Slow Death back in the Fast Lane: How Tymal Mills rose again

After managing a long-standing back issue, and starring in the Hundred, Mills is back in vogue

David Hopps
David Hopps
Tymal Mills celebrates a breakthrough at the death, London Spirit vs Southern Brave, Lord's, Men's Hundred, August 1, 2021

Tymal Mills was a central figure in Southern Brave's triumph in the men's Hundred  •  Getty Images

How would Tymal Mills feel, during a month in which England have recalled him after a four-year absence, to be dubbed the most unglamorous 90mph fast bowler in the world? "I'd take it," he grinned, not remotely perturbed by the suggestion. If not the most unglamorous, he must surely be the most easy going.
It's doubtful that any fast bowler capable of cranking it up to 90mph (145kph) can really qualify as unglamorous, especially one who is also armed with Mills' slower-ball variations, and who offers the variety of a left-armer to boot. But he readily accepts the term on the grounds that his relative lack of yorkers means that he rarely pulls off the most photogenic moment of all for a fast bowler - the aggressively physical strut of triumph as stumps are spread-eagled to all parts.
What really matters to Mills is that he is back in demand again. With Jofra Archer, his Sussex colleague, on the slow road back from an elbow operation, he is the most crucial bowling element in Sussex's side in the T20 Blast Finals Day at Edgbaston on Saturday. Then comes that England recall for the World T20 in Dubai in October. As long as his fitness holds, his career is back on track.
"It's an unglamorous role because I am not ripping the stumps out," he said. "The yorkers I do bowl tend to be wider. A bowler could nail three yorkers at the death but the other three deliveries could go 6-4-6 but people only tend to remember the great moments where he gets a wicket with a yorker. Whereas I look at my economy rate over the course of time and that is the measure of a good death bowler. Bowling at the death is such a volatile time in the game that if I can be relatively consistent that is something I can pride myself upon."
Stumps might not fly very often, but it should not remotely underplay the statistic that did the rounds at the start of the summer suggesting that, in major competitions, Mills was the most economical death bowler in the world, with Pakistan's Wahab Riaz the closest challenger. That is something special. If Michael Holding was Whispering Death in a different era, then Mills can claim to be Slow Death as he slowly, almost imperceptibly, squeezes life from the closing overs of an innings. Yet somehow, partly because of injury, the accolades have not quite come.
"I enjoy bowling at the death," he said. "The stat coming into the summer was that at the death over 60% of my deliveries were short balls which traditionally they have been. I stayed away from bowling yorkers. I found more success with back-of-a-length and short and minimising the extra risk of targeting the stumps. By that nature I am a defensive bowler when it comes to death bowling even though I can bowl quickly."
To nail that yorker, however, would give even more potency to his slower balls by adding another concern for the batter. And he used the Hundred to try to add it to his repertoire more often.
"I feel that I bowled a bit differently this summer and have bowled more yorkers. Previously I haven't bowled as many yorkers as some other people because I wasn't confident I was going to execute them. The way I see it T20 cricket is One v One execution and I'm not going to bowl deliveries I don't feel confident about. This year in the Hundred I felt confident enough in certain situations. I'm not the sort of bowler who is going to run in and bowl six yorkers but, if I can bowl two of my six deliveries, it gives me such huge scope."
Mills' return to prominence felt a distant possibility last summer when he suffered a stress fracture that resulted in him wearing a back brace for three months. That call from Chris Silverwood, England's coach, to tell him he was in the World Cup squad was a reward for the mind-numbing months of rehab during which an England recall was the last thing on his mind.
"I was pretty much shut down during that stress fracture and then it was a slow return after that," he said. "They wrap you in papier mâché essentially and mould it to your body. The only time I didn't wear it was when I was sleeping or showering.
From the start [the Hundred] was survival of the fittest. You would really see who the best bowlers and batsmen were. It was a real opportunity to showcase ability.
"Mentally it was tough. I couldn't do anything for three months. Walk in the morning, bike in the evening and that was me for three months. I did get the chance to spend more time with my daughter, which was great. But you watch TV and think 'I should be playing in that tournament'. I had a long time out, but it was just a matter of staying fit and staying patient. Touch wood, this summer it's been all good."
Mills has been stepping up his training this week as Sussex seek their first T20 title since 2009. His career is forever precarious - limited to four-over bursts so as not to agitate his vulnerable back condition - but if Sussex beat Kent in the second semi-final then he must negotiate back-to-back matches with the potential for eight overs in a relatively short time.
"Obviously it's not the same as a match, but I've been tailing the training accordingly," he said. "Normally I would bowl just 4 or 5 overs in a training session but this week I've bowled seven overs in two spells. Maybe it's more mental than physical, just to know that my back feels good."
There will be nothing showy from Mills on Finals Day to mark the fact that England have come calling again, no grand theories for opposing batters, no look-at-me experimentation with fields. He has always preferred to keep it simple.
"One thing I feel a lot of death bowlers do is over-complicate it whereas I set myself a field that allows me to bowl a multitude of different deliveries so the batsman doesn't know for sure what I am going to bowl," he explained. "I will always have a field set where I can bowl at least three different deliveries. Then at the end of my mark I will go on a gut feeling of what the best delivery is at that time."
If the Blast season coincided with a signal from Eoin Morgan, England's white-ball captain, that Mills was back in contention, it was some typically mean bouts of death bowling for Southern Brave in the Hundred that ultimately secured his selection. He finished with the fourth-best economy rate in the competition. He feels that the inaugural season of Hundred delivered what T20 in England previously has not: the potential for worldwide exposure. For somebody who has been overlooked by IPL teams since his ill-starred season for RCB in 2017, that reminder of his talents has given him hope that there can also be a second coming in the most voracious tournament of all.
"I've always said that a lot of brilliant performances get missed in the Blast because they can't be televised," he said. "With the Hundred, for good and for bad, every performance will be televised, spoken about and analysed. I was under the impression from the start that that it was survival of the fittest. You would really see who the best bowlers and batsmen were. It was a real opportunity to showcase ability."
By rights, immediately after playing for Sussex in Finals Day in the Vitality Blast, he should have been saying goodbye to his Sussex team-mates and rushing off with his county colleague, George Garton, for a second tilt at IPL. He was a sought-after replacement ahead of the restart of the postponed tournament in Dubai next week, but because he didn't enter the auction in Chennai back in February, he did not qualify. All he could suggest was "come back next year".
"Just my luck," he shrugged. "The IPL is restarting and I had four or five teams who wanted me to go out there and play but, because I had a stress fracture last winter, I didn't enter the auction and you have to have entered the auction to be a replacement player for the restart. I couldn't have foreseen that."
Mills has experienced the hue and cry that goes with a big IPL price tag and has not been picked up in the auction since. In 2017, he had modestly entered the auction at a base price of Rs 50 lakh (USD 75,000 then) but a bidding war resulted in Royal Challengers Bangalore paying USD 1.8m for him. An overnight millionaire, he had to face the expectations to go with it. He played five games - solid but unspectacular - and injured his hamstring. RCB finished bottom.
"With the IPL I did okay but I tore my hamstring and struggled to shake it off. I feel I was a bit of a victim of my transfer fee. With the sort of money I was bought for, the expectations were there and I didn't live up to those expectations. You get labelled as a bust."
England looked elsewhere, too, and he has not played since a T20 against India in Bengaluru in February 2017. Now he hears Silverwood extolling his ability to perform on the big stage. Edgbaston for Finals Day is first up, followed by the World T20. And if all that goes well, who knows, unglamorous or not, the next IPL auction might turn out differently.

David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps