A little over a year ago, soon after the Southern Brave squad assembled before the inaugural season of the Hundred, Tymal Mills, an injury-plagued fast bowler who had played the last of his five Twenty20 internationals three years earlier, and the spinner Jake Lintott, had a chat about the future. “I remember T talking to me, saying: ‘I’m going to play for England after this,’” Lintott remembers. “I was a bit taken aback because he’d had loads of injuries and not played much cricket.”
A couple of months later Brave had won the trophy, and Mills was on the plane to the T20 World Cup.
The Hundred is a controversial tournament, with its garish branding, crisp-packet kits, subsidised tickets, terrestrial TV exposure and focus on cities rather than counties amounting to a recipe for resentment among many diehard cricket followers. But already its ability to serve as a springboard to international attention has helped make it extremely popular with players. As the second season gets under way on Wednesday with Southern Brave hosting Welsh Fire in Southampton, there will be plenty of players hoping to tread the same path as Mills.
“From a players’ perspective the opportunity is massive,” Lintott says. “It’s a tournament that puts us on the global stage, whereas – no offence – but the T20 Blast is nowhere near that level. It can change people’s lives. It’s exciting, and it gives you an idea where you’re at, globally. It’s such an exceptional standard that anyone who does really well in this tournament has pretty much proved they can hack it at international level. I understand there’s frustration around the county game but ultimately I think it’s a good thing for English cricket and the only people who aren’t behind it are those who don’t like change, really.”
For its duration Lintott will share a dressing room with South Africa’s Quinton de Kock and Marcus Stoinis, a T20 World Cup winner with Australia last year. It is quite an ascent for a 29-year-old who made his first-team debut only in 2017, playing a single game for Hampshire in the T20 Blast. It was a foot in the door. Gloucestershire took him on for the following summer but released him after three games. He moved to Warwickshire but played only at second XI level in 2019. And then, 2020.
Lintott’s ascent happened, to borrow Ernest Hemingway’s phrase, gradually, then suddenly. He used the first Covid lockdown to hone his fitness and shed weight, some three stone in all, and returned transformed. In three summers since there have been 35 games and 47 wickets in the Blast, and a starring role in last year’s Hundred. Also last year he signed his first professional contract, forcing him to leave his job as head of cricket at his old school, Queen’s College in Taunton.
“Until I got to the age of 22 or 23 I think I wasn’t quite good enough,” he says. “I really hit my straps around 25 or 26. I made my debut in 2017 and I think I was ready then but it took another four years to find my professional contract. I’ve played a lot of cricket outside the professional game and I know there’s a lot of talent out there, and maybe I’m a reminder that it’s not as far away as you think. There’s no reason why you can’t do what I’ve done. It’s never too late.
“I think I’m really lucky in that I’ve come in a bit later, a bit wiser, a bit more aware of what I’m doing. Now it’s just a bit surreal to me – I’m looking around the dressing room, I’m playing with some of the best players in the world, and just two years ago I wasn’t playing professionally.”
Last week Eoin Morgan highlighted the opportunity for a spinner in particular to come through the Hundred and into England’s T20 squad, even if only as understudy to Adil Rashid. Lintott, whose left-arm wrist-spin is unusual enough to befuddle many batters, seems as well placed as anyone.
“Anyone who plays in the Hundred is going to have ambitions,” he says. “It’s always got to be on your mind, to keep driving yourself to the next level. But you’re trying to stay focused on the task in hand, and then see where you end up.
“It would be a dream come true but, if I can put in a really good tournament here and do the best I can, you never know.
“But I know that professional sport is quite fickle. I might have had a really good couple of years but I know that you’re only ever one or two tournaments away from people thinking you’re rubbish.”