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Interviews

Have you heard of Gus Atkinson yet? You soon will

Surrey quick's stock is rising fast, and England are already watching his progress closely

Cameron Ponsonby
06-Jul-2023
Gus Atkinson gets into his delivery stride during Surrey's Vitality Blast campaign, Surrey vs Essex, Oval, July 2, 2023

Gus Atkinson gets into his delivery stride during Surrey's Vitality Blast campaign  •  Getty Images

Gus Atkinson's stock is rising. Fast. He started the season outside the Surrey team, but three outstanding County Championship performances were all that was needed to propel him to being a whisker away from the Ireland Test squad, and only a handful of slips on the golf course from an Ashes debut.
Atkinson's rise is testament to England's new mantra that how does, in fact, matter as much as how many. At 25 years old, Atkinson has played just 13 first-class matches and only recently become first-choice for his county, but in a running theme, people don't need to see much of him to decide they're a fan.
A smooth run-up, a quick action and an even quicker short ball combine to make a player who is fast enough as it is and yet is legally obliged to be introduced by any commentator on radio or television as: "Gus Atkinson, right-arm-seamer, who's just that bit faster than you think." Comparisons to Jofra Archer, made at first by friends in jest, are now said with a straight face by those who actually know what they're talking about: "Quite a few people have said that to me," Atkinson smiles when asked. "A lot, actually."
His list of admirers extends from the revered old school of Michael Atherton, to the new-age number crunchers including England's recently appointed white-ball analyst Freddie Wilde, who signed him twice in the last year, first for Oval Invincibles and then for Desert Vipers in the ILT20, before he joined the ECB. Over the winter, Atkinson also got deals to play in the Abu Dhabi T10 and was signed by Islamabad United in the PSL. And now he's spearheading Surrey's push for a place in the Vitality Blast Finals Day. With friends like these, who needs an IPL deal?
It would be wrong, however, to say that Atkinson has come from nowhere. Surrey have been excited about the player ever since he returned to training as a slender 14-year-old and started hitting the coach's mitt in bowling warm-ups far harder than the biology of his slight frame should have allowed.
I watched a video of myself bowling in 2020 or 2021 and I couldn't believe it. I was like, oh my god, is that me? I was running in really slowly, it almost looked like I wasn't trying.
In the same age-group as Ollie Pope, Sam Curran, Ryan Patel, Amar Virdi and Will Jacks, Atkinson for a while threatened to be the black sheep of this mystical, magical cohort. From signing as a professional in 2017, he watched on as all of his contemporaries debuted for Surrey by the end of 2018 - and in the case of Curran and Pope, for England - all while he sat on the sidelines nursing the unwanted fast-bowler threepeat of suffering a stress fracture in each of 2017, 2018 and 2019. It wasn't until 2020, almost three years after putting pen to paper, that he would finally make his professional debut, but in 2022 the intangible qualities that Surrey had long seen in him started to turn into tangible results.
"I wouldn't say it was hard," Atkinson reflects about watching his contemporaries move ahead of him. "Because they earned that and performed well. But I was always sort of thinking, 'ach', I was not where I wanted to be and I just felt like my career's not flourishing. And obviously, you're still young, but you do think that your career doesn't last forever."
Fears over contract renewals were natural, but from Surrey's end, the risk of letting Atkinson go far outweighed the cost of keeping him. There was a serious player in there, with the likes of Vikram Solanki, at the time the 2nd XI coach, being a vocal supporter and the instigator of a net that changed the trajectory of his career.
"Two or three years ago, I had a bowl at LSE [London School of Economics] New Malden. Just me and Jordan Clark went down with Vikram Solanki and Vik was like, 'run in and bowl as quick as you can' and something just sort of clicked.
"My run-up didn't feel as good and we just sort of lengthened it out a bit and when I did that, it was like, pfff, it's coming out well…let's go for it."
Cut to 2022 and the private school Bieber mop was gone, and in came a skin-fade, a beard and a pair of biceps. The result was a summer where Atkinson no doubt turned as many heads in Cafe Sol as he did in the ECB offices. He may have only played four Championship games and six Vitality Blast matches, but it was enough.
"I watched a video of myself bowling in 2020 or 2021 and I couldn't believe it. I was like, oh my god, is that me? I was running in really slowly, it almost looked like I wasn't trying. And that obviously wasn't the case, but I think I was holding myself back because of maybe a fear of injury or a fear of not performing.
"In my head, before, I wasn't not trying, I just didn't really know how much I could."
At this point it is probably best to admit a personal bias here. Hailing from the same club and two years apart in age, Atkinson and I have known each other for roughly a decade. Near enough the last match we played together was when a 19-year-old me tricked a 17-year-old Gus into playing for the 3rd XI by not revealing the team in question until after he'd got the green light from his mum, Caroline, that he was available. Opening the batting, Gus scored zero runs. And opening the bowling, he took zero wickets. The match was later abandoned after one of our fielders hit his head on the ground whilst dropping a catch and an ambulance had to be called. Gus did not play for us again.
Around that same time, I was coaching at the Stewart Cricket Centre, an academy run by Alec Stewart's brother, Neil, where you-name-him-and-he's-been-there has passed through. I asked Neil who the one player was, who he'd been sure would make it as a professional, but hadn't, and his answer was Atkinson. Not because at that point Surrey were planning to release him, but simply because they never saw him. With his mum in London and dad overseas, summers were spent between the two, with cricket not necessarily left behind, but harder to be front and centre.
"It's the same for me!" Atkinson laughs when trying to make sense of the black hole in his cricket timeline that occurred from 16 to 19 years old.
"I played [at Surrey] since Under-11s but I was never one of the main guys because there were other lads who were better than me.
"I always wanted to do cricket, but I don't reckon I actually believed I could until after school and I went to Adelaide and did well."
The story goes that after duffing his A-Levels - "To be honest, I was never… school," Atkinson grimaces in an incomplete sentence that millions would relate to - it was his mum who kept the Surrey wheels turning.
"I think she sort of did that behind my back," Atkinsons says. "Mum would email… just trying to keep me in the loop as much as possible, because I wasn't ever really on the Academy. Like I would play Academy games and I would train every now and again, but I was never signed."
Through Caroline, Surrey stayed in contact and it was pre-season 2017 when Alec Stewart had a look and liked what he saw - "So I stuck around, played, and got a contract that summer."
Caroline would see Gus make his long-awaited debut for Surrey three years later, when he dismissed former England captain Alastair Cook, but was tragically killed in a car crash later that same year.
"It's obviously difficult," Gus explains. "My sister started a Master's a few weeks after it happened and she did that. My brother's also started at university. We've just sort of, just carried on our lives really, there's not really too much you can do apart from that.
"I went into training three, four days after because I needed to get out of the house. I just needed to get away and escape."
As a player, Atkinson has a huge amount of goodwill surrounding him. And as a person, so does Gus. Introductions to people with the reference that "I know Gus Atkinson a bit" bring a smile, and depending on the company, a follow-up comment that "he's a serious bowler."
"You know," Gus ponders on the England talk now following him. "Probably if you asked me six months ago, I would have said my goal is to just play cricket for England. And now, I probably go, 'I would like to play for England in the next year'.
"So, yeah," he finishes with a smile. "I guess it is a big change."

Cameron Ponsonby is a freelance cricket writer in London. @cameronponsonby

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