The late Brian Reynolds would have turfed him out of the Wantage Road nets before you could say “improvisation”. Northamptonshire’s long-serving coach, a heart-and-soul, one-county man from the national service generation, was no fan of the reverse sweep, considering it on a par with grubby pads and facial hair. Any young cricketer attempting it could expect to be pointed to the dressing-room and replaced by someone prepared to play properly. And yet the emergence of Ben Duckett as a standard-bearer for 360-degree English batsmanship is arguably the best news in years for the club Reynolds loved so dearly. The Roundhead county of boots and the Battle of Naseby has nurtured an innovating, risk-taking Cavalier.
For all but the boldest, savviest or most parochial of springtime punters, Duckett would not have figured among the contenders to finish the summer as the leading run-getter in all cricket. In the event, his tally of 2,706 was the highest since Marcus Trescothick’s 2,934 in 2009. It included innings of 163 and 220, both unbeaten, in a one-day series for England Lions, and four first-class hundreds, the smallest of them 185. He batted with panache, impish ingenuity, confidence and courage – all before turning 22. In September, he reaped the rewards with a cupboardful of prizes, and selection for the tours to Bangladesh and India, becoming only the 24th cricketer to represent England at Test level while on Northamptonshire’s books, and the first since Monty Panesar seven years earlier.
“Technically I don’t think I changed very much,” he says. “But I was given a different role at the top of the order, with the chance to go out and play with freedom. At one stage I was trying to be a player I wasn’t. I thought: ‘I’ve got to bat like an opener and leave the ball.’” So when David Ripley, his county coach, told him to play his natural game, Duckett took him at his word.
If the headlines were made last summer, the seeds had been sown midway through the 2015 season, when Ripley made him a Championship opener. In his second match in the role, against Lancashire at Old Trafford, Duckett scored 134 (from 151 balls) and 88, then followed up with centuries against Derbyshire, Kent and Surrey. Talent was never an issue, but doubts persisted about his stickability at the crease. “I’m not the most focused person, and can lose concentration in quite a lot of things,” he says. “But, right now, scoring runs is the most important thing in life.” Batting eight and a half hours for 282 not out in the opening fixture of 2016 against Sussex at Northampton – where he was denied all manner of records by rain and a sodden outfield – indicated a tougher mental approach. “I’ve had patches of not scoring runs, and that’s going to happen with the way I play. That’s why I’m determined to cash in and get those big scores when the opportunity is there.”
BEN MATTHEW DUCKETT, born in Farnborough, Kent, on October 17, 1994, made his mark in Northamptonshire’s youth set-up by averaging 106 at the age of 11. He also showed promise as a wicketkeeper, and carried that into his senior career. Competitive sport was in the blood: his father Graham turned out for Surrey Second XI in the 1970s, while his mother Jayne has played and coached lacrosse, not a game for the faint-hearted. At Stowe School, opposing bowlers were already having to contend with his future trademark – Reynolds’s bête noire, the reverse sweep. Phil Rowe, now assistant coach and Academy director at Wantage Road, has worked with Duckett for many years, and attributes his success with the shot to a handful of factors: his diminutive stature, the fact that – though a left-handed batsman – he is naturally righthanded, and his proficiency at hockey. Rowe believes Duckett’s “funky” strokes are no more difficult for him than the leg glance or late cut for a more orthodox player.
Having those weapons is one thing; knowing when and how to employ them quite another. In his short career he has made a habit of rising to the big occasion – from an eye-catching century against Australia in the Under-19 World Cup in Dubai in 2014, to last summer’s T20 Blast semi-final against Nottinghamshire at Edgbaston, where his spectacular 84 from 47 balls paved the way for Northamptonshire’s second title in four years. Duckett had discussed his plan of attack in the dressing-room, and executed it with clinical assurance. Then, after a pair of sixties in England’s one-day series win in Bangladesh, came the Second Test at Mirpur. He had made only 36 runs in his first three Test innings, so circumspection would have been understandable as he and Alastair Cook launched a pursuit of 273. Instead, Duckett backed himself to wrest the initiative from the Bangladesh spinners. Though England lost, his sparkling 56 encapsulated everything that is refreshing and exciting about his cricket. A sobering time in India at the hands of Ravichandran Ashwin brought him back to earth, but he will be wiser for the experience.
That was a reminder that it hasn’t all been plain sailing. In March 2015, Duckett was dropped from a pre-season tour of the Caribbean after returning in less-than-perfect shape from grade cricket in Sydney. But Northamptonshire continued to back him, and he soon became their hottest property – to the extent that, as the club’s members contemplated the momentous switch last year to a limited company, it was common to hear: “Will it mean we keep Duckett?” He agreed a contract extension to the end of 2018. “They’re a small club that’s done big things over the last few seasons,” he says. “Growing up at Northants has been great for me.” They are sentiments Reynolds would have applauded – wherever the ball ended up, and however it got there.
This piece was first published in the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2017. You can read more essays from the almanack here.