The prolific opening batsman, described by Dave Houghton, Middlesex’s batting coach, as the “best problem solver in county cricket”, speaks about his rapid rise, comparisons with Andrew Strauss and whether he’s ready for Test cricket.
You’ve already scored centuries in the County Championship and Royal London Cup this season. How pleased have you been with your form?
I’d say it’s been a satisfactory start. I’ve had a couple of big scores but I’ve not shown the consistency which I pride myself on. I’ve either got out early or gone on to make a big score. There’s definitely room for improvement.
Are you someone who sets yourself targets?
Rather than set myself a target I’ve got processes which look after the result. If you’re setting yourself targets and you begin to fall behind them, then I find you put yourself under massive amounts of pressure. If I I stick to my processes in a game and it doesn’t come off then I can kind of accept it.
Did you exceed your own expectations last season?
Absolutely. Last season was my first full year and I started off just wanting to stay in the team, because we’ve got a really strong squad at Middlesex. It was a case of, ‘What can I do to get the team off to good starts and keep my place in the side?’ I surpassed all my expectations and dreams last year to score as many runs as I did and, more importantly, lift the County Championship at Lord’s. It was a day that none of us who were involved in the game will ever forget.
You capped the season with an England Lions call-up to tour UAE and Sri Lanka. How beneficial was that experience?
Considering where I’d started the season, to be on a Lions tour at the end of it was pretty surreal. I was playing in very foreign conditions to what I was used to and I was just trying to take it all in and learn all I could from it, in particular from Andy Flower and Graham Thorpe who were left-handed batters and great players of spin. That was a big thing for me over the winter, learning to play spin a bit better. I think I’ve done that and added more to my game as a result.
Dave Houghton, Middlesex batting coach, has described you as the best problem solver in county cricket. Do you know what he means by that?
Yeah, he’s talking about my crosswords! I chat a lot with Houghts before games and my last words to him in the nets always come down to something to solve out in the middle. I’ve got a number of techniques now and different triggers that I use depending on who the bowler is and how he’s trying to get me out. It’s not a case of overcomplicating things, though. I’m always trying to keep my head straight, to stand up tall and hit the ball back to mid-on.
Without giving too much away to opposition bowlers, can you give any examples?
It’s whether I open myself up more, depending on which way the bowler is swinging it. Do I close myself off more? Which will affect my bat path. And if a bowler is trying to swing it away from me, how do I counteract that and make sure I stay side-on and not open up and come across myself? To put it simply, it’s changes in my feet, my bat path and shoulders. There are just slight intricacies which change.
As a left-handed opener who studied at Radley College, comparisons have been made between you and Andrew Strauss. Is he someone you’ve modelled your game on?
I’ve never modelled myself on him, it just so happens I went to the same school and bat left-handed. Like most left-handers we both pull and cut, so that’s nothing new. It’s lovely that those comparisons are made but I see myself as very much creating my own game. By no means am I trying to replicate what he did in his career because if you set out to do that then I don’t think you’ll scratch the surface.
Do you know Strauss well?
I did some work with him a few years ago but now he’s director of England Cricket I can’t really be using him too closely. If I see him around Lord’s I’ll have a little catch up but I wouldn’t say that I use him as a mentor as I may have in the past, just because of his position with England now.
Do you feel you’re ready for Test cricket should your chance come?
I was actually having this conversation with Keaton Jennings when Has [Haseeb Hameed] got injured in India and we were both sitting in our apartment thinking, ‘This could be one of us here’. We basically asked each other that question – ‘Are you ready?’ – and came to the conclusion that you can score as many runs as you want in county cricket, but you never really know until you make that jump. But it’s not in my thought processes at the moment. It’s all about retaining the County Championship and doing well for Middlesex. If you begin to think of stuff like that you’ll dig yourself into a deep hole because there’s a lot of talented English batsmen at the moment.
In Sam Robson and Nick Compton you’ve got two teammates who’ve opened the batting for England. Do you speak to them a lot about your batting?
I work really, really closely with Compo in particular. Obviously I bat with Sam a lot so we know each other’s games pretty well but Compo I do a lot of work with and he was instrumental in my season last year, and will be going forward as well. He’s been really good for me. On top of that you’ve got Malan and Voges as well who’ve obviously done their own things in the game. I’m lucky at Middlesex that we’ve got batsmen who are all willing to be open and talk with one another.
It’s been a really competitive start to the County Championship, with no team winning more than one match in the first three rounds of Division One fixtures. Will it be even tougher to win the title this year than last?
You’ve just got to look around the counties and see the teams that are being put out. Every single game is incredibly tough. It’s great for County Championship cricket because if you perform well in the competition you think, ‘Yeah, I can actually make the step up’. For us as a team we’ve just got to make sure that we’re up there around August and September and from there anything can happen.