Martin Speight is a former professional cricketer and currently a Cricket Professional and Director of Hockey at Sedbergh School in Cumbria. In this feature, Martin shares his love for the game of cricket, and his passion for painting.
Zushan Hahsmi:: Let’s start off with a little bit about your upbringing and growing up in the UK?
Martin Speight: Although I was born in Walsall. My parents moved from the Midlands to Hassocks, a village mid-Sussex when I was less than 1. I went to the local schools in the village before winning a sports scholarship to the local private school, Hurstpierpoint College when I was 11.
After A levels I went to Durham University where I read Archaeology and Ancient History and started full-time professional cricket for Sussex after graduation in 1989 although I had made my First-Class debut in 1986 whilst still at school.
And how about your interest in cricket? Where did that arise from?
As a kid, I loved all sports with a ball. I played a lot of football and didn’t pick up a cricket bat until I was 10 when a teacher at Hassocks Windmills School, Pieter Dickson, asked me if I would play cricket along with the rest of the football team, most of whom were already playing cricket. I agreed and rest is history.
Having played over 190 First Class games and 253 List A games, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced over a career that lasted around 15 years?
The biggest challenge any cricketer faces has to do with how form affects your and others mental approach. When I was batting well I was relaxed, calm, and confident and for the most part, my decision-making was good.
As soon as I had a few low scores I would feel under pressure, question what I was doing wrong – usually technical – was not calm and lost confidence. Invariably I would train harder whilst on top of that coaches would question my technique.
Ultimately the best advice would have been to understand that this was a mental issue as my technique had been good enough to be successful.
On a less generic note, the biggest challenges I faced can be split into two areas which coincide. The first was illness; in April 1995 I fell ill with post Viral fatigue syndrome and spent the entire season lying in bed. I had no energy and was lucky to come through it. However, missing an entire year was difficult to come back from particularly mentally.
At the same time, I knew the only chance of playing for England would be as a batsman/wicketkeeper, and at Sussex, I played just as a batsman. At the end of the 1996 season, I moved to play for Durham. As I later discovered the knock-on effect of this was two-fold; firstly I went from batting on a good pitch at Hove to a very poor pitch at the Riverside which was not fit At that time for First-Class cricket. Secondly, I went from batting in the top five to batting at seven.
The effect of this was that when I did get in I ended up batting with the tail and did not make the bigger scores and too often I got out trying to force the issue as I ran out of partners. Subconsciously I accepted that I was no longer a top-order batsman and stopped practicing my batting as much.
I have always loved drawing and painting. From a young age, it was my escape and relaxation and I was fortunate to continue this when I started playing professional cricket.
Was it easy to make a living off First-Class cricket?
When I started playing First-Class cricket in 1986 I did so because it was my dream. Nobody would have played cricket for the money, my first part-time summer contract in 1987 was £600 for the year.
For the majority of my career, it was impossible to earn a living playing cricket and I was only paid for six months of the year. I was fortunate that during the winter I could earn a living coaching and painting.
Towards the end of my career, two things changed a players’ salary; the Professional Cricketers Association Under David Graveney and Richard Bevan developed and became a strong independent union financially capable of representing its members and with the advent of Sky’s money in 1997 players’ wages actually changed.
Up until then, a capped senior county cricketer would be lucky to earn £15k, afterward players’ salaries increased significantly.
Is it different to that today?
Whilst there is no doubt that professional sport for most is a precarious existence, players today are looked after far better financially, and if they make the grade can earn a six-figure salary.
Obviously those that play for England are very well paid, and rightly so, the County game is almost totally reliant on the success of the National team.
With the advent of T20 cricket do you think professional T20 cricketers and first-class cricketers have far more to gain? In terms of the amount of cricket they get to play, the financial side of things, the wider pool of players they play with. Why/Why not?
The rise of T20 cricket has been the most significant change in the game since over-arm bowling was invented! As a result, there is a much broader appeal, far more money in the game, and as a result cricketers potentially have more to gain.
It is noticeable that whilst there are a few players who play all formats, there has been far greater specialisation with certain players known as T20 / ODI specialists, others as Test match players.
The best T20 players, who may never have played Test or ODI cricket and as a result been limited in their income, can now earn vast sums of money playing the T20 circuit.
As fine a player as he is, Eoin Morgan would not have been as successful thirty years ago because he is not rated as a Test cricketer and there was no separate Test and ODI captain, whereas today he has taken the opportunity to develop his skills to be a specialised one-day batsman and captain.
What would you say was the highlight of your career?
Most people who have followed cricket over the past thirty years would see the 1993 NatWest final as the highlight of my career. It was possibly the first time any player had come out and taken the attack to the bowlers early in a final.
However for me scoring my maiden First-Class hundred against Glamorgan in 1990 was a major highlight (I felt that was the moment I believed I was good enough to make a career in First-Class cricket), whilst the best innings of my career were in a Sunday league match against Somerset at Taunton in 1993 when batting at number three I was out before the twentieth over for 126 (off 56 balls).
Tell me a little bit about the innings that won you the trophy for the fastest first-class cricket century in 1992?
Sussex were playing Lancashire at Hove and we had a good lead going into our second innings and looking to play very positively to set up a declaration and give ourselves a chance of winning the game. I was given a license to score quickly and it came off.
Tell us a little about the issues that first-class cricketers face, which aren’t raised by media platforms that differ from those of international cricketers?
International cricketers clearly are under a lot of pressure every time they perform but the rewards are high financially. For the majority of First Class players careers are short and opportunities for alternative careers small.
The work of the PCA has meant that salaries have increased hugely in recent years and their education program has supported many players to transition from cricket to alternative careers, there are inevitably players who struggle to make the change both mentally and financially.
What’s the story behind your nickname ‘Flares’?
Wikipedia is an interesting thing! The nickname “Flares” came from friends who changed my Wikipedia page after a stag party in Edinburgh two years ago because I wore flared trousers! I haven’t changed it because it’s a great way to show pupils that I teach the dangers of relying on one website when researching work.
As a cricketer, I had several nicknames including “Sport” (because when I first played I was small) and “Hoover” (because I was very flexible and hoovered up the ball fielding).
After cricket you began coaching at schools, how and why did you decide to go down that path?
2001 was a very bad year personally; after getting divorced and losing all my savings on a property investment that went broke I was released by Durham. Basically, I needed a job and when a friend and former teammate, Neil Killeen, came to see me and suggested we set up a coaching business – we had often talked about this – and now was the opportunity to do it.
As one door closes another opens and we quickly found clubs, colleges, schools, and individuals who wanted quality coaching. Within a year I was particularly very busy coaching all over the North East (especially since Neil was still playing professional cricket). I coached in the North East for the next 9 years, including Director of coaching at South Northumberland CC. Here I helped to develop a state of the art indoor centre and training program for over 400 juniors, as well as men’s and women’s team.
The Men’s 1st team won two National club titles as well as a number of North Premier league titles before I took the job as the Professional cricket coach at Sedbergh school in 2010. For the past ten years, I have fulfilled this role and am now the Director of Cricket, which allows me to dictate the pathway that the sport progresses at the school.
During this time school teams have reached nine National finals and won two titles and are currently the under 15 National school champions and under 18 National school runners-up.
As well as the elite level I have two schoolboy teams playing in local men’s club leagues, encouraging cricketers of all levels, as well as a girls cricket team.
Tell me a little bit about your coaching journey and how it involves hockey too?
I used to play hockey at a reasonable level when I was younger and fairly soon after arriving at Sedbergh I was asked to help with the hockey program.
Within a year I took over as Director of Hockey and alongside a very good coach put in place a program to develop the hockey. This year the girls’ under 16s were National runners-up in the top tier and the under 15s girls third Nationally.
How about the Martin Speight Cricket academy?
The Martin Speight Cricket Academy is part of a series of coaching courses available to young players from outside the school. I run several residential weeks during the Easter and Summer holidays giving players the opportunity to access high-level cricket coaching within excellent facilities and environment.
The courses allow players to access 1-2-1, small group and team sessions focusing on technical skills, fitness testing, and S&C sessions, and mental and lifestyle sessions, from early morning until late in the evening as well as experience living away from home for a few days. The key is to give young players a great experience, learning and developing themselves as cricketers and young people.
And finally, I wanted to ask you about your passion for painting, and why you paint sports personalities in particular? Have you ever held an exhibition for your paintings? If not, why?
I have always loved drawing and painting. From a young age, it was my escape and relaxation and I was fortunate to continue this when I started playing professional cricket. I was twelfth man for Sussex at the Saffrons, Eastbourne, and whilst the game was going on I sketched the view across the ground. Tony Piggott, one of the Sussex players, asked me if I would draw something for his benefit year and it all began from there.
Since those early days in the late 1980s, I have drawn and painted many cricket grounds and players, as well as other landscapes, sporting scenes, and personalities. My first exhibition was at an art gallery in Hove in 1995 and since then have had a number of exhibitions including at the RAC Club, London, the Monkwearmouth station gallery in Sunderland, and most recently the Chris Beetles Gallery in St James’, London.
As I said art has often been my escape and I often lose track of time doing it. I have particularly enjoyed sketching portraits of players, especially those against whom I played, and oil paintings of some of my favourite grounds where I played.
I have been fortunate that I am asked to draw and paint a range of different subjects as commissions for cricket lovers, including people, pets and grounds, whilst living in the Yorkshire Dales on the edge of the Lake District for the past ten years has given me wonderful views to paint.