James Bracey ready and waiting to take England Test chance after a year of learning in the bubble
After an impressive start to the County Championship season with Gloucestershire and having spent much of the past year with England in bio-secure bubbles, James Bracey tells Sky Sports he feels ready to make the step up to Test cricket
Last Updated: 19/05/21 11:52am
England have announce their squad for next month's Test series against New Zealand and, as expected, there is a slightly unfamiliar look to it.
Ashley Giles spoke of the prospect of "new faces" being given a chance at the start of a busy summer - that leads into a busy autumn, winter and spring - with England's IPL contingent rested for the two matches against the Black Caps.
Following an impressive start to the season with Gloucestershire, it was anticipated James Bracey would be among the more inexperienced players to get the nod and so it has transpired.
The 24-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman is one of two uncapped players included, Sussex's Ollie Robinson being the other, and while he is still waiting for his first international cap, he is no stranger to the Test set-up and certainly not a 'new face' to Joe Root and co.
In fact, having spent so much of the past 12 months in bio-secure bubbles with England, named as a reserve for home series against West Indies and Pakistan and then the tours to Sri Lanka and India, Bracey has almost been part of the furniture - even without playing a game.
He has made up for lost time so far this summer, though, with a century and four fifties, averaging 53.11, in the LV= Insurance County Championship to help Gloucestershire to four wins and a draw and top spot in Group 2.
5⃣0⃣ for James Bracey! 👏— Sky Sports Cricket (@SkyCricket) May 7, 2021
The Gloucestershire left-hander brings up his half-century with a boundary and the visitors are 143-4 in reply to Middlesex's 210 at Lord's.#MidvGlo #LVCountyChamp @HomeOfCricket
Watch 👉 https://t.co/AjmnQUUEMQ
Scorecard 👉 https://t.co/YE5BNVkGR9 pic.twitter.com/1k42l53XpD
"We'd be the first to say that we didn't expect to be in this position after five games," he told Sky Sports.
"But obviously we're really happy to have put in the performances that we have and we're also very happy that we're beating some of the best sides around, not just beating them but outplaying them for decent spells which is really positive.
"Then for myself, I've spent a lot of time not playing over the last year or so and I've just been really looking forward to getting back out there, so to have had an impact on some of those wins and score some runs is really positive as well."
'Responsibility rather than expectation'
Bracey's first year with England has probably gone very differently to how he might have imagined it in years gone by, but even during the more difficult periods in India, he was able to find positives and learn lessons that have helped contribute to those early-season successes.
"Last summer was my first taste of it so the excitement and shock of actually being there, I just loved every minute of it, chucked myself in and the bubble stuff didn't really hinder me too much," he said.
"I learnt a lot, got a load of work done and came out of that in a really good place. This winter has been slightly different. Second time around, away from home, tough work and obviously once you start losing as a team there's a different energy in the camp. It's no fault of anyone, that's how cricket is.
"It was tough at times, being on the fringes, because you find yourself working really hard but feeling there's not much coming from it - that's how it felt personally.
"So it's a tough balance to strike, I still felt like I learnt a lot, my game still got better and I still really enjoyed the experience but it is tough at times and it can hit you hard."
Even without playing over the winter, Bracey's reputation has grown and with England's top three far from settled going into the summer, he is widely seen as the next in line.
Arguably, the left-hander has ended up with something of a raw deal: all the pressure and expectation of a Test batsman without actually having had the honour of representing his country in a Test match.
Bracey, though, sees it differently.
"Being away over the winter puts you in people's heads and people start to wonder, 'What's he like? What's his game like?', and they watch you a little bit more, it's always going to happen like that.
"I like to use the word responsibility rather than expectation when it comes to playing for Gloucestershire.
"That time away and the things that I've learnt have given me the responsibility to do more of a job in the top three, to score more runs and convert some of the starts I've made over the last couple of years into bigger scores so that we can then win games and not draw them.
"But, yeah, there is a little bit of relief after so much time away, a little bit more responsibility coming back and, so far, I've been happy with how I've gone."
Learning from the best
Of course, the chance to pick the brains from world-class batsmen such as Root and Ben Stokes throughout the year is something any aspiring international player would relish.
Bracey was no different but found that it was from his vantage point behind the stumps that he was able to glean the most from England's top performers.
"The big thing for me was when I found myself keeping in nets and you've got Root or Stokes in front of you, you can pick up a lot on how they approach it," he said.
"A lot of it with spin is your movements and your balance, using the crease, using your feet and that sort of stuff. The best view for me for learning was actually just watching them and you pick up little things that they do and areas that they're looking to hit different bowlers.
"Obviously, I've asked questions and tried to get answers out of them but I think I learnt a lot from just watching, learning and then trying to implement a few of those things into my practice."
'I've got confidence that I can deliver'
The Gloucestershire No 3 has successfully applied what he has learned since returning to Bristol, but now he is keen to showcase his talents at the highest level.
Bracey was an opening batsman in his youth and feels he is well-equipped to reprise that role for England if required - "I feel like I've got a good skill set to do that job" - and that he is comfortable batting anywhere in the top three, the area of the Test side where places are perhaps most up for grabs, means he may not have to wait too much longer for his chance.
Rory Burns and Zak Crawley have also been scoring runs for their respective counties and Dom Sibley is named in the 15-man squad as he continues his recovery from a broken finger. Should the Warwickshire opener fail to demonstrate he is fully fit in time for the first Test, Bracey would seem the obvious choice to replace him in the XI, whether at the top of the order or at first drop.
Even if Sibley is passed fit, Bracey could still be find his way into the side at the expense of fellow left-hander Burns, given the indifferent form of the Surrey opener last summer, in particular.
One thing that is certain, though, is Bracey's confidence in his ability to make the step up, whether that is against New Zealand or further down the line.
"People were saying, 'Are you frustrated that you didn't play? Are you frustrated that you just spent all that time training?' - especially last summer when Gloucestershire were playing and I was in the bubble training.
"But I saw it as, not many players get to spend that much time around the England group. I've learnt a lot and got a lot of positives out of that.
"The biggest positive I took from it was coming out, spending time back at Glos, speaking to (former head coach) Richard Dawson and my parents, people like that, they asked me how I got on and I said felt like if I was put in the Test match side tomorrow then I could do a job, I feel like I could cope and do a job.
"Obviously, you never truly know until that opportunity does arise, but I've got confidence that I can deliver."
"I’d like to think I can bat anywhere in that top three and not just be pigeon-holed at three but I’ve always batted there so it’s worked out pretty well that there might be spots up for grabs."
James Bracey on his England chances
Bracey is quick to point out that, before thinking about a potential Test debut, there is a big game against Somerset to come first as Gloucestershire aim to continue their fine start to the campaign and give themselves a chance of pushing for the top honours at the end of the summer.
Perhaps just a small part of his reason for wanting to make those telling contributions for 'The Shire' now is that he knows if things go to plan for him in the coming months, he will have to make do with supporting them from afar as the season progresses while he tests himself against India and prepares for an Ashes series in Australia.
"It's a great time to be in and around [the England camp], even on the fringes, so one opportunity could mean a lot at this moment. There's a lot of cricket and a lot of lads putting their hat in the ring so if that opportunity does come, the prospect of next winter as well is very exciting."
Bracey has waited patiently for his chance and there seems to be little doubt in his mind that he can take it when it comes.
Watch the first Test between England and New Zealand at Lord's from Wednesday, June 2 on Sky Sports Cricket.