Let’s rewind back to May 2015. Tymal Mills, an exciting left-arm fast bowler who caught the eye through his ability to bowl serious pace, received some crushing news. Mills was diagnosed with a congenital back condition and was advised against continuing his dream of playing cricket at the highest level.
In the early weeks on that 2015 season, Mills broke down several times while playing for his county side, Sussex. It was clear that his back was in a bad way and the scans justified those fears. Mills had a narrow spinal cord which not only caused him plenty of pain while bowling but also threatened to reduce his mobility in the longer-term.
Mills, 22 at the time, feared that his time was already up. “I have accepted that I might not have a future in first-class cricket,” he told ESPNcricinfo. “It is absolutely gutting and I had a very difficult 48 hours when I first heard the news. I haven’t completely given up on the dream of playing Test cricket but, realistically, it looks as if my future may be in the shorter formats. I still want to play 50-over and T20 cricket.”
Soon after, Mills realised that the best way of still making a name for himself, whilst still being able to manage his back condition properly, was through T20 cricket. Circumstances were extremely frustrating but it was too early for his rare talent to go to waste. And during a time when England were crying out for a bowler who could bowl upwards of 90 miles per hour, Mills quickly knew that a terrific opportunity was still on the table through the shortest format of the game.
Fast forward nearly two years, and at the IPL auction Mills proved to be one of the hottest properties in town. As soon as auctioneer Richard Madley called out Mills’ name, a highly competitive bidding war took place. At first, there was the Mumbai Indians and the Kings XI Punjab fighting it out for his services, and it was a long battle, too. The bidding went up to 720 lakh until the Royal Challengers Bangalore decided they needed a man of Mills’ ability and joined with a new bid of 750 lakh.
The bidding continued, this time there was competition from the Kolkata Knight Riders, until finally the price was settled on a huge 1200 lakh (£1.43 million) from the Royal Challengers Bangalore. It was truly extraordinary to see his base price of 50 lakh increase to such heights and at such a rate. Not even Mills, a man still so confident in his talent despite the obstacles that have been thrown at him, could have envisaged a memorable dream such as this one. Not only did he achieve his huge ambition of playing in the Indian Premier League but he became one of the most expensive players in the history of the famous competition.
Mills, who decided to enter the IPL in order to secure some employment between now and the Natwest T20 Blast season in England, was indeed surprised. “I can’t believe it,” he said whilst giving his reaction. “I can’t put into words what happened. I did not see this coming and it took a while for it to sink in. It has been a crazy day. I was the lowest of the base prices because I just wanted to get picked up by a team. I didn’t want to wait until July for my next cricket. My agent had spoken to some of the teams and there had been some interest but until it happens you just don’t know what will happen.”
Perhaps the huge demand for Mills’ services should not be as much of a shock after all. In order to channel his focus solely on limited overs cricket Mills moved from Essex to Sussex even before his back injury became as serious as it did. The move proved to be a revelation, with the fast bowler beginning to regain the sort of speeds that gave him the reputation as one of the quickest bowlers in the country. England noted his improvement and invited Mills to several net sessions, using his pace and that fact that he was a left-armer to help their batsmen for future challenges.
But it was last year’s T20 Blast that gave Mills his England opportunity for real. From his twelve matches, the 24-year-old took 15 wickets at an average of 19.73, boasting an impressive economy rate of 7.65 to boot. The speed and accuracy with which Mills bowled gave crowds and the England selectors plenty of room for excitement. His dismissal of T20 king Chris Gayle, in particular, epitomised the threat that was being brought through his bowling. The West Indian, wary of Mills’s pace, backed away, looking to carve the Sussex man over mid-wicket, but instead found his stumps shattered by the lightning pace of Mills, whose delivery was clocked at 93.3 miles per hour. It was a truly memorable moment.
Those kind of exploits earned Mills his first England cap against Sri Lanka in July and as deals with the Brisbane Heat in the Big Bash and the Quetta Gladiators in the Pakistan Super League soon followed, the world began to take note of his abilities in the shortest format of the game. Mills then played in the recently concluded T20 series in India and impressed with his speed and variations once more – his performances proved crucial for his career.
“I am quite lucky that when I got injured again I was a better Twenty20 bowler than I was a four-day bowler,” Mills told the BBC towards the end of the English season. “If it was the other way round, then I probably would’ve had to think a lot harder about retiring. It’s given me a chance to accelerate my development. Everything I do now in terms of cricket is to be the best Twenty20 cricketer I can be.”
Mills is well on the way to achieving just that. His resurgence since being on the verge of retiring from the game altogether has been nothing short of remarkable. The determination to fight an injury that many would have given in to has now earned him, what he calls, a ‘life-changing’ IPL deal. And you would have to go far to find a current cricketer who deserves success more than the big left-armer from West Yorkshire.