'I wasn't fast-fast, but I could be slippery'

Former England bowler Neil Foster looks back on his Test career, selection in the '80s, and playing with Gooch

Interview by Scott Oliver  |  

"Most of my wickets were: pitch it up, swing it away, catch the edge" © PA Photos

I was a decent footballer, a centre back. I had a three-month trial at Ipswich Town when I was 18. In real terms there may have been a decision to make, but in my head there wasn't, because I didn't see myself as a good enough footballer. I sat down with Bobby Robson, but they didn't really chase me. I'd played England Under-19s, and once I got offered a contract at Essex, I never returned to football.

Like any young cricketer, I used to mimic people. I was tall, so down the park with my mates I'd be Tony Greig.

My England career, up until the last couple of years, was one where I never felt part of things. In county cricket I could bowl sides out. Stick me in the Test side and if I didn't bowl them out first Test, then I didn't get another game. I didn't flourish. I didn't expect to get selected for the next game and ended up bowling defensively. I tried not to bowl badly instead of trying to bowl well.

My first exposure to top cricket was when my dad took me to Lord's to watch West Indies, the likes of Kanhai and Sobers. I was in awe of them.

In my time we didn't have outstanding fast bowlers at all. We were pretty good medium-fast bowlers when it came to county cricket, but not that special when it came to Test cricket. One of the selection issues was that if we picked four seamers, they'd all be outswing bowlers and would all want to bowl from the same end.

My entire career, we didn't have a coach at Essex. We mentored each other.

In India, if you're a batter, you're a god, and if you're a bowler, you're just a bowler. So, Foxy [Graeme Fowler] and Gatt [Mike Gatting] got their double-centuries [in 1984-85], and when they got back to the hotel there was a bottle of champagne waiting for them. For getting 11-fer, I was given a chocolate cake. That may not sound terrible, but they tend to use false chocolate, so it wasn't much of an accolade.

The main thing about Graham [Gooch] was how grounded he was. When he came back to Essex, whether he'd done well or poorly for England, he'd usually go and make some runs, sit and catch up with his mail, then run home. He was never full of himself. He never talked about himself.

"In my time we didn't have outstanding fast bowlers at all. We were pretty good medium-fast bowlers when it came to county cricket, but not that special when it came to Test cricket"

Nasser [Hussain] and me didn't get on. He saw me as a senior player down on youngsters. I saw him as an upstart and a bit of a hothead. I've got a lot of respect for his commentary, and the job he did as England captain, but we used to fight a fair bit.

The Essex mindset was to play positively and not be frightened of losing. We'd lose games trying to win, rather than not win having been frightened of losing. Losing was never a problem for us.

Keith Fletcher was very quick on picking up on idiosyncrasies in the way the other side played. If you had a new young batter come in, he would look at how he took guard and his grip, and set a field accordingly. And it might change within two balls because of something else he'd seen. He always set the right fields. When I was a young player I didn't think about any of that. The first time I had to think about setting fields was when I played for England.

The selection process in the 1980s was rubbish. You were always looking over your shoulder. Two games after taking 11 wickets in Madras, I wasn't picked. And that was at Headingley, so if I couldn't get picked there…

I had two spells with David Gower as captain. First time, he just allowed things happen around him. He was asking me to set my fields, but I wasn't that experienced and didn't really know what I wanted. Then second time, when I was more experienced, he was setting fields that I didn't agree with.

My favourite county championship of the five I won was 1990, though there's not a lot to choose between them. I think I took 100 wickets. Graham Gooch was skipper, Pring [Derek Pringle] vice-captain, and both were away with England a lot, so as senior pro I ended up skippering a reasonable amount yet still took my share of wickets.

Foster's reward for taking 11 wickets in Madras was a chocolate cake, and soon after that, being dropped

Foster's reward for taking 11 wickets in Madras was a chocolate cake, and soon after that, being dropped © Getty Images

We were all a bit peed off with [Gower], really. We kept losing to West Indies, but this was one of those games [Lord's 1984] that we shouldn't have lost, because we didn't need to declare. They got 330 for 1, and in those days people didn't go out and do what [Gordon] Greenidge did, but we were also very unlikely to bowl them out. It was probably a press declaration. They were writing that we should have a go. So we had a go, got beaten horribly, and then, of course, got slaughtered in the press afterwards. It was pointless, albeit with good intentions.

I wasn't in the first XI, and hadn't played the first three Tests [in India, 1984-85], but I bided my time and got in at Madras by default. I was fortunate. I didn't start well, then [Sunil] Gavaskar missed a full, straight one, and after that it swung and bounced and I bowled well. But India had just won the World Cup and suddenly started to biff it all the time.

I had nine knee operations, but as long as I had a timescale I was fine about rehab. I never got down until I had to stop playing altogether.

Most of my wickets were: pitch it up, swing it away, catch the edge. That's what I was trying to do. I marvel at the guys now - someone like James Anderson - because I could never bowl an inswinger. Never learned how to bowl one, never tried to bowl one.

"In county cricket I could bowl sides out. Stick me in the Test side and if I didn't bowl them out first Test, then I didn't get another game"

I think the issue at Lord's was twofold. I rarely bowled from the Pavilion End, which was the better end, because there was a bit of a ridge there. From the Nursery End, the slope used to throw my action off a little bit, so I didn't swing it as I'd normally expect to. I wasn't a big, strong fella and it didn't take a lot to throw me out of kilter. Then you start to get the mindset that this isn't somewhere you play well, plus the selectors chopped and changed. We played against Pakistan there one year when we batted on day one before it rained for four days. It was the first time I survived beyond the Lord's Test: because I didn't bowl!

I did some PE teaching after I retired, then some fast-bowling coaching at Northampton, but I didn't feel suited to that environment. It was hurting to stand up, so I went to university and did physiotherapy. It was four years, part time, and dragged by the end, but since I graduated I've thoroughly enjoyed it.

The 1987 World Cup was a missed opportunity. But at the time losing the final didn't feel terrible. It was a great occasion, 100,000 in, and both ourselves and Australia did really well in beating the hosts on their home grounds. The disappointment sank in over the next couple of days. It was a game we should have won, but nothing just comes to you. You have to go out and grab it.

The best ball I bowled was to Ranjan Madugalle - at Lord's, funnily enough. One of the rare times I bowled from the Pavilion End - which swung away and nipped back down the hill to clip the top of off.

Foster coaches youngsters in Northampton, 1997

Foster coaches youngsters in Northampton, 1997 © PA Photos

I suppose the England captain that brought the best out of me was Gatt.

I certainly wasn't fast-fast, but I could be slippery. I was quicker from 26, 27 onwards. I got stronger.

The quickest spell I bowled was in Faisalabad, after Gatt had had his little altercation with Shakoor Rana and we'd been sat around for a while and built up the pent-up frustration.

Bob Willis as a captain wasn't one for coming up and patting you on the back and encouraging you. He didn't have the energy to do that because he was so focused as a bowler and would just get the blinkers on.

These days, I'd have done more strength and conditioning, but I'm not sure it'd have made any difference, as [my problem] was bone, and once it starts wearing, that's it. But with central contracts I'd have bowled a lot less and had a lot more longevity.

The biggest problem you had touring Pakistan in the 1980s was, you had local umpires and you couldn't win. And once they went 1-0 up, you played on really flat wickets. In my opinion, touring Pakistan at that time was pointless. You had to do it but weren't going to win. And that is pointless.

I played with a lot of fast bowlers for England, but the one I probably enjoyed playing with the most was Graham Dilley. I just felt he offered more than the rest. He could bowl it quickish, he swung it very late, and when he was on song - which was more often than not - he was the one who'd make the difference more than the rest of us.

"I marvel at the guys now - someone like Anderson - because I could never bowl an inswinger. Never learned how to bowl one, never tried to bowl one"

I had a flat near the Wanderers and was quite bored during the day, when everyone else was working, and would look forward to nets. Where I enjoyed being leader of the Essex attack, I didn't enjoy the pressure of being Transvaal's overseas professional.

Memories of my England debut? I gave my Test cap to my dad and cried. And Richard Hadlee should have been my first Test wicket, but was dropped, knee-high, straight at Ian Botham at second slip. To be honest, it didn't feel like a huge step up. New Zealand were a workmanlike side but not outstanding. I didn't feel as though I was completely out of my depth, but it still felt a bit soon. I'd only played about ten first-class games by then.

From pretty early on, instead of just saying "Fozzie, you're one of the best in England," Keith Fletcher used to tell me I was a "world-class" bowler. And you always felt that he meant it.

I wasn't a particularly good death bowler. It wasn't my role.

I was never nervous about facing fast bowling, but I wasn't particularly well-equipped. I'd been hit on the head three times just trying to defend it, the last time by Garth Le Roux, when it actually hurt me a bit and gave me a headache, so I resolved after that to take on the short ball.

We were getting a bit of a fixation with the West Indies quicks on that tour [1985-86]. We didn't really play the short ball well enough. We were a bit shell-shocked. Even guys that normally played it well didn't get stuck in as much as they should.

"Bob Willis [second from left; Foster third] as a captain wasn't one for coming up and patting you on the back and encouraging you. He didn't have the energy to do that because he was so focused as a bowler" © PA Photos

Two things rankle about Viv's [Richards] 56-ball hundred. First, it often gets reported that I was part of the bowling attack. I was, but I didn't bowl. Second, Beefy kept on bowling - I think he was near the world record at the time and Gower kept him on - and there I was waving my arms and didn't get a go. It was galling, to say the least. That's how it was, the old boys' club.

Going to South Africa wasn't a decision I was happy with, but it was the sensible career decision. I'd got a bad knee and I knew I didn't have a lot of cricket left in me.

By the end of my career, I couldn't have played the winters as well as the summers. I needed an operation at the end of every season, and I'd have needed one at the end of every winter if I'd played.

I was like Goochie in that I loved playing for Essex. It wasn't a demotion by any means. I wanted to make it look like England were missing me and that I would have still been in the Test side. So I tried my socks off. I ran in and bowled as best as I could for as long as I could. But really, my knee was getting worse and worse and I was just playing for a benefit at that point.

I can distinctly remember the fastest ball I faced. It was in a one-day international in the West Indies, and Patrick Patterson was bowling quick at the time. I played a perfect back-foot defence but the ball just hit the bat before it was in place - I didn't hit the ball - and it really shocked me.

I was one of those batters who played in tune with the team's needs. If we were in the shit, I'd get stuck in. If you need me to slog it, I will.

We had West Indies wobbling at 20 for 3 [16 for 3 at The Oval in 1988], and, of course, it felt nice to knock over Greenidge, [Desmond] Haynes and Viv cheaply, but it didn't count for much. The usual pattern happened. They reasserted themselves and we ended up losing by eight wickets.

My ambition had been to get back into the Test side. I played, Australia got 632 for 4 [at Lord's, 1993]. I didn't get any wickets, nor look like getting any, and I retired a week later. I knew I couldn't do it any more. It hurt too much.

Scott Oliver tweets here

 

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