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Hot house to dog house: James Bracey may struggle to escape shadow of torrid England debut

ESPNcricinfo logo ESPNcricinfo 15-06-2021 Andrew Miller

Had James Bracey been pinned in the stocks in Birmingham city centre and pelted with rotten fruit all week long, he could hardly have cut a more pitiful figure than he proved to be throughout England's humiliating second Test at Edgbaston.

If that sounds a harsh assessment, then imagine being in Bracey's boots for the past two matches - initially proud as punch to be representing England, only to be increasingly overwhelmed by the enormity of the circumstances. In a failing team, in an unfamiliar role, in a gaze of public scrutiny diametrically removed from the near-laboratory conditions in which he has been operating since the start of the 2020 summer.

Instead of fruit, Bracey was pelted with cricket balls - many of them delivered by James Anderson and Stuart Broad, two of the greatest bowlers ever to have played Test cricket for England, and whose internal monologues he cannot help but have second-guessed as he flinched and clanged his way through one of the scruffiest wicketkeeping displays ever seen at the highest level.

None of this is intended as an ad hominem attack. As Mike Atherton noted in the Times, Bracey did actually cling on to most of the balls that flew his way (many of them, admittedly, to his own astonishment). That tally included all bar one of the moments that truly mattered - a reprieve for Tom Blundell on 0 - although it also discounted a bump-ball off Broad that a more confident gloveman would surely have been better placed to gather.

Either way, the optics of his performance were unmitigated and awful. Like Ollie Robinson, for vastly differing reasons at Lord's, the proudest weeks of Bracey's professional career quickly dissolved into a living nightmare. And by the end of it all, he simply looked lost, and not a little traumatised.

"He's had a tough experience, there is no doubt about that," Graham Thorpe, England's assistant coach, said. "But you have to absorb all the experiences, both good and bad.

"I'm sure that is what James will do, he will take on board everything that has happened, and maybe reflect that he has built it up so much, and actually it is about staying at a level mentally, knowing that it is still a game of cricket that you love and enjoy playing and keep your mind relaxed about it."

The trouble for Bracey, however, is that - through no fault of his own - he has been more than just a stand-in wicketkeeper in England's ranks. He is an unwitting poster boy for the ECB's attempts to grow their Test talent like forced rhubarb: hidden from the light, nurtured in a hot-house far removed from cricket's natural environments, then unleashed on the market as the sweetest, most definitive product.

Of course, the need for the ECB to react to the pandemic has been a big part of Bracey's journey to Test status. This time last year, most of England's fans knew of him only as a name in a 55-man training squad - a berth he earned through his role (in the 10th of his 17 previous first-class appearances as a wicketkeeper) in England Lions' notable victory over Australia A in Melbourne last year.

His exploits for Gloucestershire, in the second division of the County Championship, had been diligent and, as it happens, promotion-winning in 2019. But they hadn't exactly propelled him to national consciousness. Nor, with the exception of three matches, each exactly two months removed from the other, had they involved him taking the gloves.

a man standing on a baseball field: James Bracey may have to wait for another chance with England © PA Images via Getty Images © PA Images via Getty Images James Bracey may have to wait for another chance with England © PA Images via Getty Images

But by degrees in the past 12 months - after clearly looking the business in countless nets sessions in Southampton, Manchester, Galle, Chennai and Ahmedabad - Bracey has been quietly built up as a Test No.3 in waiting, a batter with one of the best defensive techniques in the country. So quite why England felt it was appropriate to anoint him as Ben Foakes' replacement at No. 7 is anyone's guess - although seeing as they did much the same to Ollie Pope in New Zealand two winters ago, there's clearly no desire to learn from past mistakes.

And in such straitened circumstances, any hope that Bracey might have had of proving his Test readiness died a hideous and protracted death. It took him 11 days as a Test cricketer to record his first run, having faced nine balls across two matches and three innings, until a fleeting moment of catharsis as he nudged Neil Wagner through mid-on at Edgbaston to break his duck at last.

The crowd roared its acclaim - part sympathy, part irony, but all of it as genuine as you could hope - but 17 balls later, Bracey was on his way again, bowled round his legs by Ajaz Patel for 8, to vacate the stage with a Test average of 2.67 that he has next to no hope of improving any time soon.

He is self-evidently a better player that the account he gave of himself this month - in the early weeks of the county season, Bracey was Gloucestershire's stand-out batsman in their march to the top of the Group Two standings, including 201 runs in their victory against Somerset. He made a further match-winning 75 in a low-scoring tussle with Middlesex at Lord's - after which he spoke tellingly about the stir-crazy nature of being an England bio-bubble reserve, a life spent "getting into a groove of netting and practising, and finding things to work on even when there isn't [anything]."

Perhaps it's little wonder he was a bit over-wrought when it came to his moment to shine. As Thorpe acknowledged, Test cricket is a "brutal" sport that can strip players naked in any number of different ways, but under-performing wicketkeepers - trapped in the viewer's eyeline for hours at a time - tend to endure a particularly public form of torture.

And the trouble is, his card is now marked. With the return of Jos Buttler, and probably Jonny Bairstow, for the India series, and with Foakes still the connoisseur's choice, as and when he recovers from his torn hamstring, it's hard to believe that Bracey can ever again be called upon to keep wicket for England.

"We chat to the players about how to cope with things at the highest level, both on and off the field, and it is very rare that everything just goes smoothly from start to finish"

Graham Thorpe

And that leaves his batting, ostensibly his strongest suit, but one in which he currently boasts the second-lowest average of any England top-seven cricketer with more than one cap to his name.

The only man who averages less, in fact, is another wicketkeeper-batter whose two-match tenure was similarly short and traumatic. Richard Blakey's England career began with an MCC revolt, during the tour of India in 1992-93, after he and Neil Fairbrother were preferred to the purists' choices, Jack Russell and David Gower. It ended with an average of 1.75, and a highest score of 6 in four innings, as Anil Kumble in particular shredded his composure at Madras and Bombay.

And like Bracey, Blakey's opportunity arose through another's misfortune - when England's captain, Graham Gooch, succumbed to his infamous "dodgy prawns" on the morning of the second Test, causing the incumbent keeper, Alec Stewart, to vacate his role in order to captain the side.

"An hour before the scheduled start I found out I was going to play," Blakey related in the recent Sky Sports documentary, Spinwash. "My heart started pounding, but it's what you set out to do. As a young player you've dreamed of this moment, and suddenly it's there."

But all too suddenly it can be gone too, as another young keeper of yesteryear can attest. Chris Read was four years younger than Bracey when he debuted against New Zealand as a 20-year-old in 1999, but his Test career never truly recovered from one gross aberration in his second appearance at Lord's, when he lost sight of a Chris Cairns slower ball, and ducked it for a duck.

Read was a vastly superior gloveman to Bracey - according to the statistician Charles Davis, he missed just three out of 46 chances in the final 12 Tests of his career, a ratio three times better than either of the men who succeeded him, Geraint Jones and Matt Prior - and would ultimately prove himself to be a great of county cricket in his 19-year Nottinghamshire career.

a baseball player pitching a ball on a field: Chris Read never escaped the stigma of ducking a slower ball from Chris Cairns in his second Test © PA Photos © PA Photos Chris Read never escaped the stigma of ducking a slower ball from Chris Cairns in his second Test © PA Photos

But at England level, he was never able to escape the baby-faced stigma of that awkward first foray. Duncan Fletcher certainly never liked the cut of his gib, despite recalling him in 2003 in the wake of Alec Stewart's retirement, and Jones - a dodgier keeper, if a more imposing batter at that still-early stage of Read's development - would soon be preferred as England's Ashes gloveman.

The stigma, you see, sticks - no matter how nurturing the team environment professes to be, and no matter how much room for growth may exist in a player, lest we forget, who only turned 24 last month.

"We chat to the players about how to cope with things at the highest level, both on and off the field, and it is very rare that everything just goes smoothly from start to finish," Thorpe added of Bracey's ordeal. "Like all our players, we hope he goes back and reflects on it, and it fires his desire to want to be back in that arena."

But how soon, in all honesty, can England dare to believe that Bracey will be ready to make that second coming? It took the mighty Graham Gooch three years to earn a third Test cap after making a pair on debut in 1975, and arguably a decade longer than that to truly make his mark at the highest level.

But as an ECB-pipelined product - taught to wear a version of the three lions at every conceivable representative level, and to value environment replication every bit as highly as technique - times could not be more different now.

To retain Bracey in the team environment after an experience this harrowing would be an act of cruelty; to dispatch him back to county cricket, and a sum total of two Championship fixtures between now and the third India Test, would be an admission of failure. For now his bubble has burst. It's not obvious quite how to go about reinflating it.

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