OLIVER THORPE: His contribution to his county's cause highlighted one of only a handful of tangible positives in 2020: the young players who stepped up to fill the shoes of absentee overseas and England stars.
After the coronavirus pandemic broke out in March, Jack Carson did not expect to play much cricket at any level this year.
In the end, 2020 brought the young Irishman's first-class debut, a place atop Sussex's wicket-taking standings, and his first professional contract. Amid a nightmarish summer, Carson found himself in dreamland.
Sussex's find of the Bob Willis Trophy claimed 15 first-class wickets - including one with his second ball on debut - and rounded off the year with a maiden five-wicket haul, against Surrey at The Oval.
His contribution to his county's cause highlighted one of only a handful of tangible positives in 2020: the young players who stepped up to fill the shoes of absentee overseas and England stars.
“It didn’t really sink in at the time, but then whenever I go onto ESPNcricinfo and look at the five-wickets column there’s a nice big 'one' there which is pretty cool," Carson says of his five-for against Surrey.
"I may have cleaned up the tail and burgled a couple but there’s now something in that column so I can’t complain.”
“Getting a wicket with my second ball just settled me down for the season. Just being able to know I could do it if I got it right meant that I’d have a decent chance of picking up a few wickets. I absolutely loved it and that was the main thing.
“I spoke to my dad, who came over for my first game, about everything. I’ve sacrificed a lot and have had to go through a lot of stuff: playing games in the cold and wet, so the chance to do it on a sunny day at Hove in a first-class match. I said to him: ‘How good is this? Isn’t this the best thing ever?’”
A long way from sunny Hove, lies the family home in Waringstown – a small village in rural County Down which lives and breathes cricket. The home overlooks the famous Lawn on which Waringstown Cricket Club play their home matches. Carson is neighbours with ex-Ireland wicketkeeper Eddie Bushe and Brian Hanna, a Waringstown club legend.
Since before he could walk, Carson has had a bat in hand. He spent countless afternoons playing cricket at The Lawn with his two older brothers; and if it wasn’t cricket it was football, rugby or tennis.
Waringstown is a name that is synonymous with Irish club cricket; everyone knows the club, its history and everything that comes with the name. They have won more All-Ireland Senior Cup titles (six) than any other club on the island.
“When you were playing for the under-11s and you got the chance to watch the firsts on a Saturday or go on a Senior Cup trip, it was the equivalent of watching Premier League football. You had Kyle McCallan (ex-Ireland spinner), Lee Nelson and Gary Kidd and you were sitting, thinking: ‘These guys are like rockstars’, or that’s how it was perceived in the village.”
Carson’s father, Jim, played local cricket at nearby Donacloney Cricket Club (now Donacloney Mill Cricket Club) and represented Ireland at under-19.
“For me to play for Waringstown as a boy brought a little banter, but it was the best thing for me,” he laughs.
He first played for the club at under-11 level and that was where the journey to Sussex began.
It wasn’t until this stage that he actually learned to bowl spin. At Waringstown, he had McCallan as an icon to whom to look up.
He recalls: “I only started bowling off-spin because I liked imitating Kyle McCallan. I remember watching him and thinking to myself: ‘I want to bowl like that, it looks pretty cool’, and then I realised I could do it pretty well.
“I remember showing him and he encouraged me to keep it up.”
He played in an under-11 All-Ireland Cup final at Clontarf Cricket Club in Dublin later that summer and scored 121 not out, finishing that season with over 600 runs and unsurprisingly catching the attention of pathway coaches and selectors.
One of those people was Simon Johnston, one of his coaches in the Ireland youth setup. It was the first time Johnston saw him.
Northern Knights head coach Simon Johnston played a part in Carson fulfilling his dream. Photo credit: Sportsfile via Cricket Ireland
“To this day, I have never seen an under-11 play like that,” Johnston says. “He wasn’t even like a 15-year-old, he was like an adult playing.
“Physically, he was one of the smallest guys there, but it was just his tactical awareness and his astuteness. It was a man against boys – a masterclass.”
Given the contacts Waringstown have within Irish cricket, they were straight on the phone to former Sussex, England and Ireland player, Ed Joyce, to see what could happen for Carson.
“So much of what happens in sport is being in the right place at the right time,” Carson says.
“If I had shinned one first ball, dear knows where I would be now. If Kyle (McCallan) wasn’t captaining Waringstown at the time, Ed (Joyce) mightn’t have been able to pick up the phone as easily.
“In Februrary 2013, when I had just turned 12, we set up a trial with Keith Greenfield, who is academy director at Sussex. I hit the bowling machine and bowled a bit too; I was maybe there for three hours.”
Carson wasn’t the only Irish talent at the nets that day. The McClintock twins, Gary and William, of Donemana Cricket Club in Ireland’s north west were in the net beside.
Greenfield liked what he saw in Carson and invited him to go back that summer. He accepted the invitation and his journey to becoming a first-class cricketer was underway.
However, committing to Sussex in the early days was tricky. Carson was juggling club cricket with Waringstown, underage inter-provincial cricket with the Northern Cricket Union and pathway cricket with Cricket Ireland – all while trying to keep up top grades at Banbridge Academy – the school he attended from 11-16.
Carson appeals during an youth inter-provincial fixture. Picture credit: Barry Chambers/Cricket Europe
“I was quite a smart kid, I guess,” Carson admits. “I was one of those kids that could just get by, by listening. If I listened in class I could get by okay.
“Up until my GCSEs it didn’t affect anything massively, but I remember being in South Africa with the Sussex academy for three weeks before my GCSE mock exams. We were meant to be doing work whilst we were away. There wasn’t a book opened,” he laughs.
“I was up and down to Jordanstown (a campus of Ulster University) for Irish Academy stuff a couple of times a week, and maybe I would’ve travelled to Dublin at the weekend before going to Sussex to a week for half-term.”
Speaking of Carson’s determination to succeed, Johnston says: “When I first came into contact with him as a coach at under-13 or under-15 level through inter-provincial and Irish stuff, you knew he was going to be a professional cricketer.
“I have coached a lot of talented kids, but there are two that I knew straight away were going to be international cricketers – Jack and Harry Tector (Ireland international).
“There was no Plan B with Jack, it was a case of: ‘I want to be a professional cricketer.’ If you speak to kids now, they’ll say that they want to play for Ireland but they’ll want university to fall back on.
“The difference between him and everyone else was that he always wanted to be challenged. If you were throwing to him it would always be ‘throw quicker’ and by the time he was 14 – anything I was doing with the senior lads, I could do with him.
“Sometimes that wasn’t even enough; it could’ve been ‘get me a smaller bat’, ‘throw it at my head’. He wanted to be uncomfortable.”
With all that was going on in cricket, something had to give. Carson admitted that his social life took a back seat but understood that if he was to make it then he had to do what he had to do.
“I would’ve gone to watch Glenavon (his local football team). Maybe there was a game on a Monday night but I couldn’t go because I had cricket training at Jordanstown. Even when I was recovering from training, I would’ve missed stuff too.”
After finishing his GCSEs, he left behind the life he knew to pursue his dream career as a professional cricket.
He signed for the Sussex Academy and continued his education at Hurstpierpoint College in Hassocks – the former school of Carson’s Sussex teammates George Garton and Tom Haines.
Some questioned the merits of the move. Johnston recalls: “We have a very good academy programme here in Ireland, but at that stage it wasn’t what it is now. He always has the fallback option over here, he hasn’t ruled Ireland out.
“By going away, he gets two bites at the cherry and I remember saying that to him at the time: ‘If you go over and it works, you’re set and home in a boat; but if it doesn’t work out then you can always come back’. A lot of people - Barry McCarthy, Peter Chase and George Dockrell - have all done it.”
Saying goodbye to Waringstown and hello to England’s south coast was something that Carson found difficult.
“I loved it at Hurstpierpoint College,” says Carson. I made great friends and the craic was great.
“However, when I look back at my first month, it was the last place I wanted to be,” he explains. “I struggled so much. Because I had been playing cricket that summer, I hadn’t given it much thought; but when I got on the plane and drove there, I was at boarding school all of a sudden and it was a big shock.
“Especially because there was no cricket in September and the academy programme didn’t really start until the end of October. At cricket, I would’ve known lads,” Carson adds.
Since making his way into the Sussex squad, Carson got the chance to work with former Australia international Jason Gillespie, the county's head coach who has now moved back to South Australia.
Former Sussex head coach Jason Gillespie spoke highly of Carson during his time at Hove
“Dizzy was brilliant – he was so calm and relaxed,” Carson explains. “I always had his backing; he believed in me and my skills. Knowing that you had someone who believed in you as you walked out onto the pitch was a massive calming influence.
“On the morning of my first game he told me to enjoy the day – getting my cap presented to me, and reminded me that there was no pressure. All of a sudden, I felt a huge weight being lifted off my shoulders.”
Still in the embryonic stages of his professional career, Carson has aspirations to play international cricket at some point. He qualified for England in April, but his sights are well and truly set on doing the job at Sussex.
“Over here is like home now. I’ve been with Sussex since I was 12 and I want to be in a team that does well and wins trophies. I want to be an asset in all three formats.
“The next six months is just about trying to improve as much as I can. There’s still a lot for me to work on; I want to land that main spinner role in the four-day team.”
He goes on to add: “If a chance comes to maybe bowl in the nets for the [England] Lions or go on a spin camp would be brilliant, but it’s a long way off. My main goal at the moment is taking as many wickets for Sussex as I can.”
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