James Bracey speaks to Taha Hashim about a tough introduction to Test cricket, taking the pressure off and a ton in Australia.
It’s not just England’s senior side who’ve had it tough. Besides the torment of another 4-0 Ashes thumping, there was a 112-run loss for the Lions when they met Australia A in December. While the first Test was playing out at the Gabba, Scott Boland, Michael Neser and Usman Khawaja were all getting in some practice against the second-string tourists, readying themselves for the fun that would follow against the first-choice picks.
All wasn’t lost for the English at the Ian Healy Oval, though. After the Lions were set a steep fourth-innings target of 460, there was still time for James Bracey to end a wild year on a high; the left-hander came in at 2-1 and went on to provide Australia with an unfamiliar sight this winter, that of an Englishman raising his bat and helmet for a century. “I was really happy with how I played,” the 24-year-old tells Wisden.com of his 295-ball 113. “I felt really relaxed out there, I felt really calm. And I just really enjoyed the occasion.”
The story was a different one when Bracey briefly hit the big time last summer. After touring with England over the winter, the Gloucestershire batter looked the part when the home season began, crossing fifty in five of his first nine County Championship knocks of the year to nab a spot in the squad for the two Tests against New Zealand in June. A place in the final XI then opened up at No.7 after a hamstring injury to Ben Foakes, and a Lord’s debut as a keeper-batter was his.
But the fall was quicker than the rise. Bowled for a six-ball duck by Tim Southee in his maiden innings, Bracey then went to Edgbaston and was out first ball, a loose drive to Trent Boult offering up a grab in the cordon. The head hung low as the television camera zoomed in, the pain there for all to see. “My heart sank just a little bit,” he admits. Runs finally arrived in his third Test innings, but he finished with just 8, bowled after attempting to sweep left-arm spinner Ajaz Patel. And just like that, it was over; Bracey hasn’t played Test cricket since.
It’s clear from Bracey’s words that he placed a great deal of pressure on himself after being given a special chance. “Whether it’s right or wrong, I kind of convinced myself that I’ve got two games – that’s how I probably sold it to myself in the moment. So as soon as the first innings didn’t go to plan, and the second innings didn’t go to plan, I had one opportunity left. You sort of see it as, ‘God, I’ve got to show everyone here what I can do otherwise, you know, I’m out in the dark and I might not get another opportunity’.”
Frazzled, Bracey tried to be more proactive in his last innings of the series, leading to a dismissal that went against who he is as a player. “I then came out all guns blazing, playing all sorts of shots. And I probably got out in a way that I look back on and I’m like, it’s not something I do 15 balls into my innings [he was out facing his 20th]. But I think I convinced myself that I had to try something out of the ordinary to stay afloat, which is wrong, because you’ve just got to trust that you’re going to do the job that you’re there to do. I’m usually very methodical, very level and I go about things in my own way.” The pressure of the Test game, he admits, got to him.
Returning to county cricket initially proved a difficult jump down, and he endured a run of five successive single-figure scores as the County Championship wound down. “I felt like I’d sunk so far that I was back to square one, initially. And it took a lot of work, speaking to people and working on myself to realise that, you know, just because I had a bad couple of weeks doesn’t mean that all the progress I’ve made over the last five, six years is lost.”
The self-belief has begun to return and he seems to be going easier on himself too. “One thing I’ve taken from that initial Test experience is to try not to pile too much pressure on yourself, because there’s enough pressure as it is from all other angles. I think the more you put on yourself, the harder you make it for yourself. I’ve changed a few things about how I approach the game. I make a conscious effort to try and enjoy it a lot more because if you don’t you just make it so much harder for yourself.” Against Australia A, Bracey stripped away the stress and was handsomely rewarded.
He wants to get back in the Test mix and with England’s batting in crisis, a century in Australia – delivered at No.3 while Foakes took the gloves – was a timely statement of intent. If he does come again at the highest level, you’d imagine that it’ll be in the top order, where he bats for his county and seems best suited. His keeping – which was also called into question during his brief Test stint – remains something he’ll keep working at, but he outlines his priority. “My main strength is my batting and the fact that I bat in the top three. At the moment, that’s what I’m focusing on… I’m pretty aware now that my best chance to get back in the Test team is as a batsman.”
When Bracey talks about the players he grew up watching and those he keeps a close eye on nowadays, it’s easy to see what he’s trying to become. “I don’t feel like I’m a massive shot-maker. So I’d look at Graeme Smith, obviously Alastair Cook, people who were above and beyond others in terms of discipline, patience and those sort of skills. Even if you don’t feel like you can bang the ball back down the ground constantly and play the most aesthetically pleasing shots all the time, you can still have a lot of success.
“These days, I really like watching Tom Latham, Dean Elgar, these sorts of guys who have a really successful method and get the job done consistently, which is obviously what we all all strive for.”
Kumar Sangakkara is mentioned too as a wicketkeeper who could put on a show with the bat, but the template is obvious: a gritty left-hander up top who knows how to get the job done. As England begin their post-Ashes rebuild, they could do with some of that.