Rising star: an interview with Bristol-born cricketer James Bracey
8 min read
Bristol-born cricketer James Bracey helped Gloucestershire win promotion in 2019 before representing England in Test cricket. Jeremy Blackmore chats to the rising star, who was named as one of cricket’s players of the year in 2022, about his journey to Lord’s…
James Bracey’s childhood obsession with cricket on the playing fields at Winterbourne on the north fringe of Bristol started a journey which has seen him make an England Test Match debut at Lord’s and travel the world playing the sport he loves. The Gloucestershire vice-captain recently returned from a winter playing club cricket in Australia, eagerly looking forward to the new English summer and helping his county mount a challenge for promotion. It comes after he was rewarded for a fine personal 2022 season by being named in the Professional Cricketers’ Association’s (PCA) Men’s Team of the Year.
Recognised for his performances with the bat and behind the stumps as Gloucestershire’s wicketkeeper, Bracey, 25, scored 1,294 runs across all formats last season, including a career-best 177 against Yorkshire, one of three centuries. He was also the highest placed outright keeper in the country in the PCA’s most valuable player scoring system.
His journey began at Winterbourne Cricket Club, just a stone’s throw from his home. Cricket, though, was not a family sport. The Braceys are fervent Bristol Rovers supporters and James still watches the Gas whenever he can. The one family member known to have played cricket was his great granddad, who turned out for Knowle Cricket Club. But their home backed onto Winterbourne CC, so it was inevitable James and older brother Sam would pick up a bat. Cricket soon became a family affair. His dad, Nick, donned a pair of pads and started running the Fourth XI team, while his mum, Liz, has served as Club Secretary for many years.
James – nicknamed Bobby – soon graduated to playing adult cricket at Winterbourne, aged just 11, before he was spotted at a training camp at Nevil Road (The Bristol County Ground). From there, he developed through the county age groups alongside his studies at The Ridings High School (now Winterbourne Academy) and later South Gloucestershire and Stroud College, where he trained under Head Coach and former Gloucestershire batter Tim Hancock.
Bracey’s teenage years were a busy mix of cricket and study. He debuted for Gloucestershire’s Second XI just a few days after his 17th birthday and became a regular from 2015 as well as playing club cricket for Bristol CC in the West of England Premier League. By the time he left for Loughborough University that summer, however, he did not have a professional contract. It was Loughborough, one of six Marylebone Cricket Club university centres (MCCU), which served as his finishing school. Bracey would later tell Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack how indebted he was to the MCCU system, which provided students with top-level coaching and training facilities as well as match opportunities against professional first-class counties.
Bracey’s first team debut for Gloucestershire came against Sussex in September 2016, a baptism of fire batting against a battery of current or future England pace bowlers. “I hadn’t had much exposure at that level at all and it was a big step up,” he recalls. “I got thrown in the deep end, which worked to my favour in the end. I faced Jofra Archer, Chris Jordan and Ollie Robinson on debut. It wasn’t going to get much harder than that. I didn’t do great, but it gave me a lot to then take forward into the next year.”
He became a first team regular in Gloucestershire’s County Championship side from 2018, displaying dogged determination and an ability to bat for long periods to keep his county in the chase, such as his seven-hour vigil for 120 against Glamorgan at Bristol. While that innings was not enough to stave off defeat, his 125 against Middlesex at Lord’s, scored across five-and-a-half hours, helped Gloucestershire salvage a draw.
After a winter in Perth, Australia playing grade cricket, he performed a key role in Gloucestershire’s successful County Championship promotion bid in 2019. That summer, too, he played limited overs white ball cricket for Gloucestershire for the first time, averaging over 60 in 50-over cricket including two half-century scores against the touring Australians. Reflecting on how his game had matured that summer, he says: “A couple of years of solid County Championship Cricket was really good for me. It allowed me to mature a little bit more and develop more skills for the white ball formats, which are a bit more unconventional.
“It allowed me to play some university cricket and a lot of club white ball cricket [for Bristol], whereas a lot of my game had been based around red ball skills initially. Then in 2019, when I started playing all three formats, I was really able to kick into gear and start pushing even higher.”
Higher honours were indeed on the horizon as 2020 dawned, the year Bracey began to keep wicket full-time for Gloucestershire in all competitions. England had already spotted his potential. He made his debut for England Lions against an Australian side at Canterbury in summer 2019 and then toured with the Lions in Australia.
With cricket being played behind closed doors during the pandemic, England assembled a 55-man training squad following strict Covid protocols to ensure they had personnel to call upon when the 2020 summer’s Test series began. Bracey took the opportunity to show what he could do, scoring 85 in an intra-squad match. While he did not make his full international debut until the following summer, training with the likes of Joe Root and Ben Stokes was a huge learning experience, albeit in unusual circumstances. He also toured India and Sri Lanka that winter as part of an enlarged England squad.
“Those three or four series I did with England put me in a good position to then get in the Test squad when I did. I saw some pretty good players and was able to pick their brains and watch them live and be around that group. That’s something not many people get the opportunity to do. So, I was really glad.”
Bracey learned a lot about batting in different conditions in India and Sri Lanka and the challenges posed by sub-continent pitches, which offer plenty of turn for spin bowlers. He believes it will stand him in good stead if he plays there in future. With England’s regular wicketkeepers Ben Foakes (injured) and Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow (rested), Bracey was called up to make his Test debut against World Test Champions New Zealand at Lord’s, the internationally renowned home of cricket in June 2021.
“It was very special,” he says. “The first day, my parents, my partner, my brother and my grandparents all managed to come. Then other relatives on the other days, so that was really nice.”
Bracey also played the second Test against New Zealand at Edgbaston that month but admits he was disappointed with his performance in those two international appearances. He has adopted a more philosophical outlook moving forward and is still young enough to come again in Test cricket.
“At the time, it felt like the end of the world. But I loved it. I played Test cricket. I’ve got the cap, I’ve got the experiences, I’ve got the photos, and all those things not many people get the opportunity to do. What only 710 people have been able to do. “But I’ve no doubt I’m still a good enough player to go back and do far better than my numbers suggest.”
I ask what he thinks lay behind his successful season with Gloucestershire last summer leading to the PCA accolade. While he remains modest about his overall form, he cites the extra work he has put into his wicketkeeping as one key factor.
“Almost that extra trust I’ve had in my keeping now, I don’t really have to think about it too much. I feel comfortable doing it. My body’s more conditioned now,” he says.
“In general, it was a really positive summer for me personally, and I think a lot of that was down to spreading my responsibilities across all bases and not putting too much pressure on one or the other. As vice-captain, I felt like I developed as a leader. I think I was able to help a lot of the young lads a bit.”
Bracey has always been interested in leadership and took a degree in Sports Science and Management while at Loughborough. Now midway through a master’s degree in Psychology, he hopes his studies and captaincy experience will also open up potential post-retirement opportunities.
Gloucestershire’s 2023 season began with a draw against Glamorgan at Cardiff, but their game against Yorkshire at the Seat Unique Stadium in Bristol had to be abandoned without a ball being bowled due to the heavy rain, which hit the Sotuh West in April. Speaking just before the season, Bracey was optimistic, despite Gloucestershire’s relegation from Division One last September. The squad has undergone several changes in personnel since last season, which Bracey says will bring a slightly different dynamic, but one he thinks will be positive.
“A lot of young guys are going to get more opportunities and build on the potential they showed last year. People are going to have more responsibility, which is great. I found when I was their age and I was given a big run in the side, that’s when you start to see people really come into their own.
“We’ve got some good overseas players coming back in Marcus Harris and Zafar Gohar, which is brilliant. Marchant de Lange is a huge signing. He’s the sort of bowler we’ve maybe lacked in previous seasons, and he adds a different dimension to our attack.
“I think we’re going to have a really positive summer. In the Championship, our only aim is winning that division. On paper, we’re one of the best sides. Even though we struggled for the majority of last year, we showed towards the end that we’re no walkovers even against the best sides. I’m really optimistic, especially about the Championship season in terms of bringing some silverware.”