Nottinghamshire’s Ben Duckett believes he is in a “great place” and is confident he would be better equipped to thrive in international cricket than he was first time around.
In October 2016, England’s quest for an opening partner to compliment Alastair Cook at the top of the order seemed to have stopped at the then-Northamptonshire 21-year-old.
In Duckett, England had found an opener with a stark contrast to Cook’s stoic defence. Duckett’s penchant for stylish runs was marked with his strong reverse sweeps and was seen as a potent weapon on spin-conducive subcontinental pitches.
The plan seemed to have paid off against Bangladesh’s spinners when he scored his maiden fifty in the second Test, which was partly overshadowed by a stunning last innings collapse as England slumped to a massive defeat at the hands of off-spinner Mehidy Hasan.
But Duckett’s foray into Test cricket lasted just over a month as he was jettisoned after just four Tests – including two against India – which was a chastening experience for such a young player.
Four years on, Duckett is more or less the same batsman, obliterating spinners and pacers alike with an impervious, withering disdain.
When he leg-glanced a boundary to bring up a ton on the opening day against Lancashire last week, his celebratory fist pump summed up what his debut ton at Trent Bridge meant.
However, that’s not to suggest he hasn’t changed at all. By his own admission, he’s a much better player of spin and has only grown in confidence.
“Looking back on my first Test series, yes it gave me a taster into how tough Test cricket is and having that opportunity as a youngster, if I have that opportunity again, I would know what it is like,” he told Deep Extra Cover.
“The scrutiny of the media and everything that goes with Test cricket but four years later, I have certainly evolved as a player. I took many learnings from that trip, obviously, the conditions in India are far different to being in England.
“I did plenty of hours in the nets on the tour, even after I was dropped. To be honest he (Mark Ramprakash, batting coach) didn’t ask me to curb my attacking instinct, it was quite actually the other way. In those kind of spinning conditions, it was more about playing the way I had played to get myself there.
“Obviously, in Test cricket, you have got to be able to have a defensive technique for long periods of time. If I’m being honest, at the time I probably didn’t have that against off-spin [but] it’s something I have worked on time and time again since then.”
All the hours netting down against spin bore fruits in the County Championship last year after a sensational knock of 140 at Edgbaston on a wearing day four pitch against an attack which had Jeetan Patel in its ranks.
It was a typical Duckett knock except it offered longevity when Nottinghamshire needed it the most to avoid an innings defeat.
“He’s (Jeetan Patel) probably one of the best off-spinners going so it was nice to get the monkey off my back and show that I can bat for a long period of time [by] not just being defensive but by scoring as well.”
Duckett is a rare commodity in English cricket. He’s one of the very few youngsters to have breached the 10,000-run mark across all formats on the domestic front before turning 25.
An opportunity to redeem himself was presented in the form of an England Lions call-up to tour India last winter. In a tour that exposed the frailties of their technique, Duckett faired marginally better with 175 runs across two unofficial Tests to boot a crucial unbeaten knock of 70 in a one-wicket win in a 50-over fixture.
His switch to Nottinghamshire followed as the improvements began to show.
“Going back (to India) with the Lions was a good chance to perform. I have definitely changed my game slightly against off-spin allowing myself to be able to respect the good balls and try to bat for a long time but also keeping my natural instinct to try and put the pressure on the bowlers,” said the 25-year-old batsman.
The switch to Nottinghamshire was seen as an opportunity to test himself in Division One at an intensity closer to the top-tier at a Test cricket venue in Trent Bridge. 2019 saw a slow transition with only four half-centuries and two centuries across all formats – his lowest tally since 2015.
But he was in exalted company of England internationals Alex Hales and Samit Patel while coaching under the tutelage of Peter Moores.
“When I was at Northants, I kind of learnt the hard way, I learnt myself which was good at the time, trying to find a way to score runs for myself and not necessarily with different coaches,” he added.
“Moving to Notts, I’m under one of the best coaches in the country, Peter Moores, so it’s been great to pick his brains. He’s been around the England set-up and come back to county cricket so he knows what that’s like.
“I don’t necessarily think my game has changed a great deal. I have matured mentally and I feel in a great place at the minute. When I was young, back in 2016, I had a bit of a raw talent but it’s taken me a few years to mature mentally.”
If 2019 was Duckett finding his feet in Division One cricket, 2020 was the year he envisioned to bring him the batting riches and emulate his run-scoring ability from the past seasons in a bid to propel him into England’s plans.
He spent the winter in the nets with Nottinghamshire’s assistant coach Ant Botha before the COVID-19 lockdown scuppered his plans.
If there is an opportunity moving forward, I’m far more ready than I was in 2016Ben Duckett
No sooner had Nottinghamshire returned to training than he was included in England’s large pool of the 55-man training squad ahead of a taxing international summer. He made it to the 22-man squad against Ireland but found himself ignored in favour of Jason Roy, despite a fighting fifty in one of the warm-up games.
Duckett understands that a place in England line-up any time soon can only be a short-term, temporary opening and points to the four-day format as a necessary precursor to press his claims for an International comeback.
“I am just trying to do the right things,” he says. “I have worked extremely hard with my fitness over the last six months so I feel as fit as I have been.
“Mentally as well as technically, I feel in a great space. I’m extremely hungry to get back into the England side and try to do as well as I can for Notts first and foremost.
“If there is an opportunity moving forward, I’m far more ready than I was in 2016.”