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Tymal Mills: 'I want to play for England again. I think I have skills that aren't replicated in English cricket'

The star of England's last T20I series in India has fallen off their radar, but he doesn't think he's out of it just yet

"I keep bouncing back: I'm not losing pace and I still feel like I'm performing at the level I want to"  •  Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

"I keep bouncing back: I'm not losing pace and I still feel like I'm performing at the level I want to"  •  Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

When England last played a T20I series in India, in early 2017, Tymal Mills was a breakout star. While his figures - 3 for 94 in 12 overs across three games - were not immediately eye-catching, he conceded only 46 runs in his six overs within the final five of an innings while hitting speeds in excess of 145kph against a strong batting line-up. It brought attention from several IPL franchises, culminating in a Rs 12 crore (US$ 1.8m or £1.4 million approximately at the time) bid from the Royal Challengers Bangalore in the following month's IPL auction.
But Mills has not played for England since, with regular injuries preventing him from sealing a spot. Four years on, he looks back at his best for Sussex in the T20 Blast, and has his sights set on an international recall.
I'm sure you look back on that 2017 series fondly. How do you reflect on that period in your career?
Looking back on it, I wouldn't have thought at the time that it would have been the last time I'd play for England. That was a real high point in my career - that whole winter, really. It was my first winter on the T20 circuit and everything was going pretty well for me. I was loving it.
And then from the IPL onwards, it's just unfortunately been a case of injury after injury. I haven't had too many long stints without one, so I haven't really been able to push forwards and get back into the England side, which is where I want to be. It is frustrating, and it wouldn't be how I thought the next four years would have gone at that time.
When you made your England debut against Sri Lanka in 2016, you were seen as a poster boy for the T20 circuit, given you'd retired from other forms of cricket aged 22 due to your back condition. Was the prospect of playing against India in India daunting, given the extra scrutiny and the fact you were still only 24?
I didn't put too much pressure on myself but I did identify it as the biggest test of my career. Up until that point I'd played in the Blast, the BPL, the Super Smash, and a couple of games in the Big Bash. When you're playing against India in India, that's pretty much as tough as it gets. It was a test that I really looked forward to: I backed myself to do well.
It was my first time playing out there, but one thing I've always been good at is never really feeling overawed by an occasion. If you ask my team-mates at Sussex, they'll say I often perform better when the TV cameras are in and there's a full house - I'm a bit of a show pony like that.
Were you happy with how you did?
I just enjoyed it, first and foremost. I was still very young and probably naïve to the situation, but I tried to focus on myself and what I knew I could do well. I was given that role by Morgs [Eoin Morgan] to open the bowling and then bowl two at the death in every game. If you look at the figures, I think I only took one wicket in each game, going for 25 or 30-odd but there were a few high-scoring games in there, and bowling at Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina is as tough as it gets. I was really pleased.
Going into that series, a few weeks before an IPL auction, you must have realised that you were 12 good overs away from a contract?
I could never have expected what ended up happening, but you know that recency bias is a very real thing, especially in T20 leagues. Playing a series in India a couple of weeks before the auction was as good a shop window as there could be. You're not thinking about that when you're training or in the middle, but it's definitely a by-product.
And then the big bid came in from RCB. You took five wickets in five games and went at 8.57 runs an over - not terrible numbers, but not what they'd have hoped for given the price they'd paid.
I played the first few games and I didn't do terribly… maybe I'd say I held my own. Then I had a small hamstring tear which knocked me out for a while, and I couldn't quite get back to full fitness. The rest of the tournament fizzled out and I've not been able to get back out there since. Some of that has been deserved because I haven't been in form, and there have also been times where I've felt really good and been bowling well but then not been picked up in the auction or as a replacement player. [The IPL] is definitely something I want to go back to because they haven't seen the best of me: I still think it's a level I can perform at and succeed at so I'm working hard to try and get back there.
That hamstring injury you mentioned kept you out for a while, and when you did get back to fitness, you struggled in the 2017-18 Big Bash, and England haven't come calling since.
I had the problem with my hamstring, which started at the IPL and then it lingered into the Blast season in England that summer. I tore it again properly and didn't play until I went out to play for Hobart in the Big Bash. I hadn't played leading into that Big Bash for about five months. The hamstring was fine by that point, but I had no rhythm and I definitely didn't give a good account of myself. I had a really poor tournament.
You've been in much better form over the last two years. When did things turn around for you?
It was when I went and played the second half of the PSL for Peshawar Zalmi in 2019 that I felt like I was back to my best. I had played the Blast in 2018 and then the T10 and the Afghan league, and was still kind of getting back to form, but in that tournament with Zalmi, I felt really good. We got to the final, and I had some good feedback from Kieron Pollard and the coaches. I was pretty confident of kicking on from there, and my agent was texting me about my name being in the hat when a couple of seamers got injured in the IPL but those calls just didn't come.
Unfortunately injuries have just kept coming back. It's been frustrating, but the one thing that has kept me going is that I keep bouncing back: I'm not losing pace and I still feel like I'm performing at the level I want to. Last summer I was happy with how I bowled in the Blast - I was still hitting good speeds in the games we played on TV, so I'm confident that my skills haven't waned. If I'm fit and on the pitch, I'll always back myself to do well.
Heading into this summer, you'll have the opportunity to play more games than usual, with the introduction of a second short-format competition in England: the Hundred. It looks like a big season for you.
It's a huge summer for me in the context of my career. I've been working my way back to fitness after an injury at the end of last season, and working on my business, Pace Journal, and I know that it's a massive season coming up. I really want to perform for Sussex: they've invested a lot of time and effort in me - me and the physio are a bit closer than I would like! - so I want to have a good Blast and help pay them back. Then hopefully I can have a really strong Hundred and restore faith in people who think I might not have it anymore. It's a huge competition, one that I'm really looking forward to: our squad at Southern Brave looks pretty stacked.
With some of the names involved, both players and coaches, there will be opportunities to make relationships that help you win contracts in franchise tournaments down the line too. Mahela Jayawardene is your head coach at the Brave, with Shane Bond as his assistant.
You can't ignore those things. It's very easy to say, "Oh yeah, I'm just focusing on myself and X, Y and Z will take care of themselves" but those things are very real: stuff like recency bias, and guys seeing you with their own eyes. I know Mahela a little bit from when he was our overseas player at Sussex. He's head coach at Mumbai Indians with Shane Bond as his No. 2. Bondy is the head coach at Sydney Thunder. So within our own camp you've got guys at two of the bigger franchises within world cricket, and then there are similar stories all around the traps as well.
One of the main benefits from a player's point of view is that every game is going to be televised. With the Blast, so many brilliant performances get missed: there are so many games that you can't play them all in front of the cameras and guys scoring hundreds, taking wickets, taking amazing catches - they're relegated to stationary cameras on a Twitter feed.
You've mentioned your skill set, and how you feel you offer something different than most bowlers. Of course you're a left-arm quick, but you also have quite an unusual method at the death too, in that you rarely try to bowl yorkers. Why is that?
It's just a case of me playing to my strengths. Commentators, pundits, journalists will all say that you have to bowl yorkers at the death. It is the best ball - if you execute it, it is the hardest ball to hit. But it can also go wrong just as easily. You'll often see a guy have one game where he executes his yorkers really well and he's suddenly hailed as a brilliant death bowler, but you look at the numbers and the naked facts and he's not - he's just had a brilliant game.
I go about it in a different way: I use my angle, coming round the wicket [to right-handers] or over to the left-handers, and try to bowl fast and heavy. I try and reduce width, and with the pace that I've got, I try to skid it into the box-thigh-pad region. I think that's the hardest length to hit for six: it's not full enough to drive or get under the ball, but not quite short enough to hook and to pull. You're going to get it wrong sometimes, but in my opinion, if you get it right, they're the hardest balls to hit. The numbers back that up in terms of my economy rate at the death and if you can mix that in with slower balls as well at varying lengths, you're keeping the batsman guessing.
So do you ever try to bowl yorkers anymore?
I definitely have been working on yorkers, and wide yorkers in particular, because you can't just rely on one or two tricks, and I'm still looking to evolve. But I'm a big believer in the fact that you need to play to your strengths as much as possible. T20 cricket is all about executing, particularly in high-pressure situations like bowling at the death. There's no use putting someone under pressure to bowl a yorker if they're not confident that they're going to execute it. That's obviously different to what many others might think, but it's served me well enough so far.
How do you rate your chances of playing for England again?
Rightly or wrongly, I think I'm good enough to be in that conversation. There are a lot of good bowlers around at the moment, but like I said, I feel as though I have skills that aren't replicated in English cricket. It's been a long time and I have to prove that I'm reliable enough to perform and stay fit. I'm not really a goal-orientated person when it comes to cricket but I definitely want to play for England again. It's something that I've had a little taste of and I want more of: I want to prove myself against the best in the world.
Have you had any conversations with people in the set-up? Do you feel like it's a realistic prospect?
I was playing in the Ultimate Kricket Challenge in Dubai at the start of the winter and I spoke with Morgs just to see where I am. I haven't really had much contact with anybody at the ECB with regards to selection because I've either not been fit or not quite in good enough form, so it was nice to have a chat with him over a beer at dinner one night. He said I'm still on the radar, I just have to put good performances in. I guess I wanted a little bit of feedback: does my name still come up when talking about selection? He didn't shut me down, which was positive. I don't think the door is closed.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @mroller98