By Paul Edwards
Spend more than five minutes chatting to Paul Nixon and you start to believe him. The optimism and the determination flow out and you begin to share his conviction that Leicestershire’s fortunes can be transformed and that the club which has won just six County Championship matches since 2012 can be taken to new glories.
There is, though, more to it than that. At a time of uncertainty and imminent change in domestic cricket, one has only to hear Nixon talk about “our great game” to be reminded of cricket’s endless appeal and how fortunate we all are to be involved in the sport.
“Sorry I couldn’t talk earlier but we’ve just finished a great meeting about our trip to Desert Springs,” he begins. “We need some warm-weather outdoor training and the whole squad needs time together.”
The contagious nature of enthusiasm is something of a cliché but Nixon’s joy is infectious as well. He is in his first year as Leicestershire’s head coach and another cricket season beckons. What could be better?
“It was amazing to walk though the gates at Grace Road again,” he says of his appointment last October. “It was perfect timing. I had to go away to learn about coaching and acquire new skills from terrific people in our great game. You don’t stop learning and that’s what I’m loving about it.”
There is nothing romantic about Nixon’s ambitions. Merely getting by or the achievement of bland respectability are not for him but he knows it will take time to achieve his greater goals and all he can do in the unforgiving moment is inspire his coaches and players with his own vision.
“We’re very ambitious,” he says, although he does not need to. “Part of my remit is to turn around Leicestershire County Cricket Club as a whole. That stretches from 10-year-old kids right up to the first team. We want to get back in the top division, win trophies, and be one of the most successful clubs in England.
“That may not happen until after my time at the club but we have to set values in place. People have to take pride in being a Fox. We have to maximise our own and each other’s ability.”
Nixon knows that successful generals need good colonels. Accordingly, he has recruited his coaching staff with the greatest care and he is plainly pleased with his work. Bowling coach Matt Mason has joined the club from Worcestershire and Tom Smith, who once played for Leicestershire on loan, has been signed from Lancashire and will work with the second team.
“We’ve been so lucky to get Mase,” said Nixon. “Worcestershire’s loss has certainly been our gain. He’s a brilliant man and a stalwart of county cricket who played a big part in helping Worcestershire win the Second Division. The ECB have highlighted him as an elite coach and he’s already made a big difference to our bowling group.
“Tom Smith was here as a player and I think we made an impact on each other. He’s coached Lancashire men’s and women’s teams and while he may be young in his coaching career, he’s a wise old owl in his mind-set, views and standards. He’s a very astute guy whom Lancashire entrusted with the captaincy. He’s just a solid bloke.”
On the field, players of the quality of Zak Chappell and Ben Raine will be led by Michael Carberry, who joined the club on a permanent deal after initially arriving on loan from Hampshire at the back end of 2017. That was a tough time for both the player and his new county but Nixon is utterly content he now has the right man in charge.
“We’ve had some good honest chats and we’re now moving forward with a new regime and a new captain in Michael,” he said. “He brings a brilliant professionalism to the group and he’ll want to put his mark on things as well.
“He has a great ambition for the club but he put a lot of pressure on himself last season when his game wasn’t technically in the place he wanted it to be.
“He’s now been one of the best in pre-season and his standards and work ethic are at an international level, something that’s rubbing off on the group. As a club we have to lift our standards and then make sure those standards are rock-solid.”
But there have been a few examples of high standards being undermined by the wavering commitment of overseas players, so Nixon is pleased that both Muhammad Abbas and Sohail Khan aim to join the squad before the three-day warm-up match against Loughborough MCCU on April 13.
The Pakistan Test cricketers will share the overseas responsibilities at Grace Road this season, with Sohail stepping in when, as appears almost certain, Abbas is needed for the Test tour.
“(Pakistan coach) Mickey Arthur told me Abbas was first on the team sheet for Pakistan in the longer form of the game,” said Nixon. “He’s an exciting young seamer who has a brilliant record to date. But Sohail is really fit and is more of an all-rounder and a very skilful one-day cricketer. The mix is going to be ideal because we have a lot of one-day cricket when the Tests are on.”
Before the season begins, though, Leicestershire’s players are off to Spain, where Nixon has arranged for an ex-SAS soldier to give them talks on leadership and values. Then it will be back home for one of the more interesting campaigns in the county’s recent history.
“We have a new management group and it’s important that we get to know how each other works,” he said. “People are going to be tested but long-term that has to happen. We’re going to lose a few on the way but so be it.
“There are some big teams in the Second Division but we want to be the hardest-working, most caring cricket environment in England. Anyway, come to a game and say hello sometime.”
I tell him I will.