In the second issue of the Pinch Hitter, two years on from an acrimonious switch along the south coast, Sam Northeast retraces his journey, plots a golden era ahead for Hampshire, and considers how close he is to that elusive England Test call-up.
His entire life had been driven by the goal of playing cricket for England. But it wasn’t until June 17, 2014, that Sam Northeast took his biggest step towards international honours – by accepting that he wasn’t good enough.
That Monday morning, the then 24-year-old sat in a quiet changing room at The Mote, Maidstone, trying to get his head straight. He’d been dropped from the Kent side after scoring just 178 runs in 12 Championship innings. Daniel Bell-Drummond had taken his opening spot and Fabian Cowdrey had usurped him at No.3 the previous day.
It was a turning point, not just in the career of this Harrow schoolboy prodigy turned Kent’s Great White Hope, but also his life. That afternoon, Northeast hit 135 against Gloucestershire’s Second XI. He added another 93 in the second innings the following day, and never looked back.
I called Northeast on the phone that Tuesday evening, for an interview for the upcoming edition of the Kent Messenger, my day job at that time. I remember the conversation well. It was pretty raw. I was struck by his vulnerability.
When we spoke about it this week – via Zoom of course – it felt like I was talking to a different person. A worldly-wise independent man, far removed from the gawky kid who made his first-class and List-A debuts at the age of 17. The only thing the two players have in common is the name. Oh, and that signature mop of unruly hair.
“Somehow I’m 30 now,” he says, a touch bemused. “I always think my career didn’t really start until I was 24 or 25 – that was when I began scoring runs. That was the turning point. I got back in the first team, batted in the middle order and have never gone back up to opening again since.”
In addition to technical work with Kent’s high performance director Simon Willis, Northeast succeeded in getting his head straight. “I did lots of work mentally around that time. I felt so far away from playing for England – which was always the goal. I had to change focus to just be as good as I can be and not worry about the England side of things. It felt a million miles away. It got me to focus on playing for Kent, doing well and not worrying about anything else.”
The rewards for this renewed focus came swiftly, when Northeast was called on to captain the Spitfires in the absence of his mentor, Rob Key. “We topped the group and only lost one game. It was a real confidence booster – you feel like you’re making it in the game. I started really enjoying my cricket, probably for the first time ever. I’d been in and out of the side until then, didn’t really know where I was going, constantly failing – you just don’t enjoy it.
“As soon as that changed, I started enjoying it, having an input, my game was going forward, everything sort of flipped – my persona, the way I carried myself. I just changed, and how I felt about cricket changed as well. I found that love for it again.
“At times I didn’t believe that I was good enough to play county cricket. Sometimes you just need a break, a bit of confidence and you think, ‘Actually I am one of the best players around’.”
With the passing of time and the accumulation of runs came maturity, and the acceptance of who he was as a person, as much as a player. “There’s such a mental side to the game,” he says. “I know myself so much better now. I was searching for years to find the best way to score runs – what my technique was and how to face up against certain bowlers.
“By the time you’re ready for your glory years you know what works for you and what doesn’t. In terms of training you know what’s best and how you like to operate. You need all those things in place before you can succeed.”
The pandemic has compelled us to reflect on what’s important, none more so than this former Man of Kent, who now calls Hampshire his home.
He admitted: “As a sportsman, watching The Test [Amazon’s documentary about the Australian men’s team], the summer of Stokes’ heroics, the World Cup final… it makes you want to get out there. It’s difficult for everyone but the whole world is going through a tough stage, it’s not just sport.
“The problem is we just don’t know when we’ll get back out there. It would be nice to have a date to aim for but we don’t really have anything like that. Let’s just try and hope we get some sort of cricket, if it’s July or even August. We’ll just have to hope for the best.”
One could forgive Northeast for feeling a little frustrated – he’s just turned 30 and is desperate to stake his claim for a maiden England call-up via weight of runs for a very handy-looking Hampshire side, who will, eventually, be gunning for a first County Championship title since 1973.
“We were really excited about the Championship this year. We had Nathan Lyon coming over and with the weather we’ve had these would have been perfect conditions for him. There’s a nice feel about us at the moment that we’re building to something pretty special. In the two years I’ve been there I’ve seen the improvement and the squad seems to be getting better. Who knows, we might be able to get some sort of County Championship in at some stage.”
Northeast said if he could choose to play just one format in a reduced 2020 season, it would be red-ball cricket. “We’ve found a method in the Championship. When I got there I don’t think we believed we could win the Championship, we had a lot of talent but I think last year we were building and now we’re ready to win one.
“In the one-day side we got to two Lord’s finals and there’s no doubt if we keep performing this could be a golden era for Hampshire. We’ve got the squad and we’re in a win-now position. Guys are in their pomp.
“If we found ourselves in a situation where we only get to play one competition, I personally like the Championship, but that’s me. Hampshire hasn’t come close to winning the Championship for a long time so that’s a big push from the club to win it.”
Lockdown life is dominated by online fitness sessions and walking his two dogs with his partner. It’s not just cricket he’s missing at the moment though; having bought a football to practise his free-kicks in the park during his daily exercise, the council literally moved the goalposts.
“We stay in touch on Zoom which is quite fun, and everyone is interacting – we’re keeping the squad community together and the spirit is still pretty high, even going through this horrible time.
“We’re just going to have to get up to speed quickly. Who knows if we’re going to have any preparation time. I think guys will be pretty happy as soon as we get the green light to see each other again to just go out and play.”
Every cloud has a silver lining of course. This Sunday, Hampshire should be hosting Northeast’s former club in their opening Championship game. “Some batters would probably be quite happy they’re not batting in April against the likes of Darren Stevens. I was having nightmares about having to face Stevo with a new ball in the first game of the year. That’s one positive to take out of it, I suppose…”
Despite the limitations of lockdown life, Northeast knows that he is “one of the lucky ones” who was able to play competitive cricket as recently as March thanks to his involvement in the successful England Lions trip to Australia.
He began the red-ball tour with an unbeaten 46 against a Cricket Australia XI in Hobart, though he marks the single run he scored in the pink-ball Test against Australia A at the MCG as an opportunity missed.
With Dom Sibley and Dan Lawrence making centuries, Northeast had to watch from the balcony as the pair put on 219 for the fourth wicket in 66 overs, the foundation for an inaugural first-class victory by an England Lions or ‘A’ side over Australia.
Northeast bounced back to amass 77 not out in the final tour match against a NSW XI and admits: “It was a shame to not build on that and come back here to play. It was a really good tour, from a team perspective especially. To go over there and compete as well as we did was a good effort. It was a fantastic experience.”
With an Ashes series in Australia looming in two years, it looks like a significant trip to have been invited on. “There was definitely the feel that it was the guys who were next in line. Having guys who’d come back from England to play gives you confidence too, knowing you’re not far away from the England side if you put in some good performances.”
It was a precious chance to get amongst the set-up. “When you’re at your county all they see is numbers and results. You don’t get to know the person. They get to see what you’re like and learn what type of player and person you are. I like the fact that if I did ever get called up, I’d know the set-up, I’d know some people and it wouldn’t seem like a completely different feel.”
Despite seeing numerous batsmen burst onto the scene which he’s trodden so consistently over the past half-decade and then thrust into the Test arena, Northeast remains on the periphery of the England middle-order conversation. If he hadn’t given up on reading his social media mentions a few years back, he would be aware that he is often paired with Somerset’s James Hildreth as the most deserving of the un-capped cricketers in the country.
For all that he’s done his best work at No.4 in recent years, Northeast would do anything they ask to secure that first cap. “If you get a call saying, ‘Do you want to open the batting for England?’ Of course you would. But it’s a weird situation. Without a direct conversation [with the selectors], and you take a punt and move up to open or bat three and it doesn’t go well, you ruin the balance of the Hampshire side purely for your own selfish ambitions.
“If I’m scoring runs, it’s good for Hampshire, and then hopefully something comes of that. At the moment I’m sticking at four, trying to do my thing, score runs, and hopefully that comes with England honours as well.”
If you’d said 15 years ago that Northeast would remain uncapped at 30, not many would have believed you. A stellar schoolboy career launched him on a seemingly unerring path towards international cricket. However after England under-19s honours, it was eight long years before his next notable recognition, when he was selected in the South squad to take on the North in Dubai in 2017 – a series in which he shone.
It was another 12 months before his time in the wilderness ended and he was able to pull on an England shirt on the Lions’ one-day tour of West Indies in March 2018 – a reward for amassing almost 6,000 runs in all forms through the 2015, 2016 and 2017 seasons.
Northeast insists there are no hard feelings or bitterness when rivals are handed opportunities ahead of him – even if in some cases they are handed numerous chances to prove themselves before he is afforded one.
“In terms of players who have got in ahead of me, there’s so much talent in English cricket I think you’ve got to be the person scoring runs at the right time. There’s no frustration when people get picked ahead of me, but my goal is still to play for England. [Former Kent teammate] Joe Denly obviously got picked for England in the past few years and I hope I can follow in his footsteps.”
He will admit to frustration at being overlooked for England selection when he was making good runs in the devalued second tier. “It was as though they weren’t worth anything. Having played in both divisions in the past few years, the gap’s not as big as people say. At times it doesn’t feel like there’s a leap at all. That was frustrating, when it felt scoring runs for Kent in Division Two just didn’t mean anything.”
They certainly meant a lot to Kent. After averaging 1,000 first-class runs in 2014 and 2015, Northeast took on the captaincy in 2016 and passed 1,400 runs to steer his side to runners-up spot behind Essex. In a decision which still rankles whichever side of the River Medway you were born, Kent were denied promotion by the ECB amid the fallout of Durham’s enforced relegation and a controversial reprieve for Hampshire; how different life might have been had Kent’s appeal been successful…
In 2017, Kent won four of their first five Championship games handsomely and looked primed to channel their disappointment into promotion, before their season fell off one of those cliffs for which the county is so famous, failing to win any of their final nine matches and falling out of contention.
Northeast had again passed 1,000 first-class runs, but his disappointment in those late-summer days was palpable whenever you got within two metres of him, as we could do back then. He wanted to be playing in the top flight, where his runs would seemingly ‘count’ towards England recognition and, after an ugly behind-the-scenes spat, where both player and club seemingly questioned the other’s commitment to long-term success, a very public parting of the ways occurred in what felt like excruciating slow-motion installments.
The player refused to sign the new contract offered to him. The club appointed a new captain. The club allowed Northeast to listen to offers from other clubs – and there were plenty wanting to be heard. The player signed for Hampshire. The ink was barely wet on the paperwork for his new home in Canterbury.
Injury curtailed Northeast’s maiden season at the Ageas Bowl – limiting him to 479 runs in 11 matches in Division One, hardly the statement he was hoping for. The highlight was helping his side claim the One-Day Cup at Lord’s in July when he rattled off an unbeaten 75 to steer his new side to a win over his old one.
His innings was compiled against a chorus of boos which did Kent fans no credit. Northeast didn’t rise to it. He insisted too that it was not a matter of revenge when he cracked 105 not out last April on his first return to Canterbury.
Northeast amassed a further 1,087 first-class runs at an average north of 54 last season. Only the murky late-September gloom of Canterbury – yes, there again – denied Northeast the chance to reach the milestone of 16,000 career runs, a month before his 30th birthday. After his single at the MCG in February he needs 19 more to get there; though when, where and in which format those runs will eventually come, only time will tell.
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