Jeremy Blackmore finds that the latest group of young England players is eager to develop
As England Lions’ second tour of the winter gets underway in the humidity of Sri Lanka this week, opener Nick Gubbins believes the strength of the squad show the future’s bright for English cricket.
Gubbins, who captained the Lions in their first-class fixture against Afghanistan in the UAE before Christmas, is revelling in the opportunity to continue working alongside such a talented group of young players. Several of the squad are vying for England recognition, while others have already won full international honours.
Gubbins took over as Lions captain in the UAE before Christmas after Keaton Jennings was called into Test side in India. It marked a memorable end to a first experience of touring for the Middlesex left-hander, who was himself was a candidate for an England spot after a breakthrough 2016 in which he scored more than 1,400 runs.
Gubbins believes with Jennings’ England call-up and others like Jack Leach being championed in the media, the Lions are in a good position going into the Sri Lankan leg, which includes two four-day matches as well as a three-day warm-up match.
As well as the returning Jennings, the squad is bolstered by the addition of Haseeb Hameed, who played Lions cricket last summer and went on to make a memorable Test debut against India before being injured.
“It was a really young squad,” says Gubbins, looking back over the Lions’ trip to the UAE. “Everyone deserved to be there. That’s great for English cricket that we’ve got such a good crop of youngsters knocking on that door.
“With a couple of youngsters like Hameed and Keats going out to India and doing what they did just shows that this group of cricketers are the next batch coming through.
“Being in full-time education and then university, I’ve never really done a winter away in Australia or other areas like most of the others.
“It was definitely a great experience to learn the intricacies of touring with a new group. Obviously I had some of the Middlesex players there which was nice, but it was great to get to know the other guys from the other counties that you play against and get to be on the same side, rather than playing against them.”
Gubbins, 23, amassed 1,409 runs in the Championship last summer at 61.26, the second highest aggregate in Division One behind Jennings.
While some may have seen the pair as potential rivals for the vacant Test spot when Hameed was injured, Gubbins wished Jennings well.
“Me and Keats were sharing an apartment on tour and I like to think we’re quite good friends now and we were sitting there thinking, ‘what’s going to happen?’
“But I couldn’t have been happier for him than when he did what he did. Everyone was absolutely chuffed for him and he’s got our full backing when he captains us against Sri Lanka.”
Having played two of the three one-day games against the UAE, Gubbins took over for the first-class fixture against Afghanistan, which the Lions ultimately won by 48 runs.
“It was a real honour for me,” he recalls. “I haven’t captained a side since Middlesex 2nd XI a few years back, so it was pretty surreal to find myself going out to do the toss with an England shirt on. But I just embraced it and the guys were really good to me.
“It was awesome to get a win under my belt; I could have been the first captain to lose a game on the tour, so it was nice to get the win.”
The Lions were indebted to a half-century from Gubbins off 152 balls after losing early second innings wickets. He said: “I kind of gave my wicket away in the one-day games, so it was nice to get a battling 50. It wasn’t the easiest of pitches and they had quite a good leg-spinner, Rashid Khan, who ripped through us so it was really nice that, while wickets were falling, I managed to do what I’d done for Middlesex and showed my grit and determination.
“It was probably a culmination of all the work that I’d put in on the tour, especially playing spin and I’d like to think I’ve improved quite a lot.”
Gubbins benefited from a full run in the Championship last year after the county decided not to re-sign veteran Chris Rogers. He credits work with club psychologist Steve Sylvester and mentor Nick Compton for helping him break a cycle which, in May, saw him frustrated at recording his fourth 90 without reaching a century.
Gubbins’ maiden first-class 100 came against Somerset at Lord’s, followed two games later with 201 not out against Lancashire. His consistency thereafter was a major factor in Middlesex’s success. He cites the 247-run partnership with Compton against Durham at Lord’s as a highlight, saying: “That was one of the most special days for me, having worked with him and having known what he’d gone through in his cricket. We talked about the theory in coffee shops, but that the practical lesson, out in the middle!”
His fourth century, in late September, helped keep Middlesex in the Championship decider against Yorkshire and ultimately put them in a position to win the title. It was a clear sign of how far he had come in the course of the season.
Much was made of the ECB drive to encourage spin last summer. Does Gubbins feel that has helped the Lions’ batsmen this winter? “There were definitely some pitches which, especially Lord’s, had quite a Sub-continent feel about it, where we’d rely quite heavily on Rays [Ollie Rayner] from one end and reverse swing from the other, so I think that will definitely help me in Sri Lanka.
“And, particularly down at Taunton, where they’ve got that spin, these kind of conditions can only be helpful for English cricket. So that, along with Dubai, has put us in quite good stead for this tour.
“Dubai was quite a dry heat, so it was kind of bearable, whereas Sri Lanka it’s going to be very humid which is foreign to me. I’m going to have to adjust to not just the pitch conditions, particularly the spin and lower and slower bounce, but also to that humidity and be able to, mentally, put it all to one side”
Once the first-class leg of the Lions trip is over, Gubbins will focus on defending Middlesex’s title.
He said: “That’s what really counts come the start of April, trying to retain our Championship, everyone starts on a level playing field again, so it will all be about that.”
This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, February 10 2017
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