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After a series of operations at the Wellington Hospital next door, and a handful of white-ball games over the years, it is not like Reece Topley is unfamiliar with St John’s Wood.
But you have to go back to April 2011 for his last first-class match at Lord’s. Then, he was a promising 17-year-old schoolboy on Essex’s books. He took five wickets in an innings against Middlesex, just as he had a week earlier on Championship debut against Kent.
On Thursday, 10 years, three counties, five serious back injuries, and thousands of moments of doubt and pain later, Topley is finally set to play red-ball cricket at Lord’s again, for Surrey against Middlesex.
“The hospital is literally next door,” he laughs. “It’s slightly ironic, I suppose. But mainly I’m just excited.”
Topley initially signed for Surrey in late 2019 on a white-ball deal, but last month that was upgraded to an all-format contract.
He was straight into the Championship side for the season opener against Gloucestershire, where his five-wicket haul provided a bright spot in a disappointing defeat.
It was just his eighth first-class match since July 2014 so he was rested for last week’s draw against Leicestershire which, given the flat Kia Oval pitch, looked a more sensible decision by the ball. Alongside Rikki Clarke, he is back in the squad for Thursday’s game, and savouring red-ball bowling.
“It was nice to play the game, to be bowling with a red ball, and to contribute with wickets was great,” he says. “Being away from it so much, I do relish it more.
“Rather than having the mindset that there’s another four-day game coming up, that county slog, I really cherish it every time I’m able to get out there. Four-day games are so much more knackering, but you have to really relish the opportunity. Playing Middlesex will be another a great test.”
When you have been as luckless with injury as Topley, it pays to only take baby steps.
“I feel my fortunes have definitely changed for the better,” he says. “It’s trying to put everything in place. Words can only take you so far. It takes concentration and effort on my part throughout the summer to achieve anything. I can say that I want to achieve x, y, z.
“It’s sensible not to get too far ahead of myself. I have ambitions this year in white-ball cricket with the national team, so it’s important to stay grounded. I have faith in Vik [Vikram Solanki, head coach] and Stewie [Alec Stewart, director of cricket] that they have my best interests and welfare at the heart of everything.”
Before a strong T20 campaign with Surrey last summer, when he took 15 wickets as they made the Vitality Blast final, Topley returned to the England setup for the first time in four years. He faced Ireland, then toured South Africa and India this winter.
In the latter, he impressed in the last two ODIs, raising hopes that he could play a part in the T20 World Cup this autumn. For Topley, though, just like the long road back to Lord’s, it was validation that the tough times were all worth it.
“The ODIs went pretty well,” he says. “When we played our full strength T20 lineup in India, I was part of the squad. Hopefully that bodes well. If I get the opportunity I feel like I’m ready to contribute. I’ve been in a few squads and not played, but it’s a very good side. When I get my chance I will definitely take it.
“I’m desperate to stay in the national setup. Ultimately that’s why you go through all the s**t times, to get back there. It’s amazing to be pulling on an England shirt again after going through all those tough times.
“It’s where I want to be, and it’s an unbelievable feeling of pride in yourself when you conquer something like that. When you go through the s**t times, you have to really enjoy the fun times playing in the national team again. It makes it all worthwhile.”