England will spend the first week of their winter in quarantine, though for Tymal Mills the restrictions will feel trivial compared with those he faced a year ago. Mills spent three months of last winter in a back brace, recovering from a stress fracture and plotting a summer in which he would fight his way back to fitness and bowl so well that the England selectors who had ignored him for most of the past four years would have no option but to crowbar him into the squad for the Twenty20 World Cup in the UAE. On Monday night he will board the plane to Oman.
“I managed to muddle through last summer, but it was pretty sore in the end,” he says. “Most of the winter I spent in a back brace, day and night, apart from when I was asleep or in the shower. That was tough. It was tough mentally more than anything – during lockdown I wasn’t doing anything socially either, the weather was pretty bleak, and I’m used to spending winters away playing in the Twenty20 leagues.
“I knew I had to get through it and then ramp up the training come the spring. I’d kind of stopped thinking about England – I always believed I was good enough to get back in the mix, it’s just been a case of being able to prove I was fit enough to be selectable. That was something I hadn’t done until this year.”
Towards the end of 2020 Mills met Eoin Morgan, who reassured him that his name still cropped up in selection meetings. “He’s an outstanding bowler we’ve always been in communication with, wanting him to get fit, play as much cricket as possible and leave him alone until the World Cup comes,” England’s white-ball captain said earlier this year. “That was all I needed to hear, really,” Mills says. “Then it was just a case of doing what I had to do this summer and hoping for the best.”
For a few months around his 29th birthday in August, Mills was at his peak: he was Sussex’s leading wicket-taker as they reached the Twenty20 Blast semi-finals, and outstanding as Southern Brave won the inaugural men’s Hundred. “I’ve been quite vocal in my support for the Hundred and what it could do for the shortest form of the game,” he says. “Something the Blast can’t give you is that exposure – so many great performances get missed because they can’t be televised, whereas every match in the Hundred was televised. You could see who was bowling well, or if someone was only bowling well in certain situations, or if someone had one good game and five bad games.
“I saw it as a really good opportunity to play a full tournament – I’m really happy that I played every game and I bowled my full allocation in every game that wasn’t rained off – and I was really happy with how I bowled. It was a brilliant platform for the players.”
Mills remains perhaps England’s fastest bowler, despite being diagnosed with a congenital back injury in 2015 that has since limited him to playing the shortest forms of the game, and for a long time no more than four overs in a day. “I don’t have a number of deliveries where I know I’m going to go ‘pop’,” he says, but the possibility is always there.
Since the diagnosis Mills has become a travelling gun for hire, crisscrossing the globe in search of Twenty20 action – it is telling that after Hove, the ground where he has bowled most deliveries in the format is Dubai International Stadium, where England will play two of their group games. But the World Cup represents the sternest test possible of a death bowler, as Ben Stokes famously demonstrated when England lost to West Indies in the final of the last event in 2016. Happily, that is one memory Mills is not scarred by.
“I can’t remember if I watched it. I can’t remember where I was or what I was doing to be honest,” he says. “Bowling at the death, they’re the most high-pressure situations you can find yourself in as a cricketer. You’re trying to win the game for your team, and it’s all about how you deal with the occasion.
“One thing I think I’m pretty good at is I’m not afraid to fail. That’s a huge part of it. You have to be confident and want the ball. You need to want those overs. It’s what I’ve done, what I’ve made my name doing over the last couple of years and if I’m called upon to do it in the World Cup I’ll step forward straight away. Pressure in my opinion is only as big as you allow it to be. You make it in your own mind.”