County Champions begin their defence at Hampshire on Friday and the start cannot come soon enough for their left-handed opening batsman
Staying “humble and hungry” is the mantra that Angus Fraser, the Middlesex director of cricket, has been drilling into his squad during the build-up to their defence of the County Championship title that, after sitting out the first round last week, now whirs into life at Hampshire’s Ageas Bowl on Friday.
It is a mindset Fraser pinched from hearing Martin Keown on the radio discussing how the Arsenal team of the late 1990s and early 2000s would deal with a new season following success the year before and one player who appears to embody the approach is Nick Gubbins, the left-handed opener whose 1,409 runs last summer proved pivotal in ending a 23-year wait for the title.
The humble part certainly comes across when the 23-year-old discusses last year’s bumper harvest, one which brought a maiden first-class hundred against Somerset in May (after three forays into the 90s) and then three more, including a career-best unbeaten 201 against Lancashire and the 125 in the Lord’s decider against Yorkshire that was the foundation for his side’s thrilling late triumph.
Gubbins could be forgiven for swaggering into the new campaign on the back of his 2016 exploits but instead, having spent the winter with the England Lions looking to improve what he concedes was a weakness against spin – “Andy Flower saw my improvement and he is not a man who gives out praise lightly” – he remains with his feet firmly on the ground. Advice from Nick Compton, a team-mate who knows all about the ups and downs of a career in cricket, is to thank here.
“I can’t look too far ahead of myself, because cricket has a funny way of biting you in the arse,” said Gubbins, when asked whether his goals for the season have been set higher after his breakthrough summer. “I have spoken to Compo about this. He’s someone who has dominated county cricket for quite a while and he says it’s all about going back to your processes, what allowed me to go so well last year in the first place. So I won’t look be straying too far from that.
“Compo has been my batting mentor for the past two years and he’s been awesome. He helped me set up my game, to build long innings. And that was massive last year. So I am continuing to work with him and he is essentially keeping me grounded, telling me to come back [from the winter] a better player for Middlesex and not to get too ahead of myself.”
The hunger is there too, of course, with the left-hander, whose compact style has long brought comparisons with his fellow Radley College alumnus, Andrew Strauss, having had a taste of the international environment during his Lions winter. It was during the first leg– a trip to the United Arab Emirates – where he found his Test prospects suddenly entered the national debate after Haseeb Hameed suffered a broken finger during the third Test against India in Mohali.
Keaton Jennings, his opening partner and room-mate on tour, and the batsmen who pipped him to the No1 spot in the Division One run-scoring charts, went on to be selected, with the Durham man’s initial success – a century on his debut in Mumbai – and some words of advice from the former England spinner Graeme Swann and the fast bowler Mark Wood having convinced Gubbins the step up is not one to be feared.
He said: “Keats and I were sharing an apartment in Dubai and when Has got injured, we were sitting there knowing it was him or me going. We were asking each other: ‘Do you think you’re ready?’ And we both came to the conclusion you never know if you are ready or not. The Lions guys were then all crowded round an iPad in Abu Dhabi to watch him get his first hundred and we were all stoked for him. To see a guy like that do it, [you know] it’s not a million miles away.
“We had chats with Swann and Wood before we left for the UAE too and that was the one clear message from those guys: Test cricket is put on a pedestal and while it’s tough and hard, it’s not out of reach. I’d like to think the County Championship is strong and it’s a good breeding ground for international cricket.”
His season will certainly begin with an international flavour when Hampshire’s Kyle Abbott, a seamer with a Test average of 22 and fresh from nine wickets against Yorkshire last week, and Fidel Edwards, the West Indian who produced some fast, late swing in that surprise win at Headingley, test him out with the new ball this Easter weekend.
And like the international circuit, the bowlers he got the better of last year will also come back with new plans. Gubbins, in keeping with Fraser’s instructions, says he welcomes this new status as a marked man.
He said: “It’s an exciting challenge. I am where I am because I have done well and you are getting into dangerous territory if you look at it in a negative light. So I have to embrace the fantastic season I had and the fact teams will come after me. But they have all winter and in pre-season and so far I have handled it pretty well.
“Who says I can’t do it again?”
• Middlesex have become the first county to state publicly that they will not be signing off on the constitutional change that is required for the England and Wales Cricket Board to create a new eight-team regional Twenty20 tournament from 2020 onwards.
While Somerset, Sussex, Yorkshire and Leicestershire all come out in favour of the ECB’s proposal in the past week after the start of the 28-day postal ballot that needs approval from 31 of its 41 members, the failure to secure the support of the reigning county champions represents a significant blow to the governing body as it seeks to tweak its articles of association in order to allow a new domestic competition that does not feature the 18 first-class counties.
Following consultation with members at the club’s AGM on Thursday, Middlesex have said they are unable to give their support at this stage because they fear they could be relegated to second-class status as they are tenants at Lord’s, where one of the teams is expected to be based, and would therefore not benefit from being a host venue. Ali Martin