Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @mroller98
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Since his debut in 2011, Ian Cockbain has missed only one of Gloucestershire's 123 T20 fixtures. In that time, he has been the Blast's leading run-scorer among middle-order batsman, the fourth-highest across batting positions, and has he become the club's all-time leading T20 run-scorer. Ahead of the inaugural draft for the Hundred in late 2019, he felt understandably optimistic about his chances of winning a contract.
And yet on the night, he was left feeling like the man without an invite to the party. "I was just watching it on TV in Bristol," he recalled. "I was seeing people who I thought I was kind of on a par with getting picked up and feeling like I had a chance, and then all of a sudden, I realised the whole thing was done and my name hadn't come out. It was a tough one to swallow - it wasn't a very fun watch, really."
Cockbain's problem was not that had not scored enough runs. Instead, teams appeared to share a concern that while he scored plenty of runs, he did not do so quickly enough. Across the 2017, 2018 and 2019 seasons, he had averaged 30.72, but his strike rate was a relatively pedestrian 128.94. That left teams fearing that he would be unable to clear the ropes regularly enough to be worth his place in their respective middle orders, not least in a format even shorter than T20.
"My agent made some phone calls and asked for some feedback," he said. "One of the main points was my strike rate. I found that one quite tough, given my role in the team. I pride myself on being the not-out batsman and winning games for Gloucester, even if that might mean doing the dirty work sometimes at a sacrifice to my own personal strike rate."
The snub left Cockbain with a decision: he could either accept his fate, knowing that he would spend the middle of the season at Gloucestershire as a senior pro in their 50-over season, or make changes to his game aged 33 that would force Hundred teams to take notice of him. He suggested that a shift in perspective, sparked by becoming a father in lockdown, made it a simple call.
"[The coaches] wanted me to do the same sort of role as I had for a few years," he said, "and I thought that was all well and good, but I do also have to think about myself. I've got a family to support now. I took everything on board and thought I could still win games and be the not-out batter but going at a higher strike rate, so that became a big focus of mine."
And the changes he made paid off. Cockbain has not played a first-class game since 2018, and while he is still under contract to play across formats, he was able to use the club's Bob Willis Trophy season to sharpen up on his white-ball skills after missing out on selection (although Covid protocols limited his training time). He is one of several Gloucestershire players to have spent time working with Julian Wood, the former Hampshire batsman who is now a specialist power-hitting coach, and said that he had made a conscious effort to be more proactive in his approach throughout the season.
What followed was the best T20 form of Cockbain's career: 399 runs in 11 innings, an average of 44.33, a strike rate of 169.78, and a competition-high 22 sixes (equal with Joe Clarke). Any fears that his attempts to score faster would come at the cost of the team's results were allayed by Gloucestershire reaching their first Finals Day since 2007, eventually losing to Surrey in a rain-affected semi-final.
One innings in particular stood out: 84 not out off 35 balls in a 12-over game against Birmingham Bears at Edgbaston, in which he ruthlessly targeted the shorter boundary against an attack including Olly Stone, Jeetan Patel and Tim Bresnan. Cockbain's intent against spin was particularly notable throughout the season: he scored at a strike rate of 119.92 against spinners across the 2017-19 seasons, which increased to 147.16 last summer.
"Previously I was always the one to knock it around in the middle overs and let someone take the risks down the other end - playing that anchor role, really. But last year I took it upon myself to say 'why can't I take those risks?' I back myself to score as quickly as anyone, so I thought I'd give it a go."
The result is that Cockbain's name features on several teams' shortlists in the Hundred draft this week, which is due to be staged behind closed doors on Monday and released publicly on Tuesday ahead of the competition's postponed inaugural season this summer. With 28 slots available to domestic players (plus a further eight 'wildcard' spots selected in June or July) many county cricketers will be left disappointed once more, but Cockbain is optimistic about his chances.
Cockbain's wife, Amy, is Australian, which has allowed him to play in Victoria this winter for Buckley Ridges CC in grade cricket. The time difference means that he will wake up to a WhatsApp message telling him whether his self-improvement has paid off: he will either discover that his work has paid dividends or be left to rue his misfortune once more.
"My agent has been speaking to teams and there have been some positive chats," he said. "We'll have to wait and see but I've definitely got my fingers crossed. Hopefully it'll be good news when I get that message."