By Sam Dalling
Middlesex star Nick Gubbins wants to follow in the footsteps of Joe Denly by becoming England’s next leg-spinning all-rounder.
The 26-year old seemed a shoe-in for test honours a few years ago having dominated bowling attacks up and down the land in 2016; his impressive total of 1409 first-class runs helped his side secure a first County Championship crown since the early 1990s.
At that point it was assumed to be a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ the opener stepped up to the international arena.
However, while the former Radley pupil has improved his one-day exploits, the red-ball runs have dried up, leaving plenty of ground to be made up if he is to force his way back into minds of the selectors.
It’s been a different tale though for Denly – a senior member of the Lord’s dressing room when Gubbins was coming through the ranks at HQ – who has flourished since returning to Kent five years ago.
Following a string of consistently impressive seasons with the bat, a long-awaited test cap finally came in early 2019 against the West Indies – and the part-time leg-spinner has been an ever present in the side since.
At the time, the selectors made it clear that Denly’s 57 victims across all formats the previous summer had tipped the balance in his favour.
And the point is far from on Gubbins who spent a decent chunk of the off-season dusting off the second string to his bow in a bid to emulate the success of his former teammate.
“People won’t have heard much about my leg-spin but I bowled a lot when I was younger and picked up 10-fer in a Second XI Championship game once,” he explained.
“Then when I broke into the first team so young I was worried about losing my place and focussed solely on batting.
“But any leg spinner that can land them is pretty sought after, and so it’s a big part of my game I want to do well in.
“Before I went to Sydney over the winter I told them I wanted to bowl again, and they let me do it – particularly in one-day cricket.
“Look at Joe Denly – he was a great net bowler at Middlesex but never bowled as much as he should have in matches.
“Every players dream is to play for England – I’ve been close at times and I’ve been far away at others – and Joe’s gone to Kent, worked on his bowling and it has definitely helped him get an England spot.”
Gubbins had high hopes for 2020 having enjoyed considerable success during a stint plying his trade down under for Sydney CC.
After several winters of England Lions involvement, the left-hander missed out this time around following a lean run of form in the domestic second tier.
But not one to feel sorry for himself, the former Leeds/Bradford MCCU man dusted himself off and jumped on a plane to the other side of the globe in search of that extra something.
A pair of triple digit scores and nine half-centuries later, Gubbins had an impressive 852 run haul across all competitions, as well as a national club t20 championship winner’s medal – a tournament in which he was named joint Player of the Season.
The trip to foreign shores gave the Middlesex man time focus on his own game and reflect to professional career to date.
And the youngster has revealed his belief that the experience will stand him in good stead as he looks to push his game to the next level.
“I had a winter to my own devices having had a tough year in the first-class game and missing out on the Lions squads,” he explained.
“That setup is amazing – they try and make you feel like you are with England and it’s a real insight into touring and international cricket.
“But I’ve banked that knowledge and I’d never really done a year abroad on my own so this was perfect opportunity to get away.
“In a way, I could put myself first. This winter was as all about me – every batting session and every gym session I did was for me, and I think I made the most of it.
“I had time to look internally and reflect on the highs and lows of my career so far.
“It had all become too serious and I’d become too serious as a result – now I’m back to really enjoying my cricket.
“The place I’m in now is as ready as I’ve ever been to play for England, both mentally and physically, and I can only do this by putting runs on the board for Middlesex and helping them win games.”
Such sentiments will be music to the ears of Middlesex fans who need no reminding it’s been a tricky couple of years.
Following the high of their County Championship triumph, the Lords outfit followed up with immediate relegation and have since endured two failed promotion bids.
Although there were green shoots of recovery last year – the club progressed to the quarter-finals of both domestic cup competition with Stuart Law and Nic Pothas at the helm – there’s no getting away from the reality that such a talented squad is under performing.
And that’s a fact that Gubbins is only too aware of, although he stressed that the dressing room now knows exactly what is required of them ahead of another promotion scrap.
“Cricket has a funny way of kicking you in the backside, and following the 2016 high we had the low of relegation immediately afterwards,” he admitted.
“We’ve perhaps been trying to play pretty cricket, when actually we have needed to look at what’s a good score on the day and work out how to get there.
“My experience has been that there’s very little difference in terms of quality between the two divisions, but the second division is more of a dogfight, and we haven’t got to grips with it.
“It’s been an incredibly frustrating couple of years and I really feel for the fans.
“We feel that as players and coaches too and it’s certainly not through a lack of trying.
“But it’s a really talented group of players but we have underperformed in red ball cricket and that has to change.”
In an alternate reality, the 26-year old would be lighting up Division Two of the County Championship right now in a bid to push his name back into the minds of the test selectors.
However, as with almost all his county cricketing compatriots, the top-order man is currently on Her Majesty’s payroll and can only watch and wait as the COVID-19 crisis unfolds.
With England’s leading lights set to return training of sorts this week, there remains a quiet optimism that a domestic season of sorts will take place – although quite how that’ll look is anyone’s guess.
One thing’s for sure though; as and when cricket does get the green light from the government, it will look very different to game the nation has come to love.
“Bio-secure” and “spectatorless” are sure to live long in the memory as 2020’s buzz words, but Gubbins is sure his county will go the extra mile to ensure the sound of bat on willow rings out once more.
“The position changes week in week out, but if the internationals go well in July, we may well get some sort of competition in August,” he said.
“Making grounds bio-secure and ensuring its financially viable – these are going to be difficulties for sure.
“But at Middlesex we want to play even if it costs us financially. We are a cricket club and we want to play cricket.
“I can’t speak for anyone else but I wouldn’t have an issue with any precautions put in place.
“If that means being in quarantine and away from the family, that’s fine – I’m used to it when away on tour.
“I get paid to play the game and right now I’m not doing that. I’d do anything to play cricket again.”