England striker Harry Brook eyes a century to close Ashes before Oval reunion

Harry Brook is about a month away from a year as a Test cricketer. But on the eve of his 12th Test cap at the Kia Oval, where his journey in that format began in September 2022 against South Africa, now is the perfect time to reflect on his journey to date – particularly with the Ashes gone.

It was a strange series for Brook, his first against Australia. He averages 38.71 on seven shots, with three half-centuries, one of them a vital 75 scored in the chase at Headingley, another a fifty at Lord’s of which he is not so proud. Naturally, he’s hoping triple figures come in this week to make up for missed opportunities. England are looking to level the series 2-2, as much to bolster their sense of having made most of the run in those five matches as to dash Australia’s hopes of a first away win for the Ashes since 2001.

“I feel like I’ve had a few chances this series to have a 100 and I’ve thrown them away so we’ll see how I do this week. I had 46 at Edgbaston, 61 last week (Emirates Old Trafford) and maybe fifty at Lord’s but I was beating shit so…

“I feel like I was too reckless at Lord’s. There’s a fine line between being aggressive and reckless, so it’s just trying to find that balance.

“I would probably rather be on the reckless side than the hesitant side. I’m always looking to score and I’m not just here to survive.”

During the Headingley test, Brook became the fastest hitter at 1,000 runs, needing just 1,058 deliveries over 17 innings to hit the milestone. With that came a reminder of his genius over the winter with four centuries and a remarkable average of 88.55 across the Pakistan and New Zealand tours. After following England across the country last summer, he was drafted for South Africa’s third Test after Jonny Bairstow’s catastrophic leg fracture, before claiming the No.5 position.

Perhaps Headingley’s test best sums up Brook’s summer. He found himself having to moonlight as No. 3 in the first leg of the Third Test after Ollie Pope suffered a series-ending shoulder injury in the Lord’s Test. A nervous three in the opening innings was uncomfortable enough for England to wonder if they needed to run Brook back in order to get the best out of him. Up stepped up Moeen Ali to offer them a solution, which paid off as Brook got the top score in the successful 251 chase from his usual pitch.

“I’ll probably lie if I [said I] wasn’t,” he replied when asked if he was grateful for Moeen’s selflessness. “I’m happy to be fair in the XI to be honest. Whether batting at three or five, I’m happy to play test cricket. I feel like I did better at five because I didn’t hit much at three. He took it upon himself to go up there. And yes, it could have been a winning decision.”

You could say that Brook’s winter form has complicated things this summer. He had done enough to claim the No.5 position as his own, meaning Bairstow’s return to the XI came at the expense of Ben Foakes. Considering the chances rejected by the England wicket-keeper this series, it’s an awkward sliding-doors moment to consider.

Not that Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum are into these thinking exercises. Following the confirmation of the abandonment of the fourth test, Stokes gathered the players in the dressing room to cheer them up and reiterate that the results do not define them. He previewed his speech at his post-match press conference: “I said in the dressing room, the reward for your work is not what you get, it’s what you become.”

A few days later, Brook reflected on that conversation and what he got out of it.

“It was a great speech to be honest. He was just saying, it’s not about all the trophies, it’s about making sure everyone enjoys watching cricket and I feel like we’re going to be a team that will be remembered. It’s really exciting to play.”

Exciting enough for Brook to state unequivocally that he wants England to be his No.1 pursuit. Despite being a multi-format player, Brook is only on an incremental contract, believed to be in the region of £66,000, before appearance bonuses. The fact that he was signed for £1.3million by Sunrisers Hyderabad for the IPL 2022 highlights the disparity between international cricket and franchise cricket.

Brook is expected to be at the center of the new round of central contracts, with the ECB likely to offer him a multi-year deal in hopes of staving off the towering threat of these global tournaments, many with IPL backing. Would he accept if offered to him? “Yeah, absolutely.

“I want to play cricket for England. I don’t care about all the franchise stuff. Obviously that’s a bonus but I’m completely focused on cricket for England.

“If I’m in all three formats for England, I don’t really feel like there’s too much time to play other franchise stuff, to be honest. The IPL is the only one that’s really free, when you’re available for everything. There won’t be a lot of thought there.”

It might annoy traditionalists that a cricketer choosing to play for his country for big bucks is celebrated as “loyalty”. But the cricket market is changing and a 24-year-old with talent to burn has plenty of options to carve out a lucrative career in the game without international cricket.

The difference, perhaps, is England’s current setup. McCullum has often spoken of removing the pressures of Test cricket to give it more of a straightforward feel. Brook clearly thrives in this environment. Additionally, he acknowledged that, under a different coach and captain, he may not have been as successful or not picked at all.

“If the management had been different, I don’t think this would have happened,” Brook said. “I probably wouldn’t have had the freedom and support from everyone to play the way I did. Thanks to those two guys as well.”

As thoughts turn to the start of the final test this Thursday, there is a degree of sadness that it wasn’t the winning showdown that it could have been. For Brook, however, even if England can’t make it 2-2, he thinks they can be proud of how they approached this Ashes series – even though it finished 3-1 against Australia.

“That’s the whole mantra, we’re trying to get people watching excited, we’re trying to have fun and we’re trying to bring new crowds to the game and bring Test cricket to life. I think we’ve done that this streak before. Whatever the outcome this week, yeah, I think we’ve had a good streak.”

Vithushan Ehantharajah is Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo

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