He Wore The Wyvern: Mike Burns

Michael Burns was born in Barrow-on-Furness in Cumbria on 6th February 1969. A relative late-comer to professional Cricket he joined Somerset from Warwickshire in 1997 and wore the Wyvern until 2005 becoming a legend at the County Ground.

burnsbatsThe player affectionately known by his team-mates as George, Burnsy or Burner played in 154 first class matches. A true all-rounder, he kept wicket for his home county in the Minor Counties and for his new team at Edgbaston but at Taunton he developed into an aggressive yet reliable batsman who, in his overall career, scored 7,648 runs at an average of 32.68 with a top score of 221 whilst playing for Somerset against Yorkshire at Bath in 2001.

His medium-pace out swingers also became more and more useful as his career developed and he claimed 68 first class wickets at 42.42 with a best of 6-54 against Leicestershire, also in 2001. He is also able to boast being Somerset captain for two seasons in 2003 and 2004.

After finishing playing Mike started umpiring, initially at grass roots level when he attended a Level One Umpiring course at Weston-super-Mare run by the Somerset Cricket Board. He stood in Academy games and second XI matches for Somerset joining the reserve list in 2012. In December it was announced that Mike had been promoted to the list of first class umpires for 2016. Clearly delighted he told the Western Daily Press: “This is a great announcement because it has been a tough six years since I first started out on the road to become a first class umpire, so it has all worked out really well for me and I’m looking forward to getting started.”

So 2016 looks like being the start of even more great things for Burnsy!

His move into first class Cricket was not the classic route formed from attending a certain school or college – far from it. His early moves into employment were as a ship worker in the docks and he had spells of unemployment. It was playing for Cumbria and scoring runs that he was making a name for himself and a change of local club proved a massive influence.

“I joined Netherfield CC in the North Lancs League because it was a better league than I was playing in. We went on a six-a-side trip to Thailand for two years and in the second year we played in Bangkok as well and Dermot Reeve was playing and that’s where I met him.

“The next summer Rob Tucker was our overseas pro and coach at Netherfield, but due to personal problems had to leave early and we had a few coaches and Dermot was one. I ended up batting with him several times and got 70-odd in one game and I invited him to watch me keep wicket for Cumbria the day after. So he invited me down to Warwickshire for a trial and I scored 80-odd in about 50 balls and Bob Cottam was coaching, so there was a Somerset connection straight away.

burnsumpire“So I played another couple of games and he (Cottam) called me during a game at Levington and said ‘call me manager if you want’ and gave me a one-year contract. So that was it. That was Bob’s last year at Warwickshire and over that winter Bob Woolmer came in as coach.”

And how did Mike find the late Woolmer?

“Strange-ish. More as a person I found him strange not so as a coach. He was a bit like one of those public schoolboys – very intelligent, maybe too intelligent? – but a brilliant coach. I found him OK early on and he (Woolmer) threw me into a game that Piran Holloway, who was there at the time, was playing in and I was keeping wicket to Allan Donald and Gladstone Small and was absolutely sh**ting myself. I was more scared keeping wicket than batting. We didn’t really have much interaction as I was in the second team all the time so our paths didn’t cross.”

It was in these formative years that Mike made his closest friend in Cricket and one of the biggest characters and influences.

“I was big mates with Graeme Welch, he was a real character, very funny. We had the same sense of humour and always taking the piss out of each other. Good player but always sneaking off for a ciggie and a pint but we had a great laugh.”

At the end of 1996 Reeve quit playing due to injury problems and took a job as Head Coach at Somerset for the 1997 season and Mike was quick to follow.

“It had been his Benefit Year the year before and we had been pretty close during all my time there and my wife worked on his benefit. He had a hip op so that’s why he had to retire and he just said to me that he had the Somerset job and did I want to come down and I said yeah! I had a one-year contract on the table at Warwickshire but I came down here and signed a two-year contract so I had better money and more of a chance of playing as I had been pigeon-holed up there so this gave me a new chance.”

Was the relationship with Reeve the most influential of his career?

“Definitely. Without him I wouldn’t be here at all. But later in my career there were others. Peter Bowler was great, he helped me get my mind working, particularly in the last five years of my career when I started playing near to how I should have been playing.”

burnsvyorksAs a youngster Mike’s dream was to be a wicket-keeper but had been second choice behind Keith Piper at Edgbaston and was now joining a county who had the brilliant Rob Turner, was he effectively removing all keeping ambitions coming to Taunton?

“When I was a kid I wanted to try everything and keeping was part of that. But I always preferred having a bowl. But I was happy to step in with the gloves if the need was to arise.

“I enjoyed it all. I was never one to stand at third man and do nothing, I wanted to be short leg too so I could have a chat with everybody and didn’t have to run around too much.”

Mike fitted in immediately at Taunton and was a popular team player throughout. He was always one to remind his team-mates of their fortune to be playing professional sport when the going got tough and heads dropped undoubtedly influenced by his own humble beginnings in the game.

Mike made his debut at the Oval in April in a game where Somerset scored 463 but Burnsy didn’t trouble the scorers. In his second game he made his highest score to date at Northampton, hitting 82 to beat is previous best by one run. More indifferent form followed with a decent score followed by a low one but Mike was contributing to a decent Somerset side for whom Richard Harden & Graham Rose were dominant.

Then the club introduced a new skipper when Tasmanian Jamie Cox was brought in, what did Mike think of the Australian who many call the best never to play for his country?

“Great bloke. Dermot changed the culture here, ask anyone that was around and the feeling was there were blokes playing for their contracts, even if that meant playing in the stiff’s (2nd XI) but suddenly we had players playing with confidence, playing reverse sweeps and knocking it about. Players really came out of their shell. So when Coxy came in – one of the very few intelligent Australians – he immediately got us all together.  He was a great bloke. He spoke well.

“He said to me on a pre-season tour that if the team were going to do well then I was going to have to play better. I was always saw myself as a bit-part player so him saying that made me question whether I could be man of the match in games, and I started contributing more.”

Cox’s influence started to make an impact and from 1999 the team enjoyed three Lords finals in four seasons. Mike made starts in all three big games – scoring 26, 21 & 21 – but couldn’t convert them to match winning scores. But they bring back great memories:

“Brilliant, but actually I recall the semi-finals more. We beat a Surrey side that had about ten internationals, Coxy got a hundred then we managed to get the ball soft so it was like hitting an orange and they kept getting caught by the Old Pavilion. Being on the balcony at the end – just brilliant.

“Then we beat Warwickshire after we were 6 for 3 and Noddy (Rob Turner, 42 no) and Dutchy (Keith Dutch, 61 no) turned that one around. And we beat Kent after we scored 344 but were never in the game. That was right at the death – Dutchy diving forward to get Ealham off Stef’s bowling on the first ball of the last over, extraordinary.”

2001 was a good year for Mike and the team. As well as scoring his highest individual score against the eventual champions and achieving his best bowling return he scored 961 runs in the Championship as Somerset finished second to Yorkshire.

With a Lords win too it all looked rosy for Somerset but the following season saw the team relegated (ironically alongside the reigning champs) so what does Mike think went wrong so quickly for Somerset?

“I really don’t know. We brought in a Sports Psychologist as we didn’t want to go into cruise mode and think we would just do that again. It’s strange – I don’t know! And it took us a while to get going again. Maybe we just thought we had made it? ”

In 2002 Mike scored 1,000 runs in the Championship for the first time as the club went down a division, and he repeated this in 2003 but the club struggled to adjust to life in the lower division finishing 7th. In the meantime Cox had stood down as captain and Mike had rather reluctantly agreed to take the reins. Would it be fair to say Burnsy was a reluctant captain?

“Yes it would. I was vice-captain under Coxy so it was obvious I suppose. I mean I was ready to do it, apart from playing for England this is the biggest privilege to have on your CV. I think a few others had desires to do it and I wasn’t necessarily guaranteed to be playing all forms of cricket and some said I didn’t have the right character to do it so I don’t think everybody was 100% behind me. I was always the joker and maybe I was too familiar? I mean Coxy came in and was brand new and everyone worked extra to impress the new guy. But they already knew me!”

Things became interesting (to say the least) when the club lost six consecutive games under Mike and the Chief Executive, Peter ‘Panda’ Anderson, wrote to ten players threatening to sack them. How did Mike manage that being the skipper?

“Panda was a great bloke – a great bloke. I think he was frustrated like the supporters were and was saying ‘pull your fingers out feller’s’! So if you take that the wrong way then what sort of character are you? You have to take it the right way and take it on the chin and work a bit harder.

“How did I motivate the players after that? To be fair you shouldn’t need much motivating to play for Somerset! If I had to stand there every day motivating people then were they the right character’s to be in that changing room?

“Panda always did right by me. In the winter after my first season I was working on the Ian Botham Stand and I passed him on the stairs and just asked: “Any chance of a bit more money chief?” and he just told me he would think about it and I thought that was that. But about three weeks later I got a renewed contract offer and he had increased my salary from twenty to twenty-five grand. I wasn’t one of those constantly asking for more and I think he knew that.

“You knew where you stood with him. He saw it as his club and you could always go to him so there was no infighting.”

If the team were struggling a little Mike was in the form of his life and scored 1,000 runs for the second year running. Did he really want a second season as captain?

“There was talk of Ian Ward coming in as captain and I basically said I would happily step aside if that is what it takes to get Wardy to come. I didn’t covet the captaincy that much but don’t know if Wardy was ever up for it to be honest. So in the end I said I would do it again – I had a year’s experience of being captain after all.”

The second season was difficult with a fair bit of dissent emanating from the stands and members bars, how did Burnsy cope with that?

“You are the captain and you make decisions. Your decision is the opinion of one and it really didn’t bother me. It is part and parcel of being captain. But the whole club was on a bit of a downer after 4 to 5 years of success. We had some problems with Caddy injured a lot, Nixon McLean injured an awful lot, Johnno was always out. We had to use inexperienced players like Aaron Laraman, Simon Francis and Wes (Durston). I remember in one game against Gloucestershire up there and we just couldn’t hit Ball or Harvey off the green and only scored 105 or something like that and we had Francis and Wes bowling to contain them. Of course they knocked them off.

“And there were the England players – we hardly saw Marcus in those days!”

In 2005 Mike was awarded a well-deserved Benefit Season by the club which would prove very successful for him but the year would be bittersweet too.

“It was tough doing all the benefit stuff because it’s not really in my nature to push myself and almost start begging for things and asking people who are less well off than you for help. But we had some great events and I had some great support. Tres was brilliant and got me loads of stuff then Graeme Smith came in and it was the Ashes year so it was perfect timing really. And it was different and I met some new people.”

But the twist came when Mike was released from his contract towards the end of the season alongside Rob Turner and he headed into retirement. Was it a shock?

“Yeah because I thought I was in decent form. I got 87 against Lancashire – which was Cork, Muralitharan, Anderson, Flintoff, Chapple – and I was second top score against Worcester and I got a hundred in the first one day game against Warwickshire. And then we had the warm up’s for the T20 and I got a hundred in the first warm up game and in the second warm up game the night after I pulled my hamstring, which was the first time I ever injured myself in my whole career. And that was it so I missed out on the whole of T20 when the club went on to life the trophy.

“But I had a great time and made some great friends, which helps a lot doing what I am doing now with umpiring. Marcus, Dutchy, Pete Bowler, Pars, Stef, Jase, Tregs, Hildy, Blackie was a character – loads of great mates. And I got to play and visit some fantastic places around the world too.”

Mike’s last game in Somerset colours was at Canterbury in an easy Somerset win v Kent. In all he scored 11 hundreds and 82 fifties in his time as a player, also taking 246 catches. After finishing at the County Ground Mike played for Cumbria once more and club cricket in Somerset (and still plays for North Petherton) and started umpiring local games.

With umpiring buddy Mark Benson

Mike has shared the field and dressing rooms with some great players but who would he name as the very best?

“Played with? There were a few. Ponting wasn’t bad, Lara wasn’t bad, Donald wasn’t bad. Really privileged to have played with these guys. But if you think of the form he was in when I played with him then I would have to say Lara. Didn’t he get eight tons in eight games?

“Played against then Mike Hussey for his batting – he scored a big treble ton at Taunton I remember – and bowling, Saqlain was good and Hoggard used to get me out for a pastime!”

And who is the player that Mike believes should have gone onto greater things?

“John Francis should have been a much better player. I think he let the game get into his head a little bit. But talent wise and what he had he strove for perfection where I don’t think you have enough control over what goes on and you can expect too much. You have to sometimes shrug your shoulders and get on with things and he wasn’t able to do that I don’t think? In one game I was batting with him and we batted all day and he was talking about not being good enough to play for England batting like he had been. But he had saved the game and he could have looked at that more favourably.

“And Andy Caddick should have been an absolute Cricket legend, up there with the Donald’s and McGrath’s.”

So how would Mike describe his relationship with the fans, the cider army?

“Excellent. It was obviously quite tough when I was captain but, to be fair, when I went to the bar nobody was having a dig.

“There were good fans at Warwickshire but it is a massive club – a massive club – and you would see the same people there but I never really played first team so didn’t get close.

“At Somerset we knew the fans loved their cricket and by being smaller you felt closer to them. You didn’t feel pressure, you just got on with it. You got to know the faces and they felt part of the team. And they could be loud. One of the hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck moments for me was against Leicester in the Lords final. The Leicester lads walked out to field to a polite ripple of applause but when Pete and Marcus went out (to bat) our fans took the roof off.”

So does Mike have any regrets when he looks back at his career?

“In a way I was a better player than I thought I was. I was just happy to be there but never thought I was one that could make a difference. It was such a great side that I thought I would never get in this team so thought I would enjoy the ride while it lasted. And it took me a while really to realise I was there on merit. So I wish I’d had more belief.

“But I am delighted to say I had 15 years in the game and am now into umpiring as well. If someone had told me when I joined Somerset that I would be here long enough to have a Benefit Year I would have laughed but I’ll take that.”

And Mike has another big year ahead, his first on the list of first class umpires, and it is one he will relish. Does he have ambitions to go the whole way and stand in international matches one day?

“I would love to, of course, but I’m not going to beat myself up if I don’t. I umpired the Essex v Lancashire game on the last game of last season. I’m stood there and James Anderson is bowling to Alastair Cook and I have the best view in the ground and I’m thinking ‘it’s not a bad old life, is it?’”