Meet Matt Milnes, the late bloomer spearheading Kent’s Championship challenge
@Yas_Wisden 3 minute read
Matt Milnes has quietly established himself one of the most impressive quicks on the county circuit. Yas Rana speaks to a 26-year-old who had to bide his time for a chance at the professional end.
You’d be forgiven for not following the domestic red-ball game with close inspection over the last two years. One of the upsides of the currently maligned County Championship schedule – that sees the bulk of the action top and tail the summer – is that much of the season is contested in a window where little high-profile international cricket takes place.
For a couple of reasons – in 2019, the men’s World Cup, and in 2020, the pandemic – that hasn’t been the case recently. As a result, some breakout performers haven’t received as much attention as they probably deserved. One such player is Kent’s right-arm quick Matt Milnes, Division One’s leading English wicket-taker in 2019 – his first full season playing first-team county cricket.
Though only 26, Milnes – identified by Dom Sibley as one of the best red-ball bowlers on the county circuit – is somewhat of a late bloomer. Released from Nottinghamshire’s academy in his early teens, Milnes’s game developed in the Nottinghamshire Premier League with Plumtree CC, where he earned his stripes in the hardened world of men’s first-team club cricket.
At 18, an age where many county cricketers receive their first professional contracts, Milnes’ sights still weren’t yet set on a career touring the shires. A few years at Durham University and their MCCU programme – where he juggled his studies with both university and county second-team cricket at Durham – were followed by two years squeezing in training sessions with Notts squad alongside his full-time job at sportswear brand PlayerLayer. If breaking into a professional sports set-up was hard enough, try doing it while holding a full-time job.
Those long winter days pumping iron before or after work paid off but despite landing short-term deals with Notts in 2017 and 2018, it wasn’t until his move to Kent ahead of the 2019 season that Milnes’ game leapt to another level. Within a year, he was a tourist with the England Lions on their impressive trip of Australia in early 2020. In 12 short months, Milnes had gone from someone on the periphery of the county game to the periphery of the England set-up.
“It was tough,” Milnes says of his journey that currently sees him at Kent. “I’d highly recommend it even though it was very tough.”
By his own admission, even after his time at university and around second-team cricket, Milnes wasn’t ready for the professional game.
“I was never good enough if I’m honest,” said Milnes. “Even when I played twos cricket at Durham and Notts, I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t consistent enough, I wasn’t quick enough.
“When I got to Notts, I felt like I learnt a lot about what it takes to be a pro. Training with them in the winter. I didn’t bowl with a huge amount of pace. At Notts, I was a top-of-off bowler who nipped it about a bit. I see the likes of Luke Fletcher who’s that sort of bowler and there were net sessions where I was in awe of him, he literally never missed.
“I’m there, one day I feel like I’m hitting and then the other day and I feel like I can’t hit top-of-off for love nor money. I wasn’t consistent enough.”
Milnes is grateful for his time at Notts and how it aided his progression as a bowler, but the big step came at Kent. Before he’d even played a County Championship game for Notts, Kent expressed interest in Milnes having been impressed by his numbers in second team cricket. Though essentially a novice at first-team level, Kent took a well-informed punt on Milnes and offered him a three-year contract.
For a bowler still making his way in the game, one looking to put on an extra yard of pace, Milnes couldn’t have asked for a better mentor at Canterbury than their assistant coach Allan Donald. And it was Donald who helped Milnes make a slight technical change that Milnes says took his game “to a new level”.
“Hopefully, I’m quick enough now for international cricket. I hope that I clock in at the mid-to-late 80s. Before I was early 80s at a push. I’m hoping that that change has made a massive difference while still having that consistency and being quite relentless.
“I made a technical change with my feet,” Milnes explains. “For however long I’ve been bowling, I’d always done this same thing with my feet where I jump in towards the umpire in my gather and as a result, my front foot would land almost like on a tightrope with my back foot. In order to then compensate, my back foot would have to come around. I’d lose a lot of energy to the extra cover area. I’d be off the pitch instantly. Halfway through that season I genuinely felt my bowling changed so much in a few weeks.
“I made sure my front foot would come slightly more out, to give more access for my hip and back foot to come through towards the batter and the target. It helped with pace but also my confidence and belief that I am good enough and I should be there.”
Milnes’ emergence is almost the antithesis of that of the stereotypical pathway cricketer, a reminder that elite players develop at different rates and in contrasting environments. Breaking back into the county system in your early 20s is tough work, arguably too tough. Earlier this year, another relatively late developer, Warwickshire’s Jake Lintott, told Wisden.com, “It’s a big frustration of mine the way the county game is set up. It’s very difficult for players [to break through after being let go] once they reach 20, 21 which is absolute madness really when you think about it. It’s so hard to get in and play county cricket. There aren’t players who come onto the scene after the age of 25. It’s a difficult system to break into. I think that’s a problem that needs addressing because players develop at different ages.”
If Milnes could rewind the clock eight years, would he do it all again? Playing club cricket, going to university and working full-time for two years? Or would he rather have gone down the well-trodden path of leaving school and signing a professional county deal with minimal ‘real world’ experience?
“100 per cent [he’d have kept it the same]. It opens your eyes to the real world. Cricket isn’t going to be your career forever, come 10-12 years time, hopefully, I’ll probably be a bit more switched to post cricket stuff than potentially someone who’s only been in the pathway system.
“I just think that when you have a bad day – I get very up and down and I’m trying to work on being quite level – sometimes it’s quite nice to take a step back and look at what you’ve actually achieved. If you told me I’d have been on a Lions tour in 2020, I would have have laughed in your face. When you do take stock of that to see where you’ve come from, it does help you stay a bit more level.”
Milnes is a tougher cricketer for the hurdles he’s had to overcome. Now settled in the county game and an established member of an exciting Kent side, his next challenge is to help Kent continue their steady upwards trajectory in first-class cricket that, you never know, could result in a first Championship title in 43 years.
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