It has been 15 years since a Gloucestershire cricketer made his debut for England – Jon Lewis in the scene-setting T20 against Australia in 2005 – but among the 55 players asked to resume training for the summer internationals is a young wicketkeeper-batsman who could be the one to break this drought.
James Bracey is just 23 but has been on England’s radar in the past 12 months. A central part of the team that won promotion to Division One last year, the Bristolian also got his first Lions call-up in 2019 and was part of the side string that went unbeaten in Australia in February, including 65 in a first win over their “A” team.
Nevertheless, this product of the academy at Bristol was still pleasantly surprised to find himself among the county players who were asked to come off the furlough scheme and join the established internationals in gearing up for action.
“I’d had the call a couple of weeks beforehand,” Bracey tells the Guardian. “But when the list came out it was in alphabetical order and to see it go something like Archer, Anderson, Bairstow, Burns and then Bracey … yeah, that was pretty strange. It was such a buzz and hopefully that feeling lasts a long time.
“It’s been a while since Jon Lewis played for England and it was about 10 years since Gloucestershire had a Lions player, so we haven’t had a huge amount of international recognition recently. It’s great for me to push through.
“But it would have been nice to play a full Division One season too, because I think there are three or four more lads who are definitely getting close. Playing in the top flight would have helped push their case, I’m sure.”
England have not specified which players have been earmarked for which format and while he is using both red and white balls in the nets at the County Ground in partnership with his highly rated head coach, Richard Dawson, Bracey fancies he has possibly been earmarked for the former.
The left-hander typically bats up the order in his county’s four-day side, with Gareth Roderick keeping wicket, but is behind the stumps in the 50-over team and was handed the gloves in all formats during the recent Lions trip. That tour, as well as working with England’s wicketkeeping coach Bruce French while on a spin camp in Mumbai before Christmas, has seemingly done plenty to broaden his horizons.
Bracey says: “The Lions tour was a big step forward. The instruction was very simple: learn how to win in Australia. We didn’t lose a game and to beat the ‘A’ side at the MCG, a first for the Lions, was massive looking ahead to the next Ashes tour. You really got the feeling of being in an international set-up
“I was thinking I was there as a batsman and backup keeper, so to keep in all but one of the games was brilliant for me. Where’s my in? I feel I have the potential to play as a batsman or a keeper, but how that’s perceived I don’t know.”
Bracey cites three fellow southpaws as his idols: Kumar Sangakkara, for combining the gloves with big runs, and two openers in Alastair Cook and Graeme Smith for the way “they stuck to simple game plans” and put run-making ahead of pure batsmanship.
His own numbers are encouraging here, averaging in the mid-30s in first-class cricket and 60 after a first season in the Royal London Cup. What stands out is an ability to adapt his tempo according to the format, the situation and role he is performing.
In a somewhat depressing statistic for those of a certain age, Bracey was only six years old when Jack Russell hung up his tatty old gloves for Gloucestershire. He is still a huge admirer of Russell’s work, however, as well as the wicketkeeper who many deem to be his modern day equivalent.
Bracey says: “When I joined the Gloucestershire academy at 17, Jack did a few sessions and I always speak to him when we bump into each other these days. He loves chatting cricket and every time is a chance to get something out of it.
“Some of the footage of him standing up to the stumps has circulated on YouTube recently and it’s pretty outrageous to be honest – definitely something to aspire to.
“I did a week with Bruce French in India last year, standing up to the spinners in the nets and it’s very different to here, which was great. I also worked with Ben Foakes last year. People say he is the best in the country and you see why when you’re up close, how meticulous he is and so creative with his drills.”
As one of five wicketkeepers in the training squad, yet withonly five Test caps to date, Foakes highlights the competition Bracey faces to earn his first cap.
But having won his first academy contract in 2015 off the back of a last-minute second XI call-up that saw him turn a score of 43 for five into 370 all out through a calm 98, he is, like all good glovemen, ready to pounce.
“It’s still mad to think I am in an England training squad. Every step you take towards a national call-up feels substantial,” Bracey adds. “Whether it’s this year, next year or in five years’ time, hopefully I can take the final one.”