Ben Duckett: 'There's no better time to play Test cricket than under Stokes and McCullum'
Ahead of an expected first Test engagement in six years, Ben Duckett has openly talked about the fact that as recently as 12 months ago he thought he would never play the format again. Which, all told, is pretty odd.
Go back a year and England were hardly setting world cricket alight, in the midst of run of 11 defeats and just four wins in 20 matches between the start of 2021 and the beginning of the 2022 summer. There were question marks over several in the XI, specifically those occupying Duckett's preferred position up top. And though he was hardly in electric form for Nottinghamshire - three first-class centuries and a healthy average of 42.2 across the 2020 and 2021 seasons combined - you'd think an engaging talent at a big county, with four caps already to his name, was surely never going to drift completely off the radar.
"I guess at times you have no idea where you are in the pecking order," Duckett tells ESPNcricinfo. "I wasn't really in the mix, I wasn't really ever spoken about. I went to Trent Bridge [from Northamptonshire, in 2018] and wasn't scoring buckets of runs. I was feeling good but we were producing green seamers. I wasn't knocking the door down."
He didn't question his ability to get back into the fray. The 2022 season is a testament to that: 1012 runs at an average of 72.28 with three centuries among eight scores above fifty as the dynamo propelling Nottinghamshire to the Division Two title. And most of all, doing so at a strike rate of 76.09.
That last figure is perhaps the most important of all when it comes to what his head coach Brendon McCullum and captain Ben Stokes want from anyone who comes into this set-up. Not only is he in the squad for three upcoming Tests against Pakistan, but he is in line to partner Zak Crawley at the top of the order in the opening match in Rawalpindi.
As much as Duckett is in step with the new regime, he acknowledges perhaps he was out of step with the old. So much so that while there is a sense of making up for lost time, the delay of this second coming is regarded as a blessing.
"I'll be honest, at times over the last six years, I haven't wanted to be involved," Duckett says. "From the outside, it's looked tough." Tough not just on the team, as previous results show, but individuals, too.
"I certainly think looking at this format, for example, especially with top order batsmen, it was a bit of a conveyor belt at times: how many openers we went through. I think now, the way this group of players is, I think everyone trusts each other. [Alex] Lees played 10 Tests, 'Creepy' [Crawley] deserves time. You're going to have series where you struggle.
"You're not going to come in as an opener and go hundred, hundred. The more that happens with this group, the more backing they get, the better they're going to get. That's the important thing. You have to allow them time to believe in themselves because they believe in themselves. There's no better time to play Test cricket than right now, under Stokesy, under McCullum."
A first taste of the new order came when Duckett was called up for the final match of the South Africa series at the end of the summer after Jonny Bairstow's golfing accident. Over the last fortnight, he has been able to bed in a little more with the camp in Abu Dhabi, which was more bonhomie than back-breaking. He can't get enough of it.
"Just batting in the nets, you don't get a 'well done' or a 'great shot' when you play a straight drive down the ground now - it's when you get the reverse sweep out or you slog-sweep the offie over midwicket. It's that real enjoyment, showing intent, which is how I play red-ball cricket. I want to score quickly, I want to score at a rate where I'm putting bowlers under pressure and putting the team in a good position."
Aged 28, he is perhaps as ready as he'll ever be. Wiser than when he first got the nod, at 22, under Trevor Bayliss and Joe Root, more mature than the 23-year-old dropped after pouring a drink over James Anderson during the 2017-18 Ashes winter.
Of course, there have been technical tweaks along the way, as is usually the case during this period of a cricketer's life cycle, especially a batter. However, most of those have now been jettisoned because they did not come from a clear state of mind, or body.
Heading into the 2018 summer, he underwent an operation in February on the ring finger of his left hand which had taken a blow at the end of the 2017 season. The initial prognosis was of 12 weeks out but Duckett came back early for Northamptonshire, his county at the time, against Middlesex.
"I was nowhere near ready," he says. "I look back and think 'why did I come back four weeks early from my hand operation?' I mean, I know why: it was the first game of the summer, I was trying to get back into the England team, it was Lord's and I just wanted to play."
The knock-on effect was quite severe. While playing through the pain - "there are pictures of me that summer where I'm playing a forward defence and my hand is off the bat" - his grip on the handle changed. Not noticeably at first, but enough to impact his red- and white-ball game. The latter was most affected, particularly given how bottom-hand dominant he is with the sweeps, reverses and flays on both sides of the wicket.
In first-class cricket, however, he was actually ticking along nicely. He averaged 56.28 in the Bob Willis Trophy during the 2020 Covid summer, and found himself leaving a lot outside off stump and "crabbing" a lot through leg. So much so that Paul Franks, Nottinghamshire's assistant head coach, kept calling him Graeme Smith. And for a moment, Duckett thought, "maybe this is how I play Test cricket again?"
Thankfully, he recognised he was veering from his natural game - and thus, dulling his instincts. With no franchise commitments in the winter of 2020-21, he set about some intense remedial work at Trent Bridge to rediscover the original hold he had on the bat. It worked.
"Mate, I wouldn't even be able to tell you the different ways over the last few years," he replies when asked to chart the degradation of his grip. "The easiest way to put it was how I held a bat for 20 years - after the operation, because I came back four weeks early, I had to find a way to hold the bat just to cope.
"I said to Peter Moores and Ant Botha that I want to play around with my grip. I reckon two weeks just focusing on hitting, I found it again. The next stage was making it feel natural again and I think now it does - I pick up the bat and it feels good and I can play the shots I used to play."
Pakistan's T20 side got a taste of those shots in the T20 series a month or so ago, when Duckett struck 233 runs across seven matches - at 46.60 and a strike rate of 159.58 - all from No. 4. And the Test side will likely get a sight of most, if not all, of them over the following weeks.
There's a temptation, for chronology's sake, to regard all this as the evolution of Duckett, when really this is more of a reawakening of the old Duckett. A regression to a cricketing norm that is really no regression at all. Especially in this more-relaxed, encouraging environment.
"I felt like you can't do that in Test cricket - play shots and go after the bowlers like I did," he says. "That's the way it seemed for a while. It's the purest game, you've got to go and bat all day. If you're an opener or number three, you've got to leave the ball well.
"I think it's only really this summer where I went, 'nah'. I was facing - I don't want to say average spinners - but whoever it was, I was facing spin and I thought, 'I don't know why I'm blocking him here, why am I not smacking him into the stands?'
"That's what I did very well as a youngster, I used to just take them on. And almost play like I played in the T20 series [in Pakistan], sweep both ways and say 'you're going to have to stop bowling and get the seamer back on'. I went through a period of time where I felt like that wasn't the way to play in that format. And this year I just went, you know what, I'm just going to go back to see ball, hit ball again."
He says if he goes 0 and 8 in his first two innings, he won't then clutch at the next chance. McCullum and Stokes already have a track record of backing those in possession, which is perhaps why Duckett is open about a milestone on his mind. Having registered a half-century in Bangladesh back in 2016, he is desperate for a full one.
"The thought of scoring a Test hundred, for me, is as top as it gets. There's nothing better than that for me. A few years ago I was saying I could tell my grandchildren I played Test cricket. I want to be able to tell them I scored a Test hundred. Now I've got an opportunity to do that."