A general trivia: Since the turn of this millennium, England has tried as many as 11 wicket-keepers in Test cricket. To put this into context, Australia has used five, South Africa six, Srilanka eight, New Zealand and West Indies nine. Only India have tried more (13), but their struggle before MS Dhoni’s debut is well-known. Likewise, England too have had their issues in finding a long-term wicketkeeper.
They have persisted with either Jonny Bairstow or Jos Buttler after Matt Prior’s retirement, despite several consistent players in county cricket. There were instances where both played as a specialist batsman as well. Buttler, for example, has played only half of his Test career as a wicketkeeper. James Bracey is the latest entrant in that category – specialist batsman who can keep wickets.
Opening the batting for Jos Buttler XI, Bracey held one end and constructed partnerships with Rory Burns, Joe Denly and Dan Lawrence in the recent warm-up intra-squad warm-up game held ahead of the first Test against Windies. Despite being relatively new to the role of an opener, the left-hander looked solid with his defence and shot-selection against the likes of James Anderson, Craig Overton and Jack Leach.
Unsurprisingly tidy start from James Bracey.— The CricViz Analyst (@cricvizanalyst) July 1, 2020
In the last three CC seasons, Bracey has played just 13% false shots – of all the men to play at least 20 matches at the top of the order in that time, only Alex Davies, Nick Browne, and Dom Sibley have been more controlled.
He made 85 off 194 balls outscoring everyone else in the team. Though his strike rate was the lowest, as an opener, he was impressive. After the day’s play, Bracey said, “I haven’t opened up a huge amount in the last couple of years, and a lot of people wouldn’t have seen me play in that role, so it was really nice to repay some faith and show them that I’ve got the capability to do that job.”
For someone who has made a name for himself at the age of 23, it would be hard to believe that Bracey did not join the Gloucestershire Academy until he was 17. Hailing from Bristol, Bracey is an out-and-out English kid who has his roots strong. If Gloucestershire was his primary home, Bristol Rovers was the other. He was a product of Winterbourne Cricket Club and made his first-class debut for Loughborough University against the Australian Universities in 2016.
Bracey was one among the long list of beneficiaries of the MCCU system that allows students to pursue education and expose them to top-class training facilities at the same time. If not for the scheme, Bracey might have had to choose between education and cricket. After enrolling himself in the Gloucestershire academy, Bracey made his debut for the county in September 2016. Since then, he hasn’t looked back.
Scaling peaks in Domestic circuit
Though he was a wicket-keeper batsman, Bracey had a different role to play for his county. He had to bat in the top-order specialist batsman more often than not. In the 13 matches that he played last season, Bracey kept wickets in only two. A first-class average of 35.45 at a strike rate of 47.03 might not look great. Despite that record, Bracey has been fast-tracked in the last couple of years. What made the board do that, was probably his ability to adapt, and perform well under pressure.
There are a couple of innings that have to be discussed. In a county match against Glamorgan in 2018, Gloucestershire conceded 526 in the first innings; following which, they were cheaply dismissed for 236. Glamorgan imposed the follow-on. Coming into bat at 18-2, with a huge deficit ahead, Bracey fought on. He made an incredible 120 and was the lone warrior of the team. Bracey remained not out till the end, but he could not save his county from a defeat as Glamorgan chased a small target of 83.
The second performance came against Derbyshire last year. This time, Bracey was playing as an opener. Chasing a target of 263 on the final day, Bracey made a brilliant century in the thrilling finish. He struck partnerships with Chris Dent, Gareth Roderick and Ryan Higgins to take his team home. He did so with a strike rate of 81.1 as they chased down the target in just 47.1 overs. Bracey might not be the most eye-catchy batsman, but he did the job for his team. In a way, he is a David Malanesque kind of batsman.
Breakthrough season and National call-up
2019 was the year for James Bracey. His performance, particularly in the One-day format, was exceptional. The youngster scored 333 runs in seven matches at an average of 55.5 and a strike rate of 106.38. Though he did not replicate this performance in T20s, Bracey played a crucial knock against Hampshire, scoring 64 of 47 balls to keep his teams hope quarterfinal alive. His work behind the stumps in the shortest format was very impressive.
As a reward to his consistent performance, Bracey was selected for England Lions to play Australia A in July last year. Earlier this year, he was a part of the England Lions squad that toured Australia. In the only unofficial Test against Australia A, Bracey played as a wicket-keeper and batted at number six. He scored an impressive half-century and took his team from 274/4 to 391/9.
The pandemic outbreak has made England select a larger pool of players. Thanks to his consistent performance over the last couple of years, Bracey has found himself a spot. Whether he will break into the playing XI for the upcoming Test series against West Indies is doubtful as he is competing with the likes of Keaton Jennings and Dom Sibley. As a wicket-keeper, it is even harder because he is only the fourth choice behind Bairstow, Buttler and Ben Foakes.
That said, Bracey has made a strong case for himself in the warm-up match. With the way he has progressed into the national squad, it shouldn’t be a surprise if he makes his England debut sooner. Irrespective of whether he does in this series, James Bracey is definitely a player to watch out in the future.