James Bracey spent Sunday 23 May at the County Ground in Bristol, watching Gloucestershire’s game against Somerset peter out into a weather-affected draw and oblivious to the fact that approximately 120 miles due east an unused sock was about to change the course of his career.
After being an unused member of England’s biosecure bubble for much of the last year Bracey had been promoted into England’s squad for the two-Test series against New Zealand, which starts at Lord’s on Wednesday, after impressing with the bat over the early weeks of the County Championship. Though he keeps wicket for his county he had not expected to don gloves for his country, until Ben Foakes slipped on that sock in Surrey’s dressing room at the Oval, pulled a hamstring, and everything changed.
“I didn’t really have it on my radar to be there as a keeper – I knew Ben was highly likely to take those gloves,” Bracey said. “When I got the call it didn’t really sink in straight away, but when I arrived in London it started to sink in that it was a distinct possibility. I am gutted for Ben. I reached out to him in the last couple of days because there are little things that you don’t get from not keeping to people in games, and he gave me a couple of little tips. I know he is gutted but he has been brilliant with me over the last 48 hours.”
Bracey played little first-class cricket in a bubble-affected 2020 but is averaging 47.90 this summer, a significant improvement on the 33.86 and 30.33 he posted in 2018 and 2019 when the standard of their opponents was lower as Gloucestershire were in the County Championship Division Two. “I’m in a really good place with my batting,” he said. “I came out of the tour to Sri Lanka and India and looked at myself and thought I could do a job in Test cricket in that top three. That’s what I’ve been aiming to do. Opportunity comes with the gloves but I want to be batting in the top three as well. If the option comes to do that at some point, I’m really excited for it.”
Though England’s line-up is unconfirmed Bracey will come in lower than his usual No3, another challenge the 24-year-old seems entirely unfazed by. “I’m not massively used to batting down the order,” he added. “But I’m confident I’ll jump into that and be good as well.”
Confidence certainly does not seem an issue, as perhaps befits a young player who had kept wicket only seven times in 32 County Championship matches before this season but is about to do so at the highest level, his glovework having impressed selectors during the Lions tour of Australia early last year.
“I have worked really hard on my keeping ever since coming into the Lions and I feel like it is in a good place,” he said. “I worked hard with the other keepers on tour, and the keeping coaches, and I feel I am in a really confident place with that. I am really glad now that I put in that extra shift because it puts me in a better spot now.
“I’ve had a lot of times this winter when I’ve been trying to calculate how I’m getting in the team, but the fact of the matter is sometimes it happens when you don’t expect it. That time hopefully has now come. I’ve benefited from Foakesy having a freak accident and I think if I put in good performances over the next couple of games, that could see me bed into the squad moving forward. This week if I get out there it’s not only an opportunity to push myself with the gloves but really show what I can do with the bat and that I can do different roles.”
Foakes aside, England’s squad appears in good health though Joe Root was briefly forced out of a session in the nets yesterday after being hit in the right hand. The England captain returned to the nets and is expected to be fit.
Gary Stead, the New Zealand coach, confirmed Trent Boult will play no part in the series, having chosen to return home after the suspension of the IPL instead of heading straight to England. The bowler arrives in the country on Friday, and will focus his preparations on the World Test Championship final against India, which starts on 18 June. “The decision we will have to make is will we go with four frontline seamers, as we have in the past year, or do you go with three seamers and then you play the all-rounder in Colin de Grandhomme and the all-rounder in Mitchell Santner as well,” he said. “So they’re the different options that we look at, and the pitch will ultimately determine which way we go.”