Taha Hashim meets Northants’ Gareth Berg, the journeyman all-rounder who’s looking to make a splash with Italy’s national side.
County cricket’s old-timers just keep on going. At Lord’s, Tim Murtagh still bosses the Nursery End in his 40th year. Then there’s Michael Hogan, the Australian giant, a couple of months older and fast closing in on 400 first-class wickets for Glamorgan. And of course there’s the ultimate cult hero, Kent’s Darren Stevens: 45 years young and recently crowned a Wisden Cricketer of the Year.
One other name to throw in the mix is Gareth Berg, who’s in pretty good nick himself. The 40-year-old Northants seam-bowling all-rounder, previously of Middlesex and Hampshire, returned career-best match figures of 9-90 in a comprehensive innings win over Sussex last week, taking his season tally to 19 wickets in four games at an average of 18.84. Remarkably, Berg wasn’t his side’s leading wicket-taker in the match – at the other end, Ben Sanderson snared 10. Tom Taylor took the final wicket of the game to deny Berg double figures and break the hearts of statisticians.
“[Ben] and I were playing a tennis match,” says Berg, “one for one the whole way through the game.” Sanderson claimed match point, but Berg wasn’t left too dissatisfied. “You could probably see in the celebration of that last wicket that I was very happy that we got off the park with a win. I wasn’t too fussed about the 10; I was happy taking nine out of the match because it was a career-best.”
Peaking so late in the tale is certainly noteworthy, and so is Berg’s career as a whole. Born in Cape Town, he moved to England in the early Noughties and got a look-in with Northants’ second XI back in 2004. His future employers didn’t give him a shot then, however, and it wasn’t until 2008 – after Berg had worked as a tree surgeon and for Chance to Shine – that he made his first-class debut for Middlesex as a 27-year-old. Three years later, Berg averaged 42 with the bat and 20 with the ball to help the county win Division Two, only to be let go at the end of the 2014 season after a shoulder injury left him on the sidelines for much of that campaign.
And yet, following a fruitful four-year spell at Hampshire – with whom he won the 2018 Royal London One-Day Cup – and a return to Northants, Berg is still thriving. “I left that part of my career behind me and thought to myself, ‘I’ve got so much left in the tank to give’,” Berg says when recalling the end of his Middlesex stint. “It took me 10 years from leaving school to becoming a professional cricketer so I was never going to give that up because of a setback like that. I’ve always had fire in the belly and I’ve always believed that once my time is up, when I know that time is up, I will hang the boots up.”
Berg’s passion for playing the game is evident, not only through his longevity but in the unfamiliar route he’s taken towards an international career. Prior to signing for Middlesex, Berg explored the possibility of playing for Italy through links on his mother’s side of the family. “I spoke to the chairman of Italian cricket back just before I signed for Middlesex to touch base with him. I was eligible with a passport to come and play for Italy – I thought it was something exciting, something different to get involved in. When I signed my first contract with Middlesex, I had to put the Italian side on hold for a few years, until I was established in the Middlesex team and I was able to earn the right to go and play for Italy outside of my professional contract.”
Berg went on to make his international debut in the 2012 World T20 Qualifier and played in the same tournament the following year. He represented Italy in List-A cricket for the first time in 2019, and in January of this year there was a major promotion: Berg was appointed playing head coach of the national side, a role he’s having to balance alongside his county duties.
“I’m busy quite a few days of the week staying in touch with my manager and chairman. We’re organising a lot of things with kit, new sponsorships, staying in touch with our players and seeing who’s available at what time of the year with certain competitions. It is tough because they do have regular jobs and we’re trying to find out if they’re available to go away for two weeks and play cricket.”
Recruitment is another part of the job, with Berg scouring the professional circuit for players who hold Italian passports. He wants Kent’s Grant Stewart and Surrey’s Jade Dernbach – who played the last of his 34 T20Is for England in 2014 – to feature in his set-up. Beyond moving up the T20I rankings, there’s another eye-catching ambition: “The long-term aim would be to qualify for the Olympics.”
Still, even with a coaching gig, Berg – whose Northants contract runs until the end of this season – wants to keep playing. “I would love a red-ball contract next year, based on performances so far and staying fit. I know age comes into things for a lot of clubs, but I’m hoping that people looking from the outside see that there’s still a guy who’s at the top of his game, fit and still has the burning desire to achieve things.
“To play games with guys that are still new in the game, it spurs me on to prove to them and show them what it’s like to be a professional at this level. You don’t ever want these guys to think that your time’s up. You want them to keep thinking that you’re still worth your place in the team. There’s a part of that every time I step over the ropes.”
A mission statement for the old-timers, if they ever needed one.