Coming off the back of spending the winter in the England bio-secure bubble, James Bracey sat down with Tom and I to describe his experiences of the bubble, as well as which player has influenced him the most, his future ambitions for both club and country and his go to relaxation method when he's not playing cricket.
In what is still a relatively young career for you, which player would you say has influenced you the most thus far?
That's a great question. I would probably say someone like Chris Dent down at Gloucestershire. The similarity of us as cricketers and the fact that I was being brought through at the time when he was the mainstay batsman of the side, he taught me a lot. We haven't always had the most stable batting lineup, so he's been very crucial for me in terms of the temperament and mentality side of the game. Looking on a bit further, Michael Klinger was a big influence as well - great captain, calm head and taught me about the white ball side of the game. More recently, it's very obvious but Joe Root has been really good for me when I've been in England camp. To be able to look at someone who's one of the best in the world at what they do, you pick up little things that you might not do from other people. The different stages of my career have come with different figures, and putting them all together I've now got a very good base to work on.
You mention Joe Root, what was he like to work with in the subcontinent? What's he like away from the TV and in the dressing room?
Obviously he's there as a player as well, he's not just there to help me so I wasn't working with him directly. He's got all his own prep to do - he's one of the most well-driven players in terms of his own preparation and he knows exactly what he needs to do. Always the first person in and the last person out - he just loves to hit balls. It's more of a case when if I'm in the net next door to him or if I'm down the other end from him, you can ask him a few questions. With this winter being dominated by the spinning ball, I had a lot of questions for him about that, particularly about his sweeps and reverse sweeps. Because they are so useful to him in those conditions, particularly when facing a bowler that might have a delivery with your name on it, they become a useful way of blunting that pressure. If you take Embuldeniya in SL or Ashwin in India for example, he was very clear that he wanted to attack those guys for the sake of trying to put them off their length. Hearing him talk about his methods so clearly, it makes it so much easier to process, even if he does make it sound ridiculously easier said than done!
Off the field, he's just like every other guy: got the same sense of humour and same interests as the rest of the lads. He spends so munch time in the spotlight, its nice to see that other side of him. Very nice guy, very approachable and makes you feel comfortable. I remember him whipping out his guitar several times when we were away - I had no idea that he was that good! He got the lads doing karaoke and all sorts, so definitely a great lad and I'm very fortunate to have been working with him.
If you had a burning technical question the day before a game, would you go to a fellow player or one of the coaches? Who would you go to specifically?
Another great question. You could go to anyone really, because they've all got lots of international experience. Could go to Root or (Ben) Stokes, someone like that, even one of the bowlers if you wanted to! With the coaches, you've got (Graham) Thorpe, (Paul) Collingwood, (Jonathan) Trott, all of whom have played lots of international games. Purely from how approachable he is, Root is probably the go to guy, but I've grown more accustomed to going to the coaches for help. They've learned more about me and my game having spent a lot of time with them over the last 12 months. They all have slightly different approaches as well - Root talks about how he's gonna score in his innings, whereas Thorpe focuses more on the tempo side of it, and Trott is really crucial on the defence side of your game, so it depends what area of your game you wanna work on, you've got a good contrast there.
Going into England camp, how cool/petrifying is it facing bowlers like Jofra Archer, who are a massive difference to the guys you normally face on the County circuit?
It's definitely daunting I'll say that much! I was definitely a bit apprehensive first time going into the nets, and any time you walk into a net that has Jof, Woody, (Olly) Stone and Saqib (Mahmood), you feel like they could kill you. They're so fast! Being in nets as well, you start to feel a bit claustrophobic, so that doesn't help. On top of that, facing Jimmy, Stu, Woakesy is a big challenge - you know that they're gonna nick you off a few times, you know it's gonna be a real working over so it's a nice challenge, but you definitely don't wanna get hit when facing Jof! It's a great mental battle though - we've had some dodgy nets surfaces this winter, and facing those guys on very difficult wickets is more of a mental battle. Grind, survive and get through was my thinking, and it definitely helps put you in a great place for a game, it's great practice. All the guys at Gloucs have been asking me how it was and how good the experience was - I've sort of got used to facing them and not really had the opportunity to step back and appreciate how big an opportunity it was until I got back.
You've done all Test "bubble" environments that have been in place, dating back to last summer against WI and Pakistan. How much of an effect has that had on you mentally?
It definitely has a tendency to grind you down, it's sort of inevitable really. I'd like to think of myself as really driven and very keen to learn and I think I have been throughout that whole period. But, you do get points, especially when you know that you aren't gonna be playing when it becomes a very repetitive motion. You haven't got that let up of being able to go out and explore where you are touring, you can't see your family and there's no real time away from cricket. Even though you aren't training all the time, it's still "cricket, cricket, cricket". It does catch up with you, especially when the game is going on, you can relate to the pressure and the fatigue that the guys are under; it catches up with me as well - you're constantly training, constantly aware of what's going on in the field. You sort of have this disconnect from the outside world, it's really strange. I had no idea what was going on at home, I felt like I was completely away from everything. Definitely strange, and I struggled towards the back end of it, it definitely caught up with me, especially when we started losing - morale maybe slightly dipped a touch, but it was great to come back and I think the lads would say it's a great time to refresh ahead of the county season.
You train to prepare for playing games, and when that's taken away from you, you can fall into a habit of finding more stuff to work on because you feel like you have to justify your training one way or another. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and say "I need a day off", just do my 12th man duties, get around the group. I'd say that's the part I've struggled with most - making sure my practice is purposeful, even though I don't know when my next game is gonna be, it's a weird balance.
Would you say you were disappointed not to get an opportunity to play over the winter, even though you were listed as a reserve?
It always crosses your mind for sure. You're always thinking of the equations and makeups of the team you can think of to try and fit yourself in! Like, if (Ben) Foakes got injured, I might be able to keep, or if Jos moved up the order or if "player x" got injured then there might be a chance for me. There were a couple of close calls here and there - on tour there are always guys who are carrying little niggles so I was kept on my toes with that. The selectors always made it clear that a reserve was a reserve; they had their main squad of players and there were players above me in the pecking order. For instance, when Zak (Crawley) went down injured, we knew when he was fit again he would slide straight back in. The fact I've been labelled as a reserve for so long now, I do hope that soon I might get a go. I always knew that the main thing for me would be coming back this summer and putting in some big performances at the start of the season. There's a lot to play for, and I always knew that it would be my big opportunity to use the start of the season to make a claim for that England squad.
If the "bubbles" are still needed in the summer, would you be open to being a reserve player for England or would you prefer getting match time for Gloucs?
It's a tough balance. I've mentioned in previous interviews that some players at the back end of last summer were able to be released to go back and play County cricket. I was just so in the mind space that if someone did go down, and the opportunity passed me by because I wasn't there, then I would be so gutted. It would be something to discuss - the coaches and selectors are as aware as I am that I need to be playing games. I feel like I've been to school, got the qualifications and the tools needed to help me succeed at Test cricket, now I need to put in the groundwork on the field to put the numbers behind me. I'm hoping that there's gonna be no such thing as a reserve come the summer, but if that's something I have to do to keep my place in the pecking order, then it would just go down as an unlucky situation - I'd be willing to do it again.
With the IPL finals potentially clashing with the New Zealand Tests this summer, would you hope to be seriously considered for a spot if Buttler and Stokes are away with the Royals?
Yeah of course - there's so much scope for people to be away. You've got Jonny (Bairstow) who could also be away with the IPL, so there's the potential for a lot of opportunities to open up. I'd like to think I'm quite high up on the batting list, seeing as I was the only batting reserve on the most recent tours, but I'm also aware that there is a lot of county cricket to be played and several guys who want to put their cases forward. The selectors will have their eyes on a lot of people this summer. With the amount of middle order depth that England have, it's gonna be tough, especially as most of the white ball guys would bat in the middle order for their counties, so there's scope for them to move up.
There's been a lot of chat around where you could potentially bat, with top 3 and the middle order being an option. What's your personal preference?
From a batting point of view, I always want to bat in the top 3. It's never really been in question, I've always batted there for Gloucs; when I was younger I opened the batting, but didn't do as much keeping until I was around 16. When I started keeping I tended to slide down the order a bit, but always wanted to bat in that top 3. it just so happened I broke into county cricket as a number 3 - we've always had openers and I've nailed that 3 slot and made it my own, while sliding up to open when needed. Theres a tendency to make it "top 3 batsmen" rather than specialist openers and number 3's; you've seen Zak do it for the Test team very recently. This season for Gloucs, I'm going to be batting 3 and keeping. I know its going to be very difficult but I look forward to that challenge, and if I can score runs at 3 I can keep my name in the hat for the opening spots as well. It's been a position that's been heavily debated for some time now and there are still discussions going on about it now, so if I can keep my name in the hat for both that top order and in the middle order as a keeper, its more opportunities for me to nick a spot in the team.
Apart from Bristol, where is your favourite place to play cricket?
I've been fortunate enough to play at some amazing grounds. The MCG was a special place to bat - it gave you a taste of what it could be like to bat there on a Boxing Day Test, very surreal and to win there as well was an amazing experience. In England, the Oval is great, we've had some good T20 games there and I'm looking forward to playing 4 day cricket there this year. Lords is a given - everyone loves playing there but the Oval is definitely my favourite. From a personal point of view, in terms of where I've always scored runs, Cardiff is a nice place to bat, always enjoyed batting there as well.
You've had the opportunity to work with Jos Buttler and Ben Foakes over the winter in regards to keeping. Does it get competitive between you guys? Did you feel like the little guy on the outside?
I deffo started on the outside of those guys, and definitely felt like the little man on the outside just watching those two. Linking back to the main squad and the reserves, there's a natural pecking order which emerges and I was at the bottom of that. Last summer, Jos would get first dibs on the coach and working with him, whether that was Chris Read, French or Foster. After that, then I would start working my training around what Jos or Ben were doing. I wouldn't say its competitive as such - all of us are aware that we're constantly looking to improve. Amongst the keepers, it's a very good environment - everyone works with each other, feeds off each other, help each other, there's no animosity in the group or "I'm playing for his place" or anything like that - everyone goes about it their own separate ways. Me and Foaksey worked a lot with each other last summer and this winter as well, seeing has he's been the most consistent one in terms of always being there. He's very friendly - I personally think that he's the best in the business and I try to shadow him, ask him questions. He's very approachable and very good at expressing how he goes about stuff and explaining it as well. He also wants to learn stuff from me, he believes that there there's always something new to learn; he's always looking for that next drill or that next piece of information that can help him improve and I've really enjoyed learning from him. He's really keen to have his hands as close to the stumps as possible, and the more he works on getting to the stumps the quicker he's gonna be. there's nothing really complicated in it, it's just a lot of repetition and he's very clear on where he wants to be.
Before this winter, had you been on any specialist batting camps in order to work on your game?
I went to Mumbai in late 2019 - there were 8 of us out there. It was really key for me personally ahead of moving into this period as I revamped my approach to spin totally. I'd never been out there before, never been to Asia before. I found out pretty quickly that the way I was playing spin in England wasn't going to cut it over there. I brought in a more natural press movement rather than my normal back and across, revamped that and got used to it. Those three weeks of batting against spin set my foundation for playing spin everywhere, which meant when I went away this time, I could just expand on that, try new things and be in a position where I could play and do a good job if I was called upon. It was a really crucial section in my development and it really helped me out.
Have you made any technique changes since being in England camp?
I've made a few. You watch how the England guys go about it and pick little things up from them. Most guys have a press against spin - just the little things about that press I've made a slight change: the size of it, the timing of it, the direction of it. I watched how Root and Stokes went about it, then tried it a few times for myself and see if it worked for me and my game. You're definitely always evolving and trying new things out; whether you actually change it or not is different and can depend on if you're comfortable with it. I've found that since I turned pro, the majority of my technique hasn't changed, it's more little tweaks from watching other people or watching myself back and not liking how something looks.
I did a lot of keeping in the nets in the winter, and I watched Stokes up close with his balance, his guard and things like that, then went back and tried it for myself. It's not always going to work, but if it works for them and it enables them to perform at a high level, then it can't be too far wrong.
Do you think the ECB should promote counties preparing a wider variety of pitches to help develop county players?
I'm open to it for sure. I've never played at Taunton in the Championship, so I can't comment on how they've played myself. looking at it, as long has it's not dangerous or inconsistent bounce to the point that high skill levels aren't gonna score you runs, then I'm all for it. its gonna prepare us a lot for when we go to places like India, its gonna give people a taste of how you're gonna score runs on those wickets. I think it would definitely improve the national team, so I'd definitely be open to it, as long as we aren't getting 2 day games every week and people are actually improving because of it, then I don't see why not.
I've always been more accustomed to playing seam, I've grown up playing against it and that's how its been. I don't wanna rock up and be on the greenest wicket in the world, but I'd certainly be more comfortable going up against it. Having played most of my cricket in Div 2, spin hasn't been a big factor - only 8% of the overs in Div 2 are bowled by spinners or something like that, so I have faced as much of that high quality spin as I'm likely to face this year. I'd prefer to play on a green pitch that flattens out rather than one that's gonna break up and rack.
Congrats on the new contract extension at Gloucs! What are your main goals for the summer?
I definitely want to score a lot of runs for Gloucs first. If I'm able to do that, then that will put me in a great position to hopefully break into the Test side. having been involved in the England setup, it would be very easy for me to say, "I want to play Test cricket", but in order to do that, I've got to score big runs - I have to be aiming at 1000 runs in the Championship with 3 or 4 hundreds before that first Test match. I'm gonna try and not put myself under immense pressure to achieve it, I've got the foundation to do it, just now need to deliver.
What are the conversations like with the selectors ahead of a potential opportunity this summer?
I've had those conversations already while I've been away. In the last week or so of the tour I had a sit down and a talk with the selectors about where I'm at currently and where they see me moving forward. They've made it very clear to me that they see me as a batsman primarily. There's a lot of depth in the keeping department, Jos and Foakesy have that role covered - Jos has been brilliant in the last year with the gloves. I'm aware that my main focus at the moment is my batting and trying to break into that top 3. I don't think there will be too much communication ahead of the Test series - think it will be in the weeks before if I'm in contention. There's a lot of cricket to be played, and hopefully I'll have scored some runs in order to be close to a Test cap.
What's your go to relaxation away from cricket?
When I was in the bubble, it was gaming. I wouldn't say I'm a massive gamer, but I did take my PS4 away - not a big CoD player but I do play a lot of Fifa. I'm quite a sociable guy, so when I can I like to be around people. Might play a game of cards - we were able to get Monopoly out and play a game of that in the evenings. Watching football as well, 3pm kickoffs would be on at 8 in an evening, so that was perfect timing. There was a massive CoD culture on tour, a lot of the lads are proper into it. Broady was in the room next to me in either Chennai or Hambantota, you can hear him screaming through the walls! You can always hear Jof, whether you're next door to him or if he's down the hallway! Me, Zak, (Dan) Lawrence, Parky (Matty Parkinson), Mason (Crane) and Dom Bess stuck around as a main group - you would've though that it would be us young ones who were the big gamers, but it's all the experienced lads who know what touring is like who are big on it!
The group of us younger guys just spent a lot of time together. obviously being a similar age as each other helps. We've all grown up playing cricket with and against each other. For me, as someone relatively new to the setup I feel more comfortable approaching those guys initially. All the senior guys have been brilliant as well, they're ultra friendly and approachable. Being in a bubble environment, there's a tendency to spend a lot more time on your own, and I made it a mission of mine to not do, cos I felt personally that's where I would've got into a bad headspace. People dip in and out of the group - Stone, Wood, Burns, Jimmy would come down and play cards with us as a switch up, but that main group of us stayed the same. With me, Mason and Parky being in that reserve group, we had that common ground to relate to each other. Both of those guys would be very busy in the build up to games - the batters want to face spin bowlers, but during the games we would get a bit competitive in the nets. I think that they liked bowling to me as I'm a bit more conservative with how I play - they absolutely hated bowling at people like Stokes, Bairstow and Mo who would try and absolutely batter them, they're no nonsense, so they definitely liked it when I was just pulling out paddle sweeps and working on my defence.
We saw some haircuts being given out on tour, who was the main barber in the group?
To start with it was Ollie Robinson (Sussex) who was giving them out. To be honest, he did a decent job, considering I would've trusted him with mine as well! There were a few dodgy ones I can't lie, where he got them slightly wrong but I generally can't fault him. I remember Rooty got a fair bit of stick in Galle for his trim, I thought it was a great effort! I've seen a lot worse trims I'll put it that way! In Chennai we had a hairdresser available in the hotel so that was very lucky in that respect. However, I completely forgot to have one in Ahmedabad before I came home, which I'm gutted I forgot because I'm regretting it now, hence why I'm wearing a hat indoors!
A lot of the guys decided to grow their hair out. I think Foakesy went a year without a haircut, Broady had it quite long on top, Stokes let his grow out as well with Burns having a long trim. They're all keen to keep it, he's (Burns) loving his long lid and to be fair to him he's pulled it off, he looks OK compared to some other guys who have got long hair!
With this year being very different on tour, what would be the go to thing to do in normal circumstances?
It depends on where you are in the world. I love to go out and explore and see a lot more people when I'm in Australia and New Zealand compared to India and Sri Lanka, where there are more easier cultures to go out and embrace yourself in. For example, in the last Lions tour to Australia just before COVID kicked off, that was brilliant. As an England group, we have a lot of contacts out in Australia, so people would go out and see people they knew from club cricket or overseas players. We usually go on a lot of coffee trips, or going out to the beach for a day or going out to eat in the evening. I personally go out and see as much as I possibly can - it's a great opportunity to go out and see things you wouldn't normally see. Very chilled atmosphere, but also very sociable.
Have you done any overseas cricket so far in your career?
I did one season of grade cricket straight out of university. I did 3 years at uni, then went to Perth for the winter before the 2019 season, which I loved. It's a massive learning curve, mainly from the technical side of things, but also the pressure of being the overseas player is an added burden. The Aussies are very passionate about their cricket; grade cricket is like the end of the world for them, its their biggest stage, so there's added pressure being the English import to play well. They are ruthless if you don't play well, they treat you like any other player. I've heard stories of plenty other English players going out there and not having the greatest of times and by the end of it they're playing 2nd team cricket. The wickets are obviously very different out there, you get a lot of abuse for being English, which is just how it is but I learned a lot from that trip. I learned a lot about myself, I had to fend for myself a bit in an unfamiliar place, meet new people but I loved it and would definitely recommend it and go back there myself if the opportunity arose.
If I was to go back there, it would be for a grade season and if you tear up trees, they would definitely take note of you. I remember Mason going out to Australia a couple years ago and playing for Gordon - I think he picked up a couple 7fers and tore it up for them. With the shield competition only involving 6 sides, there a lot of cricketers who want to play and being English, they don't have a tendency of having overseas players in that competition - it's so hard to get a shield gig. Grade cricket is great preparation for playing in Australia, and if you get opportunities to play shield cricket, it's an added bonus; the club cricket over there is a lot stronger than over here, so it definitely gives us enough prep for our season.
Finally, if you were to look back on your career in 12 years time, what would you have liked to achieve?
50 Tests for England would be a solid achievement. Hopefully a couple of Ashes series to go with that - 1 at home and 1 away would be ideal. On a domestic level, the County Championship with Gloucs, or at least some silverware would be nice. I speak to the guys who won the 2015 50 Over Cup and they say it was just the most amazing experience and feeling, so I'd like to experience that. Finally, I would liked to be remembered as an outstanding County pro, I think that's quite a nice legacy to have. For example, Marcus Trescothick is well known for being a great opening batter for England, but is also really well respected as a player and person in county cricket - I'd really like to leave a similar impression to him, and if I could do it while staying at Gloucs for my whole career that would be great. Throw in a Test 100 for every Test country I hopefully play in, a couple at Lords as well, and hopefully bring Test cricket to Bristol and grab a century there, that would be the icing on the cake; I would be more than happy if I achieved that. For now, I just want to play that first Test - witnessing how Dan felt when he made his debut, even with no fans and no family present, just seeing how special that was for him, I really want to have that experience for myself.