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Ryan Higgins: The Ben Stokes injury replacement hiding in plain sight

England have shown little interest in Gloucestershire allrounder despite his remarkable record

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Ryan Higgins has excelled with bat and ball since joining Gloucestershire in late 2017  •  Getty Images

Ryan Higgins has excelled with bat and ball since joining Gloucestershire in late 2017  •  Getty Images

Forty-two county cricketers have scored 1,500 runs or more since the start of the 2018 season, and twenty-two have taken at least 100 wickets*, but only one man has done both. Since his move to Gloucestershire ahead of that season, Ryan Higgins has turned himself into a genuine allrounder, averaging 35.14 with the bat and 20.71 with the ball, and has been the standout multi-disciplined performer across the country.
And yet, there is no suggestion that higher honours are imminent: he was twelfth man for an England Lions team in 2019, but did not go on their most recent tour to Australia and was not part of England's 55-man training squad at the start of last summer. Even with Ben Stokes ruled out of the first two Tests of the summer against New Zealand, and Sam Curran and Chris Woakes likely to be in quarantine following the IPL after India was added to the government's red list, Higgins does not seem to be in the picture as a potential replacement.
He is under no illusions as to why: most of his first-class cricket has been played in Division Two of the County Championship, and there have not many 5ft 9in seamers who bowl at around 77mph/124kph that have succeeded at the highest level. That said, his early-season outings - only Ollie Robinson has taken more than his 13 Championship wickets in the first two rounds - have demonstrated an ability to perform against the best teams in the country, even if the runs are yet to materialise since his shift up to No. 6.
"I'm not that frustrated," Higgins told ESPNcricinfo. "I'm still quite young, and I probably haven't done it for long enough yet. The way I bowl, I'm probably going to have to do a bit more than other guys might, just because I don't have that pace. I'd love to be challenged at the next level, whether that's for the Lions or something further in the future, but I have to earn that right just like anyone else.
"Clearly we're quite unfashionable, but it's not like just because we're at Gloucestershire we're not getting picked - I don't think that's necessarily true. It's probably fair enough: playing in the second division for a long period of time might not lend itself to going on and playing for England, which is fine, but now we have the stage to show our stuff. We've got to keep knocking on the door, and we have to do better to get into those sides.
"[Pace] could be something I'd need to look at, but you also see guys trying to put on pace and getting injured more often and ends up setting their career back. If I'm bowling 77-78mph and hitting the spot, that's better than bowling 82mph inaccurately, getting injured more, and not being such an effective bowler. I'd rather face someone bowling at 82mph who isn't as accurate and doesn't have the skills than someone who is always putting it in a good area."
Higgins' transformation into an allrounder has been sudden, and owes much to the opportunity he has had at Gloucestershire since his move from Middlesex at the end of the 2017 season. During his time in the England Under-19s, where he played alongside Joe Clarke and Ben Duckett, Higgins was a specialist batter, bowling only eight overs in his 17 youth ODIs; now, he is worth his place in the Championship side as a seamer alone, and almost always takes the new ball. He remains a batter first and foremost in the limited-overs sides, but has worked hard on his variations and his death bowling.
"I didn't really bowl coming through," he said. "I'd only played a few first-class games for Middlesex and I'd actually done better with the ball than with the bat. It was probably then that I started working really hard on it, and obviously I've had more opportunities with the ball at Gloucestershire than I would have there.
"Someone said to me yesterday, 'you must never regret that move', and I don't. I love the way it's worked out - I love living down here in Bristol and I love it all, really. I always hated not playing at Middlesex but I look back on it now and think: was it a blessing in disguise? Would I have been ready if I'd played younger? I knew I had it in me with the bat and that I could be a decent bowler, but I definitely didn't think things would have gone as well with both."
While Higgins, 26, has time on his side in his ambition to play for England, his all-round dominance in the Championship invites parallels with those who have enjoyed similarly fruitful periods at county level, like Darren Stevens, Peter Trego and Will Gidman. He has a good relationship with Stevens, having met him while playing for the MCC in the Hong Kong Sixes in 2017, and admitted he is something of an inspiration.
"He always gives me advice: he's always messaging me about different ideas I could work on and trying to help me on my way. He is the gold standard, 100%. Him and Tim Murtagh, I always watch their highlights to see anything I could be changing or working on. If they can do it, I can challenge myself to do similar things."
Higgins has spoken to Stevens about the difference in standard between the two divisions of the Championship, and while the disruption of Covid last summer and the resulting restructure this season means Gloucestershire are yet to test themselves in Division One, eight-wicket wins against Surrey and Somerset in their opening games this year have made him question how big the gap actually is. Incidentally, both fixtures were attended by James Taylor, now England's head scout following the reshuffle of the selection panel, with James Bracey's runs likely to have helped his case for inclusion in this summer's Test squads.
The departure of Richard Dawson for an England pathway role has been managed well, with his long-term assistant Ian Harvey stepping in as interim head coach for the season, and a win away at Hampshire this week would leave Gloucestershire out in front at the top of Group Two, needing to finish in the top two to reach the six-team first division.
"I haven't noticed as big a difference as I thought I would," Higgins said. "We haven't been on the end of an Ollie Pope 245 yet, so maybe I'll let you know after one of those days, but I still feel like I can get those slightly better players out and that we can compete. I think Essex showed when they went up [in 2016] and won it the next year that the standard isn't too different.
"Last year, our game at Taunton was an absolute shocker: we were blown out of the water. We were watching from the side and were almost in awe of what their guys could do, but I don't think we are anymore. We know that's the standard of cricket we play. Having Jimmy Bracey back has been absolutely massive for us, and within that dressing room, knowing guys like him, Denty [Chris Dent] and Brathers [Kraigg Brathwaite] are out there for us makes a huge difference.
"Hampshire have played very good cricket so far and so have we. I'm pretty sure that Hampshire are going to be the ones to beat this year: they seem to have finally got on that roll that everyone has been expecting them to in the last few years. It should be a really good, fun challenge this week."
*Includes County Championship and Bob Willis Trophy

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98