Northamptonshire 329 for 5 (Duckett 193) v Sussex
The sentiment across Wantage Road was “that’s more like it”, as Ben Duckett walked off sombrely, head down, before raising his bat to those belting out applause from around the ground. The only sign of success was the scoreboard: Northamptonshire were 317 for 4 and that departing man, Duckett, had 193 of them from 200 balls. No one, especially not Sussex, saw this storm coming.
Despite the entire first session lost to rain, Duckett’s remarkable innings left Northants on 329 for 5, with batsmen still to come, after just 74.4 overs of play. Sussex must be sick of the sight of him – he came into this match with an average of 111 against them, across five Championship knocks, which include an unbeaten 282 last season – and they will rue a decision to insert Northants after seeing the pitch late because of the morning deluge.
Northants, 40 points adrift of the second promotion spot, needed a win against a better-placed Sussex to keep what little thread of hope they have of Division One cricket next year. That may yet still be beyond them. But with Duckett in this form, who really knows.
“The main focus was that, when I did get to a hundred, my thought was to kick on. Don’t throw it away,” he said. He did anything but: a return to 2016 type, when he amassed 2,706 runs in all formats, with the lowest of four red-ball hundreds clocking in at 185. This, his third hundred of the season and 13th of his first-class career, was the most Ben Duckett he’s been all year. It was one that keeps him on track for a thousand runs in the season.
He admits that picking himself up after a difficult winter has been tough. Lesser men would have taken that period too dearly to heart and opted for a more subdued approach to their batting. No one would have blamed him.
There was a coldness to his time with England. Some may chalk it up to “the demands of international cricket”. But the reality is that three ODI half-centuries against Bangladesh, followed by a fine maiden Test fifty in Dhaka – one that should have been match-winning had those around him not folded in a heap – represented a solid start.
So to India, where he was moved to No.4 and dropped after the second Test, leaving him to twiddle his thumbs for the best part of a month. In that time, he toiled in the nets, trying to concoct a game suitable for the subcontinent. It proved a deeply frustrating endeavour. He then failed to make the squads for the limited-overs series in India, instead joining the Lions in Sri Lanka, where five one-day knocks reaped just 141 runs.
Between the fourth and fifth Test, with India already 2-0 up in the series, Duckett was one of a party of England players to travel to the UAE to break-up a gruelling tour. While there, he met up with his good friend Joe Clarke, the Worcestershire batsman there on duty with the England Lions. “Nothing prepares you for it,” Duckett told Clarke of the scrutiny of international cricket. “The media and everyone start digging into your technique.”
So to see him regain his swagger – aggressively throwing his hands at everything in his half, never shirking a short ball and committing wholeheartedly to reverse sweeps – was something to cherish.
Early on, he was calm yet able to punish some wayward bowling from an experienced Sussex attack who should know better. Chris Jordan found himself on the wrong end of some treatment down the ground, as Duckett drove him twice through mid-on to take 10 off his fifth over. A stand of 91 with Rob Newton got the ball rolling before Richard Levi joined him to put on 96 for the third wicket.
There was good fortune, no doubt. There always is when you take the swashbuckling route.
On 55, he had his head in the clouds at the non-striker’s end when his captain Alex Wakely dropped one into the off side and set off to get himself off the mark. Angus Robson, running around from point, gathered and threw wildly at the striker’s end. By this point, Duckett was a few yards off making his ground and wicketkeeper Ben Brown had made it to the stumps. A deep breath and an under-arm throw, and Duckett finished with 55. He moved to 59 when he edged the ball just in front of Chris Nash at second slip.
On 78, he attempted a pull off Robinson that nearly bumped his off stump. The very next ball, he guided audaciously between a wide first slip and a narrow gully. An attempted pull shot followed.
A top edge off Jordan took him to 96 before a more deliberate boundary an over later crashed into the advertising boards at midwicket to take him to his century, from 128 balls. At this point, Northamptonshire were 180 for 2, Sussex aware that this was a line-up prone to collapsing when ahead of the game.
So when Levi’s accomplished innings ended at the start of the 53rd over on 44, pulling Jofra Archer to Robson on the square-leg fence, the locals began to fear for the worst. Not Duckett, who took 14 runs off the final four balls of Archer’s over, including three fours finding gaps through a fortified leg side.
Archer didn’t take too kindly to the treatment and gave Duckett a spray. The next over, Duckett flayed one short ball through midwicket and then, somehow, pulled the next ball back over Archer’s head. A single later and the pair were squaring up, face-to-face. Umpires Ian Blackwell and Richard Kettleborough, to their credit, let it dissipate naturally. It was one of those “not nice to see” moments that everyone loves to see.
“I thought that would be mentioned,” he joked, when the tussle was put to him for comment. “I love that. It gets me going, and that was a period when I was getting tired. I was looking to bat till the end of the day and it actually turned it around for me. It was a really good battle.”
The extra spice told. A handful of sweeps took Duckett to 150 from 164 balls – the third fifty taking 36 balls and 35 off 17 coming since the fall of Levi. Luke Procter, on Northants debut, was happy to take it in from the other end, rotating the strike as necessary. Nothing sums up their dynamic quite like the breakdown of their 100 stand, brought up when Duckett sidled down the pitch and hit Danny Briggs over the top of extra cover for four: it took exactly 16 overs, with Procter contributing 22 from 49 deliveries.
Later that over, he thumped a short delivery back to Briggs, who took a sharp caught-and-bowled. He did not walk off like a man who had flayed 193: “I think the way I walked off there, you would have thought I got nought.”
Who knows what this might mean beyond this match and for Duckett’s immediate international prospects. What we can say is that, after a difficult period, one of English cricket’s most dynamic talents looks back to his best.
Vithushan Ehantharajah is a sportswriter for ESPNcricinfo, the Guardian, All Out Cricket and Yahoo Sport
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