Middlesex CCC FEATURE: Ollie’s army are on their way
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The grin remains as big as ever and the bone-crushing handshake as firm.
Despite the blow of relegation from Division One in a miserable end to last term Middlesex County Cricket Club’s stalwart offspinner Ollie Rayner is in good form.
He is speaking at the club’s media day ahead of their first match of the county championship – second tier – against Northamptonshire at Lord’s.
The event is a civilised, good-natured affair, where old acquaintances are renewed in a pleasant atmosphere where hope and anticipation co-mingle with excitement at the coming season.
Having played his part in the Seaxes never-to-be-forgotten 2016 title triumph, the popular big man knows how cruel cricket can be following demotion from the top table nine long months ago.
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Yet nothing can detract from his delight at the return of our summer sport.
I mention it must be like Christmas Eve at the thought. Quick as a flash he replies with his engaging, earthy humour: “It certainly feels like it’s December, it’s bl**dy freezing – which as you can imagine as a spinner I’m not particularly happy about.
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“Hopefully if I do get the nod on Friday I’ll have lots of catches at slip.”
The genuinely good-natured cricketer has spent the winter months recuperating from injury which curtailed his efforts last year, culling 20 wickets at 38 when seasoned observers know he is far better than those figures suggest.
Certainly when you consider his 51 crucial wickets at 23.57 during his and the club’s annus mirabilis the summer previously, which played a central part in his county claiming their first county title since 1993.
The smile disappears momentarily as he analyses his experience over the dark months.
“It’s been a long winter. I had an operation on my knee in October last year and I’ve had a lot of rehab to get back fit and strong for the season.
“I’m probably in as good a place as I’ve ever been at the moment and I’m looking forward to cracking on with getting the season started now.
“A year is a long time in cricket as Gus [Fraser} said. I’m not looking for excuses but I picked up my injury with the [England] Lions in November .
“I had five injections in it last year and my form did subside. I’d probably got 17 or 18 of those wickets before the first half of the season was out.
“I had to miss games to get the knee fit for the final games, and then frustratingly had to miss the final match of the season after picking up an injury to my ribs.”
With Rayner fast approaching 300 first class wickets he is hoping for a fruitful season, even if the opening weeks are very much a seamer’s paradise.
No matter. Mervin, as he is known as, is confident.
“The weather’s not been great for us in terms of warm ups but the ball has been coming out as well as it’s even been.
“My batting has gone down a bit but the bowling’s gone up. One day I hope to have a better balance but at the moment the bowling is what I’m concentrating on.
“Promotion is certainly viable. Competition in Division Two will be tough. There will be a cluster of teams looking to go up but we’ve definitely got the personnel to do it.
“A strong start will see us gain momentum whereas last term it was something we lacked through injuries and England call-ups. We have to move on and hopefully this year the starts will align and we will be back to where we want to be.
“2016 is a distant memory now, it’s all about the here and now.”
Yet there is more to Ollie’s story than being a record breaking right arm offie.
He was born on a British Army base in Fallingbostel in 1985.
“My dad was in the Army for years. The ‘German born’ thing will never leave me, especially as my birthplace is on my passport”.
“I remember I was on my cousin’s stag-do to Hamburg. I got nervous going through customs as I knew the man in the booth would try and talk to me in German once he saw my documents – it was really embarrassing as I had to tell him that I didn’t speak German. There was a bit of banter flowing from the lads after that”.
Modest Rayner also underplays his debut for Sussex, even if it was the stuff teenage dreams are made of.
“Somehow I made my debut against the touring Sri Lankans for Sussex when I was 19 in 2006. I bowled 30 odd overs and got 0-100 and batted at number 8”.
“I don’t know what happened – I must have had my eyes closed but somehow I managed to get a century against them – sometimes it just clicks in cricket”. He fails to mention becoming the first Sussex player since 1920 to score a century on debut, when he scored 101 that day.
He adds almost as an afterthought, as if he still can’t believe his feat today: “People said to me I actually batted really well rather than just slogging it”.
Rayner is far too nice a person to be critical, but his bewilderment is still evident when he was picked for the Lions Performance side to tour India in 2008.
“It was a strange time. I had got 30-odd wickets that year and was called-up. Unfortunately it was at the same time as the Mumbai bombings. It was hard, not least for safety issues and that people had lost their lives. But if you’re talking in terms of my career then I think I suffered for trying to listen and take on board what every single person told me – it may have slightly confused me rather than helped me.”
Rayner, who also hit an improbable – and unbeaten – 143 in a county match against Lancashire in 2012, is in a good place despite the injury he picked up second time around for the Lions.
He looks well, is relaxed and raring to go. He is at a good age. Young enough to be experienced but old enough to know what works for him.
“Now at the age of 32 I am my own man,” he says. “I know my own game – don’t get me wrong I don’t know everything and never will – but I think I know my game a bit better than I did at 19.
“Gus Fraser has been excellent as ever and I always felt that they backed me. I really feel it is the best place for me to play my cricket.
“As for the future I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. I just need to keep doing what I’m doing. If anything else comes from that then so be it.
“I just have to keep working as hard as I have been.
“We have the nucleus of a good team here with David Malan as captain, Sam Robson as vice-captain along with many other talented players.
“I just want to enjoy my cricket and be happy on and off the pitch. I think we could do something this year.”
The experienced Rayner issues a hint of caution, as befits a hugely-respected professional who has suffered the capricious vagaries of the sport.
The 6ft 4in gentle giant, who went from the championship to relegation in 12 months, said: “There is a good spirit but it’s when the chips are down that the character of the team will show itself.
“We’ve also got some very good young guys coming through including Max Holden. As long as we all pull together and carry on in the spirit we showed over the winter we will be fine.
“If we carry on in the same vein and all pull together – as well as starting well to back that up – I’m sure we will be a force.
“Yes, of course it’s great we are all together now but we need to show that spirit when we have to dig deep and our backs are against the wall. I’m sure we will.”
Off the pitch Rayner has mellowed when he is asked if he wintered well.
That big grin reappears and with a self-deprecating smile says: “I’m too old to go out much these days. I’ve got a wife, and a mortgage to pay.
“I’m so boring nowadays.”
Boring old Ollie Rayner? It’s a hard scenario to imagine, as anyone who knows him will testify.
But one thing is certain – if talent, team spirit, hard work and cricketing nous are anything to go by, Middlesex followers backing Oliver’s army from NW8 winning promotion in 2018 could well be smiling come September – along, of course, with that famous big Rayner grin for a job well done.
Middlesex reporter Layth will be covering all aspects of the club this summer. Follow him on Twitter @laythy29.