Five years, four stress fractures, one bout of surgery and countless injections separate Reece Topley, the England rookie who took part in his side’s wide-eyed journey towards the final of the last World T20 in India in 2016, from the seasoned, 27-year-old pro whose career could yet come full circle as England’s latest T20I campaign prepares to get underway in Ahmedabad.
The fact that Topley is still playing cricket at any level is remarkable in itself. By his own admission, he was “totally done with it” at one stage of his interminable injury agonies – not least on one grim afternoon in the summer of 2018, when a call to say he had been picked for the India ODIs was trumped by another confirming that, yes, he would be undergoing a back operation.
But the fact that Topley has fought back from the brink, to muscle himself a berth in England’s full-strength T20I squad, is a testament to the enduring attributes of a 6ft 7in left-arm seamer – a rare breed of bowler who can generate good pace and sharp swing from his awkward high action, and whose skills at the death have not been diminished in the interim.
It remains to be seen whether those attributes can earn him an instant recall (“if I get an opportunity it’s about performing that role to Morgy’s standards,” he said) but, having flirted with all manner of alternative career paths – including human-rights lawyer and financial markets analyst – during his years on the sidelines, he’s gagging to get back to the career he thought he’d fallen out of love with.
“It’s unbelievable to be back amongst the set-up and with these lads,” he said. “The last time I played, I had that innocence of youth when it was that natural progression. I took it in my stride and it never really fazed me.
“This time round, I seemed to enjoy the process of getting selected, working back into the team a lot more. It feels like I have really had to work hard for it, and possibly I took that for granted first time round. But this time it is something I cherish.”
This will not be Topley’s official England comeback. That milestone was ticked off in the summer, against Ireland at the Ageas Bowl in August, where he capped a very serviceable return to the fray by claiming his first international wicket for 1597 days with the final ball of the innings.
But, having also travelled to South Africa on the curtailed white-ball tour before Christmas, these five matches in Ahmedabad could yet mark the start of his true comeback – especially given what they could mean for the T20 World Cup in the autumn.
“I do view this as a second career in a way,” Topley said. “I had such a long break in the middle, I’m older and more mature as a person, I have a totally different outlook on what being a pro cricketer is.
“The last time I played in a T20 was at the World Cup, that game in Mumbai where we chased down 230-odd,” he added. “It was a very memorable game. A lot has happened between that, obviously, but I’m very pleased to be back, and quite proud of everything I have overcome.”
That contest, against South Africa at the Wankhede, remains England’s highest T20I chase, and the third-highest for any nation. And for Topley, it proved to be the end of the road in the short term, as his two overs were slammed for 33 runs, only days after he had endured similar treatment from Chris Gayle and West Indies.
But the format, in Topley’s estimation, has accelerated in the interim, and as and when he gets his chance to prove his mettle once more, he’s confident that he’ll have the mental resolve to rise to the evolving challenges, just as he had to overcome his numerous and daunting threats to his career.
“I’ve still got certain attributes from last time I played for England,” he said. “I’m still a swing bowler up top and a fairly decent death bowler, but any progression that has been made, it’s probably inside my own head.
“I moved away from cricket for a year, and when I came back, the game had moved on. It wasn’t until I played that I realised how batsman are taking the Powerplay differently, how things are changing at the death. It was only through that competition that you really get a grasp of how the game has moved.
“Back at the start my career, you’d have your five best bowlers bowling. Whereas now, every position has a role and everyone, 1 to 11, is more under the microscope now. It’s not necessarily about the individual performances, it’s about the death bowlers closing out an innings, it’s about the guys up front taking wickets, it’s about spinners or fast bowlers taking wickets in the middle, if that’s your role.”
Topley returns to a very different team dynamic as well. Whereas England’s last World T20 campaign was conducted on a wing and a prayer, with Eoin Morgan instructing his players to “embrace the naivety” of being the competition’s outsiders, this time they arrive as 50-over world champions, and the No. 1-ranked side in both white-ball formats. As such, the chances to impress may be scarcer, but the rewards of success could be more lasting.
“If I get the opportunity, it’s for me to force [Morgan’s] hand and take that chance,” Topley said. “Whatever the role for the game that I’ve been given, perform that for the team so that Morgs has a difficult choice of leaving me out, whenever that time comes.
“It’s probably one of the harder teams in the world to try and crack into. I can only do that by taking opportunities if any come my way. Healthy competition for places is what you need in a great side and, if you look back to the one-day series leading up to the World Cup that England won, there was massive competition for places there. I think that shows it’s healthy. I am going to try and take all the opportunities that come my way and hopefully perform my role for the team.”
But whatever happens, Topley is at least back on the stage that his ability has long warranted, even if his body has struggled to match up to the expectations.
“I’ll be honest, I did sort of give up at one point,” he said. “I was totally done with it. I remember people saying I wouldn’t play cricket again. I’d washed my hands of cricket and was well on to looking at other things. But I think it was something to do with being told you can’t do something. When it comes full circle to playing cricket, it is extremely rewarding. And thankfully I can say it’s pain free. It’s something I won’t take for granted again.”
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @miller_cricket