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From Cricket to Education to a Published Writer- A Catch Up with Justin Paul

By Margot Butcher- Republished from Outright 56

Justin Paul may not be an overly familiar name to our current crop of players. This, he says with blatant self-deprecation, should come as no surprise.


He paints himself as ‘one of the world’s worst first-class cricketers’, which isn’t quite true. A spinner for New Zealand Under 19 and Otago in the 1990s, either he wasn’t that awful, or it was a truly dire few years nationally in the game.


Either way, after a few seasons in his early 20s, Paul moved onto other things in life. Like having kids — including Cam, now 19, with two Ford Trophy appearances for Canterbury.


Justin himself is the son of a cricketer. His dad, Russell Paul, played Colts for New Zealand (the 1960 equivalent of Under 19s) and Hawke Cup for North Otago. They were both watching on at Hagley Oval this past summer when Cam made his debut, taking three wickets against the Firebirds.


It was a treat. Slipping back into those long forgotten days when you could while away entirely at a cricket ground, doing a lap and enjoying chats and random catch-ups. Then life gets busy.


Justin: “This sounds terrible, but I do love those apps that let you know when you need to dash down to the ground…”


If we can rewind to the end of his playing days, you’ll see him sitting in University lectures doing an English degree and wondering what the heck he’s going to do for a living as an ex-first-class cricketer with an Arts degree.


Fortunately, he fell into teaching English — at his old school, Timaru Boys’ High to begin with, then in the UK and in Darfield, west of Christchurch. That kept him content for a while, and able to feed a family. “I enjoyed the classroom. And I think I went OK,” he mulls.


“But it got to a stage where it took too much. I’d be bringing residual stuff home from school — where I was dealing with kids, pastoral care. I’d pick my own kids up from their school and this stuff kind of got overlaid on how I interacted with them, and I realised, well, this isn’t cool.”


So he shifted to working for Te Kura, New Zealand’s 25,000-pupil correspondence school.


Te Kura became New Zealand’s first digital school and that helped upskill him for his next career move: working in the Ministry of Education’s Christchurch office, for a couple of years. He was involved with the NCEA Change Programme that brought in the most significant reforms since the NCEA qualification was introduced in 2002 — including a more Kiwi-centric curriculum that embraced Mātauranga Māori and Pasifika perspectives.


In turn, that grounded him well for his current role working for national e-learning provider Education Perfect — some 40,000 students use EP resources for Year 10 Maths alone, and the business encompasses 90 per cent of all secondary schools in New Zealand.


Among many other things, Education Perfect provides resources for teachers to help them incorporate Māori and Pasifika knowledge and perspectives.


“So the scale of it is pretty cool, knowing that it can be challenging for teachers who have had no background in Mātauranga Māori to find themselves having to teach it in the great new curricula that we now had, underpinned by Te Tiriti. It’s about us creating resources that provide a bit of a bridge for that.


“To put it simply, do we really need to dust off Lord of the Flies and To Kill A Mockingbird for year after year when we can source texts from brilliant Māori and Pasifika writers right here in New Zealand? Kids relate to our own stories so much more and when you provide them with resources that reflect where they come from, their world makes a lot more sense. Then they engage with learning.”


You can feel the passion and Paul feels lucky to have worked on such stimulating projects — albeit the change of government has now cast a cloud over the future curricular direction.


“We’ve made so much progress, and there has been so much investment, that it doesn’t make any sense to stop and go back, though. I can’t see us, as a country and as teachers, turning our backs on it.”


So that’s brought you up to speed, a metaphorical million miles from the cricket fields of his youth in the pre-professional days, but somehow having landed on his feet — and now with a kid following in his spiked footsteps (only bowling pace, like grand-dad. not spin).


Paul’s eldest is meanwhile on her London OE. He has a pre-teen stepson, and his youngest lad is just hitting school age. They’re all the reason you’re reading this article now, the kids having inspired Paul to start thinking about his cricket again.


Not playing. Pah! He did venture back to a net for a while to coach Cam “when he was a nipper, and through his age stuff until he was 14. Then, much as my own dad did with me, I said, ‘OK you’ve got the skills, now off you go!’ I didn’t want to get involved in any sort of politics or nepotism as the coach of his teams.”


It was around the time of lockdowns when the writing started, after his elder kids asked him what they were like when they were the same age as his younger kids.


He decided to put pen to paper — which he does very well, and enjoyed it so much that suddenly he was writing a mini-memoir, in the form of a long letter to his youngest son about his youthful cricket obsession and pot-pourri of recollections from backyards in Timaru to trips to watch Tests with his father at Lancaster Park.


“There seems little point in trying to explain cricket. I may as well explain the sky,” he writes, but that didn’t stop him from carrying on — literally writing enough to fill a book.


The essays got published by The NightWatchman (, a UK-based, Wisden-associated quarterly edit of cricket essays from around the world). Then Kiwi journalist Dylan Cleaver put it on his own online platform, The Bounce, and it took off.


“It was really like someone going into a shed and banging in a few nails — another thing I can’t do that well! I’d just tried and put pen on paper instead, and came up with something.


“Then one day Gary Stead, one of my oldest friends, was talking about it with me and he suggested I get some stories out of other cricket people we knew — what cricket meant to them and how cricket affected them and their lives. The positive and negative experiences.


“Steady said, ‘Start with me!’ So I did, and that was the start of a really cool year reaching out to people whom I’d played with or bumped into through the game. I ‘selected a team’, as it were, that ended up as 14 people talking about their life in cricket.”


The team is quite a roll-call. Besides Stead, there’s Mark Richardson — Paul and Richardson used to flat together in Dunedin. John Aiken, cricketer turned psychologist who now has millions of people watching him on Australia’s Married At First Sight. England’s Mark Butcher, John Crawley and Aftab Habib; Zimbabwe’s Andy Flower, Australian Neil Maxwell, West Indian Garfield Charles — all with Kiwi connections. And local legends Adam Parore, Dion Nash, John Bracewell, Shane Bond and Jeff Wilson.


“It wasn’t hard to go find interesting people, and although I haven’t found a publisher yet — which would be wonderful, because they were all fascinating, and it would be lovely to share it — one or two of the interviews have been published on The Nightwatchman. 


“Most of all, it was just cool to reconnect with all these people I knew 25 years ago. It was a good time to do it. Bondy was coming back from a tournament overseas, and had to be in an MIQ hotel, for instance, for a week . So he had time to talk. Mark Butcher was similarly locked up in a hotel in the West Indies. We suddenly had time again, just like the old days.”


Now that the world is back in full swing, Paul’s creative outlet has gone back to being his regular day job — but as he settles into the role of being a spectator to his son’s career, he can’t help but keep on contemplating the game, and trying to explain the sky.


“I still talk to Cam about cricket, but — he’s just so serious about it! It’s far more full on now for young players. That’s a clear change. But then, there’s also genuine, long-term career options that my cohort never had.”


The conversation turns to the dark side of sport when he reflects on Cam then dislocating his shoulder, wrecking the debut summer in an instant.


“Sport — it’s highs and lows, isn’t it? To go from 3/17 on Canterbury debut, to the next week where he’s on his hands and knees clutching his shoulder, and missing out on the Under 19 World Cup trip… I thought to myself, where’s the middle ground here!”


While the game, at various times in his own youth, devoured all his time, made him obsess, and generally encouraged him to be an unrounded individual, at 51 Paul “probably” still wouldn’t have had it any other way.


“What did cricket give me? Friendships. You spend a lot of time with people, don’t you? And the nature of it is, those people are sometimes not doing well. Being a batsman can be a pretty dark place, at times — so cricket friends matter. Bowlers get more than once chance, so they’re more jovial! But yes, the friendships. They’re what bind you.


“And the discipline, really, is the other thing it gave me that I’m grateful for. I was a spin bowler, and the amount of practice that it takes, that is painful — literally. I had a terrible time with my fingers, constantly tearing the skin on my index and middle finger.


“John Bracewell's method of peeing on the fingers to toughen the skin didn't work… but the discipline it teaches you, that is a good thing, and you have it for life.”


Now we just need to get that manuscript in front of a smart publisher, for all the rest of us cricket disciples.



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