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England v New Zealand

Matthew Potts is coming for you

Phil Walker by Phil Walker
@Phil_Wisden 5 minute read

Matthew Potts is the real deal, writes Phil Walker.

For perhaps two overs at the start of this match, the brilliant fast bowler Matthew Potts played it a bit safe. It wasn’t that he wasted the new ball, thrust into his hand in the absence of Jimmy Anderson. But still, for that early exchange, he seemed just a tiny bit conscious of the dizzying scale of it all, bowling first on a flat one with an expectant northern crowd for company, and thus he held his lengths back a touch. It was OK. By most measures, and such factors of age and inexperience, it was good. But Potts is better than good. He’s a Test bowler, and he’s ready now.

If there was any hesitancy, it lasted about as long as it takes for these unhinged versions of Test matches to flip and swerve and change shape. He grew ambitiously into the day and by its conclusion, on the only slow-heartbeat day of the series, he walked off just off-camera with a set of quietly extraordinary numbers: 20-7-32-0.

They could have been even better. He had Daryl Mitchell plumb leg-before that wasn’t given, nor was it even reviewed. (Ben Stokes’ aversion to bullshit, by the way, is so pathological that a part of him clearly just hates the whole wheedling faff of DRS. You watch. It’s not his vibe. To ‘go upstairs’ is just a bit classless. The idea of removing that dash of latitude that every sucker deserves from time to time is basically an affront to the way he sees the world.)

Anyway. Potts should have had Mitchell, and could, on another day, have claimed a marginal call against Henry Nicholls, who may or may not have jammed down on a bomb cannoning into his stumps. As it was, he would trap Tom Blundell on the second morning, just reward for pounding away, over and over and over and over (like a monkey with a miniature symbol).

In his short time, the 23-year-old has developed a rep for taking good wickets on good pitches. It was his six-wicket haul against Worcestershire on a benign deck at New Road that persuaded Stokes to get him on the frontline. “Extract whatever it is in these wickets,” he cheerily told us last month. “You’ve just got to be hitting the pitch hard, every spell, every ball.”

The first innings helped contain New Zealand’s caged, knackered tourists. The second sucked what life they have left. “There’s no great secret,” he told Sky Sports after a stunning second spell that yielded his second wicket, finding bounce from nowhere to remove Kane Williamson for the third time in the series. “Every time you’ve got the ball in your hand you think you’ve got some kind of damage with it,” he said, his face locked in post-match concentration, learning the media thing day by day. “Being able to bowl on these flat pitches sets you in good stead.”

You can see why Stokes adores him. Stokes as a captain is a restless beast, perpetually itching to adjust the scene. His tactical work here has been smart, coherent, and ever-alert to the roiling shifts of a day’s play. But then, when you have a bowler with enough pace to trouble good players, one who hits his lengths in his sleep and never relents, you can experiment with all kinds of scenarios. Stokes’ trunk of funk is rarely locked, but with Potts pounding away on the first beat, the captain can basically do what he wants, safe in the knowledge that his boy will never miss a cue. Potts bowled throughout the evening without a fine-leg. He conceded one boundary in the whole piece, squeezed down there.

If Lord’s, and that four-for on the first day, was the dream debut, then this was of more lasting significance. Lord’s showed us that he had the game, and that the occasion wouldn’t harm him. But Headingley, on a dry one, grassless and intact, is the real statement.

In the end he was robbed of the grandstand finish. Five balls into Potts’ tenth over, with the crowd in hysterics and the rain getting heavier, and Blundell pulling away for a third time, the umpires called a halt. Blundell scampered off, though he will be back tomorrow and so, you can be sure, will Potts, waiting for him, wordless, springing from his mark. Ten minutes after they’d left the field, Stokes stood alone on the balcony willing the clouds to clear, evidently riled that he’s not yet figured how to change the actual weather.

And so the sun set on another ridiculous day’s play, albeit one that at least made some kind of rational sense. As the kids peeled away holding their miniature bats covered in Sharpie squiggles, Stokes and Potts, their rucksacks slung over both shoulders, moved away from the throng and strolled across the outfield to the team coach parked over across the way. It can’t not be a peculiar experience sharing the same space as wor Ben, the local boy with his own Amazon documentary. And yet, in this ego-vacuum cricket team, inside which the only judgments appear to be what you can do with a ball and a bat, they walked in lockstep, rucksack to rucksack, making plans for tomorrow.

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