Wisden Cricket Monthly magazine editor Jo Harman speaks to James Vince, a player at the peak of his powers.
“If someone says to you that you make it look easy while understanding that it isn’t, that is the highest compliment.”
The flipside of that, as Gower is perhaps alluding to, is that not everyone does understand how difficult the art of batting is, and those who are blessed with the grace and timing to make it look simple are especially vulnerable to criticism when they fail.
Fairly or not, those aesthetic qualities often come to characterise a player’s attitude towards the game in general, as though elegance somehow comes at the expense of tenacity or ambition.
It’s a point echoed by Ian Bell, another of the game’s great stylists. “Sometimes when you get to 20 or 30 and you make a mistake, it looks as though you weren’t committed or you weren’t fighting as much as somebody who isn’t as nice on the eye, who looks like they’re scrapping all the time. It did annoy me, because you certainly don’t want people thinking you’re not fighting every minute of the day.”
James Vince will never be described as a scrapper, and unlike Gower and Bell, he doesn’t have a stack of glittering international centuries on his CV to wave in mitigation when he nicks off for an immaculately compiled 30-odd. The Hampshire captain has scored just one hundred for England, made against Pakistan in July of last year in the most recent of his 19 ODI appearances.
Whether he is afforded the opportunity to make another remains to be seen, but the characterisation of Vince as a flighty cricketer who favours style over substance is proving increasingly wide of the mark. His record, as both a captain and batter, demands respect.
Ben Brown, the Hampshire keeper who signed from Sussex earlier this year, says he’s seen a different side to Vince since playing alongside him. “He’s always been a standout player,” Brown tells Wisden.com, “and I had huge admiration for him. He’s always had that calmness about him, but getting to know him and playing with him, you see much more of the real desire and passion to win. Because he has such a calm demeanour and has a cool head as captain, I probably didn’t appreciate how driven and determined he is. That passion is a huge driving factor for Hampshire.”
There is no harder-working skipper in the county game. Vince has captained Hampshire across all formats since the autumn of 2015 and leads Southern Brave in The Hundred. He’s good at it, too. Last month, he lifted the Blast trophy at Edgbaston, having won the inaugural Hundred final at Lord’s last August, and his Hampshire side, who missed out on the Championship title by a single wicket in 2021, are hot on the heels of Surrey. With Brave looking strong again this term, Vince stroking an effortless (there’s that assumption again…) 71* on opening night, he could feasibly end the summer with a personal treble.
He spends his winters playing in Australia, where he won the Big Bash with Sydney Sixers in 2020 and 2021, being named Player of the Match in the second of those finals for a 60-ball 95, before heading to the Pakistan Super League, where he represented Multan Sultans in their title-winning year of 2021.
This is not the record of a player coasting through their career on the back of their natural gifts.
“His energy levels are really impressive, and success follows him around,” says Brown, who captained Sussex and understands the strains of the job. “It shouldn’t be underestimated how difficult it is to captain all summer. To captain so many teams, in different formats, different competitions, is amazing.”
Vince carries the burden lightly, the laidback demeanour which has led some to question how much he really ‘wants it’ when he plays for England being perhaps his greatest quality as a leader. That even temperament under pressure was there for all to see as he marshalled his troops through the harum-scarum Blast final against Lancashire, when the Hawks snuck home by one run amidst chaotic scenes.
“I’m lucky that Hampshire gave me the job when I was reasonably young,” Vince tells Wisden.com, a week after that victory. “I’m not sure how many years I’ve done it for, but I enjoy doing it – not just for days like Saturday where I can say that I captained the team to the final, but trying to create a group of players and an attitude amongst the group, and trying to set an example for the younger guys. Creating an environment which is enjoyable to play in, but where there’s also a massive will to win.”
It’s an attacking, inclusive philosophy not unlike that which Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum are trying to instil in the England Test team, and Hampshire’s boldness is serving them well. Vince’s side have claimed eight wins from 11 Championship games this season, drawing just once.
“Vincey believes we can win a game from any position,” says Brown. “We were playing Yorkshire at home and I think they were 200-odd for two and got 420, but he was always telling us how we were going to win the game, the scenarios in which we would win it. We went on to win that game by two wickets and I think his mentality really spread through the group. Obviously we’ve got the players to back it up, but when you’re relentlessly talking about winning, there’s no thought of taking a draw.
“At Cheltenham [in a six-wicket win over Gloucestershire in July] we were worried about the weather and four of the guys threw their wickets away, including Vincey, making sure that we won the game. There was no thought about stats and things like that. At Hampshire I’ve noticed there’s a real lack of desire to talk about what people are averaging; it’s how we’re going to win games of cricket. That’s definitely started by the coach and captain talking about match-winning innings and bowling performances rather than just the bare numbers.”
“We know within the group that sacrificing your own performance at times carries a lot more weight in our dressing room than a few easy not-outs and some extra numbers at the end of the year,” adds Vince.
Perhaps partly as a result of that focus, Vince’s Championship numbers this summer don’t leap off the page – he’s made one red-ball hundred alongside four fifties, averaging 37 – but he was a towering presence in the Blast, making two centuries and topping the tournament run-scoring charts to begin the clamour – and inevitable counter-clamour, for Vince is one of the country’s most polarising talents – for his inclusion in England’s T20 World Cup plans.
“I do, yeah,” says Vince, now 31, when asked if he still has England aspirations across all formats. “But I’m past the point of focusing on it too much.”
It’s hardly a rallying cry for a recall, but then that’s not really his style. He does admit, though, that playing under Stokes and McCullum in England’s newly liberated Test side looks an appealing proposition.
“There are obviously pressures that come with playing for England, and expectation,” he says, “but it seems like they’ve really tried to go back to enjoying their cricket. There is obviously more at stake. You’ve got people who aren’t centrally contracted that are trying to make their way in the side and they’re going to feel pressure and want to do well to stay in that team, but it seems like there’s good backing from the leadership group now in giving people plenty of opportunity and saying go and do it your way and express yourself.
“Having started so well, I’m sure the public and the media will back that. I’m sure at times it will be tested and questioned if it’s gone too far and all that sort of stuff, and it will be a test to see if they can keep that mindset and that view of the game when they’re up against it as well, but it certainly looks a good environment to be playing cricket.”
Whisper it, but in this new era of infinite possibilities and out-of-the-box thinking, could Vince even open up? Given the same number of opportunities as Zak Crawley, it seems likely England would get more return on their investment.
But while the romantics can dream of Vince turning out again in whites for England, four years after his last Test appearance when he made 76 at Christchurch, T20 is his most likely route back to international cricket, particularly given Jason Roy’s recent struggles and the fact that Australia, where he has prospered in the Big Bash, will host the World Cup in October.
Having watched Vince at close quarters this summer, Brown sees a player at “the peak of his powers”, and someone who still has plenty to offer at the highest level. “I’ve a lot of sympathy for guys who were picked for England earlier in their career and then get pushed out to the side and, I’m not sure if they’re forgotten about, but it certainly looks like it’s harder to get back in.
“Players are fitter now, that helps your mind, helps your body – 31 could be the new 27, 28. Players are going to be playing longer and will probably find their peak around that time. Hopefully that’s recognised with someone like Vincey. He’s certainly a candidate now.”
Whether Vince gets another opportunity to crack international cricket or not – and the odds are that he probably will – he’s already proven himself to be more than many gave him credit for; a leader of real substance whose best years could still be ahead of him.