James Bracey interview: I really struggled after England dropped me

James Bracey during England training at Lord's in 2021
James Bracey's two Tests in 2021 left psychological scars - AP Photo/Ian Walton/Pool

Three years ago this week, Ben Foakes suffered an innocuous slip in the Surrey changing room that had a profound impact on James Bracey’s life and career.

Foakes was ruled out of the two-Test series against New Zealand and, with Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow given time for the IPL, Bracey was selected to make his debut as a wicketkeeper-batsman. Gloucestershire’s Bracey had spent much of the year before with England squads in biosecure bubbles both at home and in India, and was in contention for a place in a failing top three as well as with the gloves.

It was a dream that quickly turned into a nightmare, and one that has taken almost three years to “get over”.

The problems started before he was even presented with his cap. Bracey regrets that he went in thinking “the next chance would not come immediately” because of his status as an understudy.

“I took that as having two games to do as much as I can, and push a case: even if I do well I probably won’t be in the team for India anyway,” he says. “I almost talked myself out of it, and put even more pressure on myself.”

His first two innings, at Lord’s and Edgbaston, both brought ducks, before he made eight in his third and final knock.

“The first one didn’t trouble me, I was done by some good bowling by Tim Southee,” the 27-year-old tells Telegraph Sport. “But it made me nervous for my second innings, and I got out playing a poor shot [edging to Trent Boult third slip]. After that, I was very flat, a bit desperate. I put so much pressure on myself, knowing that I had one last chance to make an impression. I played one nice pull shot, then got out trying to paddle sweep, which just wasn’t something that I do in that situation. In three innings I had completely gone away from what got me there.”

James Bracey
Bracey is castled by Tim Southee for a duck in his debut Test innings - Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Bracey was stung by criticism of his keeping. He dropped one catch but, while he was not Foakesian, he “didn’t think it was terrible”.

“The reaction was the hardest,” he says. “You can’t prepare for the scrutiny. You know it’s there, you know it’s coming, but you can’t prepare for it. The two games I played went poorly, but I wasn’t prepared for how that would be taken by the public, and how it would affect me. I was seeing everywhere that I really struggled, and it felt like that was because I was a really poor player. That’s how I took it.”

A few days after the second Test, Bracey was back with his county for a T20 against Middlesex at Radlett. He was left out of the team.

“I’d been in and out of our T20 team, but when I was told I wasn’t playing it hit me really hard,” he says. “We had a strong team and I understood it, but it hurt that I’d gone from Test cricket back to county cricket and couldn’t even get in the team. It felt like rock bottom.”

Bracey held things together that year and, playing as a specialist batsman at No 3, scored a fine hundred for England Lions against Australia A in Brisbane that winter. But, as time passed, his desperate desire to get back into the national set-up consumed him, resulting in diminishing returns.

He says: “I was finding myself walking to the wicket really fearing getting out. I know that’s not unique, everyone’s had it at some point. But it’s not what you want as a pro. I just endured a real lack of confidence in my own ability to score runs.

“It’s not that I disliked the game, I will always love it. But it wasn’t giving me as much pleasure as usual, and I was getting very down on myself.

James Bracey
Bracey, back row right, spent almost a year in England's biosecure bubble starting in 2020 - Gareth Copley/Getty Images

“I was getting frustrated when I got out, when I was training and things didn’t go well, everything. Little process to help me deal with those better means I’m consistently sticking to it, which is awesome.

“I found that my mental health was directly related to cricket. It’s definitely triggered by that, the overwhelming pressure I put on myself to go out and do well was hard to deal with when I didn’t. That was tricky because you can’t go out and score them every week. I wasn’t helping myself.

“But probably the most damaging thing for me was that it was coming home. I have amazing support from my family and my now fiancée. They’ve been amazing, but I was coming home and it was affecting my communication with them. They were doing everything they could to support me, but I’d be frustrated and angry with myself because of cricket and my results there. So it was coming across that I was angry with them, and that was the thing that I hated most about it, affecting that side of my life.

“It made it hard for my partner, hard for me, and it made it harder when I next took the field, because I was annoyed that I hadn’t got runs, but I was also annoyed with how I’d spoken to people I love, and felt guilty about it.

“And as a senior player at Gloucs, I was getting emotional and frustrated, and it was putting a dampener on the team, which is not what you need from your senior players.”

Bracey believes he is lucky that the coaches at Gloucestershire [first Dale Benkenstein, then Mark Alleyne] “have showed a lot of faith in me, because they probably believed in me more than I believed in myself”. In 2022, he averaged 27 and in 2023 just 22, without a hundred for the first time in his career.

He sought help, first from the Professional Cricketers’ Association’s player development manager for Gloucestershire, Martin Cropper, then through Sporting Chance, the company founded by former Arsenal centre-half Tony Adams, who partner with the PCA to provide mental health support. Sporting Chance helped 49 active players last year, 24 of whom were battling anxiety. In addition to professional support, Bracey says he learnt to open up to his team-mates about how he feels.

To help on the field, Bracey dropped down the order to No 5, which provides a welcome break between batting and keeping, and studied his game closely with his brother, who has played for the Gloucestershire second team. He looked to implement changes that would get him back to the levels he found before his Test debut, this winter in Perth, which helped him “reset”. He and his partner spent four months there, and he played for the University of WA Cricket Club.

“It was nice to go over, chill out a bit, play good cricket, work on my game but also concentrate on enjoying it,” he says.

It has helped him regain form. He is averaging 49 for a Gloucestershire side that recently secured their first win since 2022.

“I’m through it,” he says. “I’ve started the season pretty well. I’m contributing again.

“I now can see it for what it was. I was playing Test cricket, which is amazing. I am so glad that I was lucky enough to do that. I look back with pride now, rather than being disappointed. I look at it for the achievement I have getting there, rather than the poor two Tests I had. It’s taken a while, but whether I play Test cricket again or not, I will look back with pride.”