England vs New Zealand: Debutant fast bowler Matthew Potts is un-English in many ways

Aaqib Javed, former Pakistan bowler and the coach of the PSL team Lahore Qalandars, was surprised when the word came through the manager that Matthew Potts, the new back-up fast bowler they had signed for just couple of weeks and who didn’t play a game, had a strange request. “Would you allow me to stay on for the rest of the tournament? I just want to learn.”

Koi zaroorat nahi thi usko (there was no need for him) but the fact that he asked and that he stayed said something about the boy. He was like a sponge, kept asking the likes of Shaheen Afridi, Harris Rauf and me about the nuances of fast bowling: scrambled seam, reverse swing, and feedback on his hit-the-deck style that he bowls,”

Javed tells The Indian Express on the evening when Pottsy, as Javed calls him, ran through New Zealand with a four-for on his debut. If not for a cramp, he could well have had a five-for and he came back on the second day to remove Kane Williamson for the second time in the game.

The first thing that struck Javed was Potts’ fitness. “Very very fit. Seems to be a guy who can run hard all day. And his bowling style — that hitting the deck hard — is going to help him beyond English conditions as well. He kept picking the brain on how to bowl on dry pitches, how he can do something with the ball to create chances. Ball ko kaisey banana hai (how to work the ball for reverse).”

The question “how to trouble the batsman when there isn’t much happening on the pitch” brings a laugh from Neil Killeen, Durham bowling coach who has worked with Potts since the U-14s.

“The answer to that question is what has got him to the England Test team, now,” Killeen tells this newspaper, on the morning of the second day’s play. “No doubt, he must be after James Anderson and Stuart Broad now to pick up all the tricks they have to offer.”

“Sometime last season, his first-class game went up a level. What pleases me is all of this has come through sheer hard work and ambition. He isn’t here just on “natural” skill. As in, he has exactly worked on all aspects and keeps working hard,” Killeen says.

On air, Michael Atherton spoke about how Potts “hurries the batsman, hits the bat hard”. The man who took out Williamson and others by hitting the deck hard and nibbling it back or getting it to straighten once used to be the regular English bowler who would float it full and look for some swing.

“He wanted to change that. We wanted to change that to make him effective for pitches where there wasn’t that kind of help. Slowly, we started to change his style; he is so open to learning and trusts me that he went along for the ride.

“And now he, as you say, is almost un-English in the way he hits the deck. Bit Australian, you say?!” Laughter again. “The ball that shapes away from the right-hander would be his stock ball but his main weapon is the heavy-seam ball.”

Potts also troubled Tom Blundell and a couple of others in the first innings with his wobble-seam ball. At times, it would cut in, as it did to take out Blundell, and at times it would go on straight if not shape away.

Blundell was late on a ball that rapped him on his pad and which he reversed through DRS. But then came another such delivery after a couple of straighteners and this time he was bowled.

“Until last season, he was regarded as a big white-ball prospect. He can wobble-seam, he can bowl the slower ones, yorkers, use the bouncer intelligently, and cutters too,” Killeen says. “Now everything is coming along well.”

Killeen listens keenly when it’s shared that Aaquib thinks Potts can increase his pace in a year or so. “Absolutely. Right now, I can say he can maintain intensity throughout the day. One of the main reasons Stokes likes him, he is the Durham captain after all.”

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In a recent county game, where Stokes hit a record number of sixes, it was Potts, playing through a side strain, who exploded with the ball on the fourth day with a seven-for to run through Glamorgan. “He could have if he wanted not done it as England selection was around the corner, but that’s the kind of guy he is,” Stokes had said on eve of the Test match.

On the second day, Nasser Hussain let some surprise slip through his voice when he recounted how he saw Potts push the fielders to deep square leg on his own, without consulting the captain, and bounced at Daryll Mitchell. “On his debut..” Hussain would mutter.

“He is not your quietly confident fella, he is very confident but doesn’t get into the ‘arrogant confidence’ line. He has an aura about him. A presence,” Killeen says about that plusiness.

“When he came into the Durham side, he would be in the ears of even the seniors about how to bowl, or bat or field! We had to sit him down and tell him in half-jest, “mate, first establish your place in the team!”.

Ash Thorpe, a club teammate, told BBC about the trait. “I’m a big bloke, 17 or 18 stone, but aged about 15 during a rain delay Matty said, ‘I am going to fight everyone in the changing room and I’m going to start with you, Ash’.”

“It was nothing more than him wanting to prove a point – the alpha male inside him. He is cheeky in a non-offensive way but has always had that drive, chip, and confidence in his own ability and he always had that belief he was going to go somewhere in the game.”

On the morning of the second day, Killeen had a long conversation with Potts. “Just to see how he feels. He is obviously very happy with the way he has gone on his debut. I just told him, just be yourself, keep doing what you are doing. There will be good and bad days, this is a Test cricket but you are on the right path.”

Or in the words of Aaquib, “Lambi race ka ghoda hai (one for the long haul) if England know how to use him. He is different from the other England bowlers; so he can be the one who can complete that line-up, just what they need.”

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