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Fitter and better, Duckett reignites England ambitions

Over the past eight or nine months, there’s just been so much more than cricket going on in the world hasn’t there? It’s been a horrible time. But for me personally, it’s probably a year I’ll look back on which might have turned my career around with the work that I’ve put in.”

After a challenging few years, Ben Duckett is in a good place. Picked for England as a 21 year-old, he shone brightly during a couple of ODIs in Bangladesh but then fell away on the tour to India that followed and was soon out of the team. Unable to get back into the England reckoning, he seemed to lose his way. The runs didn’t dry up completely but nor did they arrive in the quantities he would have liked on the county circuit. Although Duckett’s talent has never been in question, for a time he looked like he might fail to capitalise on that early potential.

Most young players face challenges early in their careers. It is how they respond that matters and the past 12 months has witnessed quite some response from Duckett. Last summer, he averaged more than 50 in the Bob Willis Trophy and then helped Nottinghamshire to the T20 Blast title with four half-centuries, including a nerveless 53 not out in the final at Edgbaston. He carried that good form into the recently concluded Abu Dhabi T10 tournament where he played some important innings. It has been a sustained run of good form. After a period below his best, he now seems to be back to somewhere near it.

The reasons for Duckett’s return to form? He has made a couple of technical tweaks, including a new trigger movement, which allows him to be still at the point of release, and grip (of which more in a moment). Tactically, too there were improvements to be made. Duckett says he had got caught up trying to emulate some of Nottinghamshire’s big hitters rather than playing the way that comes naturally to him so last summer, he was determined to stick to what he knows.

He has done a bit of old fashioned growing up as well, and with that has come a greater work ethic. He has worked harder than he ever has before, at his game and his fitness. “I’m 26 now,” he says, during a Zoom call from his hotel room in the UAE midway through the T10. “I’ve grown up a bit, I’ve matured. Certainly, I feel a big change in the last sort of year or two.”

Four years ago Duckett had an operation on his left hand. It was around the time he was trying to get back into the England side after being dropped during that 2016 series in India and he says now that he came back from the surgery too soon, so eager was he to get back on the pitch and score the runs he needed to impress the selectors. Except he found that he couldn’t bat like he had before.

His bottom hand was too weak. Having held the bat the same way for years, he was suddenly forced to adopt a brand new grip. It was like driving on the other side of the road. You can still do it, but it feels different and, until you get used to things, you aren’t quite as good a driver.

Last winter was the first Duckett has had at home since he can remember. It allowed him to strengthen his wrist and groove a new grip away from the pressure of match-play. Finally, he was able to get comfortable with holding the bat a different way. “I’ve really struggled,” he says. “My strength in my left hand has been pretty shocking over the last few years. I am not batting the same as I was. It’s been a strange 12 months, trying to make that feel as normal as possible.

“I think back a few years ago, my offside game was very strong, but I was also fairly loose outside the off stump because my legside game wasn’t as strong. Whereas now, being able to grip it slightly better with my bottom hand, my legside game is stronger. That helped me last summer in the red ball stuff, being able to leave the ball in the first session more, allowing bowlers to bowl to me. Thankfully, that came off and I scored a couple of hundreds. So far in the small time since, it’s been successful.”

It is not the only thing Duckett has changed. He is now in the best shape he has ever been following a fitness drive that began last winter during Nottinghamshire’s pre-season training. He found that he liked the way his body was changing after some “brutal” sessions. Then the country went into lockdown and the only thing he could do was get out on the roads around his home and run. He ran more than he ever had before. He has now got the habit. During the T10, he went running before matches, something he says he would never previously have contemplated.

“Lockdown was good timing in a really weird way,” he says. “I was getting slightly more obsessed with getting fit and trying to look better. I felt so good last summer, not just batting but in the field and also just in social life and away from cricket. I feel much better about myself. So yeah, I’m just going to try and stay on top of that now and really smash the next six weeks so by the time the summer comes up I will be even better and even fitter than I was last year.

“I can be slightly more of a role model now, with me being fitter and not slacking in that department. I think that was always an easy thing for any player to look at me and have a dig at because, even if I was scoring the runs I was not pulling my weight off the pitch. But now if I’m doing all that, I can give information to other players better now and they might take it on board a bit easier. Right, fair enough, Duckie’s working hard so why can’t I? Or why can’t I improve in this sense?”

Nottinghamshire’s head coach Peter Moores says Duckett is now one of the county’s best fielders and is benefitting from knowing himself a bit better. It is something Duckett, who calls Moores “a world class coach”, agrees with. “If I’ve learned from the past when I went off to England, for the Lions or any other franchise stuff, and there was a big name around, if he told me to do something I did it which can actually hinder your game slightly,” he says.

“I don’t need to change the way I play. This is me, this is how I play, this is my technique. If I can try and take that and groove that over the next ten years, then fingers crossed I should keep improving.”

After being inside England’s white-ball bubble last summer, Duckett did not end up being selected for the ODI series against Ireland. He has played just one game of international cricket, a one-off T20I in 2019 against Pakistan, since the second Test against India four and a half years ago. Forcing his way into England’s limited overs team at the top of the order will be no easy task but Duckett hopes that a consistent run of form, and perhaps some eye-catching performances for Welsh Fire in The Hundred, will eventually pay dividends. He wants to add to his four Test caps too.

“I’m desperate to play for England again,” he says. “I’m not happy with what I’ve achieved so far. But I’m in a great place at the minute and I don’t want to ruin that by thinking too far ahead. If I perform consistently over the next few years, then who knows what might happen? But it’s not something that I really want to overthink or get too wound up about.

“I’m just raring to go for Notts. It’s such an exciting year ahead, especially with The Hundred going on. It’s a great opportunity for someone like myself to play loads of games on TV and try and put some scores on the board. I want to kind of go back to really loving cricket, enjoying it. I’d absolutely love to play for England again. It’s a burning desire of mine, but I just want to try and score some runs, enjoy myself and see what happens. I’m in a good place.”

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