Hampshire and England Lions’ classy middle-order man is making all the right moves. Can he keep his cool and make it right to the top? He spoke to Ed Kemp.
James Vince of Hampshire is a talented player. Aesthetically pleasing; with a languid, graceful cover-drive, he has borne favourable comparison with Michael Vaughan.
Those who’ve been watching and listening since 2009 can trot such lines out without much thought by now. But what more is there to know? Vince is 24 now, already with over 90 first-class games in the bank. He’s had various stints with the Lions and been bestowed the limited-overs captaincy at his county. With England places up for grabs, this season – his first playing in Division One of the County Championship since 2011 – looks significant. But amongst a glut of talented young batsmen vying for attention, can Vince force his way in?
His performances for the Lions last winter were a significant step forward. He’d been involved in various squads in the last few years without really performing; in January while the senior side were preparing for their ill-fated World Cup campaign he made a commanding unbeaten 152* in the second ‘unofficial Test’ against South Africa A – following a first-innings 78 in the first. Then, as the tour turned from first-class to List A cricket, he took over from Jonathan Trott as captain and the Lions would win the series. For him, his coaches and his county captain, these were meaningful moments.
“It was definitely the most enjoyable and successful Lions tour I’ve had,” Vince tells AOC. “It was good to play a full part in the tour; I’d been on a couple before and been a bit in and out, playing a few games and then not featuring for a while, which ends up with me putting too much pressure on myself to make a score in the next game.
“When Robbo [Mark Robinson, the Sussex coach who managed the tour] asked me to captain the one-dayers that was another good confidence boost, and we got off to decent start in that series too, so it was a really good environment to be a part of.”
Feeling comfortable and accepted in the England set-up, it seems, doesn’t come immediately.
“It’s easy to go into that kind of environment and put too much pressure on yourself, knowing that different people are watching you, so it was nice to get some runs and relax into something more like a county set-up.”
Graham Thorpe, England’s national lead batting coach, who was on the South Africa tour, hadn’t before seen Vince at his best in a Lions shirt. “He’s been on three Lions trips and this winter was the best one that he had, where I think he felt his most comfortable. He played very well and it was really pleasing to see: he looked more confident, looked like he believed that he belonged there.”
Hampshire club captain Jimmy Adams says the scores he made in South Africa have helped settle him down. “He’s played a fair few games for the Lions and he possibly felt he hadn’t achieved what he was capable of. We watch from afar and we feel for him because he hasn’t quite delivered what we know he can. I really hope this is the start for him in terms of national achievements.”
Tall, slim, time at the crease, the world seems to move by pretty slowly for Vince: it’s hard to imagine him fretting. Is it all going on inside, though? Is he in fact a tortured sort of a batting soul; agonising, reviewing, bottling it up behind a façade of clean lines and sweet timing?
At one time perhaps, but apparently, no longer. “I think I’m probably a bit better than when I was younger and trying to make my way regularly into a side. Maybe I put a bit too much pressure on myself. Technically in the last couple of years I’ve become a lot more comfortable in my game and my methods and I’ve been confident that I’ll score runs even if I’ve had a couple of bad games – that there’ll be a big one around the corner – whereas in the past I’d be battling my technique and my method a little bit. There’s less thinking to do now and as long as I’m feeling in good touch then there’s a score around the corner.”
Vince had early success in limited-overs cricket. In his debut season for the first team, at the age of 18, he averaged 51.40 in one-dayers (257 runs in six games) and that preference for the shorter formats continued in the next few years, despite his seemingly fairly classical style. Now though, according to his long-time batting coach at Hampshire Tony Middleton (who has worked with Vince from the age of 13) he has settled on a technique that he’s happy with for all forms.
“He’s a very natural striker of a ball,” says Middleton, “and he’s got the ability to hit good bowling for four whenever they get it just slightly wrong, which is a gift that you don’t see very often. He’s got a decent technique, I wouldn’t say he’s got a perfect technique but he’s got a decent technique that he’s developed over the years to be able to play at both one-day and first-class level.
“I don’t change a great deal with him compared to others to be honest, because he is just a natural player, but we did spend one winter together three years ago where we felt he’d done very well in one-day cricket but was struggling to establish himself in the longer form of the game. Essentially it was just lining things up better in and around off-stump so he knew what and what not to play, and alongside that, generally hitting the ball a lot straighter in red-ball cricket. So, where he tended to look to score very square on the off-side, he’s now changed quite dramatically to hitting down the ground a great deal more.”
Unusually for a professional-level batsman, he doesn’t have a significant trigger movement, but instead stands with his back foot on off stump, slightly open (the position many players will get themselves into after a trigger movement from leg to off). There is a pleasing stillness about his set-up that seems to fit his general demeanour.
“Most high-level players would be looking to get across and cover the stumps and he tended always to stay a little bit leg-side of it,” says Middleton, “which is why he was so effective in one-day cricket in the early part of his career. But that hindered him around off stump in four-dayers. So to cheat that a bit we’ve got him across to off stump as a starting point and that’s helped him to understand where his off stump is; if it gets outside the eyeline he knows he can leave it.
“As part of that he has to ensure that he plays straight rather than play around his front pad, which at times has led him to get out LB. But when he does hit through that V as often as he can it all seems to come together.”
And it really has come together for Vince in the last year or so. In 2013 he made 1,215 first-class runs at 63.94 and followed that up in 2014 with 1,525 at 61. The big test, following Hampshire’s promotion last year, has been to replicate that form in Division One against quicker, more consistent attacks. Thorpe acknowledges the significance of the step up, saying “there are more challenges in that first division, it will be a good test for him.” If Vince is to force his England claims, prolonged success at this higher level seems an important pillar in his case.
But what’s his way in? The Test middle order is actually fairly settled, and while the one-day teams have seen a bit of sprucing, there are – who’d have thought? – a lot of talented young batsmen around. Who of Roy, Hales, Billings, Taylor, Bairstow, Stokes, Patel et al will make themselves a regular along with Root and Morgan in the new order? The Hampshire man does at least own an England cap now, albeit the rained-off fixture against Ireland didn’t provide him a platform on which to shine. Vince is a beautiful player to watch, perhaps he’ll even be an excellent all-round batsman. But still there is the chance of him going unrewarded internationally. Thorpe, whose opinion has influenced selection before now, has high hopes. “He’s one of the players who we look for underneath to hopefully make that next jump up to the highest level.”
Vince himself, right now at least, seems calm enough. If he did at one time put himself under too much pressure, was in to much of a hurry, now he seems impressively assured: both in his batting and in the way he talks to journalists – a task he’s more familiar with now he’s captain of both Hampshire’s limited-overs sides. Having spent his first few years on the pro staff living in the centre of town in Southampton with teammates, he’s recently moved out to the suburbs with his girlfriend. He enjoys escaping the game altogether. “Time away from the cricket ground can be just as good as extra training. Obviously you need to get your training in but it’s a long season and a lot of cricket so at times it’s nice to get away from the game.” When he does, as well as the standard pursuits of football-watching and golf-playing, there are the soothing pleasures of carp fishing in the Wiltshire lakes – near where he was brought up, with a mate from school – to keep the heartbeat steady and the head clear. “I find it relaxing, if the weather’s nice, just to sit by the lake and try and lure a few in.” If he does manage to fight through the crowd to face the scrutiny of international cricket long-term – and there’s plenty to suggest he could – Vince might find those Salisbury hideaways more valuable than he knows.