Phil Salt: From Barbados to England via T20 finishing school

Phil Salt after scoring his maiden ODI fifty Getty Images

Some cricketers are overawed when they represent their country for the first time, but Phil Salt had spent so much time in the spotlight on the T20 circuit that his debut left him feeling almost underwhelmed.

Six months ago, Salt was one of England's five debutants in Cardiff after their first-choice ODI squad was decimated by a Covid outbreak. In front of a sparse crowd - limited by Wales' stringent restrictions - the scratch side bowled Pakistan out for 141, before knocking the runs off with nine wickets in hand.

Salt's contribution was seven runs before he edged Shaheen Shah Afridi to slip, before watching Zak Crawley and Dawid Malan lead a cruise to victory. Driving back to his hotel room, he admitted on the phone to a friend that the occasion had not quite lived up to expectations.

"I'll be completely honest," he says over Zoom from his new home in Salford. "After that first game in Cardiff, I sort of felt a bit underwhelmed by it all: we rolled them over, then we knocked them off with nine wickets in hand. It was an unbelievable performance but I remember saying: 'surely that's not it, international cricket?'

"I've played in front of big crowds in franchise cricket - the New Year's Eve game for the Strikers when it's a full house at Adelaide Oval, and the crowd is loud - [but] in Wales at the time with the Covid regulations you couldn't get any sort of numbers in… it sort of felt like playing a county game there."

The rest of the series lived up to expectation. In front of capacity crowds at Lord's and Edgbaston, Salt held England together with 60 off 54 balls, then flayed 37 off 22 - including four fours off Shaheen's first over - to get a successful pursuit of 332 off to a rocketing start. "Those two games felt like a big occasion," he says. "Playing for England, at Lord's - you hit a boundary and the crowd are right up with you. That was a hell of an experience."

Salt's contribution to England's 3-0 series win epitomised the ultra-attacking philosophy that England's hierarchy have espoused since the 2015 World Cup, with his experience in franchise cricket - he had played 57 games in overseas T20 and T10 leagues before his England debut - helping to bridge the gap between domestic and international cricket.

"He goes from ball one," Luke Wright, Salt's long-term opening partner at Sussex, says. "He's so dangerous and scary for the opposition. He tries to hit the first ball for four pretty much every time, and often does. With Salty, you know if he's hanging around, he's not going to be chewing up many balls: he's either going to be out or he's going to smack it, and that's exactly what you want in a T20 opener.

"He's trying to get in probably the best England team there's ever been. It's a bit like Australia in Test matches back in the '90s" Luke Wright, Salt's opener partner at Sussex

"He's got a great mindset for being that type of batter. If he gets a few low scores, he doesn't suddenly try and grind out a score; he bats exactly the same way in every game. The one thing that Morgs [Eoin Morgan] will always back up is that it's never about playing for yourself, it's always about the team and the way Salty plays with that intent in every game is exactly what he looks for.

"We've seen that with someone like Jason Roy, at times, he's had some lean patches and Morgs has backed him through all those because he knows that he goes out and bats the same way and when it comes off, he wins you games. That's exactly the same with Salty: he's never feared anyone from the moment he came into the team and that confidence has got him through some bad patches."

Salt has been a fringe member of England's white-ball squads for nearly two-and-a-half years, regularly called up as cover or back-up, but is set to make an overdue T20I debut next week against West Indies, with Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler and Dawid Malan not considered for selection due to their involvement in the Ashes.

His first appearances in the format will hold particular resonance with the five-match series staged in its entirety at Kensington Oval in Barbados - the island where Salt lived for six years during his childhood, after his father Chris, a property developer, traded Bodelwyddan in North Wales for Bridgetown.

"We moved to Barbados when I was about nine or ten, and stayed out there until I was 15 and got a cricket scholarship to a school in Surrey [Reed's School]," he says. "That was probably the place where cricket turned into more of a focus than football for me, because I'd always loved football when I lived in the North West and that was what I spent most of my time playing.

"It's pretty cool that I get the chance to play for England in Barbados. I've watched so much cricket there. Every time Lancashire would go out there in pre-season I'd go and watch them, any touring side - I remember following them all over the place, warm-up games against Yorkshire and things like that."

When Salt was 13, he was in the stands at Kensington Oval throughout the men's World T20, and recalls watching Paul Collingwood walking round the ground on a lap of honour after hitting the winning runs off Shane Watson in the final. "Colly came past me with the trophy in one of the stands, held it out and said 'here you are, touch it while you can'. I remember telling him about that the first time I was involved in the England set-up - it's quite cool."

Salt rubbed shoulders with the great and the good of Bajan cricket, counting Collis King, Philo Wallace and Alvin Greenidge among his coaches. Early on in his Sussex career, he told local journalists a story about meeting Sir Garry Sobers while collecting a takeaway, and being so overawed that he mistakenly took Sobers' order home instead of his family's dinner.

He is a year younger than Jofra Archer - who has been batting against Chris Jordan in the nets in recent weeks as he continues his rehab on the island and linked up with the squad in training on Tuesday - and first played with him "when we were about 11 or 12". Salt also mentions "rubbing shoulders" with Dominic Drakes, Shai and Kyle Hope, Kirk Edwards and Jason Holder.

Years after leaving, he was even part of the Barbados Tridents team which won the CPL in 2019, called up as a late injury replacement for the final while holidaying in Miami. "It was a belting time," he says. "All my memories of Barbados are happy."

Salt's task over the next two weeks is to pitch a case for retention in a full-strength England squad - no mean feat given the depth of top-order talent available. "He's trying to get in probably the best England team there's ever been," Wright says. "It's a bit like Australia in Test matches back in the '90s.

"It is getting older and they aren't going to play forever, so when he gets opportunities like this and there's other lads being rested, it's another opportunity to show what he's got. I can see him being a natural replacement when the time comes for someone like Jason Roy to finish, but in the meantime, he's got to keep scoring as many runs as possible and keep knocking on the door."

Like many young English batters, he hopes to emulate Liam Livingstone's route into the side after impressing in leagues around the world. This winter, he turned down the opportunity to return to the Big Bash and instead travelled to the Abu Dhabi T10 and the Lanka Premier League, citing a desire to spend a rare Christmas at home and to improve his game against spin - and wristspin in particular, which teams had identified as a weakness. He finished second and third on the run charts respectively, with an eye-catching strike rate of 240.55 in Team Abu Dhabi yellow.

"The opportunities did come up [to return to the BBL] but I made the call to go to Sri Lanka instead: the wickets were tough, spinning big and quite slow and low. You have to play a certain way to score runs over there. If you can go away and dominate the leagues, you give yourself the best chance of playing international cricket. It's pretty simple, isn't it? With franchise cricket, you get a chance to have a first look at guys. 10 years ago in international cricket, that probably wasn't the case."

Wright adds: "His numbers against spin have definitely got to improve and he says that himself, but he can also give it a real smack. It's a dangerous ploy [to target him with spin] but it has got him out quite a bit as a tactic. He understands that there's areas still to go; he doesn't think he's the finished article, which is a good asset. He's so dominant on the leg side but in the nets, he's such a good off-side player and I actually think that when he starts accessing that side more when he's in the middle and the adrenaline is going, he's going to be a world-beater - he's going to be almost unstoppable."

After the Barbados tour, Salt flies straight to the PSL to link up with Lahore Qalandars, before an abbreviated pre-season with Lancashire, whom he joined from Sussex at the end of last season. Having spent the early years of his life travelling to Manchester to visit family and watch Manchester City, he got a taste of life at Emirates Old Trafford playing for Manchester Originals in the Hundred and decided it was time to make the move.

"The main thing that attracted me to Lancashire as a club is the vision that they've got going forward, and where they want to be in the next few years with the squad that they've got," he says. Perhaps fittingly given the nomadic lifestyle of the T20 circuit, it is not Salt's only homecoming of the winter.