Former England opener Graeme Fowler looks at the rise and rise of his former Lancashire teammate. Mike Watkinson has earned his England cap, believe me. He has never been given anything. For some years before he joined the Lancashire staff, he was a league professional in the Bolton Association, where he won the ‘professionals’ prize in 1981 at the tender age of 20.
His Lancashire debut came against Kent in August 1982. His match analysis of 13-4-45-1 included a distinguished maiden scalp, that of Bob Woolmer. On Sunday, in his debut in the shortened game, he impressed with 8-1-26-2, dismissing Bob Woolmer again and Neil Taylor. This satisfactory performance was all the more extraordinary as Watkinson was not actually on the Lancashire staff at the time. In 1982, working as a draughtsman, he played cricket only at weekends and had had only two Under-25 appearances before his first-team call-up.
With commendable foresight Jack Bond, then Lancashire’s manager plucked Mike Watkinson from the leagues, where he was a good solid pro, and threw him in at the deep end. ‘I don’t make good players,’ Bond once told me, ‘I only give them the opportunity. It’s up to them whether they become good players.’ ‘Winker’ Watkinson took his opportunity. Even in his early days on the staff, Winker was always immaculately dressed.
His tall, smart, dark, and good looks (so I’m told) and his petrol-blue suit of the early ‘80s made him look like the lead singer of the pop group Spandau Ballet! The second-team lads at Old Trafford accepted him immediately: even the ‘why did he get a chance before me?’ brigade soon warmed to him. His admiring character and sense of humor make him impossible to dislike — and if he dislikes you, you probably deserve it.
Mike Watkinson’s professional attitude and an apparently endless thirst for hard work have made him a captain’s dream. He earned his Lancashire cap the hard way: by the end of 1987, the season he was capped, he had already made 195 first-team appearances. Winker knows his figures. Ask him at any time during a day’s play about his existing analysis and he can tell you but he is not a statistics man. Counting is just one of his habits, as is licking his fingers before each ball, whether bowling or fielding.
During the day he loses pints of sweat and spits, so it is only fitting that he takes pleasure in a pint or two at the close of play to replenish the lost fluid. His willingness to bowl whenever on whatever to whoever, no matter what the state of play or how tired or sore he feels, has made him a professional. Need 20 off two over’s for another bonus point? Winker’s your man: the team always comes first.
Some would prefer to be 18 not out, but Mike Watkinson would get the 20, and if he lost his wicket after that it wouldn’t matter to him, as the job’s done. Undoubtedly his un- selfish approach to cricket has meant that his career figures do not flatter him, and are not a true reflection of his worth. Since the early ’1980s, Lancashire has had a very successful one-day side.
Despite the efforts of some very successful players, often the difference between winning and nearly winning has been Watkinson. How fitting it was that he won the match award in the 1990 B&H final after adding 2 for 37 to a score of 50 (the highest innings of the match). I was lucky enough to represent England on several overseas tours, and on many of them a man like Winker was badly needed — but they don’t grow on trees.
Now England has seen his ability as a player, they may just wonder, by the end of the South African tour, how they managed without him. If the selectors chose players for their workload capabilities, Mike Watkinson would have been capped some time ago. In my opinion, his Test selection has come five years too late. Now 34, it is a testament to his dedication that he is fit and strong.
Left-hander Neil Fairbrother who started at Old Trafford the same year believes Mike Watkinson is getting better every year. Had he won a Test place five years ago, I think he would have improved even quicker, and would now be a key member of the England side. If his first two Test matches were a dream, then the Oval Test was a reality. Some of the Press were unhappy about his batting technique; others felt his bowling featured less flight than they wanted.
His batting technique is not textbook — but neither is Robin Smith’s nor Jack Russell’s. Low scores are often blamed on an unorthodox technique, whereas high-scoring innings are greeted with praise. No one criticized Watkinson for his 82 not out at Trent Bridge. Without that innings, would the match (and the series) have been drawn?
Likewise, his bowling may not be as good as Jim Laker’s, but why should we want Mike Watkinson to be anyone else? If more people were like Winker the game would be richer, the entertainment better, and every dressing-room funnier.