Duckett's 'crazy week' showcases depth of batting power

England Lions have been easily ignored this summer, given an enthralling Test series and the turbulence in the wider world. But those who have cared to notice were treated to a side that entered the record books by eviscerating the Pakistan and Sri Lankan A attacks, like overzealous dads dismantling children's bowling.

Four matches spread over a week were all the Lions needed to become The History Boys. By the end, they had set a litany of records: the 11th highest team score in List A history; the most individual scores of over 150 made by any team in a one-day series; the second highest partnership in List A history. Of all the towering numbers, one stands one: 220 not out, the score made by Ben Duckett against Sri Lanka A at Canterbury on Monday. It was the second highest score ever made by an Englishman in List A cricket, after Alistair Brown's record 268, and the eighth highest of all time. And Duckett only arrived at the crease in the 12th over.


"It's an amazing feeling. To score a double hundred in a 50-over game is very special," Duckett reflects. "It was a crazy week. Everything came off."

Indeed it did. Along with his double century, Duckett also scored an unbeaten 163 to help England waltz to their target in the opening game of the tri-series. The Lions won all four of their games emphatically, attesting to the talent bubbling under beneath the full ODI side.

Duckett is shaping up as one of the standard-bearers of the new generation, uninhibited by convention, and liberated by the spirit of self-expression permeating all levels of England's limited-overs sides. "When I'm playing my best I'm fearless and not afraid to try things. If there's a gap in the field I'll try and hit that gap. I back myself to play any shot." And he means every shot: Duckett is a 360-degree player willing to pay the scoop and reverse sweep, often seen in the form of a slog sweep, at any point in his innings.

It is a reflection not just of Duckett's multifarious skills, but also of something greater: how far English limited-overs cricket has come on from the stultifying, paralysing conservatism that was once wired into the side.

Encountering a used pitch at Canterbury on Monday, Duckett and the team reckoned that "280 was par and 300 would have been a good score." England's whole strategy would once have been predicated on this idea; famously, the side were delighted to reach 229 against Sri Lanka in the 2011 World Cup quarter-finals, only to lose by ten wickets.

This approach has now been thrown out. "When two guys are in and batting well, it's fairly easy," Duckett says. Certainly it seemed that way when he and Daniel Bell-Drummond were adding an undefeated 367 for the second wicket, falling only five runs shy of the all-time partnership record in List A cricket.

Yet, if there is a sense of bravado to Duckett's batting, this does not come at the expense of nous. At Canterbury, he took 45 balls over his 50 - risk-free accumulation at better than a-run-a-ball, the way of the modern age - before going berserk, scoring 170 off his next 86 balls. "I just got to 50 by batting normally and ticking over, and then I played a few more shots and got to my hundred. After I got to my hundred I just said I'm going to keep going. I just kept hitting the gaps." Six times he cleared them, too.

Duckett's approach to batting has been likened to that of Eoin Morgan, and with good reason. The similarities are obvious: both are left-handers who find power to belie their ostensibly unremarkable frames, have a penchant for spin bowling that is seldom found in the county game, and delight in working the ball into unusual angles, often playing the ball so late it seems virtually in the wicketkeeper's gloves.

Talking to Duckett, it is clear that the similarity extends to their methodical, clinical approach to limited-overs batting: not merely calculating how to score runs off the next ball, but how to shift the field.

"If the seamers are bowling with the fine leg up, I'm not afraid to scoop over fine leg. Then they've got to drop fine leg back and maybe bring mid-off up. It's just playing around with the field, that's why I try and do."

Against spin, the worth of Duckett's reverse sweep lies not only in the runs it brings him, but the scoring opportunities it opens up elsewhere. "I've been playing it for years and it's a fairly low risk boundary option for me. When I can get the ball past point they've got to stick two guys there. And then I can play a normal sweep, or hit the ball back over their heads. With the extra man in the circle it's tough for spinners."

Perhaps not coincidentally, these skills against spin have been honed at Wantage Road, traditionally one of the county circuit's most receptive grounds for spin bowling. "I've got my spot in the Lions because of the chances I've had at Northants," he says.

But it hasn't been an easy path. At the start of last summer, Duckett was dropped from a pre-season tour to Barbados last year, then consigned to the 2nd XI for a period, because of fitness and last July was also handed a ban for drink-driving. It was not the first time Duckett's girth had been a problem: as England U-19 captain three years ago, he was dropped for failing to meet minimum fitness standards.

Northamptonshire's response was enlightened: they pushed Duckett, then aged only 20, up the order to open. He responded with four centuries in eight Championship matches, and became a more complete cricketer although, for now, his wicketkeeping has been put on hold.

"It's made me a better player against seam bowling. I was always fairly strong against spin, but I've learned how to hit the seamers to the boundary. I've also learned how to score hundreds and double hundreds now. Rather than getting a hundred and out, I know that I can kick on and get a big 150+ or even a double hundred."

And Duckett believes that his recent run of scores, including an unbeaten 282 in the County Championship against Sussex, has shown that he is "fit enough to play cricket," though he plans to focus more on conditioning work this winter.


He can already count Andy Flower, the England Lions coach, as a fervent admirer. "Ben's got very fast hands," Flower reflects. "This might sound really obvious but he hit the ball in the middle of the bat a lot. He's got a big array of shots but he also held his composure really well. His choice of shot and execution were outstanding. And he concentrated for long periods."

Duckett's unbeaten 163 in his first ever game for the Lions "showed the other players what was possible if you've got a bit of confidence and aggression," Flower says.

How the rest of the top order followed. Dawid Malan, Sam Billings and Bell-Drummond all scored innings of over 150 of their own while Liam Livingstone, who Flower says "hits the ball as hard as any in world cricket," also provided a glimpse of his pyrotechnics in the middle order.

Of all the signs of England's ODI renaissance, in a sense the Lions' batting was the most significant: evidence of how the change in attitudes to limited-overs batting extends to the next generation.

"They've seen the senior team lead in the aggression," says Flower. "I was surprised by the level of depth and power, yes. They displayed quite an amazing array of shots and some serious talent - it's really exciting for English cricket to see this amount of talent. Innovation and hitting balls in areas where it previously wasn't imagined has just become normal."

In his 15 year involvement with the English game, as a player for Essex and then a coach, Flower believes that England have never had such depth in power hitting. This has engendered fierce competition.

This is evident not just in all the runs England's second string scored. It is evident in how, when it looked like injury would rule him out of the squad, Bell-Drummond called up a selector to request more time to prove his fitness. And it is evident, too, in how Duckett chastises himself for giving away starts in his last two one-day games for Northants: scores of 46 and 86 are useful enough, but Duckett knows he needs even more to get his chance for the full ODI squad.

"You have to make sure when you're in form you really cash in. I've been disappointed a few times in the last couple of days about getting myself out when I'm in such good nick. I've got to score as many hundreds as I can while I'm in form."