How Harry Brook aimed big, failed, and took off like a rocket

England's new wunderkind makes batting look like a blast, but it wasn't always easy for him

Jonathan Doidge
Harry Brook leads the victorious England team off the field, Pakistan vs England, 2nd Test, Multan, 3rd day, December 11, 2022

Brook leads England off the field after their win in Multan, which his second-innings hundred helped set up  •  Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

For young Harry Brook, the last 12 months have been beyond the most wild of dreams. A T20 World Cup winner's medal; Player of the Series awards for his exploits on England's Test tours of Pakistan and New Zealand; and an IPL deal with Sunrisers Hyderabad for a whopping US$1.6 million, the third-highest fee paid by an IPL franchise for any England player, after Sam Curran and Ben Stokes.
Like so many overnight successes, however, Brook's route to the top has been far from plain sailing. In 2019, when his audacious bid to fast-track himself into contention as a Test opener failed, he was dropped from the Yorkshire first team and made to fight his way back in by scoring second-team runs.
It was a rude awakening. He began that season opening the innings alongside former Test centurion Adam Lyth; he thought it might be a route to the elite arena. Instead, a string of starts ended in him requesting a move down the order.
His coach then, Andrew Gale, was not about to bend over backwards to work the team around Brook, and left him out for a month or so before letting him back into the fold. It was all part of Brook's education.
"I learned a lot from 2019," he reflects, when we spoke in Leeds this January about his story so far: "I put my hand up to open. Galey wanted me to open as well, and I said I definitely want to do it because there was so much uncertainty around England's opening batters at the time.
"I was only 20. The reality of me actually getting picked for England was very slim but I thought if I scored a few hundreds in the first few games, I might get a chance at Test cricket.
"It completely threw me off. I didn't stay in the moment. I wasn't thinking about the next game, I was just thinking about if I could play for England. So over the last few years I've worked on trying to stay in the moment, concentrate on the next game and prepare for the next game."
Back then, Brook had already made a partial declaration of his abilities with a match-winning maiden first-class hundred in a bizarre championship game in 2018, when Essex bowled a stellar Yorkshire line-up out for just 50 in their first innings, only to go on and lose. That hundred came from No. 3, to where he had been dropped after opening in the first innings.
First-class cricketing life didn't get off to the best of starts for Brook, who learned his game at the Airedale and Wharfedale League club Burley in Wharfedale. He played just the one match in his first season, 2016, in which he was out for a golden duck against Pakistan A. The following year he averaged 13.66 from six innings in red-ball cricket.
Even after the 124 at Chelmsford in 2018, he didn't really kick on. A first-class average of 25 that year, and 21.76 in 2019, was not delivering the substance that his talent, fostered by many hours of childhood throwdowns by his grandfather Tony, had promised.
In Brook's story, 2020 was the lightbulb moment. There was a greater reliability about him as he took the first steps towards consistency in Yorkshire's Bob Willis Trophy campaign. Despite no three-figure score, he averaged 43.
He mentions a T20 innings at Headingley, where both he and Joe Root made half-centuries, as a turning point. "I used to try and power the bowlers and hit it wherever I wanted to and premeditate a lot of things," he says. "I can remember Rooty coming down to me every over and telling me to watch the ball, to play it on instinct, and we ended up chasing a total down."
The gradient to his upward curve got somewhat steeper in 2021, when he made two hundreds in a season for the first time and finished with 797 runs. In T20s that year, he racked up 695 runs, striking at over 140. That and his 189 runs from five games for Northern Superchargers in the inaugural season of the Hundred piqued the interest of franchises worldwide. Spells in the PSL and the BBL followed, and this year he will no doubt debut in the IPL.
Martin Speight, Brook's coach at his school, Sedbergh, in Cumbria, himself a former county wicketkeeper-batter with Sussex and Durham, thinks the way Brook has overcome several life challenges has stood him in good stead in building towards success at the highest level.
He speaks of a conversation with James Bell, the England team psychologist, who called him to talk about Brook. "They've been working with the players," says Speight. "They've been writing down lots of things, looking at what has created him [Harry] and two or three other young players, and then almost looking at [making them] futureproof.
"They were looking at a mixture of upbringing, young age, love of the game, a family that are obviously cricket-mad - the fact that he could walk out of his Nan's back door and straight onto the pitch."
As for the challenges, leaving Ilkley Grammar School, in the shadow of Ilkley Moor, was a real eye-opener for the teenager: "Sedbergh was not easy for him," says Speight. "He wasn't a natural athlete. Academically he found it hard, and he was forced at school to do his work. He was doing things he didn't want to do.
"He knew that if he wanted to make it, he'd have to stay there and board. He found that hard. He was a very quiet, shy lad when he first started. Although he was clearly a good cricketer, it's all the challenges he had to face outside cricket as much as anything that have shaped him."
Speight cites Brook's failures with Young England as an 18-year-old and his poor second full season in county cricket as reasons for his current success.
"He went away after those disappointments and decided he had to work it out. He made the decision to start again himself. I didn't ring him. He phoned me and asked me to help. He was determined enough to do that and he wanted to succeed."
Although he has worked with the likes of Gale, Paul Grayson, Ottis Gibson and Ali Maiden in his time with Yorkshire, Brook continues to go and see Speight from time to time.
"They've got a wonderful understanding and a connection, which I think is really healthy," says Lyth, Brook's Yorkshire opening partner, "and Speighty probably knows his game as well as Harry does.
"Opening the batting has actually probably made him a better player and more equipped for him to go into the middle order.
"He trusts his defence a lot more now. He's got such a solid defence and you need that to play first-class cricket, let alone Test cricket, but then what he also has got is the attacking game and a natural flair, which comes out a hell of a lot when he's batting."
The fruits of Brook's labours during his early years in the first-class game began to ripen in 2022. It now appears to have been foreordained that just when England's Test fortunes were entrusted to Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes, Brook would have jaws dropping with his own exploits.
His profile looked ideal for the new style, and he had all the shots of a high-class white-ball game to call upon. He made 967 championship runs at 107.44, hammering three hundreds and six fifties in his 13 innings in Yorkshire's ill-fated campaign last year.
"I think I probably fit the script fairly well," Brook suggests. "Just the way I play positive cricket, trying to always put the bowler under pressure."
Even so, he was made to wait until his county colleague Jonny Bairstow's freak golfing injury allowed him a first opportunity.
His Test debut, against South Africa, was all about the experience rather than the runs. "I think the goosebump moment was actually walking out to do the national anthem," he says.
"Because the Queen had died, we walked out and I've never felt or heard anything so silent. You could hear a pin drop. Then, obviously, as soon as we started the national anthem, it erupted."
That England won inside two days is now part of Bazball folklore. That Brook went on to score four sumptuous centuries in the space of eight Test innings may, in time, become part of his legend.
His magnificent Test-best 186 from just 176 balls in the first innings of the Wellington Test this year was followed by his first Test wicket (New Zealand's greatest Test run-scorer, Kane Williamson), before the cricketing gods reminded him of the Ts and Cs of the sport with a diamond duck - he was run out without facing a ball in the second innings.
It's hard to believe this is a man who averaged just 28 in first-class cricket prior to 2022 and only had an average of 36 runs per innings from 56 first-class matches as recently as when he made his England debut last September.
"It's been a bit of a stellar year," he says. "I don't know if I'm ever going to be able to top it, to be honest. The last few months have been like a dream come true. The main thing was to come home with a medal and be a world champion."
Having seen his influential input at international level thus far, few now doubt Brook's ability, least of all Speight.
"Back in school days, he'd come in on a morning, before lessons, and have an hour and 40 or an hour and 50 minutes, every day. He loves the game. He loves batting.
"His whole mindset is that if it's not right, he'll work and work and work to get his basics right before he goes on and does anything else. When he came to see me [in January] before he went to South Africa, he spent 20 minutes at the start just getting everything right. Then he wanted to work on pulling and whacking over wide mid-on, midwicket, back-of-a-length balls, which we worked on.
"Then he went back, had a couple of chats, then he had another 20 minutes going right back to the basics again."
Those basics have changed since Brook began to put his front foot forward in first-class cricket. "When he was at school Harry stood still," says Speight, who also works with other Yorkshire players.
"He didn't trigger or have a pre-delivery movement. I made sure that his alignment was perfect and he didn't twist out towards midwicket. We didn't want his bat coming across the line of the ball. We did that every day for four years.
"If you look at his innings at Lord's in 2017, against the likes of Steven Finn, he was fine [Brook made 38 in Yorkshire's first innings against Middlesex] but over the next year or so he started coming out of alignment. His hips would open up and his shoulders would open more. A bit like a piece of fusilli pasta. His bat ended up sliding across third, fourth or fifth slip, and anything moving, he ended up nicking it or missing it. Even a straight ball on occasions.
"If you're a fraction early, you're going to end up nicking it. If you're a fraction late, it's going to go through the gate."
In 2018, Brook called Speight for help. Grabs from some of the messages exchanged between the pair provide fascinating insight, both visual and verbal, into those technical changes
"He sent me the videos from earlier in the year. We looked at that and decided he'd try using a trigger movement."
Brook had already done some research and found a video of AB de Villiers talking about his triggers. He decided he'd take a page out of the AB book.
"We started work on that and continued all the way through Covid," Speight says. "By putting a trigger in, it loaded his core up ready to move and helped to align his body properly so that his bat could come down in a straight path."
It worked, in part: "Then in Covid year they played four of five games [in the Bob Willis Trophy]. He did well at Durham and got runs against Nottinghamshire but then he didn't kick on.
"He was opening his hips up too much, so we fine-tuned that. Once we sorted that trigger out and got his weight 60-40 to his front foot, we got his head over the top of his body instead of drifting outside off stump. We worked hard on that on an ongoing basis.
"He realised that if his head was in the right position and his trigger was right, he shouldn't miss it, and that's still the basis of his game.
"I watched the dismissal in the first one-day international in South Africa and his toe had gone an inch too far outside off stump. As a result his head got slightly out of line and of course, he played round it rather than hitting through it."
And of his innings in the Wellington Test, Speight says: "All that happened there was that he and Joe [Root, who also got a hundred] worked out that if they stood still where you normally would, one foot either side of the crease, there would be a ball with their name on it.
"So Brooky tried to move outside the crease. He was all over the place in terms of his starting point but his movement remained the same from whatever starting position he set himself and he was able to master them.
"It gave the New Zealand bowlers little margin for error, because when there was any width through the off side, he was so well balanced, he was able to deal with both back-foot and front-foot shots with equal precision."
Ultimately Brook's desire and willingness to work hard at his game, and his belief in Speight's methods and his eye for detail, have brought him rewards.
"He's just got an all-round game for both red and white that is absolutely perfect," says Lyth, himself a superb exponent at the top of the order in all formats. "I'm sure he'll be an all-format cricketer for England for a long time. He's got everything. The only things he can't do are bowl and play football."
It doesn't take long for comparisons to surface where players enjoying success are concerned. Both Lyth and Speight separately suggest that Brook is showing a Kevin Pietersen-like aptitude for his batting.
"To me, he's playing a different game [than] most people at the moment. Test cricket is not easy and he's making it look pretty easy," Lyth says.
He also thinks Brook will face his biggest challenge yet this summer. "Ashes cricket is different, but knowing Harry like I do, he will relish that challenge. He plays pace bowling really well and he plays spin well, so it will come down to him making good decisions for long periods of time.
"In Test cricket he's already done that, so for me it's just a case of him carrying on playing as he is and he'll be fine."
Elite sport demands more than just ability and hard work. It also requires a good temperament to ride the inevitable troughs that punctuate the peaks. Speight says Brook is well equipped on that front. "He has an innate self-belief. He doesn't look nervous when he walks out to bat, does he?
"So whether he is or he isn't nervous, he trusts himself from ball one. To be successful, you have to have that. It's what separates the best few players from the rest.
"When you look at Kevin Pietersen, how many times did people question his temperament? Yet look at what he produced. Harry will make mistakes, lots of them but if you look at his temperament, he doesn't seem to have too much trouble getting in. If he gets in, he will score runs just like [Pietersen] did."
In the dressing room, Brook says his former team-mate Gary Ballance was someone he particularly looked up to and who helped him most of all. "I used to spend quite a lot of time with Gaz. We had loads of conversations. Stats don't lie and his stats are probably some of the best you'll see in county cricket ever.
"Just talking to him about how to score runs, how to convert those twenties and thirties into sixties and seventies and then trying to kick on and get big hundreds - I just picked his brains really, and tried to learn how he scored runs."
Taken across individual scores, Brook's personal manhattan might have begun as a series of single-storey buildings with an occasional landmark structure popping up, but now the skyscrapers are beginning to cluster.
The personal hiatus before his country came calling looks to have been perfect for him. As his game was changing, so too was England's, and particularly in Test cricket. "They're making us feel like we can do anything when we go out there," Brook says. "We're trying to put the bowlers under pressure but we're not being reckless. We're trying to soak up pressure in the pressure situations."
There'll doubtless be a few of those when Australia come over in the summer and it will be fascinating to see how Brook and England handle them. It's a pretty safe bet that there are unlikely to be any dull moments.

Jonathan Doidge is a freelance sports journalist and hosts the podcast Sporting Lives. @JonathanDoidge @Sportinglives1