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Ethan Bamber has had an outstanding season. Aged 22, he has taken 48 wickets at an average of 20 in a County Championship campaign that has confirmed that he is one of a number of green shoots emerging at Middlesex.
But when Bamber sent down his first delivery of the season, to Yorkshire’s Will Fraine in a friendly at Merchant Taylor’s School back in March, he feared the worst for the summer ahead.
“I bowled the first ball of the match and it was a short, wide drag down. It got whacked to the boundary,” he says. “I thought ‘oh my god, here we go again. What does this year hold? Is this it?’”
Bamber’s mind was cast back to the difficult summer of 2020.
“Last summer for a number of reasons both on and off the field I really struggled,” he says. “I wasn’t enjoying my cricket and I definitely wasn’t in a physical place where I was playing well enough to get picked. I played one game and I just felt so out of my depth.”
Bamber explains that he has always “got nerves before cricket, good nerves”. But “last year I didn’t get nerves. I just kind of wanted to do what I needed to do and go home.” Things became so bad that “I was worried I wouldn’t enjoy cricket again”.
At the heart of the issue was his weight.
“I’ve had some issues around a combination of training and eating, and a difficult relationship between them,” he says. “I am quite an obsessive personality, and I got the balance between training and the way I eat, whether I eat enough and give myself enough fuel to perform, and giving my body enough rest and recovery… I got that very wrong.”
In short, Bamber is 12kg heavier than he was a year ago – and in a far better state to bowl. He says the problem “was probably exacerbated by some things at home” and wants to thank Middlesex, who have “been so patient and understanding”. Bamber is unflinchingly self-aware, saying he knows how “privileged he is”, and that many others are dealing with similar issues in “far more challenging situations”. He also knows that he is not out of the woods in what is an ongoing process.
Rather than wanting to get off the field as fast as he can, this summer a day of cricket “seems to fly by” because he is having so much fun.
“This summer has been really enjoyable,” he says. “I’ve had a really good time out there with some of my really good mates. It’s been incredibly relieving to know that I am able to compete at this level.”
For Bamber – the son of two actors – to have been on the verge of falling out of love with the game is striking, because his self-effacing enthusiasm is evident throughout our chat. He throws in lines such as “it’s still slightly surreal to me that I’m a cricketer for my job” and that it “sounds nuts” that against Kent today he has a shot at reaching 50 first-class wickets for the summer (he is also four shy of 100 career first-class wickets). He says he loved the chance to play T20 cricket this summer, “even though I got absolutely battered”.
He has been nicknamed “Mini Murts”, in honour of Tim Murtagh, but rejects the comparison, because “it’s a disservice to his 40-year-old opening partner”. He says that he is under “no illusions that I’ve played at Lord’s on surfaces which are conducive to seam bowling”, which has contributed to his success this summer.
That may be true, but Bamber is a fast improving cricketer. He says bowling with Murtagh and Toby Roland-Jones at mid-on and mid-off has been invaluable (“I come up with some whacky theories and they just settle me down”) and is grateful to Middlesex’s other senior bowlers for their support, too.
Bamber says increasing his pace is his focus and believes that he has improved in that department this summer. So too “the actual craft of bowling, understanding what I’m trying to do with the ball, how to put together a spell, rather than bowl a good ball here and there”.
For inspiration, he looks to Mohammed Abbas, Chris Woakes and Essex’s Sam Cook, due to their “impeccable length” and the ability to “make batsmen make really difficult decisions”.
Since winning the Championship five years ago, Middlesex’s four-day cricket has been messy and inconsistent. But they have won their last four matches and, against Vitality Blast champions Kent this week, can secure top spot in Division Three. Bamber believes a corner has been turned at the club.
“One of the things Tim [Murtagh, the captain] spoke about before this block is no one wants to win Division Three, because no one wants to be in Division Three,” he says. “But if we can, we want to play in a way that we’re proud of and sets us up for next year with some legs going forward and is foundation-building. Whether we win this week or not, I feel we have done that.”
Bamber is among a crop of exciting, local youngsters who have come through the Middlesex system together. He has played with Luke Hollman and Joe Cracknell at North Middlesex CC “since the age of six or seven”. He played with Thilan Walallawita, Josh de Caires, Jack Davies and Blake Cullen in the county’s age group teams. A little older are Max Holden, Martin Andersson and Robbie White.
“I still feel like we are playing at Merchant Taylors in an U17 game,” he says. “There are the same jokes and the same relaxed feeling. Everyone really trusts each other because we have spent so much time together.
“When Robbie [White] got his first hundred, at Lord’s earlier this month, everyone in that dressing room was beaming from ear to ear, shouting, jumping. That is the biggest sign of a group that is close, celebrating each other’s success.”
Bamber describes himself as “much happier in myself” than a year ago. The same might just be true of his team.