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Benny Howell: World Cup Bolter

Ben Jones analyses the Birmingham seamer’s Hundred campaign.

When T20 leagues start, they lack stories. The primary discussions are generally around players proving themselves for international cricket, because that’s the most obviously available context. Yet over time, as domestic leagues get more established, and the identities and affiliations of each team become more distinct, the narratives that the league provides became more self-sustaining. The long-time inability of RCB to win the IPL, the dominance of Mumbai, the dynasties in Perth and Trinbago, these are stories distinct from the national team, separate from selection speculation. The Hundred is not there yet, but it will come.

The hapless nature of London Spirit has been perhaps the first truly Men’s-Hundred-centric story, removed from Who Should Be Picked for England – and even then, the presence of Eoin Morgan ties it back in. For now the biggest stories (not necessarily the most interesting) remain around who should be travelling to the UAE in October.

Liam Livingstone has to play, and he has to play in England’s first choice XI. He is an outrageous, extravagant hitter on the crest of a wave, who offers both the right-hand option which balances England’s order, and the spin which balances their attack. His rise in the last six months to being one of the most in-demand T20 players in the world has been quite extraordinary, and his charisma has made him one of the tournament’s biggest stars – his scream of joy as he sealed Birmingham’s passage to the final with a six was a demonstration of both his emotional relationship with this form of cricket, and his increasing mastery of it.

Equally, Tymal Mills now has to be in the squad. The loss of Jofra Archer is a hammer blow to England’s World Cup chances, as you’d expect for any side losing perhaps the best T20 seamer in the world. The fact that England’s bowling depth is their weakest area – by contrast, they could have ridden the absence of Jos Buttler or Jonny Bairstow with surprising grace – is a cruel twist of fate. The fact that they can call on a man with the best death economy of all time for a seamer, who can offer a left-arm option, and a 90mph+ change of pace, is a lucky escape.

However, both of these players could have been earmarked ahead of time as men for whom the Hundred represented an obvious route to the World Cup departure lounge. Mills had been specifically called out by Morgan pre-competition, as a man for whom one good season was probably enough to get him on the plane, and that was prior to Archer’s injury. Livingstone was tearing it up as a squad player in the T20I series v Pakistan before a ball was bowled.

One man for whom that was not the case, is Benny Howell. A veteran of the T20 Blast, the Gloucestershire seamer has long been the doyen of hipster cricket fans, obsessing alternately over his myriad variations, and his outstanding statistical record. For years, Howell’s changes of pace and clear prioritisation of white ball cricket have drawn him a cult-following, with his excellence in the Blast (89 wickets across the last five years, striking every 15 balls and going at just 7.1rpo) illustrating he is a bowler of immense talent. What his excellence in the Hundred has shown (10 wickets in 8 matches, a 5.6rpo economy in new money) is that Benny Howell should be considered for England’s World Cup squad, and he has to be considered seriously. 

Over the last month or so, Howell has been outstanding, for the the outstanding team in the tournament. Birmingham Phoenix have been the most watchable, aggressive batting side (with a clear emphasis on hitting sixes) but their success has been underpinned by an excellent bowling attack. Adam Milne may have stolen the headlines with his ferocious pace – and overseas tag – but Howell has been as crucial, if not more so. No other domestic bowler has matched his effectiveness in terms of Bowling Impact.

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Those figures aren’t skewed by a handful of outrageous performances either – Howell has recorded a positive Impact in seven of his eight matches in the Hundred. He is, as it stands, the man to record the most positive Impact matches of the tournament. All those gun bowlers scattered around the country, imported from all over the world, and Howell is the one most consistently making inroads for his side.

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England are in need of a second spinner for the World Cup, with Moeen Ali’s bowling only really trusted – perhaps understandably – against left-handed batsman, and Matt Parkinson’s early forays into international cricket bringing mixed success. The experimentation of using Adil Rashid as a Powerplay option will possibly become a more regular tactic in the absence of Archer, and so the most obvious role for that second spinner – if England are going to play one – is through the middle. Howell isn’t a spinner, but as others have documented, he does a very similar job. 78% of his career bowling is done in the middle over phase, with an emphasis on run saving, and with a method which can exploit surfaces with something in for the bowlers.

A regular criticism levelled at bowlers like Howell is that they have a very short shelf life, and that once exposed to tournaments where every match is televised and video footage becomes easier to get hold of, their variations get picked, and their weapons fail. Yet England don’t need someone to be sustainably good for four years – they need someone to be good for three weeks, perhaps only three games.

Howell’s success is overwhelmingly a product of his own work, his own dedication and skill for more than a decade. However, the prominence of that skill, and the potential inclusion in a larger World Cup touring party, is at least partially a reflection of what a concentrated T20/100 ball league could do.

English white ball cricket has competed at the top table of the game for five years now, and it’s done that by producing a high number of excellent cricketers (through the traditional county system and the T20 Blast), then sending them overseas to play in higher standard leagues as a finishing school. The system works, allowing for counties to bring players through and see the benefit through Blast competition, but with the opportunity for players to play in front of larger crowds in alien conditions, before the (supposed) increased UK-based scrutiny of T20 internationals.

One downside is that while other countries are able to offer players that steeper challenge of higher standard T20 cricket on home soil, English cricket has long forced them to go abroad. This comes not just with the challenge of adapting one’s game to different playing conditions, but also the initial challenge of convincing an entirely different group of coaches and decision makers that you are worth taking a chance on. Howell in particular has found it tough to break through, even with an outstanding record. Yet in a tournament full of English coaches and UK-based analysts – and where English players are domestic, clearly – he is in with a better chance of being picked, and backed. For the less immediately ‘sexy’ prospects like Howell, those players who don’t bowl 90mph or hit huge bombs, that is significant.

What the Hundred can offer, with tweaks and changes to its current place in the calendar and relationship with international cricket, is the opportunity for a similar stepping stone. Players like Howell get to prove and improve their game in a higher standard competition, but without the constant hurdles associated with getting overseas gigs. Some people will push back against the idea the Hundred is a higher standard than the Blast. In some respects, it’s understandable, because for almost all fans, the ‘best’ competition is the one in which their side competes. However, it’s important to be clear in the language we use – this is a question of playing standard, and there is simply no argument in that regard. Imagine the Blast, with more overseas players. Imagine the Blast, but with the worst domestic players removed from the team. You would be a fool to argue that such a tournament would not represent a higher standard of cricket.

Livingstone represents a key advance made by the competition, the chance for every innings by a growing global star to be available for a wider range of cricket fans to watch, for a man still not locked into the England XI to become a national household name. But Howell’s legitimate World Cup case to once side, his own season represents something just as significant – allowing a proven T20 performer to show his quality on home soil in a higher quality, more visible competition.

For all the talk of the transitory nature of domestic leagues, by the end of the tournament, the only two sides Howell will have played more matches for than Birmingham Phoenix, are Hampshire and Gloucestershire. A bowler of his quality, with his unique style and method, should have played more in T20 leagues around the world. He should have multiple seasons for multiple teams in multiple competitions under his belt, more eyeballs on his skills and more shirts with his name on the back. The Hundred has the potential to ensure that players in his position, don’t ‘suffer’ the same fate, and that they get the careers and acclaim they deserve.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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