Josh Bohannon keeps faith in red-ball route to England recognition
Lions hopeful confident his methods can meet requirements of rebooted Test team
In a parallel universe, Josh Bohannon might already be a part of England's Test reboot. Last year, it seemed he was the coming man - batting at No.3 for Lancashire, he would end up passing 800 runs for the second Championship season in a row, again compiled with the sort of no-nonsense temperament that belied his 24 years of age. He seemed an ideal candidate for a team that had won one match in 17 and was crying out for new blood.
Bohannon was so close to a call-up, in fact, that on the eve of the tour of the Caribbean in March, a Sky reporter erroneously rang him up to congratulate him on his apparent selection. But then Bazball happened, and the narrative changed once again. Now, a settled England team is on the roll of rolls with nine thrilling wins out of ten, and as Bohannon prepares to head off for Sri Lanka for his third Lions tour, the question is whether the attributes that brought him so close to recognition last year are still relevant as the new season draws nigh.
"Obviously I was pretty close to breaking in this time last year, but it wasn't the right time," Bohannon tells ESPNcricinfo. "And that was almost a blessing, because some of the work that I've done since then is really paying dividends. Hopefully when this opportunity does come, I'll be in a great position to walk in and do some of the things that you see the guys in the team doing."
The Lions programme has long been intended to mirror the experience of playing for England, to enable those who make the grade to slot seamlessly into the senior team when their turn comes. And to judge by the contrasting moods of his previous two trips - to Australia last winter as part of the Ashes preparation, and more recently to Dubai and Abu Dhabi for a training camp ahead of the Pakistan tour - Bohannon has been a privileged witness to one of the most remarkable transformations that the Test squad has ever undergone.
"It's quite evident that people are walking around with a smile on their face all the time," he says of his most recent encounter in November. "They are enjoying being in the field together for a period of time and doing the job that they love. Everything they do is based around winning a game of cricket. They never take a backward step, in some ways they are happy to lose, rather than draw, in order to win, and for the players that are extremely close to getting in as well, it's a great environment to be around.
"Going to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, I knew what I could do and the skills that I have," he adds. "But I was almost too scared to, for example, to sweep a left-arm spinner first-ball, in case I miss one and I get an lbw, and all of a sudden we are two-down in the first session. But what that environment has taught me is that, if you practice something enough that it becomes a strength of yours, just go and do it, whether it's first ball, fifth ball or 100th ball. It's all about recognising opportunities in the game, and wherever that looks like, go and do it."
And if Bohannon was a beneficiary of that wisdom in Abu Dhabi, then Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum are keen to ensure that the whole of the domestic game is set up to embrace those same possibilities. Last week, the pair hosted a Zoom conference with county head coaches and directors of cricket to pass down their Bazball blueprint (as neither man is calling it, of course). It's a development that Bohannon welcomes with open arms because, while his progress at Lancashire has been as smooth and settled as any England hopeful could wish for, the relentless nature of the English domestic season, with fewer opportunities for middle practice, makes it harder for aspiring players to adapt their training to meet such fast-changing trends at international level.
"I know I can fit into that environment, but being brutally honest, the one thing I have struggled with is understanding what my [training] role looks like at Lancashire. If you want to play four-day cricket, you have to bat long periods of time, but the way that we train is very different to the way that the England team is training right now. That is definitely feeding down into county cricket. It's really exciting to see everything as an opportunity, rather than worrying 'what happens if I do this or do that', which is the way that I used to think before."
A change of mindset, however, is not the same thing as a change of technique - a point that Bohannon believes he recognises as well as anyone, having worked extensively in recent seasons with Lancashire's psychologist, Lee Richardson, as well as the club's assistant coach, Carl Crowe, to give a focus to the fiery nature that had sometimes been his undoing in the early years of his career.
"[Crowe's] been awesome for me," Bohannon says. "He gets what sort of person I am, and how I think, and turns everything that I say to him in a positive way, and makes me look at stuff a little different.
"Take Rahul Dravid," he adds. "He goes down as a legend of the game, but in almost two-thirds of his Test innings, even he failed to get a fifty or a hundred [187 out of 286]. At the end of the day, you're batting with a piece of wood that's four or five inches wide, and the ball only needs to nip or swing a couple extra millimetres from where your eyes see it, and it's game over.
"If bowlers bowl one bad ball, however, they get five other opportunities to get you out. Cricket's an extremely hard game, so the one thing I've learned over the last two seasons is not to be too harsh on myself, because if I take the enjoyment away, that's obviously not where I want to be."
Despite his delight at being involved in another Lions squad, there is just the sense this time out, however, that the focus for England hopefuls has shifted. More than 70 county cricketers are in action in various T20 leagues around the world this winter, and to judge by McCullum's willingness to conflate white-ball prowess and Test potential, a winter spent at the SA20 or ILT20 could have been every bit as advantageous in the fight for future recognition.
Bohannon, however, still believes that his red-ball focus is the right approach for him to take in the short term.
"A lot of people are away with the franchise stuff, and it's excellent, because they're outside playing cricket, rather than just stuck in the indoor school, facing a flicker or some spin on a mat. But the way I'm looking at it, it's an excellent opportunity for me to start the season really well and hopefully show people on the international stage what I can do.
"For me, the pinnacle is still Test cricket. I hope my white-ball game can kick on in the next couple of years, because people are getting paid a hell of a lot of money to play in these competitions, and everyone wants that in their life.
"But I look at someone like Joe Root. His sole focus for a period of time has been on Test cricket, and now he's looking to extend his white-ball cricket as he moves towards the end of his career, I guess. So that's the way that I hopefully see my own career going. I want to play as much Test cricket as possible. And while I'm doing that, obviously develop my white-ball game so that hopefully I can be part of these competitions in the long run."
And therein lies the beauty of the new attitude that Stokes and McCullum have inculcated in the Test team. Bohannon is confident that, under the new management, those two ambitions do not need to be in opposition to one another.
"I don't feel like I have to change my game in any way," he says. "Sometimes I think people are reading into the management a little bit different. It's not just about going out there and smacking it every single ball. It's about picking balls, picking bowlers, almost like you would do in T20, when certain people have better match-ups.
"You have to recognise periods of the game where you've got to soak it up, or when you've still got five wickets left and the challenge is to get a certain amount in a session to make sure that we bowl for a period of time. So I don't think it's about changing the game, it's just about working on that mindset and when, hopefully, I get into that set-up, it becomes a second nature."
For the time being, it's back to the shadow set-up for Bohannon, as part of a 16-man red-ball squad that is set to play a three-day warm-up in Colombo on January 25 before two four-day Tests against Sri Lanka A in Galle. And while the competitive element of his past two trips has been lacking, first due to the terrible weather that cramped the squad's opportunities in Queensland, then by the Test team's decision to cancel the final day of their warm-up match in Abu Dhabi in favour of middle practice, Bohannon is adamant that his experiences have been invaluable.
"The trips I've been on have been awesome," he says. "In Australia we'd have liked better weather, but in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, everything was based on scenario practice. If you weren't on the centre wickets or fielding, you were in the nets, and if you weren't in the nets you were running, gymming, or whatever. The days seemed to go really fast.
"It's always a pleasure to get picked and it's obviously really exciting, but I wouldn't say I feel comfortable within the set-up. Because I don't want to be comfortable. I just want to give it my best, and push my ambitions to fulfil my dream."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket