Ben Duckett tops averages in first-class, T20 and one-day cricket this season.
Northamptonshire are, perhaps unfairly, derided as one of the least fashionable counties in English cricket. Struggling financially, a poor record in the County Championship and often having their best players poached, they have nevertheless had many England internationals in their ranks. Graeme Swann, Allan Lamb and Devon Malcolm are perhaps the most notable but there have been plenty of others. Left-handed opener Ben Duckett may be the next in line.
Such is the inconsistency of England's Test batting line-up, any young player showing form in the county game is touted as the answer to the puzzle of England's top-order woes. Duckett's remarkable form this season has pushed him to the top of the list of batting candidates next in line for international honours.
Two weeks ago for the England Lions in a one-day tri-series, 21-year-old Duckett scored 163 not out against Pakistan A and followed it up six days later with 220 not out against Sri Lanka A. He started this County Championship season with 282 not out against Sussex, the sixth-highest score ever by a Northamptonshire player, and tops Northants' averages in first-class, T20 and one-day cricket. He has scored 1,976 runs so far this season.
"That double century was the best start to the season," Duckett told Cricbuzz. "It felt like all the winter training had paid off. We've been working really hard with our new Strength & Condition Coach, Chris Tombs, and those long cold months are tough, but to hit the ground hard from the start of the season was our intention. For me personally it was a massive confidence boost and a standard to try and hit from then on."
Duckett has not always opened the batting and has not always shown the best of what he can offer either. He was dropped by England U19s for failing a fitness test three years ago and before last season, he was left out of Northants' pre-season trip to Barbados for similar fitness failings. A drink-driving ban last year didn't help either.
By the middle of 2015, Duckett had been consigned to the second team and was not fulfilling the potential that saw him make his first team debut for Northants at 17. That all changed when he was moved from the middle order to open the batting. A more focused attitude led to four hundreds in the last eight Championship games of the season and he has not looked back since.
"Opening is a mixed blessing," says Duckett. "You can score quickly because there are loads of gaps in the field, but the new ball does more. To be honest, I prefer it though. It's better than sitting on the balcony watching and getting more and more nervous."
Ben Duckett feels the stint with England Lions and sharing the dressing room with the likes of Graham Thrope and Andy Flower has been a big help.
Duckett has a simple technique, standing still at the crease with the bat raised high and no trigger movement before delivery. In one-day cricket, his ability to break his wrists allows him to hit the ball in unconventional areas with ramp shots and a myriad of sweeps as well as the power-hitting ability to clear the ropes consistently. In first-class cricket, his proven ability to score big hundreds, brutality against spin and a technique without much to go wrong marks him out.
Duckett averages 56 in List-A cricket and his T20 record is equally as strong, whilst his first-class record is improving. Does he worry about being pigeon-holed as a one-day player? "No I don't think so. There isn't one particular part of my game [I'm looking to improve]. As far as I'm concerned, nothing is perfect yet. Every shot that I play, I still practice and I'm focused on all round improvement.
"About a month ago, people were talking about me as a Test player, so it really depends upon what I've done well in. I see myself across all formats; I like the one-day game, but I'm looking to work more on the four-day cricket too."
To play for the Lions was one of Duckett's aims at the start of the season. "The whole experience was the best week of my cricketing life," he says. "I suppose it was because of the people I was around. They were people who have been there and done it and people that I look up to like Andy Flower and Graham Thorpe. Thorpe was one of my heroes growing up, so to be able to chat to him and learn from him in the morning before a game was invaluable."
Flower, an influential voice within the England set-up, spoke glowingly about Duckett's ability after working with him during the tri-series. It may be too soon to envisage Duckett opening the batting with Alastair Cook just yet, especially as his first-class runs have been scored in Division Two of the Championship. But with tours to Bangladesh, where some regulars may be rested, and India coming up, Duckett's excellence against spin may work in his favour.
"Of course full international honours are on my mind," he says. "Everyone wants to play for their country. But for now, I just want to keep on doing what I'm doing. The [Northants] Steelbacks are having an amazing season with the prospect of big success."
The next few weeks are vital for Duckett and for Northants. Whilst their Championship form has been poor, they are through to the quarter-finals of the Royal London One-Day Cup and the NatWest T20 Blast. It is an opportunity for an unfancied county to prove their worth and for Duckett to show he can perform when the pressure is on.
Several left-handed opening batsmen have played international cricket after developing their games at Northants. Australians Matthew Hayden, Michael Hussey and Chris Rogers all plied their trade at Wantage Road before going on to play international cricket. Duckett may yet emulate them all and perhaps sooner than he, or anyone, would have thought.