Every season we scan the country and canvas opinion to bring together some of the finest talents in the county game. First up in our list for the 2016 season, Jo Harman spoke to Northamptonshire’s Ben Duckett shortly before he opened the campaign with a career-best 282* against Sussex.
IN THREE: Rogue gone straight
CAREER HIGHLIGHT: Winning the T20 Cup in his debut season and scoring five first-class tons last year after being dropped earlier in the campaign. More recently, his unbeaten double-century to kick off the season in style at Hove. Duckett’s knock of 282* was the sixth-highest first-class score in Northants’ history
FIRST-CLASS: 33 Matches; 2,047 runs at 42.64; 7 hundreds, 9 fifties
LIST A: 21 Matches; 479 runs at 29.93; strike-rate 86.15; 3 fifties
T20: 31 Matches; 399 runs at 23.47; strike-rate 120.18
No batsman hit more first-class hundreds last season than Ben Duckett – an impressive effort given that he started the campaign in Northants’ second XI and was then asked to fill an unfamiliar role as opener. The former England under 19 skipper’s prospects for 2015 had looked bleak when he returned from a chastening six months in Australia in which he was dropped by his club side and then left out of Northants’ pre-season tour to Barbados for failing to meet the club’s fitness standards.
“I didn’t get many runs in Australia, the club I was playing for wasn’t doing very well and it just didn’t really click,” Duckett tells AOC. “After a long season in Division One where we lost pretty much every game, I don’t think it was the right move for me. I should have just had a break and worked on my fitness.”
It wasn’t the first time Duckett had fallen foul of fitness issues – in 2013 he was left out of an England under 19 tour to UAE after flunking a skinfold test – and he was starting to develop a reputation as one of those frustrating players who doesn’t have the drive or determination to back up natural-born talent.
He sat out the first five Championship games of last summer, returned to the team for a couple of matches without making much of an impression, and then on June 27 crashed his car into a ditch while over the alcohol limit and was subsequently banned from driving for a year. Less supportive counties may have decided to cut their losses but Northants kept faith in Duckett, who has been with the club since the age of 11, and he responded by creaming table-toppers Lancs for a 151-ball 134 two days after his crash, before hitting 88 in the second dig. For the rest of the season he was an ever-present at the top of the order, scoring 845 runs at an average of 60, and at a decent lick too.
“It didn’t really click until that game against Lancs,” he says. “I opened the batting, it was a flat wicket and I scored runs in both innings. From there I started to believe I could score runs at the top of the order and had a pretty good season after that.”
Northants head coach David Ripley has known Duckett since he was a 12-year-old coming through the age-group squads. “He’s just taken a bit of time to really grasp what he wants and what’s required to be a professional cricketer,” he says. “He’s a nice lad, he’s got absolutely no malice in him whatsoever, it’s just the choices he’s made have not always been the right ones. Now that penny’s dropped.”
As a creative shot-maker, promising wicketkeeper and now converted opener, Ripley believes Duckett is in the very top bracket of young English talent, with an international future ahead of him if he continues to knuckle down. “I think he’s right up there in terms of young players to watch. He’s also got diversity in his white-ball cricket: he plays scoops, sweeps, he can hit down the ground. He’s got a lot going for him. There’s also a lot of debate about who should be opening the batting for England [in Test cricket]. I wouldn’t put Ben’s name in that bracket yet but roll on another good six months, he might have a bit of appeal. If he keeps churning the runs out, then he might get one or two people giving him a bit of backing.”
Having benefitted from Northants’ support, Duckett repaid the favour by signing a new contract that will keep him at Wantage Road until at least the end of the 2017 season, despite admitting he was tempted by offers from elsewhere. “When other teams come in for you it is all a bit exciting and you sort of think about maybe making a move,” he says. “But you’ve got to think that if you go to a bigger club you might not get decisions going your way – if you get a few low scores you might find yourself straight in the second team because they don’t back you. Also, I’ve played for Northants for three years and I’ve been to two finals days already. I’m getting good one-day cricket at Northants and if we can have a good couple of seasons in the Champo stuff we might even get up to Division One. It could be an exciting team.”
Not since Stephen Peters in 2010 has a Northants batsman passed 1,000 first-class runs in a season, and that must be Duckett’s immediate target as he looks to back up his breakthrough 2015. Achieve that, and international honours won’t be too far away.