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James Bracey: The Best Defence in England

Ben Jones take a look at the Gloucestershire batsman’s recent record, ahead of a potential Test call-up.

For England’s Test team, change could well be in the air. Head coach Chris Silverwood has gone on record to say that the upcoming series with New Zealand offers a chance for “fresh faces”; players who were involved in the IPL are seemingly unlikely to be rushed back into the XI without due respect to their mental and physical welfare. England are content in the short term for their places to be filled – temporarily at least – by uncapped or under-explored players.

One of the players in consideration for a debut is (or should be) James Bracey. A left-handed top order batsman, Bracey has caught the eye as part of an upwardly mobile Gloucestershire side. In recent seasons, he’s collected caps for the England Lions, and was part of the covid-induced expanded squad ahead of the 2020 Test summer. Frustratingly for Bracey and fans of him alike, he remained in the England bubble without playing a game for much of the summer, deprived of time in the middle for either his county or his country.

However, these clearly weren’t wasted months. In discussions around Bracey, people are obliged to mention “how much England like him”. The degree to which he impressed Silverwood and other coaches during that expanded-squad phase has been regularly cited as evidence of why Bracey probably ‘needs’ to do less to break into the current England side. In some respects, this mirrors the pathway of Zak Crawley, who made his way into the Test XI not through the weight of county runs, but through impressing the right people. Dependent on the state of Dom Sibley’s finger, Bracey could well be slotting in alongside Crawley in England’s top three in a few weeks’ time – from the outside, Bracey appears to be the next cab off the batting rank.

So what’s he all about?

By coming through as a keeper-batsman, Bracey fits right into the fashion for modern English players taking the gloves as a secondary skill. Yet in another way, Bracey bucks the trend for young talent in England and Wales, by batting regularly in the top three. Fellow batting prodigies Ollie Pope and Dan Lawrence – both considerably more flair orientated players than Bracey, it should be said – have made the bulk of their runs down the order, away from the new ball. Bracey has not, with more than half of his FC batting (61%) done at No.3, and the vast majority (81%) done in the top four. Of course, there is no need for a Test No.3 to do that job for their county because the challenges do differ at international level, albeit only slightly. However, the appeal of a player being temperamentally used to the role is obvious.

That temperament is apparent to the naked eye – compact and organised, there is little in the way of obvious weakness – but more importantly it’s plain to see in the data. From an analytical perspective, the most prominent strength in Bracey’s game is that he has a fair claim on having the best defence in county cricket. In the last three domestic seasons, Bracey averages 171 defensive shots before one of them leads to him being dismissed – that’s the best record for any established batsman in the competition. That Bracey has reached this level while playing so frequently against the new ball, and the movement which comes along with it, is extremely promising.

Bracey’s solid base, and accumulator method, is best typified by an average of almost 250 in recent seasons when working, steering, or playing the flick against seamers; in essence, drift onto his pads, and you’re a goner. However, to take that and infer that Bracey is simply a nurdler, would be wrong, given that in the last three years 60% of Bracey’s runs against pace have been on the offside. That’s a figure higher than the average batsman in county cricket, and illustrates a degree of range at this level of the game. While that rock-solid defence is the foundation of his game, he’s no blocker, as his average with the pull shot (166) and attacking shot percentage (22%, almost exactly average) attests.

Bracey’s raw numbers are not as immediately outstanding. While he’s been in superb form this season (478 runs @ 53.11), Bracey’s average in the last three seasons (39.15) is merely encouraging, rather than the sort of figure which demands international recognition. The caveat of 2020 does loom large however, and that recent form – his first opportunity to showcase his talent in Gloucestershire colours since called into the England set-up – will carry greater weight than you may think.

As well as navigating the pros and cons that come with international considerations, Division 2 cricket comes with a ready-made obstacle for players like Bracey to overcome – the limited opportunity to prove yourself against the best players on the domestic circuit. The chances for batsmen to pit themselves against Test-quality bowlers are few and far between and, as a consequence, the findings are often unclear. In the last three seasons, Bracey has struggled against Mohammed Abbas (2 wickets, averaging 9.5) and Jackson Bird (2 wickets averaging 12), but he’s also faced 220 deliveries from Jack Leach, Craig Overton and Kyle Abbott without being dismissed. It’s hard to take these numbers and run too far in either direction, but they certainly offer no enormous cause for concern.

Gloucestershire, like every county outside of London or Leeds, often complain that they get less attention than they deserve because of their geographical location. Journalists, largely based in the capital, are unlikely to pound the B-roads of the UK when there is invariably a Championship match taking place in their own city. As such, players who ply their trade at these grounds can fly under the radar. However, the advent of higher quality county streams could be changing that, providing increased access to players who operate outside of the Test hubs. Equally, while Gloucestershire were promoted to Division 1 on merit during the 2019 season, previously they would have been the sort of side that benefits from the new conference system; their talented players needn’t follow the brain drain to the bigger counties in order to get exposure against those same sides, because the new system provides it. In both these senses, Bracey is a textbook example of a player that benefits from the current state of county cricket.

Not that the new system denies us the best v best clashes on which the two-division set-up was predicated. Next week, Gloucestershire take on Somerset in Bristol, a local derby with plenty of context regardless of the season situation, but also between the two sides at the top of the table in Group 2. Somerset’s attack, as strong as any in the country, offers Bracey a timely opportunity to remind the England set-up quite why they like him, and why come the first game of the New Zealand series, he should be pulling on his whites, not his high-vis.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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