The Next Big Thing: Big-hitting Phil Salt biding his time for T20 cap

Who are cricket’s emerging players? Every Wednesday, we will focus on ‘the next big thing’ in the sport and this week it’s Sussex’s big-hitting, top-order T20 talent Phil Salt…

“I’d go completely left-field; why not throw in someone, he’s 21 years old, he’s got a couple of hundreds, he’s an aggressive right-handed batsman, young Phillip Salt down in Sussex.”

August 22, 2018; England had just suffered a convincing 203-run defeat to India in the third Test at Trent Bridge, prompting the comment above from Sir Ian Botham, with the opening combination again a key cause for concern.

Keaton Jennings would average a paltry 18.11 from his nine innings in that series, while even the ever-reliable Sir Alastair Cook was struggling.

Cook, little did we know back then, was two Tests from retiring from international cricket and in the midst of a barren run, averaging 18.62 in 2018, before bowing out with a century at The Oval.

Botham was keen for a change. And, specifically, a change in approach – a more aggressive ball-striker at the top of the order – and for him to be a right-hander.

“I think a right-hand, left-hand combination would help England at the top,” said Botham. “I like the way Ed [Smith] is going with his selections and how he is prepared to throw in the youngsters.

“Someone like that [Salt]. Someone who comes in with no baggage. Why not try it?”

Despite the endorsement, sadly for Salt, the call-up never came. England eventually did indeed turn their attention to a couple of righties a year later, but in the form of Dom Sibley and Zac Crawley, along with the left-handed Rory Burns.

Sibley was very much deserving of England recognition following his formidable run-scoring in the 2019 county season. The 24-year-old Warwickshire opener was the only batsman to top 1,000 runs in Division One of the County Championship, scoring 1,324, averaging 68.68.

But Crawley’s call-up – talented though he is and as we’ve seen in his four Test caps so far – was somewhat more of a punt, in keeping with Botham’s theory, and suggests someone like Salt might not actually be too far from the selectors’ thinking.

Crawley, 22 years old, averages only 31.95 over his 42 first-class appearances for Kent so far, scoring four centuries.

Salt’s stats are not too dissimilar. Just a year older, the Sussex batsman averages just a smidge under 30 at 29.94, but has the same number of hundreds as Crawley, having played eight games fewer.

But what counted for Crawley, went against Salt.

Beefy’s comments in 2018 came at a time when Salt was very much in form, having struck a career-best 148, off just 138 deliveries, against Derbyshire that very week England were heading to a handy defeat at Trent Bridge.

That was one of two centuries for Salt that season as he scored 739 runs at an average of 30.79. Crawley tallied just 16 more runs across the season, hitting only one hundred. But, crucially, Kent got promoted, pipping Salt’s Sussex to second place.

In 2019, Crawley returned 820 hard-earned runs in Division One cricket – eighth-highest among batsmen – to earn England honours, while Salt struggled to stand out for a Sussex side that stumbled to a sixth-placed finish, in large part due to a flimsy top-order.

But that doesn’t mean England recognition is far off for Salt.

He too received an international call-up last summer, but for the T20 squad in the pre-World Cup international against Pakistan that saw England rest a number of key names.

He didn’t play, with James Vince and Ben Duckett preferred, but it is an indication of where Salt’s strength is and where his greatest opportunity lies.

Salt is a key component in a star-studded Sussex T20 outfit that reached the final of the Blast in 2018 and the quarter-final stage last year, only to come unstuck both times against Moeen Ali’s Worcestershire.

Salt hit four fifties as he racked up 355 runs in 14 innings in 2018, at an average of 25.35 and whopping strike-rate of 172.33. He improved on those marks last year, with 406 runs across 13 innings at 36.90, his strike-rate only slightly dipping to 161.11.

It’s success which has caught the attention of the global T20 leagues, with opportunities opening up for Salt in the Pakistan Super League, the Caribbean Premier League and the Big Bash, where he impressed greatly, firing four fifties in his stint with the Adelaide Strikers.

Salt also earned one of the biggest contracts for The Hundred, drafted for £100k by Manchester Originals, showing how highly he is regarded.

A concern for the Sussex man, however, will be the fact that since his solitary England call-up, he has been leapfrogged in the pecking order by Dawid Malan – averaging over fifty in T20Is – and the tremendous T20 talent that is young Tom Banton.

With the 2020 T20 World Cup in Australia scheduled for October, Salt’s opportunity to make that squad may have come and gone, though any possible postponement due to COVID-19 may allow him another opportunity.

There’s also the likelihood that if England do play any cricket this summer, they’ll look to stretch their playing squad across the three formats.

There is talk of Joe Root’s Test team and Eoin Morgan’s white-ball outfit playing in series at the same time, with ODIs or T20 internationals played off the back of a Test finish.

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