Given the competition is being scrapped in favour of one packed with overseas stars on lucrative contracts, there is an irony in the fact that this season’s T20 Blast has seen Middlesex’s big-name trio of Eoin Morgan, Brendon McCullum and Tim Southee overshadowed by a Zimbabwe-born 22-year-old all-rounder.
But Ryan Higgins’ performances in the competition so far have been worthy of any expensive foreign import – his swashbuckling 28-ball 68* single-handedly earned his side a tie against Gloucestershire, and his selection of bouncy medium-pace and crafty cutters saw out a tight win over Kent last week.
At the start of this campaign, Higgins mentioned Mike Hussey as his main sporting hero, and there do seem to be some similarities between the pair. Like Hussey often found himself doing at international level, Higgins is playing a role which is not necessarily the one he would like to, but doing it to great effect. Furthermore, his swashbuckling innings at Cheltenham certainly had shades of Hussey’s World T20 blitz against Pakistan eight years ago.
“I loved it,” Higgins tells me after a recent training session. “[It was] definitely the best I’ve played in Twenty20 cricket, no doubt about that.
“I suppose it would be considered the best [innings I’ve played] in terms of the number of runs and how quickly I got them.”
However, he offers another performance as his best in a Middlesex shirt.
“The last knock I played against Warwickshire was my favourite I’ve played for the first team, trying to help the boys win a Championship game.”
You would be hard-pushed to find many players of Higgins’ age and stature who would describe a final-day 45 in a four-day fixture at an empty Edgbaston as their favourite senior innings, but it speaks volumes about his self-awareness.
Much as he enjoys batting in white-ball cricket, he talks about it as players spoke of T20 ten years ago – “it’s just trying to whack sixes”.
Indeed, the knock he refers to ended up being vital: despite his dismissal, Middlesex ended up scraping home by one wicket, easing any fears of relegation.
Everything about Higgins’ career to date suggests he is a white-ball specialist. He only broke into Middlesex’s Championship side this year, a full three seasons after his limited overs debut, and some impressive strike rates and economy rates point to a typical short-form all-rounder.
But he insists this is not the case.
“I see myself as a batsman predominantly.
“It’s tough – at Middlesex we’ve got a big squad, and there’s a lot of good batsmen with proven records, so it’s pretty tough to break into the side.
“But I see myself as a top number five going forward, in all formats of the game.”
Indeed, Higgins sees his twenty-over performances not as a demonstration of his ability that will earn him franchise T20 contracts, but as an opportunity “to show I’m a better batter than a number seven” and to “keep going up the order.”
However, the 22-year-old offers more than just batting prowess, as he memorably showed in last season’s fixture at the Ageas Bowl. Having taken his maiden T20 wicket the night before, Higgins ran through Hampshire’s lower order with a mixture of off-cutters and yorkers to finish with an eye-catching 5-13.
His use as a death bowler might seem unexpected in a team that features Tim Southee, Steven Finn and Tom Helm, but his variations and his ability to get the ball through deceptively quickly has seen Higgins employed in that role on a couple of occasions.
“I did expect to be called upon [in that role], yeah,” he says.
“Baz [Brendon McCullum] has a lot of faith in the bowlers as a unit to bowl when required and I work hard on my death skills, and pride myself on them.
“When [I am called upon], I’m always looking to have a big impact.”
Clearly, the freedom that McCullum and coach Dan Vettori have instilled in the Middlesex squad this T20 campaign has had a big impact on the former England under-19s player.
“I’ve felt at complete ease with everything I do, and every time I go out to bat I know that whether I make the right decision or the wrong one, I’m going to be going back to that dressing room and seeing people who really do back me to go out and perform my way.”
Speaking to some young players on the county circuit, it feels as though they are concerned about the possibility of saying something controversial, or something that they will live to regret.
With Higgins, this is not the case. When I hint at England ambitions, expecting my question to be awkwardly laughed off, he happily takes up the opportunity to indicate his desire to play international cricket. It is an impressive display of his confidence, but perhaps I should have expected it – everything he has done in his career to do points at the 22-year-old being confident in his ability, conscientious, and mature beyond his age.
“At the moment, it’s about strengthening my game, and focusing on my short-term goal which is to play first-class cricket more regularly. The Twenty20 and one-day stuff will take care of itself – I’m better-rated in those formats which means I get more opportunities – but it’s about me trying to contribute for the team.
“After that? I think everything will take care of itself.”
Main Photo:Embed from Getty Images