At times Middlesex fast bowler James Fuller appears starstruck by some of the biggest names in the game he has encountered while making the Home of Cricket his own second home.
But an almost boyish enthusiasm for playing at Lord’s belies a fierce ambition. No-one should doubt Fuller’s intent to make his mark at his new county after making a move from Gloucestershire last autumn.
After playing a leading role in the West Countrymen’s One Day Cup triumph at headquarters last September, he turned down the offer of a new contract at Bristol to sign with the Seaxes.
Having been at Nevil Road for five seasons, the decision was a hard one, but he is clearly relishing the opportunities the move has brought.
His enthusiasm was infectious when he spoke to LastWordOnSports earlier this summer, a few weeks before a side strain put a temporary brake on his season.
“It’s pretty awesome bowling at Lord’s to be honest,” he says, recalling his first experience of playing T20 cricket under floodlights at headquarters.
“It’s a great home crowd. My first T20 [a rain-affected victory over Somerset in late June] was absolutely unbelievable in terms of the atmosphere. It was maybe half capacity as well.
“So I can’t wait for a game where it’s sold-out. It was just an absolutely awesome experience. I couldn’t sleep afterwards, just buzzing running through the experience!”
His excitement levels must have peaked a few weeks later when he played in front of a record crowd for a domestic Twenty20 match in England. Some 27,119 fans poured through the Lord’s turnstiles to see Middlesex take on Surrey on 21 July; a game in which Fuller himself claimed two wickets, including dangerman Aaron Finch.
Having also taken two key wickets in Gloucestershire’s six-run win over Surrey in the One Day Cup Final last September, he admits the special atmosphere at headquarters was one of the key reasons behind his move to London.
“It was one of the things that persuaded me to move, it was just such a great opportunity to take hold of,” says Fuller, who was born in Cape Town, but grew up in New Zealand.
“I never thought when I was back in school that I’d be over here firstly playing in England, let alone playing at the Home of Cricket. I would never have thought that was going to happen, so when the opportunity presented itself I had to take it.”
Shift in Emphasis for Middlesex
The Seaxes have placed a new emphasis on white ball cricket this year after failing to qualify for the NatWest T20 Blast quarter-finals since 2008 and finishing bottom of the south group two years running.
Signing Fuller was a key sign of their intent to turn this around. Talking about his new acquisition last autumn, Middlesex Managing Director of Cricket Angus Fraser said: “We have been looking to sign a fast bowler with white-ball pedigree. In James I believe we have found a bowler that will add extra bite and quality to this area.”
Fuller has rewarded that faith with 14 wickets at 22.85 in the Blast with an economy rate of 8.17 and a best return of 3-24. In the One Day Cup his six wickets have been more expensive at 43 apiece, but with a much lower economy rate of 6.73 and a best haul of 3-53.
Middlesex’s white ball ambitions were a driving factor behind Fuller’s move. “One of the reasons I came here because I knew they had the players to do it. I thought it was just a mindset really. Putting a real emphasis on white ball cricket and practicing your white ball skills.
“And then to have guys like Brendon McCullum in your side – phew, absolute legend! Guys like that just lift you really. As a team we’ve just put a big emphasis on white ball cricket and that’s all it was really was, it was just a mental shift.”
Middlesex have been willing to embrace a new approach this year with a split captaincy between the three formats; Dawid Malan leading the way in the Blast.
Fuller pays fulsome tribute to his skipper: “He’s been really good, he’s really thoughtful with his captaincy.
“Obviously he’s played a lot of T20 overseas, so he’s built up a mental approach as a captain that he’s brought in and he’s managing the guys really well, deciding who to bowl, what fields to bowl to.
“So he’s a great leader in that sense in terms of being a tactician. He’s also been playing really well, so we’ve definitely got the players. That’s all it really is, a mental switch.
“We’ve got superstars in the side and they just lift the tempo of the game, the skills within the side.”
Red Ball Ambitions
Fuller, however, hasn’t restricted his ambitions to the white ball and has already demonstrated his effectiveness in Championship cricket.
He recalls the talk around his signing: “The white ball thing was pushed pretty hard, also with the media as well. For me it was a great chance to improve my red ball game because I knew I wouldn’t be first pick off the bench. I’d have to come in and really work on my skills to be picked and then it would be first division, so I’d have to again raise my skills. So it’s all about being a better cricketer and contributing in all facets of the game, red and white.”
While opportunities have been limited in the Championship, given the strength in Middlesex’s seam bowling department, Fuller seized his first opportunity with the red ball in early June at Merchant Taylors’ School.
Bowling at express pace and getting plenty of carry and movement, he claimed five wickets in an innings on Championship debut for Middlesex as the hosts overran Hampshire by an innings and 116 runs.
“That was pretty cool. We were all pretty fresh. Murts [Tim Murtagh] showed us what to do [he took six wickets in the match] and after setting 480 the batters said it was still doing something and it still was. Even when we were bowling with a 60 over old ball, it was still nipping about. So it was just a case of putting it in the right area and the ball would do the rest. It was a lovely wicket to bowl on.
“So I see myself as trying to contribute with the red ball as well as the white ball. We’ve got a good side to push for the Championship.”
Angus Fraser Factor
Indeed, Fuller believes this group of players can build a real legacy, with Angus Fraser setting the tone. Again he sounds starstruck, but his respect for his mentor is evident.
“Gus is an awesome guy, he’s an absolute champion. Nicest guy off the pitch. Really lifts the lads before the games as well. Every now and then he gives a little speech as well, which is quite nice to come from such a legend of the game. We’ve also got [fast bowling coach] Richard Johnson, who’s an absolute legend as well.
“And we’ve got our own Tim Murts [Murtagh] and Ro-Jo [Toby Roland-Jones], potentially building that sort of legacy to leave behind, so it’s a great bunch of guys to be around and that means a super environment to learn from.”
Bowling at Lord’s, Fuller has had to get used to the unique challenges posed by the slope. He offers an insight into the advice he has received from the wealth of experience around him in the dressing room: “I’ve got guys like Murts and Tobes showing the way, Gus with all his experience, Jonno as well, just telling me what to expect when bowling on different sides and also with the slope and how that’s going to affect your action.
“So I’ve got all these guys leading me in the right direction. You’ve just got to be aware of what it’s going to do to your action, so if you’re bowling down the slope going left to right, it’s going to push you into the stumps a little bit, so you’ve got to be aware, make sure you stay right, and obviously the opposite from the Nursery Ground, it’s going to tend to push you away from the stumps, so you’ve got to be aware of what’s going on.”
In recent weeks prior to his injury, Fuller showed another string to his bow. Batting at number 10, he scored a crucial, career-best knock of 93 in Middlesex’s victory over Somerset at Taunton. His return visit to the Cooper Associates County Ground later in the month produced an unbeaten 42 against the same opposition, the innings in which he sustained his recent injury.
Playing county cricket on a British passport, Fuller retains ambitions to play international cricket, but for now his focus is on doing well for Middlesex and hopes that may open doors in due course. “I think all cricketers have ambitions to play international cricket, but that kind of just happens for some guys.
“You’ve got to be definitely playing for your county first, really trying to win trophies. That’s my big ambition, trying to win white ball trophies and really contribute in red ball cricket, to win a Championship.”