England’s already-thin 16-man squad in India has gotten even thinner with the injury to Jack Leach, and conventional logic will dictate the Three Lions to call up a spin bowler as a cover to 32-year-old Leach.
However, the tourists might very well be tempted to instead draft in the red-hot Matthew Potts, who has been on an absolute tear for the England Lions in the unofficial Tests against India ‘A’.
Just over a fortnight ago, Potts had no first-class matches outside England under his belt. But now, in his maiden tour to the subcontinent, the 25-year-old has produced an all-time showing, scalping an astonishing 20 wickets in three outings at a scarcely-believable average of 16.95.
He’s picked up back-to-back five-fers and has, stupendously enough, finished the unofficial series with 9 more wickets than any other bowler, all the while maintaining the best average and strike rate despite bowling the highest number of overs.
Overseas fast bowlers struggling to adjust to subcontinent conditions is a tale as old as time but Potts, remarkably, has made easy work of a ridiculously tough challenge, incredibly in his first ever attempt.
It’s one of ‘those’ rare hot streaks, no doubt, but still, how has Potts managed to rack up such unfathomable numbers in a series dominated by batters?
“I think being meticulous in terms of the length has been key to my success here in India,” Potts tells Cricket.com.
“Out here, the key is to find what the effective length is to create problems for the batsmen. Personally, I enjoy bowling a little bit fuller than some people. I also am someone who likes to keep the stumps in play.
“I think if you’ve looked at the amount of wickets I’ve taken (in this tour) and the modes of dismissals, a vast majority of them have been LBW and bowled. I’ve looked to keep the stumps in play, whether it’s over the wicket to the right-hander or ‘round the wicket to the left-hander.”
It’s some turnaround for the 25-year-old, who 18 months ago was left out of the tour to Pakistan due to his inexperience in subcontinent conditions, despite, up until that point, having been an integral member of the early stages of the Bazball revolution.
“I think getting left out of the Pakistan tour was the right decision,” Potts says.
“The selectors picked the team that they believed could go and do the job. At that point in time, I didn’t have experience in different conditions other than England and a little bit in Dubai.”
But the Durham quick believes that, with this showing, he’s now put his hand up as a possible option in subcontinent conditions, going forward.
“To come out here and to prove that I actually have some worth in the subcontinent is very important for my development as a cricketer,” the 25-year-old says.
“It’s nice to let the management know that if they need someone that has bowled in these conditions and has done quite well, I’m available. That’s the main thing. It’s just the case of adding stuff to your CV and trying to show that you can play on all sorts of pitches.”
Regardless of whether this hot run gets rewarded with a mid-series call-up, it’s been a remarkable couple of years for Potts.
In the span of 20 months, he’s gone from an uncapped 23-year-old to a multi-format England quick that’s an integral part of the Test set-up. During this period, he’s not only grown in stature, but has also evolved as a cricketer.
“It’s been very fast,” Potts says, reflecting on the last couple of years.
“But that’s been the good thing. Just trying to take every challenge in my stride and not go away from the process that got me doing the things that I wanna do. That’s very important.
“It (the mad start to my career) did sink in last year, during the summer, during the first three games where I hadn’t bowled particularly well. To me it was a great leveler. It helped me re-evaluate and helped me think about the good things that got me to Test cricket, and go back to them.
“Now it’s about taking everything in my stride. Trying to embrace this tour and really put in a show and prove that I can do it in these conditions.”
‘Bazball is not about hitting sixes - that’s a misconception’
On June 2nd, 2022, Potts made his Test debut against New Zealand at the Home of Cricket, Lord’s. The then 23-year-old Potts was cap number 704, but, as it turned out, he was officially the first ever debutant of the Bazball era.
Potts went on to play the first five Tests of the Stokes-McCullum era, including the one-off Test against India at Edgbaston, and made a super-impressive start, taking more wickets (20) during this period than every other English bowler, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad included.
He recalls the chat the group had the first time they gathered together, two weeks prior to the start of the New Zealand series.
“Ben is a very expressive character. He likes to play very exciting cricket. And he is very aggressive - he will do anything to try and get a win. That’s the style of cricket we all wanted to play,” Potts says.
“We had a sit-down (roughly 20 days before the New Zealand series) and said, ‘this is how we’re gonna go about things and these are gonna be our core values that we’ll stick to. And if we’re put in any sort of a situation we’ll always take the positive option.’”
Two years on, Bazball has become synonymous with aggressive batting but according to Potts, one of the biggest misconceptions about Bazball is the narrative that it’s all about ‘trying to hit sixes’.
Potts defines Bazball as a positive brand of cricket where the primary aim is ‘absorbing pressure and knowing when to put it back on.’
“A big misconception is that we just go out there and try and hit sixes. That’s not the case,” Potts says.
“It’s a case of absorbing the pressure when the time needs it, and then being assertive with the pressure and putting the opposition back under pressure.
“Ultimately, it’s just a positive brand of cricket. With the ball, it’s looking to take 20 wickets to win a game.”
Under Stokes and McCullum, England have focused on ultra positivity not just on the field, but also off the field. Potts believes that a major reason for England’s success under the duo is the culture they’ve managed to build.
“There is no negativity in the dressing room. None,” Potts says.
“Even if you have an ‘okay’ day, it’s still the same vibe in the dressing room.
“Everyone’s having fun together, as a bunch of mates. And I think that’s the key - togetherness. The group is very close-knit, even the wider squad.”
‘Pitches becoming flatter in County Cricket is good for English cricket’
Whether it’s due to the new batch of dukes, or whether it’s due to instructions from ECB’s managing director Rob Key, the last couple of years have overseen a multitude of run-fests in the County Championship, with bowlers generally having to work extremely hard to roll opponents over.
Test matches in England in the last two years have seen a lot of flat wickets too, but they’ve been nowhere as flat as some of the County surfaces. One of Durham’s matches in the second division, against Glamorgan in Chester-le-Street, saw a whopping 1,446 runs being scored for the loss of just 27 wickets.
Such surfaces have hence made life difficult for the bowlers, who not too long ago played a ton of county games on green tops, but Potts is of the opinion that county pitches becoming flatter will ultimately benefit bowlers, as it’ll help them learn to take wickets on surfaces that are somewhat close to Test pitches.
“I think the pitches in County Cricket now are starting to emulate Test pitches. Which is only a good thing for the game,” Potts says.
“It means you’ve got to really work hard to get a win, and not just rock up and bowl on a juicy pitch and you bowl a team out in two sessions.”
For Potts, out here in Ahmedabad, the surfaces couldn’t be more different from the ones back home in England. However, interestingly enough, he feels that his modus operandi on English wickets is pretty much similar to what he’s been doing here.
“The Dukes swings and nips around a bit, but when it gets flat, it’s really good to bat. It’s the same out here,” Potts says.
“The new ball generally does a bit - swing and a little bit of seam movement - but then after that it’s generally a very good batting track.
“It teaches you to keep on smashing a length and being meticulous in terms of the areas you bowl. That translates very much into how I’m going to bowl in England as well. Just looking to keep the stumps in play with the odd outside-edge, potentially.”
Having been considered a ‘home specialist’ all this while, this groundbreaking Lions tour is a giant leap forward for Potts, who is just now starting to enter his prime.
The 25-year-old knows he has a long way to go before becoming a ‘complete’ bowler, but he believes this success in India is a very necessary step for him to move to the next level.
“If you look at Jimmy Anderson, he is still trying to get better, he is still trying to push on despite having 700+ Test wickets,” Potts says.
“This is one small step on a series of steps I have to go to, to prove myself as a complete bowler across conditions. It’s nice to know that I can do it here, but it’s just one small step in a massive journey.”
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