Fast bowlers? Tough. Nasty. Unpleasant. Miserable. If that is the case then Paul van Meekeren is so utterly untypical it is breathtaking. Beloved of Somerset fans, his departure last year was greeted with great sadness by all in the county. Not just for the loss to the county of a great character but also for the talent unfulfilled in Somerset colours.
I was lucky enough to spend half an hour in Paul’s virtual company earlier this week to catch up and see how he is doing. Ironically our chat coincided with his last appearance in the Championship for Somerset in 2018. Once I reminded Paul of that appearance the memories came flooding back; Tres’ hundred and injury, George Bartlett’s first ton and the pitch “like a road” which he clearly didn’t enjoy bowling on!
It would be entirely understandable for a professional sportsman who is currently out of contract, unable to train beyond a weekly routine of running, stretching and yoga, and who has seen his country’s international summer cancelled, to be, at the very least, a little down.
Not van Meekeren,.not a bit of it. That radiant smile, ever-present optimism and love of life shone through every single minute of our chat. He is the dream interview personified being able to talk eloquently and extensively in response to whatever question you throw at him. The answer always punctuated by regular chuckles and laughs and accompanied by that ever-present smile.
We started by discussing how he is keeping fit during, lockdown. Physically in terms of exercise and nutrition Paul is following a plan provided by the Netherlands and specifically their bowling coach, Gloucestershire’s Chris Liddle. Interestingly there is clearly a significant emphasis on the mental wellbeing of the players, especially given the challenges that lockdown presents to us all. Elite athletes unable to train with their teammates let alone play and compete must feel this self-isolation more than most. You sense that van Meekeren is really missing the companionship and camaraderie of his teammates and grateful for the support he is receiving at this challenging time.
With his Somerset career over at the end of last season van Meekeren had the significant consolation of heading to the UAE to represent his country in the final qualifying competition for the T20 World Cup scheduled to take place in the autumn of 2020 in Australia.
The Netherlands went into the tournament as strong favourites to win the tournament and, according to van Meekeren, all went pretty much to plan. There was the blip of defeat in the group phase to Papua New Guinea but apart from that the Dutch dominated every game.
Van Meekeren is now an established and integral part of his nation’s bowling unit. He openly admits to being comfortable in the Netherlands side where he has been an almost ever-present since 2015.
Our chat provides an interesting insight into a top-class cricketer’s approach and mindset. The importance for Paul is of having a simple plan to follow and role in the side is evident as he talks at length about the Netherlands approach to white-ball cricket..
After a poor pre-tournament warm-up, which van Meekeren attributes to his side trying too much of what he described as the”experimental”, they returned to the basics for the tournament proper with substantial reward.
Van Meekeren was outstanding in the group phase. He made a flying start taking six wickets in his first eight overs and never looked back finishing as his side’s leading wicket-taker in the group phase with twelve victims.
That defeat to PNG made the route to the final a little trickier than it might have been for the Dutch, but qualification was secured by reaching the semi-finals. Revenge over PNG came in the sweetest way possible by seven wickets in the final.
We moved on to look ahead to the World Cup, scheduled to take place in October / November, pandemic permitting. The Netherlands find themselves in one of the two pre-qualifying groups which comprise the mini-tournament before the real thing.
Faced with Bangladesh, Namibia and Scotland van Meekeren is as quietly confident as you can ever be, in the shortest form of the game, that his side can progress to the tournament proper. Van Meekeren is clearly a cricketer who thinks a lot about the game and follows the sport closely, his in-depth knowledge of his subject continually shines through our chat. He easily recalls his side’s record against all three teams they will face in this phase. The Netherlands he recalls have a pretty even record against Scotland but the record in the recent qualifying tournament you feel give them the edge. Namibia are “full of match winners” which might be a diplomatic way of saying they are unpredictable (my interpretation) but again you sense a quiet confidence that The Netherlands will prevail.
Which leaves Bangladesh, and a score to settle from the last World Cup. Chasing 154 to win (van Meekeren 2-17) the chase had reached 112-3 in the 11th over. Needing just 42 off 9 overs with 7 wickets in hand they were unable to get across the line falling just eight runs short.
The ease with which van Meekeren recalls that game in detail – although he was too modest to mention his own significant contribution – shows that this result still rankles. With their next meeting scheduled to take place in Australian conditions, Hobart to be precise, van Meekeren feels the balance will shift in his side’s favour. Add in the significant absence of Shakib Al Hasan from the Bangladesh side, due to his current ICC ban, and you sense that the Dutch really believe they can top the group and propel themselves with confidence into the last eight.
What is abundantly clear from talking to van Meekeren is that he feels at home and confident in the Netherlands side in a way that he was never able to at Somerset. When we talked about his appearances for the county he recalled that he regularly felt that this could be his last, game, spell or even over. It is understandable in such circumstances that we Somerset supporters rarely saw the performances that this talented bowler is capable of producing.
But, while there is disappointment at the way things panned out at Taunton, there is no rancor or recrimination evident in our conversation. Just an abiding love for the county, his former teammates and the supporters. We recalled his cameo performances at the microphone alongside, especially, Charlie Taylor and that moustache, clearly bringing back happy memories. There is no doubt that Somerset cricket has left as favourable an impression on Paul van Meekeren as he has on us.
While he has no county contract at present Paul will, when recreational cricket resumes, be plying his trade for Cotthorpe CC in Chesterfield.
With no disrespect to Cutthorpe that is clearly a stepping stone in the mind of this ambitious sportsman. van Meekeren sees the resumption of training for the first-class counties as offering him the opportunity of practising with his peers and perhaps in turn at the very least a white-ball contract. While he was not prepared to go further to me as to where this opportunity might arise his proximity to the triumvirate of East Midlands counties who may be a natural fit; Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire, may be more than a coincidence. Who knows we might even see him team up with his old teammate Peter Trego in Nottingham?
Wherever his next English domestic destination lies, Roelof van der Merwe will remain a teammate both domestically (with Amsterdam) and internationally. What, I asked is it like to share a dressing room with RvdM? van Meekeren’s face lights up. He describes his compatriot as a “competitor” first and foremost “every day, even with his kids”.
It won’t surprise the reader to hear that the van der Merwe family and Roelof, in particular, have been a huge support to the younger paceman over the last few years. Van Meekeren refers to his compatriot’s deep cricket knowledge and the benefit he has gained from talking cricket regularly at great length with his friend.
What gives a real insight into van der Merwe as a person, is that, as well as being a professional cricketer all round the world, a Dad and a generous giver of his time, he is currently undertaking some pretty time-consuming study commitments. van Meekeren recalls how, after each of the games in the UAE in the Autumn, Roelof would diligently return to his hotel room to continue his studies. Clearly in van Meekeren’s mind Roelof is the finest role model.
After some time in the company of this extraordinarily polite and likeable young man you feel that you have been friends for ever and could carry on chatting indefinitely. Regrettably I felt obliged not to take advantage of Paul’s time. I couldn’t though finish our chat without one final question.
Many of you will know that I am a bit of a “kit nerd”, fascinated by all kits across a wide range of sports. I look forward to the launch of new Somerset kits with huge anticipation and extends to the reveal of new football kits every summer. One of the things I’ve always envied of professional sportsmen is the day when their new kit arrives. I’ve imagined that day, when a large box crammed full of the new season’s playing and training kit arrives. Imagined the excitement of seeing the club badge and your name and number on the back of that shirt.
I’m pleased to say van Meekeren and I are kindred spirits in this regard. We coined the phrase “kit Christmas”, van Meekeren barely able to contain his excitement as he both recalls and looks forward to those magical days. Not for van Meekeren the agonising over where to store the latest arrivals, just an unalloyed pleasure of taking every single item out, looking at it, checking the fit and comfort and marvelling in the design.
There are however pitfalls of having a surname like van Meekeren. Paul recalled with amusement how, half-way through the 2018 season, a Somerset teammate pointed out to him that his name on the back of his shirt was misspelt. van Meekeren who was padded up at the time treated this as a wind-up designed to put him off before he batted. To his dismay and eventual amusement, he discovered when he returned to the ressing room after his innings that he hadn’t spotted the extra “e” that had crept into his name.
He may have been “van Meekereen” on that shirt, but to all of us Somerset supporters he will always remain the much-loved Paul van Meekeren.
Go well Paul, all of Somerset wishes you the very best for the future.