Champions Trophy: Wembley Stadium can be filled thrice its capacity for the India-Pakistan game, says Paul Nixon

Paul Nixon © Getty Images

By Saj Sadiq

Wicket-keeper Paul Nixon represented England on 20 occasions and it could well have been more had his career not overlapped with a couple of his more illustrious contemporaries. He retired in 2011, a fairytale end to a 22-year first-class career, winning the Friends Life T20 with Leicestershire. He was also a fans’ favourite at Grace Road having spent 18 years at the club and was carried off the pitch by thousands of fans in his farewell match. In all, Nixon played 355 First-Class matches, scoring almost 15,000 runs.

Nixon’s international experience — 19 ODIs and one T20 — can be condensed into a four-month window between January and April 2007. He was England’s wicketkeeper during the Commonwealth Bank Series contested between Australia, New Zealand and England in Australia and retained his place as England’s number one limited-overs’ keeper for the 2007 ICC World Cup held in the Caribbean. Earlier, he was reserve wicket-keeper on the 2000-01 tours of Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Known as being one of the most enthusiastic and vocal cricketers on the circuit, as well as one of the most dedicated — he retired at the age of 40 while still one the fittest in his side — Nixon spoke to PakPassion.net about the upcoming Champions Trophy, the absence of Kevin Pietersen, Pakistan’s chances, the India versus Pakistan clash, Chris Gayle and much more.

Excerpt from an interview:

PakPassion.net (PP): With the Champions Trophy around the corner, England have home advantage. However would you say that means there is additional pressure on them?

Paul Nixon (PN): I don’t see it as being any different from the pressure you have as soon as you pull on the England jersey. The fact is that you just go out there and show your skills. You try to immerse yourself in your mental and physical routines and you play according to the situation of the game. 

Along the way you make your choices of high risk and low risk options in batting and bowling and it then boils down to putting your skills from practice into match conditions. Obviously sometimes you get it right and sometimes you don’t and that’s how the game goes.

I believe everybody now knows that any team is capable of beating another — it’s simply about confidence, the belief and the form in a side. In summary, so many components go into it and I really think that sometimes people get carried away with external factors which, to be frank, is good for newspaper sales and not much else. 

PP: There are many match winners in the tournament, including the likes of Chris Gayle. From an English point of view, how much will England miss Kevin Pietersen?

PN: He will be missed massively. Kevin Pietersen is a guy who, as we’ve seen over the last few years, has been able to change the game in half a dozen overs. In fact, he can do that in all formats of the game, whether that be Test matches or Twenty20s. He has a huge influence on the game and is also a good fielder. He exudes confidence. His ability is infectious for other players around him. As an example, we have the likes of Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow, young kids who have come into the game without any fear. That is the KP-effect he has brought to international cricket — the “no-fear” brand of cricket and it’s fantastic that the young England players have got that now.

PP: There are a number of wicket-keeper batsmen who are also captains in the Champions Trophy, such as MS Dhoni and Brendon McCullum. As a former wicket-keeper batsman yourself, how difficult is it to balance all of the responsibilities?

PN: It’s very tough. I did that at Leicestershire for a while in county cricket rather than international cricket, and it was tough. The thing that you need to worry about in the One-Day format is your planning, and your preparations need to be meticulous. So you need to know which of Plan A or Plan B you will apply unless a couple of your bowlers go out of the park early when you are bowling, or you get off to an amazing start with the bat, and then it’s a case of tweaking the batting order. 

Most things are pretty much set in stone in One-Day cricket. In fact, it’s slightly easier in effect because your preparation is generally good enough, so that it actually covers all bases. The real challenge for those guys is being ready themselves. You do think about your team and your players but the hardest thing is time. You always think “I’ll be alright, I’ll be alright” and it doesn’t matter if you are a senior player and match winner like [MS] Dhoni and [Brendon] McCullum are — but they still have to have their own time. It’s important the coach of the international side makes sure those players have their own time as well because that’s crucial. 

PP: England, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Australia. Difficult group to call, all fairly evenly-matched sides. How do you see this group going?

PN: Really tough to call. There are world-class players everywhere, which is exciting. This competition is going to be the most exciting Champions Trophy for many years because I think the sides are so well balanced. The amount of one-day cricket that’s played around the world nowadays —the IPLs and the Big Bashes and the BPLs — people are getting more and more experienced and wiser and players are getting to know the games of their opponents better because they’re playing under pressure in the big games. 

We’re seeing a new level of cricket from someone like Chris Gayle and the consistency of big hitting that he’s showing. It’s something we’ve never seen before. Yes, Viv Richards played amazing innings in his day and so did Sir Ian Botham. You had the likes of Matthew Hayden, Chris Cairns. All big hitters, but the way this guy [Chris Gayle] plays so consistently well is phenomenal. That’s exciting for cricket globally as it gets young kids into the game and we need that. Having said all that, I believe that England will need to play outstandingly well to get through their group.

PP: Given the plethora of 20-over leagues around the world and the fact that this is the final Champions Trophy, do you feel this is the beginning of the end for 50-over cricket?

PN: I think it could be. Having played 60-over cricket, then 50 and then 40-over cricket in county, followed by 20-over cricket, I can safely say that 50-over cricket is a tough day, a long day for players. The intensity levels have gone up in every sport and especially in cricket. The need to keep the intensity levels up for 100 overs all day is physically and mentally tough. To do that every few days, day in, day out takes it out of you more than a Test match. Every ball you are changing the field, running around, getting your best fielders in key areas. On top of that your attention to detail has to be immaculate and that can be tough for the guys. The players in county cricket have absolutely thrived on playing 40 overs where you don’t have that quiet middle period of the game, that re-building stage that goes [in comparison to 50 over cricket] and I believe it’s better on players’ bodies. It’s still great entertainment for families and it’s less of a long day, and works into the busy lifestyles of people. 

With regards to T20 cricket, it has been successful because it’s accessible for everybody. For example, just recently you’ve had two fine sides, with England’s future talent the England Lions and New Zealand competing at Grace Road and there was nobody there because they’re all working or its family time. In a T20 game within three hours you’re in and out with a result. Pro40 or 40-over cricket isn’t a million miles away from that — it’s a bit of both. You get Twenty20 type action at the start and end of the innings, but there’s less of a boring middle in comparison to 50-over cricket and it seems to tick more boxes. 

PP: Moving on to the other group which contains Pakistan, India, South Africa and West Indies. India are led by MS Dhoni, what are your thoughts on Dhoni?

PN: MS Dhoni is a great man, I’ve met three or four great men in my life, Martin Johnson (former England rugby captain), Steve Waugh, Rahul Dravid and MS Dhoni. That’s my four guys in the 20-odd years that I’ve played. There’s not a bad bone in their bodies, they’ve earned the respect of everybody. They play the game the right way and are massive ambassadors.

In terms of the pressure that MS Dhoni has had from playing for India, I would say that he’s almost taken that away from Sachin to a certain extent, and he is now for Indian cricket what Sachin was five or six years ago. Without taking anything away from Sachin, MS Dhoni exudes confidence and belief and you know that he’s going to be there first. You want him next to you in the trenches and if he has a big competition, he could lead India all the way in the Champions Trophy.

PP: Shahid Afridi has played here at Leicestershire and he is well known around the world. He’s hugely popular and can pack a stadium anywhere in the world. Were you surprised he wasn’t selected by Pakistan?

PN: Yes, it was a huge surprise. He’s certainly a match winner but at some stage you have to look forward. His performances of late had gone downhill sadly. He would be the last one wanting that to happen but sadly it’s happened and you have to look forward. 

Otis Gibson and the West Indies have done it when they dropped the likes of Chris Gayle and some other guys for a while to rebuild, but now those guys have proved themselves. Both [Ramnaresh] Sarwan, who was also here at Leicester, and Chris Gayle are back again. So you never know with Afridi, he might go away, he might get his head right and come back strong and prove people wrong — who knows? Only he’ll know that. I believe that it was a brave move from Pakistan to not include him but the depth of cricket in Pakistan is phenomenal. There are plenty of world class players over there and it’s exciting to see the new generation come through.

PP: We touched upon Chris Gayle in this interview, but as an opposing captain, bowler, or fielding side, how do you stop him?

PN: You need somebody quick up front, you’ve got to be aggressive to him; the ball’s got to move. You’ve got to get it swinging, either away from him or, as he is a left-hander, you’ve got to look to try and get him out LBW first. If you can’t get him out LBW, you’ve got to try and get him to nick one. He’s not a big foot mover, so you’ve got to be aggressive towards him. As you know, heavy bats at 90mph take super strength to be thrown around. 

I think if the pitches are slightly more bouncy as they are in England compared to India, then I think Chris Gayle will expect a bit of a short-pitched barrage coming his way in English conditions which will be different to Indian conditions. It’ll be interesting to see how he does in England — it will be a very good test for him.

PP: South Africa go into a lot of tournaments amongst the favourites but never quite make it. No Smith or Kallis this time, how do you assess their chances?

PN: Yes, it’s interesting. These two are great players. With Kallis and Smith sat next to you in the dressing room, it’s a bit like Freddie Flintoff; you just feel a bit more relaxed when those guys are around. But sometimes you can rest on your laurels when the big guns are around a little bit more and it is true that quite often teams do well because they haven’t got any big guns. For example, in the last couple of years, Warwickshire in county cricket or Leicestershire in T20 didn’t have any big names and it really made everybody else step up a bit more. 

South Africa have great ability in the one-day format. They have got the ability to be world beaters but they have not been world beaters for a long long time in the shorter formats. They have underperformed even with the ability they had with Herschelle Gibbs and now AB de Villiers who is an amazing all-round athlete. I think sometimes they’ve been harmed because they’ve had to play a certain number of coloured players. 

In my view, you have got to do things in their truest form; you have got to pick your best players. I think they have sometimes helped their own demise in a way but they are always going to be there or thereabouts but they’ve definitely underperformed for the ability that they have got.

PP: June 15th, Edgbaston, India versus Pakistan, what are your thoughts on this huge encounter?

PN: Fireworks are going to happen because everybody wants to get to this game. I get two telephone calls a week “Nico, can you get me 10 tickets for this game?” Honestly it is unbelievable! You could fill Wembley Stadium twice or even thrice for this game — the capacity is 90,000-capacity and 105,000 combined seating and standing — with all those people who supporters of Pakistan and India. It’s brilliant, that’s what the game’s about; it’s about massive games and what it means to fans of both countries, it’s simply enormous. 

For me, Pakistan are in a good place, they won the one day series 2-1 in India. Pakistan on their day are the most gifted nation of cricketers — they have everything. They’ve always had great fast bowlers, great batsmen, good keepers, and they play on great pitches out there that help everybody. India has very batsmen-friendly very spinner-friendly pitches but in Pakistan the pitches are magnificent. We’ve been over there with Leicestershire for pre-season tours and it’s a great place to play cricket. If Pakistan comes to the party it makes it a really exciting tournament.

PP: Which two teams are going to get through that group from Pakistan, India, South Africa, West Indies?

Paul Nixon: It’s a tough one to call; I think the West Indies are the weakest side in the group, despite Chris Gayle. But they’re canny; they’ve had a lot of players play county cricket so it’s a tough one to call. Any one of South Africa, Pakistan or India could go through, so it really is a difficult group in many respects. Having said all that and if I had to pick two, I would go for Pakistan and India as the two teams making it through this group.

PP: Who do you see as the eventual winners of the Champions Trophy?

PN: If Pakistan bring their A game they can win it. As for England, they will have to play exceptionally well I think to win it. However, for me Pakistan are favourites to lift the Champions Trophy.

(Saj Sadiq is Senior Editor at PakPassion.net, from where the above article has been reproduced. He can be followed on Twitter at @Saj_PakPassion)