Leicestershire, bottom of Division Two in the County Championship, have known better times.
Yet things turned a little worse for them last week when Paul Nixon, one of cricket's authentic characters and their last link with the team that won the title twice during the 1990s, announced the end of his career.
The former England wicket-keeper from Cumbria who is known as Badger – as in "mad as a..." – made his last competitive appearance on his adopted home soil in front of a full house at Grace Road last night. It was the quarter-final of the Twenty20 Cup, a format in which Leicestershire are still reasonably effective, and it was against Kent, the other county for whom he played.
"I'm not daft enough to say I wouldn't go to finals day if we won, but I wanted to say goodbye in front of a big Leicestershire crowd, so I decided this would be it," he said.
Nixon, who turns 41 in October, retires with several distinctions. He played professional cricket in four decades, never missed a Leicestershire Twenty20 match and made his international debut – and played in a World Cup – at the age of 36.
"That's the proudest achievement," he said. "You enjoy winning trophies and we won two Championships here and the Twenty20 twice. But walking out for my England debut in Sydney in 2007, that was the greatest honour. I'd had no inkling it was coming until [the England captain] Michael Vaughan spoke to me at the end of the 2006 season and told me to stay off the weights for a couple of months and 'just keep cricket-fit because you never know'. I thought my time had gone but I'd had a good season and I must have played well a few times when the selectors were around."
The experience was not quite as he expected. "It sounds a bit crazy but I was more nervous practising than playing," he said. "In games you get in the zone but in practice it was all a bit surreal. The lads I was playing with, a lot of them I remembered as kids. The Twenty20 game came first and a lot of them had not played it much. I had experience and [the coach] Duncan Fletcher wanted me to tell them how to do it."
Vaughan and Fletcher liked Nixon's effervescent energy, believing the endless chatter for which he was renowned behind the stumps would lift team-mates and distract opponents. Steve Waugh, the former Australian captain with whom he would often share dinner when they both played for Kent, likened him to a mosquito he wanted to swat.
Given that sledging is almost in a wicketkeeper's job description, no one thought Nixon's behaviour particularly odd. Yet he now believes it was this inherent hyperactivity that perhaps denied him earlier recognition. After meeting a specialist in dyslexia and dyspraxia, two conditions often identified in people such as Nixon who do not take in information easily, he discovered that he had something not far removed from attention deficit disorder. The jabbering, the fidgeting, the inability to settle to a task: all were symptoms.
"At school I was never the fastest learner. I had a lot going on in my head and it continued into adulthood. A few years ago, if I was on the phone to you, I'd be tidying up some books, even trying to send a text message while I was talking. My mind would be constantly cluttered. You could ask me a question and halfway through answering I'd forget what it was.
"I'd be really random, impulsive. I would think, 'I've got to clean the car or I've got to cut the grass' and I'd do it. Whatever was in my mind, I'd just go and do it and it would be almost like I was in fast forward.
"Other times I would have this dull tiredness like a hangover when you can't get your head around anything. It definitely harmed my cricket over the first few years. I would be telling myself to concentrate yet I couldn't. The bowler could be running in and I'd be looking at field placings when I should have been concentrating only on the ball."
Tests revealed a problem with Nixon's eye movement, which is common in dyslexia. "My eye-tracking was good from far to close, which explains why I was a good goalkeeper and wicketkeeper, but not so good from side to side. Reading books always made me very tired."
The specialist, Wynford Dore, a self-taught former businessman who decided to put his energy and resources into curing his daughter's dyslexia, devised exercises for Nixon, both for his eyes and to stimulate his cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls movement and balance and is also implicated in dyslexia.
"Some were a bit bizarre, like trying to stay upright inside a moving box, or hopping on one leg with my eyes closed while reciting the two-times table. But almost as soon as I started them I felt a real calm and clarity of thought and I could concentrate for longer."
It was also typical of Nixon to embrace Dore's ideas. His mind, however cluttered, always welcomed new thinking, whether about the value of protein shakes or the potential of the reverse-sweep, which he practised so much it became, for him, almost an orthodox stroke. "Bikram yoga," he chirps, when I ask about the latest addition to the exercise regime that has helped him achieve his longevity. "I'd recommend it."
Yet eventually it had to end. "I worked out the other day I must have squatted behind the stumps about 900,000 times in my career and that takes a toll," he said. "I can feel my knees niggling just playing with my three-year-old daughter in the garden. When that happens, you start asking questions."
Paul Nixon's most memorable...
Innings: My first hundred against Hampshire at Grace Road in 1992. I was 96 overnight and had to face Malcolm Marshall in the first over next day. The first ball nearly cleaned me up and I played and missed the next five. But then Cardigan Connor fed me a nice leg-stump half-volley...
Shot: The one everyone remembers is the reverse sweep for six off Muttiah Muralitharan in the World Cup in Antigua in 2007. He hated me playing that shot.
Ball faced: The slower ball from Dwayne Bravo that bowled me against West Indies in Barbados.
Catch: In my first season at Leicestershire, diving at full stretch to catch Warwickshire's Dermot Reeve one-handed in front of David Gower at first slip and getting a big hug from Gower, who had been one of my boyhood heroes.
Team: The Leicestershire side that won the Championship in 1996, winning six matches by an innings. The cricket we played under James Whitaker was outstanding.
Moment: Walking out at Sydney, aged 36, to make my England debut against Australia in a Twenty20 international in January 2007.Reuse content