All eyes at a sun-baked Lord’s yesterday were focused on the bright and new. There was the prospect of a new international season for England and the return of spectators for tomorrow’s first Test against New Zealand.
Then there was the sight of workmen hurrying to complete the magnificent new Compton and Edrich Stands that will further enhance the home of cricket.
Most significantly, there at England practice was a new wicketkeeper, seemingly catapulted from nowhere into a Test debut tomorrow against the Kiwis.
James Bracey is set to make his test debut for England against New Zealand at Lords
The odds would have been long just a few weeks ago on James Bracey taking the gloves for the first Test of a seismic year or so for Joe Root’s England.
Even if Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow had been expected to miss out here because of their involvement in the IPL there was still the considerable presence of Ben Foakes to step in after his success in the otherwise forgettable 3-1 Test defeat in India.
Yet one freak injury — with Foakes damaging his hamstring so badly slipping on the Oval dressing room floor that he will be out for three months — changed all that. So up steps Bracey as fourth-choice keeper and one of two probable debutants along with Ollie Robinson in an England side weakened not just by IPL absentees but also by injury to Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer.
Not that the Gloucestershire left-hander is an unknown quantity, because he has long been identified as a potential Test player. He was earmarked as a candidate for the top three, rather than a keeper and No 7 batsman.
Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer (pictured) will miss the test match against the Kiwis due to injury
But England have used Bracey’s time wisely as a travelling reserve in the bio-secure conditions — don’t mention ‘bubbles’ — they have endured in the last year to work on his wicket-keeping.
‘Things can happen when you least expect them to,’ said Bracey before practising with England’s bowlers in keeping conditions made unique by the Lord’s slope.
‘When I heard about Ben it was a big shock because it wasn’t really on my radar to play in this series as a keeper.
‘But I’ve always known that if I kept working on my keeping this would be a possibility and I’m glad I put in that extra shift.
Bracey has been working on his wicket-keeping whilst patiently waiting for an opportunity
‘I spent a lot of time in the winter calculating how I could get in the team but it’s taken a freak accident to Foakesy to give me that opportunity.
‘If I get out there it’s not only a chance to push myself with the gloves but also really show what I can do with the bat.’
It says everything about the close-knit modern England that Bracey, 24, felt able to contact Foakes to discuss what awaits him this week at a time when the Surrey man was ‘devastated’.
‘I reached out to Ben over the last couple of days,’ said Bracey, who has also been working on his glovework with Bruce French, seemingly as closely involved as ever despite giving up his role as England keeping coach. ‘I am gutted for Ben and he’s been brilliant to me. Ben was really helpful and gave me a couple of little tips about keeping to the England bowlers that I can definitely take out to the middle.
Bracey has also been working with former England keeping coach Bruce French (right)
‘I know there can be factors at Lord’s, like the ball wobbling, but it’s something I think my keeping technique is up to.’
Bracey experienced all the foibles of Lord’s when he impressed with both bat and gloves playing for Gloucestershire against Middlesex in front of the Sky cameras earlier this season.
Notably, he looks a composed, organised and orthodox character.
‘When it comes to batting I like to get in a battle,’ said Bracey. ‘I’m a gritty player who likes to stay patient and do my best to stay calm. As a keeper I wouldn’t say I’m chirpy or anything like that. I prefer to focus on the skills I need to put in place.’
All that needs to be decided now is which bowlers Bracey keeps to. The lack of Stokes and Chris Woakes means coach Chris Silverwood is resigned to having an unbalanced side, with Bracey at seven being followed by four bowlers.
England head coach Chris Silverwood will have an ‘unbalanced’ side against the Kiwi’s
Spin does not always make an impact at Lord’s so the chances are England will leave out Jack Leach, play Robinson at eight and follow him with Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and one of either Mark Wood or Olly Stone.
There was a reminder of the past at Lord’s in the shape of former long-serving England manager Phil Neale. He had a new look in New Zealand colours, coming out of retirement to be their operations man on this tour.
‘I’m happy to help them out,’ said Neale. ‘This job also gives me the chance to say a proper goodbye to the England boys because it all ended a bit abruptly for me with the Covid situation. ‘I’m sure the players will pull my leg about being with New Zealand but if anyone says anything I’ll go and stand next to Jeetan Patel! (former New Zealand off-spinner, now England’s spin coach).’
A classic case of old meeting the new.
JAMES BRACEY: THE STORY SO FAR
WHERE’S HE FROM?
BRISTOL -born Bracey (right) made his first-class debut aged 19 at No 3 for Gloucestershire at the end of the 2016 season. He topped their batting averages a year later, averaging 74 across four matches while scoring his maiden century. He balanced his early cricket career with studying and in 2018 graduated from Loughborough University with a degree in Sports Science and Business Management.
SO IS HE A BIG HITTER LIKE JOS BUTTLER?
NOT really — his success has been based on solid defence and he is less flamboyant than many modern keeper-batsmen. The left-hander has a strike rate of 48 in red-ball cricket and an average of 37, though he scores faster and more heavily in both white-ball formats. He actually only started keeping wicket regularly in 2019, in Gloucestershire’s limited-overs side — topping their batting averages in the One Day Cup and T20 Blast.
Bracey said last year: ‘I wouldn’t say I’m a limited batsman, but I wouldn’t say I’m the most fluent stroke-maker. I’m still trying to work out a game plan that works for me and makes me hard to get out, really. I think that’s the main thing — the longer you stay there, the more runs you’re going to score.’
AND HE’S A FAMILIAR FACE IN THE CAMP?
YES — Bracey starred for England Lions in Australia in early 2020 and is well known among senior players and staff, having joined the training squad for the series against West Indies last summer — scoring 85 in an intra-squad warm-up game. He then went on the tours of Sri Lanka and India over the winter.
HOW’S HIS FORM BEEN THIS SEASON?
TERRIFIC. In March he signed a deal to stay at Gloucestershire until 2023 and is their top run-scorer in this summer’s Championship with 479 runs at 47.9. The 24-year-old now has six first-class centuries and will be the first Gloucestershire player to make his Test debut in 15 years — after Jon Lewis, who was at Lord’s yesterday in his role as England bowling coach.