Nick Knight: 'I've been full of praise for county cricket for years'

'Wisden' has just called the Championship 'pointless'. The man who won it thinks it is better than ever.
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The Independent Online

Nobody had Nick Knight down as a natural captain of a cricket team. Top chap, swashbuckling batsman, athletic fielder, deceptively competitive, but not one of the game's deep thinkers; the fittest cricketer in England but not necessarily the sharpest.

Nobody had Nick Knight down as a natural captain of a cricket team. Top chap, swashbuckling batsman, athletic fielder, deceptively competitive, but not one of the game's deep thinkers; the fittest cricketer in England but not necessarily the sharpest.

There was not exactly bemusement at his appointment as Warwickshire's captain - he has done far too much at the top level for that - but few, not least Knight himself, expected what happened next. In his first summer, in 2004, Warwickshire became county champions. Knight obviously had something as a hard-nosed leader after all, and as this season shivers into action he is not only a winning captain but at 35 also an elder statesman of the English professional circuit, a seasoned player who has formed opinions and judgements during a long time on the road and out in the middle.

This gives him a vested interest, of course, but it also makes him worth a proper hearing. No less an institution than Wisden was deriding county cricket as "increasingly unwatchable and pointless" in its 142nd edition published last week.

Knight, although keenly aware of the threats, is of a much more optimistic bent, a mood probably enhanced by his hundred for Warwickshire against MCC yesterday, the first of the summer and the earliest at Lord's. "I have been full of praise for county cricket for many years," he said. "I think there are some very fine players and the two-division system has worked well. It is creating much more competitive cricket more often, and it's finding out the less competitive teams and players."

Such an analysis has to be accompanied by some caveats, the list of which is topped by Kolpak players, with the promotion and relegation system just underneath. Knight says every captain in England recognises the danger of allowing the game to be swamped not only by two overseas players at each county but also by the so-called Kolpak players, who can play here under European Union regulations even if they are not eligible to play for England.

"We all have to be aware of that and it is something that at Warwickshire I tried to change with regard to overseas players. Kolpak has to be looked at carefully and it has to be made sure that it is not just the easy option. We have a good academy set-up, strong local leagues and we must encourage that. The only way it can work is to give them an opportunity."

Having said which, Warwickshire have three Kolpak or EU passport players, but at least, largely at Knight's behest, are eschewing their right to hire a second overseas player. "We would be a stronger side but English cricket wouldn't be, and a big part of my responsibility is to Duncan Fletcher and the England team. It is a crucial area for the game in this country."

As for promotion and relegation, there is simply too much of it, a point which Knight raised at the pre-season captains' meeting on Thursday. The concern is that the fear of the drop is causing the cricket to be imbued with fear and negativity too. In short, make sure you do not lose.

It is something of which Warwickshire stood accused in winning their title - with only five victories and none after late July. Knight rebuffed the assertion. "What we tried to do was win the first innings and then go on and push for victory, because it's very hard to win a game if you're hugely behind. But the fact is I didn't worry too much about relegation and wouldn't until the last few matches, because you can win the last two, get 40 points and move up from third bottom to third top.

"I actually think standards have improved because of the competitive nature. There is still a comfort zone in some cases, but the fact is that people want to get points out of each game and every game counts for something. I think that has a natural effect on the players."

But three up, three down is beginning to make for some attritional cricket in an age when Test cricket has become coruscating entertainment. There can be no room for dullness. It is fashionable to look back 40 or 50 years to a postwar golden age, but the truth is that it was in those seasons that county cricket first began to expire. The county cricket played then (not to mention some of the Test cricket) was woeful in its refusal to entertain, and the game cannot afford a repeat. Knight is fairly sure it will not get one - if they reduce the number of counties relegated.

Having been there for 17 Tests and 100 one-day internationals, he is firmly aware, despite his long-term county strategy, that England is where all English cricketers' bread is buttered. Without a strong England the counties would be in bigger trouble than many suggest they are already.

"I think the Championship is the place to learn how to play cricket, to come to know your game," Knight said. "What worries me about English cricket is that sometimes young players get chucked in so early [to the England team], they have to learn a hard lesson and then go back into county cricket for 18 months and get back in again. So what I advocate is don't chuck them in so early, because county cricket has so much to offer, far more than some people might think. Take Ian Bell, who I'm always being asked about. Belly is going to be an extremely fine player and is now emerging. But I still say it wouldn't actually do him any harm to have another county season.

"People tend to suggest that I would say that because I'm Warwickshire captain and want us to win the Championship. Well, of course I do, but that's rubbish. I want Bell to be successful for England for the rest of his career, and when he goes off I don't want to see him back at this club ever again.

"I just think he's got a little bit more learning to do in dealing with the wider cricketing issues. It's not about playing a great cover drive or bowling a delightful off-cutter, it's about dealing with the good times and the bad times and all the things that go with cricket. I keep going back to Andrew Strauss, a perfect example of somebody who had learned his game and relearned it, understood it so that when he went into Test cricket at 27 he just carried on playing. He was a mature cricketer, and I think the Championship is the place to do that."

Knight was so animated in discussing this, so fervent and genuine, that you understood two things. First, that Bell has a talent we should not mess with, and secondly that maybe, even though Knight was 25 when he went to England for the first time, his Test career at least was not as fulfilled as it might have been.

Before he was elevated to the position permanently, Knight had led Warwickshire a few times. It was generally felt he was not tactically on the button, and he concedes that he was probably too wrapped up in his own game at the time. In any case, he is unconvinced of the need for profound tactical thinking as a county captain.

Rather, he has invoked his middle name in his approach to the role. His father and his brother are also called Verity, because the great Yorkshire and England left-arm spin bowler Hedley Verity was a distant relation of the family on his father's side.

He deals strictly in verities with his players. "What is most important is that I create an environment where all my players know where they stand when they walk out on to the pitch. There's no bullshitting from the captain about where they stand in the club. They either agree or disagree, but there it is. I haven't taken the job to be Mr Popular.

"One thing I try to pride myself on is an upfront nature and honesty and dealing with issues. The area of tactics is probably given more percentage points than I think counts. I accept I've only been doing it a year and might think differently, but I believe the most important aspect is to establish trust and create a team environment where you understand everybody and how to get the best out of them.

"Nobody likes dropping anybody, but it has to be done, and when it is I'm frank. None of this, 'He's been playing a bit better than you, you've had bad luck'. It's got to be, 'Sorry pal, you're not playing well enough, go and make some runs in the seconds, press your case, see you later'. We're all professionals, and there is no point in pussyfooting around."

Knight has been greatly influenced by Warwickshire's benign Australian coach, John Inverarity. "A great technical coach, but more than that a wise man, who has let me have my head."

Knight wants less cricket at county and international level, but is a huge fan of Twenty20 ("It's good for the game because it heightens what you do as a batsman and a bowler; get it wrong and the game's gone"). Nick Knight, England player and captain of the Champion county. You would have bet your house on only one of those.


Nicholas Verity Knight

Born: 28 November 1969 in Watford.

Major teams: Essex, Warwickshire, England.

Test career: 17 caps for England. Scored 719 runs at average of 23.96 (highest score 113). Has taken 26 catches.

One-day Internationals: featured in 100 matches, scoring 3,637 runs, averaging 40.41 (five hundreds, highest score 125no). Has taken 44 catches.

First-class career: 206 matches*, average 44.77 (highest score 303 no).

Started his career at Essex, moving to Warwickshire in 1995, where he was appointed captain last season and won the Championship.

*excluding current one at Lord's