaning behind it.”
In an ideal world, this interview begins and ends with a nice chat about Overton’s cricketing excellence. But English cricket is slowly coming to realise the need for uncomfortable conversations and Overton, to his credit, seems to grasp elements of that, too. “The more I can talk about it – I know it’s hard – the easier it becomes for me to understand past situations.” With that, I wish him the best for the first Test at Lord’s and bid farewell.