A Chat With Alex Lees: My First Exclusive!
Updated: Jan 14
Let's be honest - I don't think anyone expected 2020 to turn out how it has, did they? At the beginning of the year, I'd never heard of Zoom, yet by November I've used it to sit down for an exclusive interview with a professional cricketer.
That cricketer is Durham (and former Yorkshire) opening batsman Alex Lees. As England gets used to lockdown once more, I had a virtual chat with him about his career so far, as well as captaincy, playing overseas, and the toughest bowler he's faced.
We actually have a couple of things in common. Both of us hail from Halifax, and we've both donned the whites of Lightcliffe CC. Admittedly, he's amassed 26 appearances for the first team, while I have one game under my belt for the Sunday side... but that still counts, doesn't it?
One thing I hadn't intended to ask about was family life, but I was given a brief insight as Alex logged on to Zoom. He and his wife now have a five-month-old son, who on this occasion was making everyone aware that he was very much not happy about something.
The fact that Lees junior made a background appearance at that point was rather fitting, because we started by discussing Alex's own childhood and what ignited his love for the game he now plays for a living.
"I grew up in a very sporting family," he said, citing his own dad as his inspiration. "He and my grandad played lots of different sports, and so from a very young age I was encouraged to do that too; besides cricket, I played football, rugby, all sorts, you name it. I gravitated towards cricket when I realised that was the one I was enjoying the most, and I was probably the best out of the others!
Yorkshire has a glut of thriving amateur cricket leagues, and it was within the junior sections of two of those that Alex cut his teeth, at two clubs in the area where he grew up: "My dad played at Bradshaw [in the Halifax League], and my older brother and I started out there too. I left for Illingworth when I was about 13 or 14 to play in the Airedale and Wharfedale League."
It was at that time of Alex's move to Illingworth that Yorkshire began to take an interest, and he made his debut for the county's under-13s in 2006. In the ensuing years, he moved through the age groups before establishing himself in, and regularly captaining, both the under 17s and the Academy.
On that note, captaincy is a field in which Alex has amassed a great deal more experience since establishing himself as a first-team regular. The culmination of that was being appointed as Yorkshire's youngest captain since Lord Hawke in 1883 when he took the reins of the one-day and T20 sides for the 2016 campaign. How much did the experience of captaincy in the Academy and age-group levels help when he was elevated to that role?
"The on-field aspect of captaincy is something that I'm very comfortable with, and I felt very assured and confident when I was one-day and T20 captain, regardless of my age. It was fortunate that I had some players around me that had a lot of experience, but I think I had built up the respect I needed through my performances in the previous three seasons. I think that some players can be very naïve when it comes to captaincy, and they feel the challenge is far easier than it actually is.
"For me, though, there was always that underlying feeling that we had a lot of older players, in the squad, many of whom had played internationally, which meant ultimately it was never going to be a long-term thing because there were too many people who felt they could do a better job. I don't mean that in the sense that anyone ever undermined me, but the feeling was always lingering."
How different does he feel captaining a white-ball side is, compared to a red-ball one?
"I do think that in the shorter formats of cricket, you need the most tactically-astute player as the captain, because if you make an error of judgement in a T20, you've lost the game. You might get another chance in a 50-over game, but it's not guaranteed, and that's so different from a four-day game where you will nearly always have the opportunity to make up for a mistake in the next session."
Alex's first taste of captaincy came against the team he now plays for, Durham, but back at the point when his burgeoning talent was being rewarded with full first-class and one-day debuts for Yorkshire, he also found himself noticed by a White Rose legend. At the conclusion of the 2011 season, when Yorkshire made the announcement that Alex had signed a junior pro contract with the club, none other than Geoffrey Boycott said of him: "I think he's very good... I like the whole package with him."
What effect did someone like Boycott saying this have on Alex at the time? Did it mean more pressure on his shoulders, or conversely, more confidence in his game?
"It was a nice feeling to have someone like that saying these things, but I didn't really feel any added pressure. I think it's about the amount of pressure that you put on yourself as an individual, and all I wanted to do at the time was play, and win, games for Yorkshire. It did give me a little bit more of a belief in myself, but, no, I wouldn't say I felt any more pressure."
A key part of being able to keep that pressure away is being in good form, and the quickest route to building that up is playing as much as possible. To that end, Yorkshire often send their youngsters out to local amateur clubs to get some more wool on their backs. For Alex, that meant a return in 2012 to playing for a club with a HX postcode; this time, it was Lightcliffe CC of the Bradford League. What does he make of that year he spent with Lightcliffe?
"It was good, even though I didn't score a huge amount of runs. I certainly didn't do quite as well as I had in the previous couple of years playing for the Academy. I did enjoy my year, and I still have some good friends from Lightcliffe, but it just highlights, for me, that it was a year of learning.
"The expectation was slightly different too; you'd go from being just a good player with the Academy, to playing as a man, and I know it's all still cricket, but it felt different."
The Bradford League was established in 1903 and has been described as "arguably the country's strongest amateur competition", counting the likes of VVS Laxman and Martin Crowe among its former players (https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2006/mar/22/cricket.sport). Yet, after a brief four-game return to Lightcliffe in 2017, Alex held the record for the all-time top score in the league's history after he amassed a mammoth 227* off 153 balls. He was knocked off the top spot last summer, but remains at number two.
After the initial stint at Lightcliffe, though, was when things really started to take off for Alex, and his breakthrough into the first team arrived the following summer. He made his County Championship debut for Yorkshire in the first game of 2013, with the White Rose freshly back in Division One following promotion in Jason Gillespie's first season as coach.
He's very positive about his experiences under Gillespie: "His top skill is that he's a great people person. He instils belief in his players, and his man-management was exceptional during that period. I think that's why we played so much excellent cricket, because we had such a great team spirit alongside having a good team on paper."
2013 also included a colossal 275* against Derbyshire, which made Alex the youngest Yorkshire batsman to score a double century. He also made his T20 bow for the first team, and the following year brought no reason to dispute that his talent was continuing to flourish. After hitting his maiden T20 fifty (which I was in the stands at Headingley to witness) and over 1,000 Championship runs in Yorkshire's title-winning season, he was rewarded with his county cap.
He was also named the Cricket Writers' Club Young Cricketer of the Year, which is a prestigious prize - previous winners have included past England captains Colin Cowdrey, Ian Botham, and Michael Atherton.
On the topic of England, the previous year, Alex had achieved his highest international recognition yet. Having previously played for the England Player Development XI, he was called up to play for the England Lions in a two-day friendly against the touring Australians in August. After an excellent couple of years, during a time when Alastair Cook's opening partner for the national team was often in question, was a call-up in the back of his mind?
"I think everyone has aspirations to play at a higher level, and I definitely think my mentality hasn't changed from then to now; I still want to play international cricket, and Test cricket in particular. At that point in my career, when I was playing well, it was always in the forefront of my mind that it was a possibility. In sport generally, though, consistency is always going to be key to success, and although I had been pretty consistent as a young batsman in my career to date, there was a lot of competition in 2014.
"Sam Robson and [Alex's Yorkshire opening partner] Adam Lyth both had amazing years, so it was always going to be tough at that time. In the years after that there were others who were having unbelievable periods of form too, for example Alex Hales in 2015 and then Keaton Jennings in 2016.
"When I look back to that point, do I think I deserved a chance? Probably not. Although that was my best year in my career up to then, I always seemed to have guys ahead of me. Maybe if I'd scored a couple of hundred more runs, it might have been different, but ultimately it wasn't meant to be."
Without a doubt, playing international cricket is the dream of any professional, but one thing that does have to be noted about it is the amount of time you spend away from home. Alex has toured Australia, Sri Lanka, and South Africa with the Lions, but with the Australia and New Zealand seasons running in the English winter, the opportunity to play overseas domestically is also there for many professionals.
In early 2017, Alex did just that, as he jetted out to play for Bay of Plenty in New Zealand's Hawke Cup, a competition that sits slightly below the top level of cricket in the country. He hit the ground running, scoring 223 on debut, and finished with an average of 68.33 from five games. How did that opportunity come about, and what did he make of it?
"I was fortunate that I struck up a decent relationship with Kane [Williamson, Yorkshire's overseas player in 2014 and 2016] and the Bay of Plenty is his home area, so a lot of it was down to him. The whole thing was great, on both the cricketing side of things and the life experience too. New Zealand's an amazing country and is probably one of the nicest places I've been to.
When it comes to being away from home, he accepts that that can be difficult, and makes reference to the strain that the unique nature of being on tour can take on a cricketer's personal life: "If you've got young children, or you're in a relationship, it's tough, because there's not that many jobs where those circumstances come about. Maybe if you work on an oil rig you might have a similar structure!
"It is tough, and of course there's not just the strain on those at home but on you and your teammates too. Spending six weeks with the same people means you will start to get under each other's feet a bit. Most of the time, though, it is enjoyable, and I've been fortunate to do it. One thing I do think is important when you're somewhere new, is that you get that time away from training to experience the culture of the country you're in."
I've appreciated Alex's honesty throughout this whole conversation, something that continued when we discussed the couple of years following that spell in New Zealand, which was one of the toughest periods of his career to date. With Jason Gillespie having left the role of head coach, Alex admits that he "didn't always see eye-to-eye" with his replacement Andrew Gale and that they often didn't "bring the best out of each other" either.
He was dropped as one-day captain, a decision he was rather unconcerned about: "If they'd asked me to do the white-ball stuff for another season I would have, but there were so many people who wanted that job and given that my one-day form had dipped - my T20 form was fine, but in 50-over games I was struggling - I wasn't all that bothered. I felt giving it up was a good opportunity just to get my runs. Looking back, I suppose that didn't come to pass and I struggled for that period afterwards, but I'm happy that I'm now getting back to where I want to be as a cricketer at Durham."
It was undoubtedly not the end that anyone would have wanted at Yorkshire, and Alex freely admits that it "wasn't a great environment" as he struggled for form. He has since grasped with both hands the clean slate offered by Durham, though. In his first full season in the North-East, he scored 973 Championship runs, which was more than the previous two years combined.
He also set a new personal best score of 115 in the One-Day Cup. What was it about Durham that persuaded him initially?
"I saw the process of rebuilding they were going through, and it matched with my desire to rebuild my own career. On a personal front, too, I have a great group of family and friends and a wider support network that I wanted to be able to access - not just for me, but for my wife too - and with Durham, I wouldn't be moving too far away."
We went on to discuss future hopes now that he is settled at the Riverside, having recently signed a new contract, and he reiterated his desire to force his way into the England Test setup. He also batted away (pun intended) my suggestion of a possible IPL spot in the future: "I think the chances of that are pretty slim, but it's not absolutely ridiculous!"
Never say never, I suppose! My final question was something that I've often wondered when sat in the stands at many a first-class ground up and down the country. I'm not a batsman (by virtue of being just a bit less terrible at bowling!) and so I've wondered about each batsman's dreaded bowler. Alex has faced the likes of Dale Steyn, Jimmy Anderson, and Nathan Lyon throughout his career, but who would he say is the toughest he's faced?
"For many years, the toughest bowler for a left-hander in county cricket was Sussex's Steve Magoffin. He was horrendous to face for a left-hander; he used to bowl massive away-swingers and he was really skilful. Consistently, he's been by far the toughest, but of course the internationals that you face in county cricket from time to time, you just know that they are a step above. I particularly remember facing Lyon for the England Lions in 2013 and thinking he was a different level of spinner altogether."
For me, that's the inside information you just don't get on the Internet, and as a cricket fan, it's brilliantly interesting. I hope you've found this piece interesting and informative (and hopefully a bit entertaining too!) and thank you for reading it.
Of course, I also want to thank Alex, very much, for taking the time to speak to me. He's offered a really fascinating insight into the life and mindset of a professional cricketer, and I wish him all the very best as he continues his career at the Riverside.
As ever, I'm always open to comments, suggestions, queries, and feedback, so please do get in touch using the form at the bottom of the homepage or through my social channels. You can like my Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/longstorysport, and you can also follow me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/LongStorySport. Connecting with me through social media brings the benefit of being among the first to know when I post something new!
The cover image for this post is used with the kind permission of Alex Lees.