Ben Duckett shows why he’s more than just a spin specialist
Until September last year, Ben Duckett didn’t fit into England’s Test match plans.
He was part of the set of tried and tested openers who still float around the County Championship, with the role he could play for England in a Test match capacity unclear.
Over the last few years, England have dithered with what they want from their opening batters. They have veered between the ultra-pragmatists who could blunt the new ball at the top of an unstable line-up, like Dom Sibley and Haseeb Hameed. Or they have picked those considered to have enough talent to compensate for a lack of experience or skill-set to succeed in the Test arena, see Jason Roy or Zak Crawley. Duckett fitted into neither category.
Seen as more of a white ball specialist, he flitted in and out of England’s ODI and T20I squads while quietly going about his first-class business at Notts. Since leaving Northants in 2018, he has averaged over 45 in red-ball cricket for his new county. Unlike so many of the others who have been discarded from England’s Test consideration, Duckett’s Championship form never really suffered from its fallout. But despite consistently scoring runs, the caveats to his success presented barriers to regaining selection. The runs he has scored have been almost exclusively in Division Two and, until last year, he failed to put together the one mammoth season that would demand selection.
Nevertheless, his returns were good enough for him to raise an eyebrow at those who did gain selection over him. In March last year, he told Wisden.com: “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t look at players’ records when they get picked. A lot of players in the last few years have had significantly lower numbers than what I’ve produced over my career.”
In the summer of 2022, Duckett finally produced results that couldn’t be ignored. He scored 1,012 runs in the County Championship at an average of over 70. He scored three hundreds, including a double against Derbyshire, and was called up to England’s Test squad for the final match of the summer following Jonny Bairstow’s injury.
Still however, when he was selected for the winter tour to Pakistan, in the eyes of some his inclusion was seen as a move to include a spin specialist at the top of the order – an odd reputation given that Duckett was dropped from the Test side in 2016 after having a torrid time against R Ashwin in India. England may have seen his potential in all conditions, but for some pencilling in their XIs for the following summer’s Ashes, a winter stop-gap was all he could be.
Duckett was exceptional in Pakistan. He began with a century in his first Test innings for six years, etching his name into the record books for the stand he shared with Crawley on that first morning in Rawalpindi. There is a case to be made that much of England’s success in Pakistan would not have happened without Duckett. He averaged 71.40 in the series, scoring three fifties to add to his hundred and was far and away the best opener from either side. Without his 142 runs in the second Test, England’s 26-run victory would surely not have happened, and a tricky chase in the final game was made to look trivial by a Duckett assault.
But in a way, Duckett’s success only served to bolster the cases of those who felt that he was the horse for this particular course. Going to New Zealand, he and England faced a different challenge.
On the first morning of this tour, Duckett rose to the task, just as he did in Rawalpindi. Racing to the joint-fastest fifty by an England opener, he picked the balls to attack and found the fence when he did so. He punished Blair Tickner for not finding the right length, hitting him for four fours in one over before taking back-to-back boundaries off Tim Southee. He came across as a player who knows his game supremely well and whose time out of the side has been spent focussing on his strengths as much as his weaknesses. This is not a first-string New Zealand pace attack, featuring two debutants and deprived of Kyle Jamieson and Trent Boult, but this was still an impressive innings. In a way, his game is more rounded against pace than against spin. Against the latter, he relies on his array of sweeps to score square either side of the wicket. Here, there were cover- and on-drives, pull shots and cuts.
Opposite Crawley, who was bowled off a no ball and dropped in the cordon before the end of his 14-ball innings, Duckett looked confident and assured. His dismissal was soft, and if there is to be a criticism, it is that, despite passing 80 in every Test since his recall, he still only has one hundred. Trying to drive, he was stuck in between getting too much on the shot and not enough, the result being an easy catch for mid-wicket. Nevertheless, this was a hugely valuable knock to England’s cause. By the time he fell, they already had a hundred on the board less than 20 overs into play and Duckett had passed fifty for the fifth time in his last seven Test innings. They scored quickly enough to be able to declare when the lights took hold, and claimed three wickets before stumps.
Looking forward to the summer and the looming prospect of Jonny Bairstow’s return to the side, Duckett has put himself in a good position. At some point, England will have to decide which of their top seven to leave out to fit Bairstow back in. All Duckett can do is score the runs to ensure he stays off the bottom of the pile, in the manner he has in both Pakistan and New Zealand – and as has been doing behind the scenes for years.