Reece Topley plots first-class course on England’s pathway to the top

The Hampshire bowler may be focusing in Dubai on England’s T20 series against Pakistan but his vision for the future is as a force in the red-ball game

England trained at the ICC Academy in Dubai Sports City on Sunday. A mile down the road Rory Mcllroy was winning golf’s Race to Dubai. Amid the ubiquitous pale sand of the suburbs and the building sites the grass on the outfield was just as green as the fairways down the road.

There were an awful lot of English cricketers careering around the outfield as the T20 squad, which includes James Vince and Stephen Parry but not James Taylor or Jonny Bairstow, combined with the youngsters of the England Performance Programme. This particular performance group was composed of batsmen and spin bowlers; the fast bowlers arrive from Potchefstroom, South Africa, shortly and in December there will be some T20 matches against Pakistan A.

Here ECB coaches could have a little reunion. Andy Flower, Peter Such, Graham Thorpe and Chas Taylor could swap notes with Ottis Gibson, Bruce French and Trevor Bayliss. Indeed one felt for the recently arrived Bayliss. Surely he could have done with some name tags on the shirts of players from the EPP group because it is not great for morale if a young cricketer comes away with the feeling “I’m sure he didn’t have a clue who I was”. By the same token Bayliss might be excused for mixing up his Tom Westley with his Ross Whiteley (not that he did).

This was a reminder of the resources available to the development of England’s young cricketers, which can be matched only by those of India and Australia. There they were under another cloudless sky batting, bowling and fielding, on the “pathway” which is designed to take them to the top. It was all faintly reminiscent of a scene in Chariots of Fire, the one where the Americans, rather than the British, were all too zealously going through their training routines in preparation for the Paris Olympics.

Reece Topley, right, even though he is only 21, has been on the pathway for a while and it has taken him rapidly into the England one-day side. Topley has already done the rounds: he has represented the under-19s; he has been fast-tracked to the Lions squad; he has had his stress fracture, which is almost a rite of passage for a young fast bowler.

Reece is the son of Don Topley, who played for Essex for a decade. In the four ODIs against Pakistan he was England’s most economical bowler – if we discount Joe Root’s three overs – and he has impressed. Sometimes he has swung the new ball; later in the innings he has had the wit and composure to bowl a variety of cutters. He speaks the right lingo too: “All the experience I’ve had from the England pathways and academies has been valuable and I’ve been able to put it into practice.”

Topley would not have been considered for the Test squad for South Africa; his current role at this level is restricted to a white ball. But that is not how he wants it to be in the future. “I originally started playing for Essex in red-ball cricket and then it just happened that I was playing more with a white ball and, with more emphasis on that side of the game, my white-ball skills took off. I felt I learnt quickly and it overtook my red-ball ability but I still have a massive passion for first-class cricket and it would be an absolute demon hanging over me if I was to be labelled a one-day bowler. I like to think I’m not.”

For a variety of reasons Topley played only two first-class games for Essex last summer but that will be two more than in 2016 because he has decided to move to Hampshire. Here is further evidence of the increasing gap between the two divisions and the thought processes of ambitious, young English cricketers.

“You want to test yourself against the best,” said Topley, “and the way it’s going you’re better off playing in the first division at the highest standard of cricket and on a Test ground where I feel it would put a higher value on your wickets.”

His current dream is to make England’s T20 World Cup squad. Preparations for that tournament, which takes place in India in March, continue earnestly with England playing a “friendly” match against the UAE on Monday here to be followed by three T20 internationals against Pakistan.


Vic Marks in Dubai

The GuardianTramp

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