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Match Analysis

Matt Potts on fast track to banker status after raising England's decibel levels

Extraction of Williamson for third time in series epitomises soft skills of hard competitor

Kane Williamson jumps out of the way as Matthew Potts fields the ball  •  Getty Images

Kane Williamson jumps out of the way as Matthew Potts fields the ball  •  Getty Images

Zaheer Khan, Hasan Ali - and now, Matthew Potts. It's not a trio you would naturally throw together, even if they'd make a pretty tidy bowling attack. Beyond that, there is probably not too much in common given the age differences along with the era and environments they grew up in. The Beastie Boys, they are not.
But on Saturday at Headingley, a thread that existed between Zaheer and Hasan was sewn unto Potts. For they are now the only three bowlers to have dismissed Kane Williamson three times in a Test series. Zaheer was in his 15th year in the format, while Hasan did so a year after making his debut in 2017. It's taken Potts a matter of weeks.
It's no measure to rank them, by any means. Especially given that, when Zaheer made his India debut in 2000, Williamson was a 10-year-old, gently guiding balls behind the car and into the garage door. But it is a neat summation of how quickly Potts has felt at home at this level, to have stamped the New Zealand captain's card in all but one of the four innings he's had. Had Covid not intervened at Trent Bridge to rule out two more meetings, Potts might have earned enough points to be entitled to a free Kane Williamson.
The set-up and punchline for this final battle was Potts in a nutshell. Four deliveries came from an almost identical release point at the crease, before he went wide while serving up a ball that behaved just like the others. Williamson, by now conditioned to a ball coming into him, approached this one exactly the same, offering a straight bat, but failed to register that it was a little wider, thus probably one to cut. He knew he was done as soon as contact was made, and arched back to look to the sky in despair as Jonny Bairstow took the catch with the gloves and Potts wheeled away.
Having just lost Devon Conway, and with Williamson set on 48 after nearly three hours at the crease, it was an incision that tipped the afternoon England's way, maybe even the match. New Zealand still lead by 137, with five wickets still to get.
As it stands, Potts is England's leading wicket-taker for the series with 13 at an impressive average of 21.53. And although he started with a bang at Lord's with four for 13, followed by three for 55 in the second innings, his work so far at Headingley might be his best showing yet.
He was unfortunate to leave the first innings with just one wicket for 34 from his 26 overs, especially considering he'd twice got the better of New Zealand's eventual centurion Daryl Mitchell. An lbw on eight was not reviewed after being adjudged not out, then an edge on 80 was taken out of Joe Root's hands at first slip when wicketkeeper Ben Foakes leapt across to snatch at it.
But you knew, deep down, Potts' rewards were not going to be too far away. As he mentioned on Sky Sports at stumps on Saturday, he is consistent with his method: "I don't think there's any great secret. Just a bit of wobble, maybe the occasional swinger. Just try and hit it on a good length and hopefully something will happen." As it did against Williamson, and earlier when he got England's hunt for ten second-innings wickets up and running with a delivery that left Will Young and coaxed a prod to Ollie Pope at third slip.
As for the moments when it doesn't quite happen? "It's not a drama," he shrugged, like a bloke who knows full well that none of this caper is life and death. Yet even in those moments when the pitch flattens out, he's still running in, still hammering that length and doing it accurately enough for England to operate without a fine leg, giving them an extra fielder to use in a more threatening position.
A quick arm, an awkward action and what those in on the term call "fast nip" - Potts' ability to lose little pace after the ball pitches - are misjudgement-inducing themselves, even before his skills come into the equation. Those skills got a tune-up over the winter, and ultimately led to his international calling, including the acquisition of a wobble-ball. Add it all together, even an average pace of 81 miles per hour (both in this Test and the series as a whole), CricViz calculates he elicits false shots 17 percent of the time - essentially more than once an over.
That he is now doing all this as James Anderson's replacement is not for nothing, either. The burden of deputising for 651 dismissals doesn't register, because his remit hasn't changed. When so many have tried to mimic the great man, Potts was his own man, doing things in his own way.
There's something to be said for Potts' personality, too, because it's not quite as obvious on the field as it is with others. While Ben Stokes, Stuart Broad and Jonny Bairstow took turns between balls to conduct the Western Terrace like they were warming up the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, Potts managed to do so when the ball was live.
You could probably apportion some of the credit for Henry Nicholls' wicket (caught and bowled by Jack Leach) to Potts, considering he was responsible for the decibel levels that made Headingley feel that little bit smaller and that little bit more enclosed for New Zealand's batters. And it said all you needed to know about his attitude to the game, and the grind, that he was hurrying back to his mark even as darkness closed in, to try and prise one or two more deliveries out before the day was done.
Alas, his scampering before the rains came in to end day three proved in vain, and he will return on Sunday morning with one ball remaining in his 10th over.
There is a selflessness to his graft: Potts is the type of person who'd run through a brick wall for his team-mates and then clean up the debris. It is why, even before he had bowled a ball in an England shirt, Stokes - his Durham team-mate - championed him as not just an "athlete" but "everything I expect this team to be going forward".
Typically, he wasn't having it when he was asked of the thrill of having a player like Williamson, a generational great, in his back pocket. "I wouldn't say he's sitting in my pocket," he replied, as much of a correction as it was a statement of the sort of humility necessary to make it in this arena.
"To be honest, that could be anyone. Anyone in that line-up, I'm trying to get them out. And if I'm not, I shouldn't be in the team really."
Well, he is. And he should be, for a good while yet.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is a sportswriter for ESPNcricinfo