words: DAVE BRAYLEY
Robert Croft and Glamorgan have been synonymous for a generation. In fact, make that two generations. Robert joined the club back in 1986 as a 16-year-old on a summer contract, when the likes of Rodney Ontong, Greg Thomas and John Hopkins were all still at the club. Anyone under the age of 30 is unlikely to have heard of that legendary trio, but Robert is the only player who can link those three greats of yesteryear to a modern day youngster in the current squad like James Harris. The gates Robert walked through back then were not the grand ones of The Swalec Stadium, but the far humbler ones that led into the under-developed and modest arena that was Sophia Gardens. Being associated with one club as a player – in any sport – for 26 years is almost unique and to mark that long association, Robert has deservedly been awarded a Testimonial by the club this season, so it’s safe to assume that the lure of playing for Glamorgan was always at the front of the mind of the teenage Croft, growing up in Hendy in the 1980’s.
Apparently, not so. “My career aim as a youngster was always to play for England. As a kid growing up, Glamorgan weren’t on TV much so my first memories of cricket was the Test Match calypso music on BBC, Richie Benaud’s voice and England walking out to bat or field. I always saw the BBC Test Match coverage as the epitome of the game and I always wanted to be involved in that.”
Despite this far off dream of playing for England, it wasn’t long before the club with the daffodil as its crest made its way into Robert’s sights. “Obviously, as my cricket developed and I got older, I then became more aware of Glamorgan and started to understand that it was really the team of Wales, so therefore Glamorgan became the team I wanted to represent first and foremost and then hopefully kick on and play at the highest level.”
He did indeed kick on, and that highest level arrived with Robert finally playing for England in August 1996, making his Test Debut as a 26-year-old at the Oval against Pakistan, and followed it up with his One-Day international bow a week later, again against Pakistan, but this time up in Manchester at Old Trafford.
His Test Match debut was a bit of a baptism of fire. England, captained by Mike Atherton and featuring the likes of Alec Stewart, Nasser Hussain, Graham Thorpe and Dominic Cork, succumbed to a heavy nine wicket defeat. Robert bowled to players of the calibre of Saeed Anwar, Amir Sohail, Inzamam-ul-Haq and the legendary Wasim Akram. But when he broke Pakistan’s opening partnership by having Sohail caught by Dominic Cork, his England career was up and running. But in the following 20 Tests that followed, what was his highlight? “From a team point of view, I’d have to say my career highlight was a series win in Sri Lanka in 2001” said Robert. “We lost the first Test and to come back after losing that and winning the next two was a great team effort. I remember it well. But from an individual point of view, as much as I’d love my Test career highlight to have been my bowling, it was probably my batting unfortunately! It happened against South Africa in the third Test of the ‘98 series up at Old Trafford, when batting with Darren Gough and Gus Fraser, we managed to save the game at the end.
“Managed to save the game at the end” doesn’t quite do Robert justice. That afternoon, when every cricketing judge expected an Allan Donald-inspired South Africa to steam roller England and win a Test that they had dominated from the very first ball, Robert stood firm. To all viewing, it seemed it would be just a matter of time before Donald and co rolled England over and took a two nil lead in the series, especially when Ramprakash went to Donald, lbw, for an heroic 34 off an amazing 149 balls, in a shade over three hours. England needed a similar innings from one of their remaining batters with a whole afternoon still to survive against a rampant South African team. Showing exceptional concentration levels and outstanding bravery, Robert even managed to outdo Ramprakash’s herculean effort, and fended off everything Donald and his cohorts could throw at him for an astonishing three hours and ten minutes. Croft’s 37 not out rescued the match for England, but more importantly the series. England would win the next two Tests, to take the series, two – one. That simply would not have happened without Robert’s remarkable afternoon of stubborn defiance.
It’s amazing to think that 14 years will have passed this summer since that fraught afternoon, so how does Robert cope with the rough and tumble of the game now as he enters his 42nd year? “Actually, the way its working right now is that I’m finding that playing less is harder,” he smiled. “If you’re not playing every day and your body has to start and stop, then start up again and so on, it becomes quite challenging, that’s why I’d rather play in every game. But all the clubs now have got strength and conditioning coaches, so we have our own fitness programmes that we follow. I believe the one that we’ve got is very, very good because you have to take into account people’s make up, age, size etc. which ours does. The plan is tailored accordingly for me, because the workload that my body has gone through in those 800 odd games I’ve played is a lot different to a 21 year old who has played 30. I’m meticulous in my preparation regarding my winter work, and I know what I can and can’t do, so I try to get to the levels that are asked of me prior to the season starting.”
So fitness allowing, you’ll be looking to play straight from the off this season? “Yes, absolutely. First and foremost, I always set myself up to play in every game that Glamorgan take the field. It’s the way I drive myself forward, it’s the way I get out of bed in the morning and I always want to be part of every team, and I’m disappointed if I’m not. I have my own individual goals for the team in terms of performances and also, I’d like to be part of a competition winning team again. There’s no better feeling than that and it’s getting to the point where we really need to deliver now because it’s just been too long.”
Winning is an experience Robert has savoured more than most compared to many players in Glamorgan’s long history. He’s won the County Championship once and the differing versions of the Sunday League on four occasions and also experienced a Lords final. In all those winning teams there have been some exceptional players, so who is the one that stands out the most?
“Not an easy answer because there have been so many good players in my time, but also plenty of very, very good players too. But if I had to pick one, by a hair’s breadth, the best of the lot would have to be Steve Watkin. I’d have to say that because he carried our attack by himself, singlehandedly, for a long time. It wasn’t easy doing that, home and away, every game and leading the attack yourself. There were periods of time when he shared the burden, when Waqar was there for example when we won the Championship, but largely, Steve did it himself for ten years and the other younger seamers at the club were allowed to hide in his shadow and pop out from time to time. It was different with the batters for example. We always had enough very good batters to get us out of the mire if required, James, Morris, Maynard, Dale, Cottey – there were enough there to look after each other, whereas Watty was largely out there on his own. For the amount of work that the man did, he stayed really fit too – I hardly remember him missing a game. So yes, if I had to pick one out, it would be Watty.”
So what about this year, has coach Matthew Mott laid down any specific targets for success? “No, not yet, we haven’t had our meetings yet and haven’t had the objectives passed down. I just think that the way we need to look at it is that we should want to win every game that we play. A lot gets made out of teams targeting this competition or targeting that competition, but that can get quite messy because very quickly you can be out of a competition and what have you got left to go for? I think you just have to take every game, look at it, and say “how can we win this game of cricket?” and plan the team accordingly. I don’t think you can target specific competitions. Maybe in some ways you can formulate your squad so that it might be better suited to certain competitions, i.e., by overseas signings and asking yourself, are they one day specialists? Are they quick bowlers? Are they four day specialists? Are they spinners? Are they batters? And so on, but I think it’s really difficult to target one competition.”
Twenty20 is obviously a very popular format of the game, but surely there’s still a big place for County Championship? “I think for me, Championship cricket is something that needs to be looked at a lot harder now by county clubs, and one of the reasons for that is that there is more money in it for them. Most clubs seem to be chasing this so called “pot of gold” at the end of the rainbow in Twenty20 cricket, but the amount for winning the Twenty20 this year is very similar to what a club would get for winning the second division in the County Championship, and if you are lucky enough to win the County Championship Division 1, the prize is much bigger, around half a million pounds now. So I think people need to start giving themselves more focus on Championship cricket. I believe that if you put a squad together that is good in four day cricket, there’s far more chance that they can compete in one day cricket rather than the other way around.”
So if Glamorgan are going to get into the top division in county cricket, promotion is required first. Who are the players who can deliver that for the club this season? “One of our gun players, there’s no doubt about it, is James Harries. He’s had a lot of press attention and he’s been picked for plenty of representative squads now, so he’s obviously been labelled to go further in the game. As long as he’s ok after the operation that he’s just had – he’s a consistent performer, but people need to remember that he’s still just 21 years old. That means he still needs to be nurtured along nicely because he bowls a lot of overs for Glamorgan, but with the talent that he has there’s no doubt that he’ll be a big player for us again this year.
“Will Owen did very well last year, he’s got a lot of pace, and like James, because he’s a quick bowler, he has to be managed very well especially for the amount of cricket we play in this country. If he’s playing 16 or 18 games that’s a lot to ask of a young man who tries to crank it up to 88 mph to play that many games. It’ll be a skill in itself to manage him to ensure he’s fit to play and to be able to consistently bowl at those speeds when he’s called upon.
“As a captain, Mark Wallace is going to be key for us. It’s a new challenge for Mark, he’s a lovely lad and his mental energy is going to be tested this year because he does a lot anyway with his keeping and his batting, but now as captain he’s going to almost have to watch every ball to get a feel for how the games going. So he’ll be reliant on the people around him, his generals, and the one day captain Jim Allenby.”
Talking to Robert, it was great to see a player who has done so much for the County over so many seasons, still have such optimism and confidence in his team and what they can achieve this year. But for him, what has been his personal highlight playing for Glamorgan? “Well, I’ve been lucky, there’s been quite a lot. I suppose I could give the boring answer and say winning the County Championship – and I’m not being flippant about that – but I think that would be what everybody says who have won it. But I think for me, on a personal level, it was when I scored a hundred at Colwyn Bay when we won the Sunday League in 2004 against Lancashire. That was a case when I proved a lot of things to myself. It was about doing it when it was a pressure situation, doing it when I was the captain, winning it on home soil because we’d never won anything in my career on home soil before, it was always away at Canterbury and Taunton and places like that. As a captain, I’ve always felt that you have to command respect and not demand it and the way to command it is by performance, so that day was definitely a highlight for those reasons.”
So what of the future for this cornerstone of Glamorgan for almost a quarter of a century, no thoughts of retirement? “No, and this is not necessarily the final season either. I’m not naïve enough to think that this is not the winter of my career, but the way I look at it is that I’m preparing myself to play this year and I’ll assess as the season goes on. If I’m playing well, if I’m performing and equally if the club still want me, then I’m not calling time right now. I’m in the last year of my contract and my role is to play, and to help and coach when asked. That’s as far as I’m thinking ahead at the moment in terms of playing.”
In all cricket, Robert has taken 1,645 wickets and scored 19,974 runs in his career to date. Now that’s what I’d call an ideal job. Robert Croft may well be in the winter of his career and only time will tell if it will stretch into a 25th season and maybe even beyond. But in reality, that is irrelevant. As we stand here today, Robert Croft is one of the top two or three significant players to have ever played for Glamorgan in its long, long history, and his position in the pantheon of Glamorgan greats is already assured. Whenever he does call it a day, I think we will all reflect on a record that will probably never be surpassed in the modern game. And I don’t mean just for Glamorgan either, I mean for every single one of the other 17 counties too. Looking at it again, 1,645 wickets and 19,974 runs in all cricket is a truly astonishing statistic.
And it just goes to highlight really, that Robert Croft has been – and will continue to be for a little while yet I suspect – very much, a truly astonishing cricketer.