@Ben_Wisden 3 minute read
The career of Tymal Mills has been winding and unique. Now he might finally be about to get the moment he deserves, writes Ben Gardner.
“It was the time to let them have a few.”
In 2013, England rocked up to Chelmsford for the chance to have a gentle hit ahead of that summer’s Ashes, and came face to face with a bolt of lightning. Tymal Mills, then 20 years old but comfortably the quickest bowler on either side, tore in and almost ended Graeme Swann’s summer, striking him flush on the forearm, with Tim Bresnan copping similar treatment. That winter, he joined up with the England squad in Australia to offer some Mitchell Johnson prep, turning Alastair Cook’s not-inconsiderable bicep purple with a single blow. By then, Cook had already anointed Mills as the fastest bowler in England. A serious talent, it seemed, had revealed itself.
That much has proven itself true over the intervening time, just not in the way anyone would have expected. Less than two years after almost giving Swann a broken f***in’ arm, Mills had played his last first-class game, a congenital back condition limiting him to no more than four overs per day. These days, of course, that’s still plenty to carve out a lucrative career, and that’s exactly what Mills has done. In 2017, he became the most expensive overseas quick in IPL history, Royal Challengers Bangalore swooping in to secure his services for the equivalent of about £1.4million.
That competition was at best a qualified success for Mills, the left-armer taking five wickets in five games and conceding 8.57 runs per over before injury limited further participation. But he has carved out a career plying his trade around the world, in T20 leagues in Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan among others, with some T20 experts rating him as one of the most skilled at what he does in the world.
“Statistically, [Mills is] one of the best death bowlers T20 has ever seen,” wrote CricViz analyst Ben Jones for Wisden.com before The Hundred. “In the history of the format, there have been 52 seamers to bowl as often at the death as Mills – not one of them has a better economy rate than him. Not Malinga, not Bumrah, not anyone.”
An Alastair Cook bruise prior to the 2013/14 Ashes, inflicted by then net bowler Tymal Mills 👀 pic.twitter.com/iapQz80P5a
— Wisden (@WisdenCricket) September 11, 2021
Jones goes onto explain Mills’ unique method, with a high percentage of slower deliveries interspersing a barrage of high-pace balls, in a manner no other bowler capable of the speeds Mills reaches does. It must take a significant amount of humility to know you can reach speeds only a handful of humans in history have been able to, and still realise that your success lies in taking the pace off. Batsman facing Mills can’t set up for anything. If they prepare for the quicker one, the number of slower ones means they will miss out too often. But the faster one is so fast that one miscalculation can be final.
Mills has also explained how he has honed his slower ball to be as unpickable and unplayable as possible. “I can bowl my back-of-the-hand slower delivery with the same arm speed, whereas with some guys their arm speed is a bit slower, or they have to drop their arm a bit, or you can see them cock their wrist,” he explained in 2017. “My biggest piece of advice is to try and bowl your slower ball as fast as you can so the arm speed is the same. That gives you energy and more revs on the ball so that when it pitches it kicks and gets that little bit of bounce which often makes the batsman either miss it or miss-hit it.”
Perhaps the prime example is a slower-ball bouncer to Amit Mishra in the 2017 IPL, which the leg-spinner initially tried to duck, before realising he had ducked and the ball was still coming and not yet at him and then palming the ball away, utterly flummoxed.
Still, all that excellence around the world did little to stir England, with Mills’ international career restricted to four T20Is in 2016 and 2017 and an appearance for a ‘World XI’ in name only in 2018. His absence was partly World Cup-related, with England often using T20Is before 2019 as a chance to rotate their options in the 50-over format, though the existence of Chris Jordan, peripheral in ODIs but ever-present in T20s, shows that there was some space for a specialist.
Injuries played their part too, and despite Mills significantly restricting how much cricket he plays, he will always be a player on and off the treatment table. But there was also the feeling that England weren’t quite sure how good he was, with the quality of the T20 Blast questionable, and IPL sides looking elsewhere after that bumper 2017 payday.
The Hundred this year offered the perfect platform. Despite the high-profile overseas pullouts, the condensing of talent into eight talent-packed team meant the quality was a significant step-up on the Blast, and Mills was namechecked by Eoin Morgan as a player with plenty to gain ahead of the competition starting.
“There are guys playing in The Hundred like Tymal Mills who could easily present a case,” Morgan said. “He is an outstanding bowler, and we’ve always been in communication with him, wanting him to get fit, play as much cricket as possible, and leave him alone until the World Cup comes.”
Present a case is exactly what Mills did, most notably in the final, taking 1-13 from 20 balls as Southern Brave stormed to the men’s title, and now he finds himself back in an England squad, ready to add to those four caps on the grandest of stages.
In a way, we’ve been here before. Jofra Archer, ahead of the 2019 World Cup, was simply too good to ignore, scorching through Pakistan in an ODI series ahead of the tournament. Then, the debate was about whether the introduction of a new player so late on could disrupt the team environment, and about whether it would be fair to whoever would have to make way. By the time Archer had defended seven off the last four in that super over at Lord’s, any controversy had long since faded.
This time there’s no such chat, ironically because of an injury to Archer. Despite both being in-demand Sussex speedsters, the pair are far from like-for-like, with Archer’s strengths lying more with the new ball. And yet Mills can look to Archer as an example of what’s possible. After years of toil, a player who was almost lost to the game has a chance to do something quite special. Mills might be about to get his moment.