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‘I had no intention of ever playing again’ – Reece Topley’s triumphant return

Jo Harman by Jo Harman 4 minute read

Surrey and England quick Reece Topley speaks to Jo Harman about his whirlwind introduction to the professional game, why he briefly gave it up and his Test ambitions.

It’s 11 years since Reece Topley dismissed England’s new supremo Rob Key on his Championship debut, Essex’s gangly 17-year-old picking up a five-for against Kent and then doing the same versus Middlesex a week later in a stunning entrance to the professional game.

Left arm, 6ft 7in and quick enough, the teenager was immediately marked down as a Test cricketer in waiting, but he wasn’t giving his future too much thought. He was just riding the wave and trying to put the ball where his captain told him to.

“Back then I was playing professional cricket but I didn’t really know what I was doing,” Topley tells Wisden.com. “I was being taken out of school, people were saying, ‘Be here at this time’, and then you just play. There’s no emotion, it’s not like your life has been given to cricket. You’re so young and naïve, you just go with it. I’d do whatever Fozzy [Essex captain James Foster] said.”

Two years later, the honeymoon period came to an abrupt halt when Topley suffered the first of five stress fractures to his back. Between 2014 and 2019 he would make just 11 first-class appearances, his move to Hampshire in 2016 coinciding with another breakdown only a year after he’d made his ODI and T20I debuts for England. The physical and mental anguish caused by those injuries eventually led to him quitting the game.

“I’ve read a lot of things with people saying, ‘I thought about giving it up’, but I did give up cricket,” he says. “I wasn’t contracted to a county after I left Hampshire [in 2018] and I had no intention of playing ever again. It was just a horrible time. I thought: ‘This isn’t what being a professional cricketer should be, this isn’t fun. I’m going to do something else.’”

It took a trip to Australia and some words of encouragement from a former teammate to change his mind. Mark Pettini, the former Essex batter and now team manager of Melbourne Renegades in the Big Bash League, convinced Topley to turn his arm over in the nets and the bug he thought he’d flushed out of his system returned. “I remember getting home and playing club cricket socially and then Sussex said, ‘Do you want to play T20 for us?’ I’ve never really looked back since.”

He took four wickets in his first T20 outing for Sussex, against his former county Hampshire in July 2019, and picked up the Player of the Match award. In the three years since he has signed for Surrey, been recalled to the England limited-overs set-up, turned out in the Big Bash for Pettini’s Renegades and, more recently, made a rousing return to red-ball cricket.

Used sparingly last year as his body re-acclimatised to the rigours of the longer format, this season Topley has been the spearhead of Surrey’s attack, picking up nine wickets in his first two matches to help his side set the early pace in the Championship.

Given his injury record, no one could have blamed Topley if he’d opted to pursue a career exclusively as a white-ball cricketer, but he insists he never considered that as a viable long-term option.

“I’ll be honest, white-ball contracts in England, they can be pretty bleak. You’re only training with the team for around two months of the year and the rest is red-ball oriented. It’s not a waste of time, but there’s a lot of time you’re not around the team contributing to practices. You’re going to have to practise on your own, so it never made sense to me. I did it [at Sussex] but that was more because of the physical aspect at the time. I had to do that. I don’t think I’d ever go down the white-ball route.”

These are still relatively early days in his recovery, particularly in the longer format where his workload will need to be carefully managed, but Topley’s rare gifts will naturally lead to speculation about a Test call-up that’s been a decade in the making. Only two left-arm seamers – Ryan Sidebottom and Sam Curran – have debuted in Test cricket for England in the 21st century, and his height and bounce, allied with his ability to bring the ball into the right-hander, could make him an enticing prospect in conditions where more English-style pace bowlers have traditionally struggled. At 28, he should be approaching his prime.

Clearly full of confidence after his early-season exploits, Topley doesn’t shy away from his desire to play Test cricket, or his target of nailing down a place in England’s T20 side ahead of the World Cup later this year. But he says the years of toil and rehab and anxiety about his future have given him a broader outlook.

“I want to play for England in all formats,” he says. “That’s the end goal. I’ve played in white-ball cricket and I think I’ve done alright. I want to keep playing that form of the game but I also want to play Test cricket. It’s still the pinnacle. I’d love that opportunity but I have to create the narrative around me that I should play. That’s simply down to wickets. I’ll just control what I can control.

“I enjoy the good days but it’s almost like the bad days aren’t so bad. I can shrug it off because the silver lining is at least I’m participating. If it’s a T20 and I get smacked, I just look back and think, ‘Well, I’m on the park’. I’ll never forget what a win that is, that feeling for me. I appreciate now that there is a life outside of cricket and on those bad days or during those pressure moments, I’m just like: ‘There is someone somewhere in the world that doesn’t care about this game.’

“So it’s nice to look back and see how far I’ve come, but I’m always hungry for more. I’ve played three years continuously now, winter and summer, all over the world, and I’m back to playing cricket in the way I imagined I would when I was young.”

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