Nick Folland isn’t as famous as any of the other players described here. But he could really play.
On the right type of day at Exmouth – sun shining, the usual stiff breeze – he could easily be mistaken for a great batsman. Which, in a sense, he was.
He never played a lot of first-class cricket – just one full county season for Somerset, when he was nearly thirty – but, in the Minor Counties game of the late twentieth century, he was peerless.
I was fortunate enough to see him make runs of quality and style on many occasions.
I moved from London to Devon at the start of 1991. A confirmed follower of Middlesex, I knew little about cricket in the region and would have struggled to name any of the players who represented the county. Also, I was not to know that my arrival was set to coincide with the most successful period in the history of cricket in the county. Having won only a single previous trophy since the club’s foundation in 1899, Devon won the Minor Counties Championship four times and the equivalent limited-over trophy on three occasions between 1992 and 1998.
How did this happen?
There have been many influences; the cerebral yet unremittingly aggressive captaincy of Peter Roebuck, the vibrant power of batsmen like Andy Pugh and Nick Gaywood, and the emergence of a generation of prodigiously talented local youngsters, headed by Giles White, later of Hampshire, and Chris Read, now an England player. However, probably the most significant figure has been a man often described these past few years as ‘the best amateur batsman in England’, but who remains, to many, a mysterious and unknown figure.
Nick Folland was born in Bristol in September 1963. After growing up in Exmouth, he made his senior debut for Devon in 1981, and represented England Schools the following year alongside Neil Fairbrother, Hugh Morris and Graham Rose. Initially, his progress fluctuated; 264 runs at 22 in his first season as a seventeen year-old, the consolation of a maiden fifty in 1982, an unsuccessful trial with Gloucestershire in 1983. And steady, unspectacular development through the rest of the eighties, culminating in a maiden century against Oxfordshire at Torquay in the summer of 1989.
In 1992 he made 734 runs at 81 in the Minor Counties Championship and led the county to their first triumph at Lord’s, taking part in a match-winning partnership with Giles White. After the match was over and the presentations were complete he was pictured with the trophy on the pavilion balcony, the smile modest and perhaps a little wistful. For by now he knew that he would soon be moving on, having been offered a place on the Somerset staff for 1993.
Despite his relatively advanced age his results were good, but he failed to see out his contract. He retired, disillusioned, towards the end of his second season. It wasn’t for lack of success. He made twin centuries against a strong Sussex attack in his first season and I have a particular memory of a concise and elegant 72 against Surrey at Bath in the weeks leading up to his retirement. Rather, perhaps, that the nomadic and unsettling existence of the county pro was not to the taste of someone more used to the stability of a life based around teaching for a living and dominating local cricket at weekends. Returning to the increasingly powerful Devon side for 1995, he has subsequently used the additional patience and technical precision which he developed in the first-class game to stand out as the most exceptional performer in an exceptional side and the leading batsman in the Minor County game. The biggest – and most beautiful – fish in a small but well-stocked pond. The runs have come at an even more prolific rate than before, culminating in a county record innings of 249 not out against Oxfordshire at Torquay in 1999, stamping him even more firmly as probably the greatest batsman Devon has ever produced.
How does one describe Folland’s batting to someone who’s never seen him play? Well, focus on a neat figure, tallish, slim. Always smartly turned out and exuding the air of unshakeable confidence which unconsciously pervades the demeanour of the very best. Left-handed, and belonging to the school of elegance rather than utility. More of a David Gower (though less prone to the careworn flash outside the off-stump) than a Gary Kirsten. Happiest at three or perhaps four, rarely an opener. Say you’re sitting on the far side of the Maer Ground at Exmouth, Folland’s home venue since he was a teenager. It’s a warm Sunday in August 1996 and the cooling sea breeze is welcome as you recline on the grass, attention firmly held by the cricket in spite of the incessant noise from the nearby beach. Shropshire bat first and Asif Din, like Folland relishing the less intense atmosphere of the Minor County game, strikes a rapid and increasingly dominant 175, taking all the home bowlers to task and leaving the fielders gasping as he repeatedly pinpoints the field’s gaps. In mid-afternoon they declare on 317-3 from just 63 overs and, after a potent start to their innings by Nick Gaywood and Gareth Townsend, Devon lose their first wicket on 83. Enter Nick Folland, who, as usual, approaches the wicket with an understated sense of purpose. Even now, with many of his most impressive performances still for the future, he carries the aura of a Minor County Viv Richards or Sachin Tendulkar. Everyone knows that something very special is likely to happen. What you, and the rest of the spectators, get, is a minor masterpiece.
Folland, as usual, is bare-headed, his sleeves buttoned to the wrists. He is soon away, turning the ball off his hip to short fine-leg for a single. Like any pedigree operator he instantly knows where the ball is going and how many runs he can get. As soon as he’s hit the ball he’s running. Poise and control are the keynotes, and they are maintained as his innings progresses on a somnolent afternoon. The attack isn’t demanding but Folland never becomes complacent, even though he is making batting looking ridiculously simple. And soon the boundaries come. A wide, over-pitched delivery is despatched through extra cover without fuss or flourish; the chastened bowler predictably responds by dropping short. Folland waits and chops it behind square for another four as the score mounts. Folland shows no sign of sweat or discomfort; he is physically fit as well as technically skilled. The crowd (which, as is customary at Exmouth, contains Folland’s proud parents) applauds generously when fifty is passed; Folland raises his bat modestly. Clearly he feels – and looks – as though he has achieved little of merit but the spectators know different. Seemingly concerned by the ease of it all he begins to open out. No major risks are taken and the score doesn’t increase any more rapidly; it’s just that the shots become more difficult. And deliberately so: you feel that Folland is testing himself, seeing what he can do. For example, when the slow left-armer, Adam Byram, drops the ball marginally short and it fails to turn, Folland stiffens his wrists and whips the ball through midwicket for four. A normal player would have been content just to keep it away from his stumps, but, in this context, Folland is far from a normal player. Those in the crowd who really know their cricket – at Exmouth many of the watchers are always refugees from the beach – realize the significance of what they are watching. In such a charmed setting, where so many of the unwelcome trappings of first-class grounds are absent, it is not possible to see better batting than this. So you sit back and enjoy it a little longer.
Soon, though, Folland is out. When a century appears inevitable, the mistake which is to end some two hours of sublime artistry comes. Jon Henderson drops short and Folland’s pull is for once clumsy and badly-timed. Tony Parton takes the catch at mid-wicket. With eighty to his name, Folland departs the stage as quickly as he arrived, accepting the resounding applause without flourish and disappearing into the dressing room. After a few minutes he is back with his family. Everyone is smiling as observations are exchanged and plaudits accepted. This is where Folland is happiest, and it’s easy to see why.
The scene is a country mile away from the treadmill tension of the professional game, where even a player of Folland’s ability has to work hard for every run in the certain knowledge that too many failures can jeopardize his very livelihood. Some players like it that way; such concerns provide an extra incentive to do well. Sometimes pure desire and pride in performance are not enough to sustain a player through the hardest, most repetitive moments of a long county season. Others – those who have established themselves in the tumult of the international game and do not run the risk of descending back into the real world too soon – require the infusion of adrenalin that the ‘big occasion’ provides. Folland’s experiences as a Somerset player showed him what life was like on the other side of the fence, and, initially, he found the challenge stimulating. But his enthusiasm did not last. Why?
A clue may lie in his percipient reflections on his first season in county cricket, published in the Somerset yearbook in 1994. They reveal the technical and mental adjustments which he felt he had to make and illustrate his optimism for the future. But they also reveal the demanding, analytical mind of a true perfectionist. I am sure that Folland could and would have continued to succeed if he’d persisted in the county game, but, for one so used to success, and with such a well-developed life outside cricket, it was always going to be harder to come to terms with the pangs of uncertainty that accompany failure. But, whatever his own opinion, Folland wasn’t a failure in county cricket. For such a late starter he did extremely well, and the technical refinements which he adopted have made him an even more potent force at a less demanding level of the game.
Sustained brilliance in the professional game is not easy to achieve. Folland’s experiences emphasize that even the very gifted must start early. Before the pain of failure saps the self-confidence and the comfort of physical and emotional security erodes the willingness to take risks. If the trial at Gloucestershire all those years ago had gone better things may have been very different. Folland, though, is a happy and contented man.
Sometimes it’s better to be a big fish.
Cricket Lore, Volume 4, Issue 3, May 2000