Jo Harman speaks to Ben Brown, who has moved from Sussex to Hampshire ahead of the 2022 county season with his eyes still set on two big career goals.
Ben Brown is unashamedly a throwback. The 33-year-old keeper/batter, who recently moved along the south coast to Hampshire following a decade-and-a-half at Sussex, has played eight T20 games in the last four years, is no fan of The Hundred and considers the County Championship to be the pinnacle of the domestic summer.
While elsewhere a reconfiguration is apparently underway to push red-ball cricket back up the agenda after a dismal run for England’s Test side, for Brown no ‘reset’ is required. In his mind, the longer format has always been the heart of the game.
Perhaps, in part, that’s because he’s very good at it. As well as having some of the safest hands on the circuit, Brown is one the most prolific red-ball run-makers in the domestic game, averaging 45.43 and scoring 17 centuries in first-class cricket since the start of 2015. CricViz report that only four players (Daryl Mitchell, Billy Godleman, Ben Duckett and Joe Clarke) have scored more Championship hundreds in that time, while only five players (Jonny Bairstow, Ollie Pope, Rory Burns, Alastair Cook, Sam Northeast) boast a better average having scored a minimum of five tons. Last season, no player managed more hundreds than Brown’s four.
Jason Gillespie, his former coach at Sussex, describes Brown as “an absolute gun”. “Why he hasn’t been given an opportunity with the England Lions is beyond me,” the Aussie lamented in 2019.
So is there room in England’s reconstituted Test team for a thirtysomething county stalwart with a homespun batting technique – honed under the watchful eye of Aussie batting guru Trent Woodhill – which Brown himself admits is “a little unconventional”? It would be a leftfield call given that he’s not represented England at any level since his teens. But in these wild and unpredictable times, you can’t rule anything out.
Brown refuses to give up hope, arguing there is too much focus on age when it comes to England selection.
“I have maybe been a bit frustrated not to appear for the Lions over the years and show what I can do,” he tells Wisden.com. “But any time I get out of bed as a professional cricketer, whether I’m 33 or I’m lucky enough to be playing at 40, I’ll be trying to play for England.
“If England are smart, they’ll pick older players than perhaps they have in the past because with fitness and health these days I think people are going to play for longer and longer. Guys my age should continue to hope and continue to drive their standards to play for England. I certainly won’t be giving up and I know my record stacks up. I’ve just got to continue to play at those standards and see where it gets me.”
As for any technical concerns, having watched England’s batting travails of late, Brown believes much of the analysis which has followed has failed to address the central issue facing their young strokemakers.
“You’ve got to work out how to score runs and I think method is more important than technique. There’s a lot of talk about technique from commentators and probably not enough reference to method. Method is how you apply your technique in different scenarios.
“I feel sympathy for the young players being thrown into Test cricket who are having their techniques pulled apart by people. Perhaps it’s the method they haven’t fully understood because they haven’t had that time to learn the art of run-scoring in different scenarios.
“Any player who’s been around for a while will understand that all techniques have flaws. Mine certainly does. But if my method can counteract those flaws which I know I’ve got, that’s where you can get some value and score runs. Whether that would work for me in international cricket, I honestly can’t say because I’ve never been in that environment.”
Brown was sat on the dressing-room balcony at Hove in 2007 when Sussex won their third Championship in the space of five seasons, a wide-eyed 18-year-old rookie preparing to embark on his professional career. He describes it as a “hugely inspiring time” which shaped his ambitions.
He’s still waiting to get his hands on the holy grail, and that was part of the motivation behind negotiating an early release from his contract at Hove last year.
Having relieved Brown of captaincy duties midway through a chastening 2021 season, an inexperienced Sussex side finished bottom of the Championship pile. Hampshire, meanwhile, came within one wicket of winning their first title since 1973. They start this campaign among the favourites.
“There were loads of factors [behind leaving Sussex], to be honest,” says Brown. “Sometimes you have to take that reflective period and look at what you want to achieve and how many years you’ve got left in the game.
“It’s a strange feeling being on the market, and I was grateful to any county that showed an interest, but I wasn’t really too interested in many clubs. Hampshire was where I wanted to play my cricket. My career ambition has always been to win a Championship and I feel like Hampshire gives me a great chance to do that.”
Brown is invigorated by the prospect of keeping wicket to arguably the most versatile attack in the land, with Kyle Abbott, Mohammad Abbas, Keith Barker, Brad Wheal, Mason Crane and Liam Dawson all offering different modes of attack, and he says he already feels settled at his new home. “It was definitely a weird feeling walking into only the second professional dressing-room I’ve been in. But that feeling really went away pretty quickly, almost within a week, because I was made to feel so welcome.”
On the eve of his 16th season as a pro, Brown’s enthusiasm for county cricket remains undiminished and he’s passionate about fans – and potential fans – getting the opportunity to see it at its best, advocating a “Match of the Day-style weekly round-up” on free-to-air TV. He takes umbrage at much of the criticism aimed at the County Championship during England’s winter of discontent, in particular from those in charge of the game.
“I do get frustrated by our own governing body speaking negatively about the product,” he says. “I don’t think any other business would do that. County cricket is a great product, there are some amazing matches that go on, but if they’re scheduled in the middle of the week, and a lot of the time played in cold conditions in April and September, you probably won’t find it being championed and being watched as much as it could do.
“I think the talk about reducing the number of counties is ridiculous, really. County cricket is fine, it just needs to be prioritised, looked after and cherished. No major changes, just a bit of love.”