At the presentation ceremony after he demolished India with a six-wicket haul, Reece Topley could not hide his emotions. “It means a lot,” he said, choking for words. “It makes it all worthwhile, to be honest. It was just over that stand that I had surgery three years ago,” he said, gesturing towards the Wellington Hospital. “It’s everyone’s dream to play for England and I just want to pull on the shirt as often as I can,” he concluded.
Pulling off the England jersey had once seemed a distant journey. Making his debut at 21, life and career were smoothly progressing when a string of injuries began to seize him, pushing him to the brink of premature retirement.
Three years ago, after yet another breakdown, Reece Topley thought he had enough of cricket. The joy of playing the game soon turned into crushing pain after his fourth stress fracture in five years. He thought he could no longer gulp the pain any longer. “Just to bowl I was having to inject myself every day with a hormone in my stomach and once a month I had to come up to London to get an anaesthetic put in my back and then I would have to go to the gym for an hour before I bowled just to prepare everything because I was playing with a crack in my back. I reached the point where I couldn’t be bothered to go through it anymore because I was in so much pain,” he told Telegraph.co.uk in an interview last year.
He thought of retiring—he was just 25 then and had the assurances of the England selectors that he would be in the loop, for his gifts were rare—before he changed his mind and took a year’s sabbatical. He took his thoughts away from cricket and sought the solace of music and friends. He had friends in the music industry and he soon began to hang around with a studio at Peckham, where he polished his drumming skills and learned ukulele, a guitar-like instrument. “I have friends in the music industry, they felt it was a real kick in the teeth when a friend suggested they should all think about retraining. It’s definitely nice that I’ve got friends who do different things. A lot of them work in the city and it does give you a different perspective,” he told itv.
But then struck the lockdown and the studio shut, but he found a retreat in academics. He enrolled in a year-long microeconomic course from University of California and was really something to fill my time during the first lockdown. He had a full-fledged gym at home so that he remained in fine shape. The time away made him more mature, and often he talks like a philosopher. Like when he said after the third T20: “One day it doesn’t go your way and you’re the villain and you have to get yourself up for the next game to try and be the hero.”
He also learned the value of committing himself fully into a cause. “You can accept failure. You can accept being hit for six, you can accept being hit for four. But I think what you can’t accept – what I’ve taken from coaches – is not being committed to the process. If you’re at the top of your mark and commit to bowling a yorker 110 per cent. And you know, that’s fine, but it’s when you go in half-hearted that it is almost disappointing, or you don’t commit to the plan or the field you’ve set. I think that’s what I’ve learned. Just commit,” he told The Telegraph.
He also learned not to hasten his comeback. “When I’ve been injured so much, you’d almost bite someone’s hand off to play a T20 and bowl four overs for 40-something. It’s almost like, at least I’m out there. It’s not like I haven’t got a competitive instinct, it’s just I’m very realistic about things now, and very level-headed. I think that has boded well for me since coming back and playing, because those pressure scenarios, I just embrace them. That’s the perspective that I’m pretty lucky to have stumbled upon really,” he said after a game against the West Indies last year.
So for all the injuries and setbacks, he is still the same bowler he used to be. He was never a tearaway, but he coaxes sharp bounce and movement off the surface as well as in the air. He angles the ball away from the right-hander, makes them hold the line, and occasionally bends the ball into them. More significantly, he swings the ball away from the left-handers, making him a dangerous all-round bowler. There is a misconception that left-handed batsmen are more comfortable against left-arm bowlers, but not when they possess a deadly out-swinger as Topley has. These are reasons that prompted England’s selectors to reintegrate him back into the national team soon after he regained full fitness and form. For all the depth in fast bowling, England don’t possess a quality left-arm medium pacer at a time when they are much sought after, when their currency is inflation proof. Barring India, every top team has one—Pakistan have Shaheen Shah Afridi, Australia Mitchell Starc, New Zealand Trent Boult and Neil Wagner and South Africa Marco Jansen. Sam Curran was the big hope, but he quickly disintegrated.
The layoff has not changed his perceptions on bowling, though bowling itself has changed in his six-year absence. “Up top, you’ve got to try and take wickets. If you can swing the ball up top, it’s harder to hit a moving ball than a ball that’s going straight, essentially,” he says.
Now he is waging a war he wants to win. “I have so much confidence in my ability and if you look at the numbers I have produced, my ability speaks for itself. The only thing I have struggled with is back injuries but I have gone to war with this one and I will win it.” The six-wicket haul could just be the start.