Salt carves unusual route to the top with exemplary work ethic

Phil Salt celebrates reaching his century Associated Press

"It was a confusing morning," Phil Salt reflected. The mixed emotions evident after a day where he was left on the rack for the IPL, then hours later became the first English player in history to score consecutive T20I hundreds.

"That's all I'll say on it," he continued. "I was expecting to be picked up….but it can happen."

Salt is used to being told no. Despite a professional debut at 18, his route to the top is unusual in that it features no pathway cricket. Today it may have been the IPL, but for the duration of his teenage years it was Surrey.

"I couldn't get in," he laughed earlier in the tour when recalling the days he spent trying his best to break into one of the nation's biggest production lines.

It's not that Surrey didn't know who a teenage Salt was, nor that he was battling to be in the same absurd age-group that contained the likes of Sam Curran, Gus Atkinson, Ollie Pope, Will Jacks, Ryan Patel and Amar Virdi. It was just that Surrey didn't care. Salt played district cricket, the level below full age-group, and had a vocal advocate in former Surrey spin bowler Keith Medlycott, who was his coach at school, but nevertheless the county were happy to say thanks, but no thanks.

And they had good reason to. At 16, he had a season for Guildford Cricket Club where he averaged 11 in the first team. A record that was so good it earnt him four goes in the 2s as well.

The die appeared to be cast. Salt was a talented player, who had a future ahead of him ruining people's Saturdays by slogging a hundred, but little more. Which, to be fair, has turned out to be true. It's just that rather than ruining the Saturdays of Weybridge and Sutton. It's West Indies. And then three days later, he ruined their Tuesday as well.

"I've always been good at hitting the sight screen and going over the leg side," Salt reminisced about his favourite bits of his second century in three days. "But it's something Jos [Buttler] said to me today when Jason Holder took the pace off wide and I hit over the off side, he just said 'teams can't bowl to you'."

Educated at Reed's in Surrey, a school whose indoor centre features PitchVision with each net rumoured to replicate a different continent - a fact that provides the excellent scenario where a kid in the 3s might be phenomenal in India but just keeps nicking off in England - there is a case that Salt represents the best and worst of the impact that private schools have on cricket in England.

On the one hand, you have a kid who was born in Wales and grew up in Barbados, plucked from obscurity and given a scholarship. A scenario that meant when Surrey weren't interested, a player with ability, but whose development didn't match what a professional outfit wanted, was able to continue playing, continue grafting and eventually live out his dream of playing for England. Stop crying in the back. But on the other hand, it is a tale that is only possible for the lucky dip winners. This is not an indictment of Reed's, nor Medlycott, nor Salt. All of whom were committed to an unlikely dream that has been rewarded. But an acknowledgement of a tale that is only possible through the opportunities private education provides. Of course, whether that is cause for private celebration or public commiseration is down to your own political proclivities.

"Medders was brilliant," Salt said of his mentor at Reed's. "I was at school in Surrey, parents were in Barbados and Medders and his wife MJ really opened their doors to me. It was almost like I was part of the family at times.

"I still see him quite a lot and he's got a wealth of knowledge. If I do well, he'll be the first message. And if I do badly, he'll be the first message as well. I'm very lucky to have had him in my corner."

With Surrey not interested, Salt's attention turned to Sussex who provided the second turning point of his career after the move from Barbados to England. Salt was roughly 17, and despite having never been part of the junior programme just a few miles north on the A3, was a year away from a professional debut thanks to performance manager Keith Greenfield.

"Keith was the exact same. I didn't have a base in the UK but he'd give me digs down in Brighton and throw balls at me hours on end. Both of them were very influential figures in my development."

As of 2021, 61% of England's Test batters in the past 20 years had received private education, compared to 27% of bowlers and allrounders (batting figures include those who received private scholarships at Sixth Form such as Joe Root). Statistics that are a result of batting's status as cricket's nurture to bowling's nature. Batting can be trained. Hit thousands of balls over and over and you'll improve. Compare this to the story of Salt's England team-mate Tymal Mills, who first picked up a cricket ball at 14 and had the physiological ability to immediately be the fastest bowler in his league. In short, the theory goes that great batters are made, but fast bowlers are born.

Salt's work ethic is exemplary. The anecdote of a decade ago was that he was a talented cricketer who came back after a winter spent nothing but netting, and revolutionised his game. Ten years later and his continued technical work led to England's greatest ever white-ball batter Buttler telling him mid-game that he was impossible to bowl to. The brain is also combined with brawn, with him currently on an extreme diet in a conscious effort to bulk up and clear the ropes.

He's a deserved England player who, for what it's worth, is also considered to be one of the nicest.

Salt was provided an opportunity that few are, which was combined with a desire that few have. The argument is that in a country where cricket considers itself to be a national sport, it is only the latter that should matter.