Mark Stoneman relishes his 'step into the unknown'
ESPNCricInfo - Friday 11th August, 2017
"I tried to keep things simple and ensure my name was in the right area of the batting charts at the right time," he said. "And just not get ahead of myself.
"I realised there were a lot of good players out there and I had to keep putting performances in."
This phlegmatic attitude may, in part, have been instilled by his early experiences in the game. Starting his career on capricious surfaces in Durham - "they were character-building," he laughs now - he learned to shrug off the odd jaffa that life must send his way and, whether he nicked it or missed it, forget about it and focus on the next ball. Those early experiences ("I had a new opening partner each half of the season," Di Venuto recalls, "as they were shot after a few games") also explain his relatively modest career average of 34.76. Over the last five seasons, he is averaging just over 40. This season, at Surrey, that has risen to 59.14
"It was about three-thirty by the time my phone went," he says. "I knew they were picking the side today and I was beginning to think it wasn't to be. But then I saw Mr Whitaker's name on my phone and thought this was a call I really had to take. He has called once or twice to say I was close, but this time he said straight away he had brilliant news for me."
The first thing Stoneman did when he received the call from James Whitaker - "Mr Whitaker," as he refers to him - was call his parents, his sister and his wife. It was the conversation with his dad, Ian, that was the most emotional.
"He's a typical northern bloke," Stoneman says. "So he kept his emotions in check during the call. But I bet he shed a tear or two but it was once he put the phone down. He'll be there next week.
"Dad was the one rushing home from a full day's work to take me to training. You don't realise when you're younger: you just think 'I've got training, I need to go there' and you expect it to be done. But he went out of his way so often for me. I can't thank my parents enough for what they've done for me.
"One of my first memories is of having a little plastic bat and ball in my hands. I used to follow my dad around various leagues in the North East. Given that, my left foot apart, I'm not much of a footballer, cricket was always going to be my sport."
Stoneman will become, barring injury in training, Cook's 12th opening partner in Test cricket since the retirement of Andrew Strauss at the end of the 2012 English season. He has little experience of pink-ball cricket - though he did score a century in the 2014 Champions v MCC match in the UAE - and will be older than any of the previous 11 when they started their international careers.
But that need not be a disadvantage. As an experienced batsman who has learned his game inside-out, who has developed the temperament and technique to cope with triumph and disaster and who has, as Di Venuto puts it, "the back-foot game" and "solid character" that provide excellent raw ingredients, he has a better chance than most to adapt to the higher standard - and the pace and pitches of Australia.
If he does make it, he will reflect with gratitude on Di Venuto's influence. He admits he used to copy his opening partner's habits - "subconsciously, I think", he says - including the way he wore his boots and donning a head band at times. But it was more meaningful interventions that may prove key.
"When Di Venuto came to Durham, he told me that, if you're going out of your way to meet the ball, you're increasing your chances of the nicks," Stoneman said. "But if you play the ball later and put a few cuts away, it puts the bowlers under pressure and they come searching for your wicket.
"When that sunk in, I started to have success.
"I don't think moving to Surrey got me picked. But it did allow me to continue my work of the last four years. It allowed me to keep chasing my dream. If I had stayed... we all know what has happened at Durham. I think it would have been very difficult. It would have been a massive distraction.
"I've had 10 years as a professional now. I think I've worked a few things out. I've played on different surfaces and against some good players. This is a step into the unknown and I'm going to treasure every moment of it."
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
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