Tom Huelin speaks to former Hampshire keeper Michael Bates. A man who is generally seen as one of the finest glovemen in the country, he’s currently looking for a new county.
“For it to go down to the last ball after 80 overs was incredible. That was my first experience at Lord’s, and to witness that notorious buzz was incredible. Out in the middle you feel the atmosphere, but in the heat of the moment you don’t take it in. I took the ball and there were cheers and roars around the ground, guys running around everywhere. It was carnage! For it to end up in our favour was awesome.”
Michael Bates will tell you that he was just doing his job. That a lifetime dedicated to repetitive training drills made his split-second, match-winning contribution at the end of the 2012 CB40 Final at Lord’s ‘all part of the job’.
Hampshire were tied with Warwickshire on 244 apiece, with one ball remaining for the Bears’ Neil Carter to try and steal a single to win the match. Hampshire’s Kabir Ali stood at the end of his mark knowing a dot ball would win the match for his side, having lost fewer wickets earlier in the day. The press box was poised, waiting to file their reports. A Warwickshire win was the general consensus.
Of course, Hampshire had one huge advantage: the hands of one of the best wicketkeepers on the county circuit behind the stumps. Bates stood up to Kabir as a matter of course, and this match-defining moment was no different. “I wanted to apply that little extra bit of pressure,” Bates recalls. “Batsmen can hear you breathing down the back of their neck. That’s one way a keeper can massively influence a game.”
Kabir bowled a yorker. Carter missed. Bates pounced. Bails were dislodged. Game over. Well, almost. “I noticed he was still in his crease,” Bates continues. “So just to make sure I pulled the stumps out of his ground.”
Hampshire won a limited-overs double that season, having taken the Friends Provident t20 crown at the SWALEC a month earlier. Their academy graduates of Bates, Danny Briggs, Chris Wood, James Vince and Liam Dawson all played their part in that triumphant season. Good times were in store for the club, and the youngsters were at the centre of their plans.
March 1, 2013. It’s little over six months since that final-ball thriller at Lord’s, the memory of Bates’s handy work still etched in most Hampshire fan’s minds.
News filters out from Hampshire’s press office that wicketkeeper batsman, Adam Wheater, has joined the club from Essex. Giles White, Hampshire’s director of cricket, says at the time, “Adam will add competition with the gloves and comes with an impressive first-class batting average.”
“It was very, very disappointing.” Bates recalls, clearly still very emotional about the events that led to his departure last summer from the club he had represented since the age of nine. “It was gutting. Even though I’d achieved so much the year before, I felt like I had so much more to give.”
The pair spent the next two seasons battling it out for the gloves before in August 2014, Bates received the news he had been dreading, that his contract would not be renewed after it expired at the end of the 2014 season. “When you’re in the last year of your contract you have to have three appraisals through the season,” Bates explains. “By the time the middle one came around I think Hampshire had already made their decision. They knew where they were going forward, and I wasn’t a part of that.”
It left Bates not only contemplating his next move, but also his future more generally. “If a county doesn’t come in for me, I’ll find a Minor County club to play for, and play club cricket at the weekend,” he confirmed, following stints working as a labourer and in marketing over the winter. “That will keep me ticking over nicely in case that opportunity does come along mid-season.
“It’s been difficult. I’ve been lucky enough to have parents who are 100 per cent behind me in whatever I choose to do. I’m back living with them at the minute. I did have a flat in Southampton but I’m renting that out now. I had a bit of money saved up, but it might come down to me getting a bar job during the summer until something materialises cricket-wise.”
What a waste it would be if those gifted hands are limited to pulling pints this summer, but this is the reality facing not only Bates, but countless county players between contracts all over the country.
Bates progressed through the ranks at the Ageas Bowl having joined the club’s under-10 age group. Working with academy coach Tony Middleton – “he was brilliant at bringing our games forward,” – Bates joined the likes of Danny Briggs, Liam Dawson and Chris Wood in Southampton as a youngster. “I think it was an exceptional year actually. I don’t think you’ll get that many talented players coming through the same year for a while.”
The wicketkeeper was rated by England, too. Having appeared at the Bunbury Festival for West of England, Bates was then picked for England under 15s, where he worked with coach Richard Halsall. “He was a big motivation in my career, looking back now,” Bates recalls.
“When I was 19 I went to the Under 19s World Cup in New Zealand. It was a great experience playing in what was effectively an international competition.”
There, Bates played under the current Sussex and England Lions coach Mark Robinson and current England selector Mick Newell, and was teammates with Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, Joe Root and current England Lions captain and Hampshire skipper, James Vince.
It appeared that Bates was destined for the top.
Back at the Ageas Bowl, injuries to stalwart wicketkeeper Nic Pothas allowed Bates to deputise during the 2011 season, and the youngster thrived under Pothas’s guidance. “He was incredibly hard-working,” Bates recalls. “He was very much a leader as well. It’s important behind the stumps to be able to do that.”
Ahead of the 2012 season Pothas left the Ageas Bowl. Hampshire initially made enquiries into other keepers, with Essex’s James Foster mooted as one possible replacement, but in the end they went with Bates.
“It was a big responsibility, but at the same time I thrived under that. Knowing that the job was mine, and I would play near enough every game, I was really excited going into that season.
“It ended up being the best year of my career to date.”
Bates took the most catches in Championship cricket that year, pouching an impressive 57 catches for the season according to Opta, six of which came in one innings at home to Gloucestershire, an Ageas Bowl record.
Hampshire went on to beat Yorkshire in the t20 final at the SWALEC in August 2012, before that final win over Warwickshire in the CB40 Final crowned off a superb season for Giles White and his men.
“I think what we achieved speaks for itself,” Bates says. “We had an excellent mix of youth and experience, and when it came down to it at crunch times, we had a knack of turning it on. I’m convinced teams are worried about playing us. They fear us.”
Bates’s use of the present tense underlines that, while he has now moved on, the winning mentality that runs through the Hampshire dressing room is still a part of him. It is engrained in him.
But Bates is a professional, and his primary focus now is on winning a contract with another county. “If I’m given an opportunity I’m convinced I would take it with both hands. I’m with an agent now [Paul Weston] who’s very good. I’ve got every faith that he’ll do all he can to secure me a spot. Hopefully one comes up but if it doesn’t I want to be in a position to say, I did all I could to make it happen.”
It’s been a tough couple of years since that golden summer of 2012, but Bates doesn’t hold a grudge towards the man that replaced him. “It was hard at first. He [Wheater] was obviously threatening my spot. I didn’t deal with that as well as I might have done initially. But he’s a good guy. I think there’s a mutual respect there as far as cricket is concerned. It was just a very, very difficult situation.”
Hampshire’s supporters have been torn over the Bates/Wheater dichotomy since the Essex man’s arrival in March 2013, and while plenty were disappointed Bates went, a growing proportion have backed Wheater, believing he is a more rounded cricketer – particularly in the modern game, where keepers are expected to be competent with the bat. So what does Bates, a pedigree wicketkeeper, think of the game’s propensity to go for ‘batsmen who keep’?
“What I strongly believe is that someone like myself can influence a game with my gloves alone. The way I see it, I know I’m going to be deadly consistent with the gloves, and I’ll produce the odd moment of magic that could turn a game. Whereas batters who keep a little bit, you’re never going to get that with them. And as good as you can be with batting, it can be a bit of a lottery. You can get a good ball, and you’re struggling to influence a game. It’s frustrating that potentially other people don’t share the same view as me.”
Whatever your view on that one, there are few who would begrudge Bates a chance at plying his trade at a county next season. He is too good a gloveman to lose from the game, and while things didn’t work out at Hampshire, the 24-year-old is determined to prolong a career that has already shown so much promise.
“I feel like I’m in a position to do an excellent job for someone now,” Bates concludes. “Leaving Hampshire could be a blessing in disguise. If I do get an opportunity somewhere to really kick on I think it’ll be brilliant. New environment, fresh start. It could be brilliant.”