Ben Duckett has no doubt about where he wants to be on the morning of June 16 at Edgbaston when the 2023 Ashes begins.
Last summer, Duckett was still marooned on four Test caps, a tally that he had not added to since 2016. But after thriving on his Test return in Pakistan, he is now poised to open the batting against Australia.
“I’d rather we won the toss and batted just to get out there and get going,” Duckett says.
“The thought of potentially playing in an Ashes at home gives me goosebumps really, it’s something that I never thought I’d be a part of."
Duckett and England have just three more Tests before then: the series in New Zealand next month, and then the one-off Test against Ireland.
“It feels like everything’s happening quite fast but whatever happens, I’ll play with a smile on my face, play my way.”
Asked about scoring a century before lunch on the opening morning of an Ashes series, a feat that no man has ever achieved, Duckett laughs. “That’s what I’ll be dreaming about.” Such are the sense of possibilities for England’s Test side.
After scoring bountifully (and very quickly, with a strike rate of 96 to go with an average of 71.4) on his Test return in Pakistan, Duckett immediately confirmed his suitability for England’s new regime.
‘I had three hours sleep before the first Test in Pakistan’
Before his return to the red-ball side in Pakistan Duckett could not sleep. His problem was not nerves; instead, Duckett was stricken by a virus going around the England camp.
“I spent up until about 7 that morning ill,” he recalls. “I reckon I had three hours' sleep.
“I wasn’t the best build-up and I wasn’t even sure we were going to go ahead with the Test match because we were all down. So it probably took all the nerves out the way.”
A few hours later, Duckett was opening the batting for England, blazing his way to a 105-ball century. “I dreamt about that day for many years. My whole life really – to say I've got a Test 100 under my belt is very special.”
‘The way I play is probably why they picked me’
Duckett’s brilliant return to Test cricket set up England’s stunning 506 for four on the opening day in Rawalpindi: the prelude to a 3-0 series whitewash. Three weeks later, Duckett carved Mohammad Wasim through point to secure the clean sweep. It ended a triumphant personal series and the sense that Duckett is ideally suited for this England team’s needs.
Last summer, Alex Lees strove to adapt his game to the more audacious approach advocated by McCullum and Ben Stokes. But Duckett needs to make no such change: last summer for Nottinghamshire, he scored at a rollicking strike rate of 76 while averaging 72.3 and hit 145 for the England Lions against South Africa to boot.
“I thought if there’s ever a time to play Test cricket, it would be now and under this leadership,” he reflects. “Right from school cricket from the age of 10, I think I was probably playing reverse sweeps and stuff, just always trying to score as quick as I can.
“That’s the way that I play. That’s probably why they picked me. I generally look to go out and look to score runs. So it's kind of no different to how I'd play even if I was batting for Notts.”
Duckett believes that seeing England’s Test transformation last summer has pushed him to double down on his own aggression.
“The way that I approached batting against some bowling may have changed. I do remember certain times where I was facing spin this year and blocked a few balls and I was just thinking to myself, ‘I don’t know why I’ve just blocked that. You need to take this bowler down.' I think maybe a year before I might not have done that.”
Other players in domestic cricket, Duckett senses, will also be inspired. “You’re gonna have so many young players who are aspiring to play for England. It’s pretty clear the way that Stokesy and Brendon McCullum want players in their team to play. So I think hopefully it's really exciting for county cricket.”
‘In the past there has been far too much pressure in Test cricket’
Six years ago, during his four Tests in Bangladesh and India, it was not so simple.
“It’s incomparable, really,” says Duckett of the team environment in 2016 and now. “The atmosphere that's created within the dressing room is something that, to be honest, I just never thought you could have in an England Test dressing room.
“Over the years in Test cricket, there’s been far too much pressure and it’s probably taken out a lot of the enjoyment. This dressing room led by Stokesy and McCullum, we just had so much fun.”
Duckett credits his previous sojourn in Test cricket, when he was only 22, with giving him a sense of what was needed to thrive in the five-day game and the type of scrutiny to expect.
‘There won’t be a plan, we’ll just go out and react’
Since Andrew Strauss retired in 2012, 18 full-time openers have been tried by England; who have churned through Test openers at a rate of nearly two a year. Besides Alastair Cook and Joe Root, the highest average was Joe Denly’s 31.3, until Duckett.
Now, Duckett and Crawley hold out the hope of giving England their first long-term opening pair since Strauss and Cook were broken up. Beginning their alliance by putting on 233 in 35.4 overs could scarcely have been a more auspicious start.
While the two share attacking instincts, they are a complementary pair too, and not only because Duckett is left handed. “We’re very different players. He’s tall and whacks the ball back down the ground and I'm a lot shorter and hit the ball square of the wicket. I think bowlers are going to have to change their lengths quite a lot to me and Zak.
While conditions will be very different to Pakistan, for Duckett the principles will be the same. “There won't be a plan. We’ll just go out and react. I think if they bowl well, we’ll have to rein it in a tad and if they bowl badly, we’ll try and put them under pressure.”
Before that, Duckett has another international recall to look forward to: in the three one-day internationals in South Africa he is set to play his first ODIs since 2016. In England, he will prepare while facing a red ball as for Duckett: “the core of my game generally stays the same throughout all three formats.”
It is a mantra that is suddenly very in tune with England’s thinking.