Taha Hashim meets Stuart Meaker, the ex-England quick whose playing career has come to an end.
Stuart Meaker was sat at The Oval commentating on a Test match, just days from retirement at the age of 32. He’d taken 290 first-class wickets – most of them for Surrey – and played for England. But the feeling still nagged away. He couldn’t shake it. What might have been.
“I was writing this whole retirement announcement and there was still a part of me: ‘I could’ve been there’. You know what I mean? Looking at how I used to bowl compared to how a lot of them are bowling now. The biggest difference they all had in that Test match was consistency. That was one thing I always lacked in my career.”
What Meaker did have was speed. Real unexpurgated pace. Coming through at Surrey, he famously hit the mid-nineties (mph) in ECB tests. And he could swing the red ball; on a good day, both ways. For two seasons in his early twenties, he scared them up, and squared them up. In 2011, 44 wickets at 22.56 helped Surrey to promotion; in 2012, he took the same number of wickets at exactly the same average in Division One.
Not every spell was chillingly quick, but there was magic in the feeling. “When everything clicked, I felt I could bowl the ball anywhere I wanted to and blokes would miss it. It’s such a self-esteem builder, because you’re kind of like, ‘I’ve arrived. You can’t do anything to me’. It puts you in this competitive mode where you feel godlike, in a way. When I was at that peak, and in that form, honestly, I saw my career going massively in the right direction.”
England came calling, with two ODIs in India in 2011 and two T20Is on another tour of the country the following year. Four international wickets included two Virat Kohli dismissals – “Twice! I’m holding onto that…” – but it’s the experience of travelling to a cricket-mad country that stands out. “Being out in India with the England team, you’re a rockstar. Suddenly, you’re like, ‘Yes! This is what you came to play cricket for’.”
By 23, Meaker had played his last match for England. Injuries began to affect body then mind. In 2013, he underwent surgeries on his knee and shoulder, and the after-effects lingered. “I played through the whole of the 2012 season with this knee issue – towards the end it got really bad, especially when I was overseas and with England. I had to just manage it because patellar tendonitis is not something you can just will away or rehab in six to eight weeks; it’s a long, slow rehab-type of process. The surgery definitely did help, but that changed all my dynamics.
Thank you all for the most amazing memories, the support from fans, friends, coaches, team mates. It’s been a wild ride and I’m proud of everything I achieved. 🙏 pic.twitter.com/FUuedoynw9
— Stuart Meaker (@SMeaker18) September 8, 2021
“I’d be sitting at home after a day of not doing particularly well and my knee would be throbbing, just reminding me: ‘Maybe that’s why you didn’t perform well, because you’re having to battle through this pain’. It feels like someone’s shoved a fork in your knee and told you to carry on playing. And you’re like ‘I want this fork out’, and you can’t. You’ve just got to crack on. And it plays on your mind at night and throbs in your bed at night.
“It became really debilitating mentally as much as anything. And then having to recover, get back and go through the surgeries – I’d never had a major injury in my life. So I had a lot to overcome and readjust to. I’d been this supreme athlete as a kid. And then the knock-on effects that had on my physique and bowling – it did change me. It changed me a lot.”
As he lost control of his outswinger, Meaker drifted further to the edges. In 2015, he featured in just three County Championship fixtures, taking five wickets at an average of 56.2. He did enjoy a resurgence in 2016, returning 37 first-class wickets at 30.94 as Surrey head coach Michael Di Venuto offered simple instructions: “All that Diva did was say ‘I’m not bothered where you swing it. I just want you to come in, hit the pitch as hard as you can and be aggressive, and that’s all I care about’.” But those methods took their toll on the body over the course of two summers and the signing of Morne Morkel ahead of the 2018 season signalled the start of the end. “I kind of knew that he was going to be doing my role as a hard, nasty fast bowler.”
After just one Championship appearance across his last two seasons at Surrey, Meaker upped sticks to Sussex for 2020. But Covid grounded his debut season, and while he felt primed ahead of this summer, the results didn’t materialise. Meaker played his final professional match at the start of July as Sussex – aiming to give youth a chance – eventually finished bottom of Division Three, the lowest rung of this year’s Championship.
“I got the ball swinging and was going well and I was really excited for the start of the season and then for whatever reason the results didn’t quite go my way. I didn’t feel like the ball moved off the straight but Ollie Robinson will probably tell you otherwise! And not only that, but I’d started picking up a lot of the niggles I’d battled with previously throughout my career. I started battling with me knee again. I’d been through that whole rigmarole before and the mental fatigue that created in me was not to be underestimated. Couple that with us not doing well, and the club massively changed their agenda and direction to go with younger players. And that’s their prerogative and their business, because if you don’t have senior guys necessarily performing as you’d like, then you’ve got to give guys a chance.
“It was time to just say, ‘I’ve had a great run, I’ve moved clubs to try and reinvigorate things and it’s not quite worked out’.
“To get through this game as a fast bowler, you have to be absolutely passionate about it. If I was deeply honest with myself, I’d lost a little bit of that because of the stuff I was having to push myself through. And the mental fatigue and waking up in the morning, just being like, ‘Please let it rain’, those were all things that factored into the decision [to retire].”
Please let it rain? It’s a frank admission, but Meaker is an honest talker. Earlier this year he opened up to ESPNcricinfo about turning to therapy after going through a divorce, and he’s willing to detail the impact of anxiety on his own game.
“I think mental health is something everyone struggles with at any point in their life… For me, the way it affected me was anxiety and then because of the anxiety I wouldn’t sleep very well. I would struggle with recovery, I’d be up all night thinking about stuff.
“First game of the season this year, it was at Lancashire and it ended up snowing so it was no good [the weather saw to a final-day draw]. Two days before the game, when I knew that I was probably going to play, I probably slept a grand total of two or three hours each night because I was restless, nervous. I’d played this game for 14 years but knowing I was going into a game I desperately wanted to do very well in, I couldn’t sleep as a result. It meant I rocked up on day one and I was on my knees, thanking the gods we were batting first.
“I don’t know why my mind would play tricks on me. I think it’s also because of your outside life. Why is it that I’m putting so much importance on this game? It could be anything. It could be from where it ends up taking my career, my finances, my ability to get an extension of a contract. These are all things that people battle with and try and find coping mechanisms for every single day.”
Seeking professional help has been a major benefit. “What it has definitely helped me with is my ability to be self-aware and emotionally intelligent, to understand when you’re feeling a particular way, to capture yourself in those particular moments and be like: ‘I’m feeling like this because of maybe this, this and this, but that feeling isn’t going to last forever.’ It’s a real habit that you have to constantly practice.”
By the end of his career, he’d lost his love for playing. As the summer wound down, though, Meaker found himself commentating on England’s Test matches with India for SEN, with his voice going out to listeners in Australia and New Zealand. “It was exactly what I needed. Watching that game up at Headingley – Anderson, Overton, Ollie Robinson and Sammy Curran going about their business and produce their skills made me, as a bowler, just fall back in love with how good this game can be, and how hard it is. I look back and I’m proud of myself a little bit because I could do a lot of that stuff and I loved when everything was in the bowler’s favour. I fell back in love with it, and to talk about it – people actually think I know what I’m talking about for a change – it was really great.”
As for the future, commentary is just one option on the table. Personal training and fast-bowling coaching are mentioned as possible routes, and there’s another adventurous project in store. “I’m trying to convert a Mercedes Sprinter into a camper van,” he says – there’s even talk about driving all the way to India. For now, there’s comfort in just hitting the open road.