Matthew Potts: Wisden Cricketer of the Year – The Almanack
The Five Cricketers of the Year represent a tradition that dates back in Wisden to 1889, making this the oldest individual award in cricket. In 2023, Matthew Potts was one of the five.
When Matthew Potts woke on the morning of May 15, he was a couple of hours away from sealing his Test debut. He just didn’t know it yet. Other matters were vying for his attention: the fourth and final day of Durham’s Championship match against Glamorgan at Chester-le-Street – and a searing pain in his back and side. With a bundle of early-season wickets under his belt, a host of stress fractures thinning England’s bowling ranks, and a Test-squad announcement around the corner, it would hardly have been a surprise had he gone easy on himself. Yet the decision was already made.
“The pain was excruciating, but I knew I was going to be hurting either way,” he says. “I said: ‘Fire a paracetamol into me – give me some of the stronger stuff – and get me as loose as you can.’ When we got to the ground, the skipper [Scott Borthwick] asked me how I felt, and I said: ‘It hurts every time I move, now chuck me the ball.’ I wasn’t thinking about England, I was thinking about winning the game.”
Potts left the pitch that day with career-best figures of 7-40, a Durham victory, and the conviction of one of his team-mates, the freshly appointed Test captain Ben Stokes, that he had both the heart and headstrong nature to be part of his new England. “Stokesy said to me: ‘The moment you pushed through that barrier, I knew you had to play, because it’s exactly what I would have done.’”
Little more than a fortnight later, he delivered on Stokes’s hunch. His fifth ball in international cricket snared the edge of New Zealand captain Kane Williamson, the kind of Fab Four wicket some spend years chasing; only an attack of cramp robbed him of the chance to bank a Lord’s five-for at the first time of asking. Even so, figures of 4-13 eased the frustration of being forced from the field, and he snapped up three more in the second innings – including Williamson again, poking to third slip – to complete a stirring introduction. He ended up claiming his wicket in three innings out of four, a streak the pair discussed with a laugh over end-of-series drinks.
Having quickly established a reputation as a slayer of giants, he burnished it with the biggest scalp of all, when India arrived at Edgbaston for the delayed fifth Test. His first meeting with Virat Kohli was brief and decisive, bowled for 11 via a drag-on. “Hopefully I can add more big names to my collection,” he says. “It’s a big year ahead, and there are a few I’ve got my eye on.”
Despite a rousing run that brought 20 wickets in five Tests, the return to fitness of Ollie Robinson meant Potts missed the last two of the summer against South Africa. But rather than wallow in the whims of selection, which also saw him overlooked for England’s historic winter tour of Pakistan, he headed back to Durham, and picked up where he left off.
In September at Grace Road, he ran a wrecking ball through Leicestershire, setting another personal best with match figures of 13-101, and topping up an already impressive tally. At just 23, he had become the first England qualified bowler to take six hauls of six or more in a Championship season since Glamorgan’s Steve Watkin in 1989, and the first seamer of any nationality since Pakistan’s Waqar Younis for Surrey in 1991. Even in second-division surroundings, his final Championship tally of 58, at an average of 17 and a strike rate of 39, uncloaked a serious talent. His first-class haul for the season was 78, well clear of the field.
MATTHEW JAMES POTTS was born on October 29, 1998, in Sunderland to a working-class family who had cricket on the television but not in the blood. Cheerfully describing himself as a “hyper” child, Potts was funnelled into a variety of sporting ventures in a bid to whittle away his excess energy. Unafraid of the bumps and bruises that came with hard-ball cricket, he was playing with higher age-groups from nine onwards. Mother Lisa and father Stephen rallied behind his early promise, offering time, support and resources, even if they did not come easily.
“My mam and dad worked hard to provide for me when all I had were goals and dreams,” he says. “Looking back, they went without when I was younger, to make sure I had what I needed. That day at Lord’s was for them: it was their hard work, dedication and money that got me there.”
Potts’s first taste of competitive cricket had come with Philadelphia but, restricted to scoring duties as a 12-year-old, he left for nearby Washington, and was soon opening the batting for the First XI and taking on the Durham Academy. Finally picked up by the county, he went on to forge a career-defining rapport with bowling coach Neil Killeen, who found the young Potts a “Jack the lad” and a “live wire”, occasionally too willing to be the loudest voice in the room, but increasingly able to back words with deeds. Both traits linger.
Along with Brydon Carse, Potts joined the North-East’s proud roll call of pace graduates – including Stokes, Steve Harmison, Mark Wood, Graham Onions and Simon Brown – but took his time to lock down a place in the red-ball side.
His white-ball game opened new doors, with Northern Superchargers in The Hundred and Lahore Qalandars in the PSL, where he made the most of netting alongside Haris Rauf and Shaheen Shah Afridi. Having sharpened his skills, Potts seized his chance at the very moment England were looking for fresh blood and a new identity. At the beginning of 2022, he had yet to take a five-for, but his appetite for wickets grew as quickly as his ambitions.
“It’s all been a blur,” he says. “My main ambition at the start of the season was to try and stay in the Durham team.” That bar has been raised.
The Five Cricketers of the Year are picked by the editor, and the selection is based, primarily but not exclusively, on the players’ influence on the previous English season. No one can be chosen more than once.