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‘I wondered if I was still dreaming’ – John Simpson on the England call-up he never saw coming

Jo Harman by Jo Harman 5 minute read

Middlesex (and England) wicketkeeper John Simpson gives Jo Harman the inside story of a week which began with a Championship match at Cheltenham and concluded with an ODI whitewash of Pakistan at Edgbaston.

John Simpson is still trying to gather his thoughts after the most extraordinary week of his career. “It’s been a whirlwind,” the long-serving Middlesex wicketkeeper tells Wisden.com, speaking nine days after his emergency call-up for England’s ODI series against Pakistan. “I still feel like I’m floating on the clouds at the minute. I haven’t had a chance to take it all in yet.”

The call came through shortly after 8am on the second morning of Middlesex’s Championship match at Gloucestershire, an unknown number appearing on the screen of Simpson’s phone as he was completing his daily Covid obligations, considering how he would negotiate a tricky pitch at Cheltenham when his turn came to bat. Still oblivious to the fact that the entirety of England’s playing and coaching staff had been forced into isolation, he picked up. On the other end of the line was his former Middlesex teammate, and current England coach and selector, Chris Silverwood.

“He said, ‘Simmo, it’s Spoons, I’d love for you to join me for the ODI series against Pakistan’. He explained what was going on, but it was only a brief conversation as he had to notify all the other players. He told me to report to Cardiff between five and eight o’clock. It was surreal. I had to give my head a bit of a wobble, to be honest. At quarter past eight in the morning, I wondered if I was still dreaming. From finishing my lateral flow test, the next thing I knew I was in the one-day series.”

Simpson performed 12th-man duties for the rest of the day alongside Tom Helm, his Middlesex teammate who had also received a call-up, and then drove to Cardiff, where he was quickly ushered to his hotel room. He took a PCR test the following morning, and only when the negative result came through that afternoon was he released to join the hastily cobbled together group, less than 24 hours before the first ODI was due to begin.

“It was a strange 12 hours, just sat in a hotel room ordering room service,” he says. “We got the all clear about 2pm to go and train at Cardiff. Silvers sat us down and told us just to go out there, enjoy ourselves, and play the England way. It was such a great atmosphere to be part of. I think Eoin [Morgan] and Silvers run such a well-oiled machine that everyone seamlessly fitted into it.”

Simpson was one of three keeping options in the 18-man squad and he admits he was expecting Phil Salt or Ben Duckett to take the gloves, only to be called over by Ben Stokes, the stand-in skipper, at the end of the training session.

“He said, ‘Congratulations, go and do what you do, you’ve got my full backing’. He was great to play under. His character is to go out there and play fearless, aggressive cricket, and to have some fun, and that’s what he tried to encourage everyone to do.”

The dizzying speed at which events had unfolded didn’t allow any time for nerves to settle among the group, and that was reflected in a supremely confident display at Sophia Gardens as ‘Ben’s Babes’ (as they were christened by Nasser on Sky) skittled Pakistan for 141 and then chased down their target for the loss of one wicket with almost 30 overs to spare.

“It almost had the feeling that we’d played together for years,” says Simpson. “The guys went in to fill the roles the first-team side usually would. Having to fill Jos’ role was obviously a lot of pressure and it was a case of not trying to compare myself to Buttler or Bairstow, who are obviously two world-class white-ball players. Trying to play similar roles to them realistically isn’t going to happen, so it was about playing my way but also buying into the philosophy that Eoin and Silvers talk about regularly.”

England also dominated the second match at Lord’s, Simpson contributing a useful 17 from No.6 and taking an outstanding leg-side catch off Matt Parkinson in a 52-run victory which sealed the series for a team that had only 124 ODI caps between them (98 of those for Stokes) ahead of the first match.

“It doesn’t get much better than that,” says Simpson. “Having your first hit at Lord’s, somewhere I’m pretty familiar with, and walking out to bat with probably the best all-rounder that England have ever produced, a world-class cricketer in Ben Stokes.”

England’s most stirring performance was saved until last, nailing a ground-record run-chase of 332 in front of nearly 20,000 fans at Edgbaston thanks to James Vince’s first international century and a lower-order blitz from Lewis Gregory – on Simpson’s 33rd birthday no less.

“The first two games we completely dominated but we knew we were going to get a response from Pakistan. When they got 330, Stokesy came in and said, ‘Lads, don’t worry about it, they’re probably 50 or 60 short’. All the lads came in saying it’s an absolute belter of a wicket. We had a slight wobble but we cruised it in the end. Vincey played an unbelievable innings – that partnership with Lewis Gregory was crucial – and then Craig [Overton] and Brydon [Carse] got us over the line.

“I think the most impressive thing was the way we went about it. Silvers kept saying, ‘This England team doesn’t take a backward step, we’re No.1 in the world for a reason, you boys are representing England, you all deserve to be here’. We saw that with Phil Salt going hard up top and taking down their best bowlers.”

A series that had looked in serious jeopardy had reached a joyous conclusion, with the England supporters thirstily drinking through their Euros hangover on a sun-kissed evening in Birmingham.

“Edgbaston is a very different atmosphere to Lord’s, that is for sure. You can see why all the players say it’s a special place to play because the crowd is very loud. It’s carnage at times. You’re sat in the changing room watching, but you’ve got one eye on the cricket and one eye on what’s going on in the crowd. It’s a brilliant place. The fans are spectacular there. My cousins came to watch and I know they definitely had a great day out because they rang me on the way back and they could hardly speak.”

Simpson knows that his elevation to the England set-up is almost certainly a glorious one-off, but it’s reward for 13 years of hard graft on the county circuit, and the realisation of a dream he thought had long since passed him by. By playing sport at international level, he has followed in the footsteps of his great-grandfather and grandfather (who played rugby league for Great Britain) and his father (who played lacrosse for England).

“It was always something I wanted to do as a kid, and something I always dreamt about, but I thought my England chances were well and truly over. I could probably have listed you 200 things I could have been doing, and playing for England wouldn’t have been one of them. It makes all those hours of hard work and sacrifice even more worth it now that I’ve gone on and played for England.”

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