After missing out on World Cup selection last summer, David Willey wondered whether that was that for him in an England shirt.
Coming into this series, he had missed England’s last 22 white-ball games, and had accepted that his international career was “probably done”. He had trudged his way through the county season after his 11th-hour omission last year, admitting that his main aim was to get off the field as soon as possible rather than placing too much emphasis on how he performed.
It was in the Abu Dhabi T10, immediately after England’s T20I series in New Zealand, that he endured his lowest moments. “I just didn’t want to be there,” he said. “I didn’t want to go to the ground. When I was at the ground, I didn’t want to be there, and I wanted to get back to the hotel. I’d fallen out of love with the game, I think.”
Eight months later he was smiling again at the Ageas Bowl, celebrating four early wickets before adding one more at the death to complete a maiden international five-wicket haul as England romped to a comfortable victory against Ireland.
“Circumstances have given me this opportunity,” he said. “I didn’t get a look in over the winter, I missed out there. The extended break has been really good for me. The timing for all of this has worked out perfectly for me and it was the icing on the cake.”
Willey made technical adjustments during lockdown, hoping to find more swing with the new ball. Primarily, he tried to force himself to be more upright in his release, having released he had gone “past perpendicular” in the last couple of years when looking at video footage.
He spent “a lot of time” on self-analysis, watching old clips alongside Richard Pyrah, his bowling coach at Yorkshire. “He’s had me badgering him at all times of the day in the winter and fortunately he has invested some time in me,” he said. “I feel like I’m moving in the right direction and I feel like my best cricket is probably still to come.”
The knock-on effect was that he bowled from tighter to the stumps at the Ageas Bowl, and seemed to have found an extra half-yard of pace, too.
His wickets came more through an attacking line and length than excessive movement. CricViz suggested he had never swung the ball so little in the first 20 overs, though he found more seam movement than in 33 of his 45 previous innings.
According to ESPNcricinfo’s ball-by-ball data, the vast majority of his opening, six-over spell comprised either good-length (18) or full (nine) balls, plus two bouncers and seven back-of-a-length balls. He bowled straight, too, with 14 of his 36 balls arriving in line with the stumps.
First to go was Paul Stirling, who chipped an inswinger to short midwicket, before Balbirnie edged behind playing at a ball in the channel which nibbled away late. Gareth Delany, the only man to really go after England, was caught at backward point driving at a full ball in the channel, before Lorcan Tucker was trapped in front by an inswinger on a length.
It was heartening to see Willey grinning and bumping elbows with his team-mates, looking as though he was beginning to remember the feeling of enjoying himself on a cricket pitch. When he came back in his final spell, taking the final wicket as Craig Young plinked to mid-off to seal his five-for, he could scarcely conceal his joy.
“My success has come when I’ve pitched the ball up previously and really that was what I tried to do today,” he said. “I kept the ball full which kept me in the game and I reaped the rewards of that.
“It’s an unbelievable squad. You look at the players that still aren’t getting a look-in and the guys that went home from this camp: there are some brilliant cricketers sat on the sidelines that are still trying to find a way in.
“It was just special to be out there playing for England again. The main priority was to enjoy it. I’ve gone away and worked quite hard to get back near my best. It’s been a rollercoaster, but I was just out there enjoying my cricket today.”
For Ireland, inexperience against the angle was a possible explanation. They had faced under 50 overs of left-arm seam bowling in ODIs since 2018 coming into this series, significantly fewer than any other Full Member. While this was as poor as a start as you could imagine, the only way they will improve is through increased exposure.