Interview: Scotland hero Calum MacLeod on why he almost quit cricket

It's a big year for Calum MacLeod - he's already scored a century against England, he's getting married and he turns 30 on his next birthday.  Picture: Donald MacLeod
It's a big year for Calum MacLeod - he's already scored a century against England, he's getting married and he turns 30 on his next birthday. Picture: Donald MacLeod
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Identifying the sporting star of this hot, hazy Scottish summer isn’t difficult, particularly in light of Andy Murray’s inactivity. Even had Murray earned headlines with some stellar Wimbledon exploits it would surely be reasonable to propose an alternative contender.

Because, let’s face it, it isn’t often a Scot scores a century in a win over England. In fact, it’s never until a famous afternoon/evening at the Grange, when the clocks stopped, the rivers ran dry – or at least the beer barrels in downtown Stockbridge did – and Scotland defeated England at cricket in a one-off One Day International. It’s surely up there with a Scot winning Wimbledon when it comes to sporting miracles.

When we first spoke, earlier this summer, Calum MacLeod’s bat still bore the indents of the 16 fours and three sixes included in his match-winning, headline-generating turn of 140 not out against the top-ranked ODI side. Not that there was much time to bask in the achievement. The news he had signed for the Derbyshire Falcons Twenty20 side was announced the very next day. There’s barely been any let up since. Many cricketers, especially those playing all formats, must now cope with the workaday psychological and physical grind of a baseball player.

Two nights ago it was Trent Bridge, Nottingham, where the Falcons suffered a narrow defeat by Notts Outlaws, bringing an end to a run of four successive wins.

Last night it was back at Derbyshire’s 3aaa County Ground for another Vitality Blast fixture, this time against Birmingham Bears. Then this afternoon it’s down to Bexley, where MacLeod also turns out for their first IX when he can, for a Shepherd Neame Kent Cricket League fixture against Lordswood.

Oh, and did he mention he was getting married next month? The ceremony is in Canterbury and he will be wearing a kilt, 
naturally. MacLeod will pick up fiancée Laura from the first of a series of hen weekends on the way down to Kent from Derby today. His batsman’s eye for a gap was tested when given the task of locating a free Saturday in his late summer schedule.

“When we decided to look at a day, we knew we would need something just after the season, but we knew we could not wait until after the summer, because we wanted the weather,” he explains.

MacLeod has got his own stag weekend to fit in. “It’s still up in the air whether it’s the week before or two weeks before. It’s in the capable hands of my two brothers. They claim to be organising it.” He has told them he doesn’t care where it is, as long as it includes a game of golf. All this and MacLeod also turns 30 later this year.

The hectic pace means it’s hard for an interviewer to keep up. In that first conversation, shortly after a Falcons fixture was postponed so as to avoid a clash with an England World Cup game, MacLeod was patiently explaining about his conversion to batsman from bowler. The transformation had reached, in some people’s eyes, not necessarily his own, such a thrilling pinnacle against England just under two months ago. A follow-up call yesterday saw MacLeod casually mention
he had just recorded his best ever 
bowling figures.

“My best legal ones at least,” he adds.

It’s possible to sense the wry grin down the phone line. He’s slightly embarrassed to mention just how good these figures were: six for five as the unfortunate Beckenham were skittled out for just 18 runs, a record low score for the Kent Premier League. Their entire innings took just 49 minutes.

MacLeod’s switch from bowler to batsman was born out of necessity when his bowling action was deemed to be illegal. He was accused of throwing the ball rather than bowling it. He went from leading the Scotland attack to becoming something of an outcast. Reports described him as being unavailable for selection. He had to find a way to stay in the game so turned himself into a batsman with the help of some well-known mentors.

“The first questions were raised after the Twenty20 World Cup in 2009,” he remembers. “That was quite big exposure, a world event. Questions were asked after that. Then I went to play a four-day game for Scotland in Aberdeen [against Canada] and the umpire reported my action for being suspicious. I had to go through a whole stage of getting it tested and re-modelled. Looking back, on reflection, it is probably one of the best things that ever happened to me.”

He spent the remainder of the summer travelling with the Warwickshire first XI squad. It was at the time when Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott were out of the England side and so he was able to study how they batted. “I started to learn a little bit more about batting and what it takes to become a run scorer,” he says. “Reflecting on it, the time spent then, just pestering them with questions, that was the best thing. Watching their work rate, their work ethic, watching how they went about things. As a 19-year-old kid it’s not something you are always exposed to.” It was tough to accept his days as a bowler were over – in the international arena at least. After all, he’d been a bowler since he was ten years old and starting out in youth teams at Drumpellier Cricket Club in Coatbridge.

The controversy threatened his place in the Scotland side. It contributed to costing him his place at Warwickshire. Playing international cricket had been a dream ever since his photographer father Donald, who was covering the tournament for this newspaper, took him along to a World Cup clash in Worcester between Scotland and Australia in 1999. He felt particularly captivated because it was his own country who were putting on such a decent show, eventually falling by six wickets.

“I know Scotland lost but I remember sitting there and being fascinated by it and thinking: ‘I want to do this,’” he recalls. “I am not saying I would not have got the same feeling if I’d gone to watch England v India but I certainly remember when Bruce Patterson hit a four off the first ball. Whether it would have inspired you the same way if it was not your own country, I don’t know.”

It’s why he’s particularly miffed by the ICC’s decision to shrink next year’s World Cup and restrict the tournament to just ten teams. Scotland still came close to qualifying, losing out narrowly – and controversially – to the West Indies after a weather-affected clash that hinged on a dubious 
lbw decision that dismissed Richie Berrington.

“How do you inspire the next generation?” MacLeod wonders. “We all know what [the decision’s] about, it brings in money that drives the game. The ICC still do help Scottish cricket a lot. They put a lot of money into helping associate cricket countries. There is no doubt that some of the tournaments and funding they have given have pushed Scotland forward to the stage where we can beat a team like England. But to get us to this level and then say that’s fine, just play among yourselves, it doesn’t sit well with me. But then I am not making the decisions.”

Scotland will need to prove as resilient as MacLeod has and try, try again. He was once at the point of giving up. “I remember the exact phone call. I was struggling at first with the bat, and didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, and how I was going to progress my cricket career and make a living. I was questioning myself. I went for a walk and phoned Laura and said: ‘I am done with cricket, I will do something else’.”

He considered taking up hockey again and was attracted by the challenge of becoming an international in a second sport. But Laura convinced him to keep going. “She said why not give it a little more time, see how it goes? Well I am glad she did. Things started to look up from there. That winter we went to the Twenty20 World Cup qualifiers in Dubai and I got my first 100. And things kicked off from there.”

He’s barely looked back to the extent that even his 140-run knock v England doesn’t necessarily qualify as his finest hit for Scotland. His father reckons it was his unbeaten 157 against Afghanistan earlier this year in a World Cup qualifier in Bulawayo, when he expertly dealt with the talented leg spinner Rashid Khan. MacLeod himself is torn.

“From a purely cricket point of view and committing to a game plan and doing all the right things on a trickier wicket and doing all the things you want to do as a batter, I think I probably got closer to doing my best against Afghanistan,” he says.

But asked to pick, on pain of death, between the two, he would probably plump for his England innings because of the joy it sparked in the stands and pavilion at the Grange, and also elsewhere. He’s also hopeful it can have a wider, more lasting impact in terms of hooking children on the game, in whatever format: be it Test cricket (his preference), ODI or Twenty20.

“In terms of occasion, the one against England probably just tops it [v Afghanistan],” he says.

It certainly helped garner more 
reaction. On top of a pitch invasion, the victory, secured when Safyaan Sharif dismissed last man Mark Wood with an inswinging yorker, also meant the back pages of Scottish newspapers were cleared to make way for cricket. How did MacLeod himself mark the achievement?

“I did what I love doing, I just sat in the changing room in the clubhouse with a load of different people who had been at the game,” he says. “I did not even get out of my kit for ages. The feeling really did seem to get to more people than just the 11 on the pitch and coaching staff.

“I sat and had a few drinks with 
Fraser Watts and a couple of other guys who had been in Scotland teams. You could tell how much it meant to them, too, even though they had not played for a couple of years.”

The team then flew out to the Netherlands soon afterwards for a Tri Series tournament against the hosts and Ireland and two more T20 internationals against Pakistan followed, both of which were lost. Not that it mattered. They had already sealed their legendary status. “People were coming up to us and saying: ‘Oh you are the lads who beat England’,” recalled MacLeod. “We certainly captured something. It is just how you translate that to the everyday cricketing environment in Scotland.”

In rare moments of calm, perhaps as he travels from game to game, MacLeod reflects on how his career has flipped. “If you said in 2008 when I opened the bowling and was batting No 11 that ten years on I would have 100s for Scotland in World Cup qualifiers and against England then I think we would all probably have laughed at you,” he says.

The switch has even impacted on his personality. Clearly a well brought up individual, it surprises you to hear he was once guilty of noising opponents up. Yes, he was a (mild) sledger. “When people talk about me going from bowling to batting, it is probably what people say they notice most,” he says. “I tended to be closer to the line when I was a bowler. I was angrier, I tried to use it as a weapon. Now I am on the other side. You have to let your batting do the talking and get yourself in your own little world.”

Now he annoys only groundsmen up and down the country. He has a habit, formed over the last two years, of drawing “a stupid little line on the edge of my crease” between balls when he’s batting. The routine helps refresh his mind amid often mentally challenging situations. He won’t allow his emotions to sap his energy. “I am far more chilled out,” he says. “Calling someone x, y and z on the pitch becomes less significant; you think: ‘what’s the point?’”

He’s a long way from the 20-year-old who was so unsure what the future held. As well as going from bowler to batsman, his life took another strange turn in 2009 when he became the first Gaelic speaker – his family hail from South Uist in the Outer Hebrides and he attended the Gaelic School in Glasgow – to appear for England in the Ashes. He was 12th man at Edgbaston and was called into action as an emergency fielder.

“I got the chance to walk on to the pitch in an Ashes Test match,” he says. “Not many people can say they did that, English or Scottish. Talk about crowds and pressure. That was a completely different environment.”

Sadly, he did not get to keep his 
England gear as a memento. “When you are doing the 12th man duties the guy doing the kit hovers over you from the moment you get off the pitch!” he says.

“I did not have a lot to do. I fielded out on the boundary for a while. I do remember being at point for a ball and Jimmy Anderson moved me. The very next ball he took a one-handed diving catch. It could have been my moment!” There have been plenty more since. Perhaps still to reach his peak years as a batsman, there could well be plenty more to come.