Matt Maher: Tom Fell is battling back to his best after five hard years

For many, the whirlwind nature of this year’s county cricket season made it difficult to evaluate.

Tom Fell has faced cancer, as wellas a loss of form, in recent years – butgot his first century for Worcestershiresince 2015 earlier this summer
Tom Fell has faced cancer, as wellas a loss of form, in recent years – butgot his first century for Worcestershiresince 2015 earlier this summer

Yet that is certainly not the case for Tom Fell, for whom the condensed two-month campaign was precious and quite possibly career-reviving.

On August 18 the Worcestershire batsman could be heard letting out a scream of pure emotion and relief at Northamptonshire’s Wantage Road ground as he scored his first red-ball century in nearly five years.

The journey to that moment had been tough, beginning with a battle against cancer and then a drastic loss of form following his recovery and return to the sport.

“It was a huge weight off my shoulders, there is no denying that,” says Fell. “I was fully aware how long it had been since my last century. I think everyone was.

“The longer it goes on without one the harder it is to get one because you are almost trying too hard. Once that confidence is gone, it is tough to get it back.”

When Fell had scored his previous first-class century in September 2015 he was aged just 21 and recognised as one of the rising stars of the sport.

The 171 against Middlesex, which remains the highest score of his career, was the third hundred of a campaign in which he averaged 41 and was the youngest player on the county circuit to pass 1,000 runs.

The only way seemed up, until Fell’s world was turned upside down.

In November 2015 he was diagnosed with testicular cancer and then, having undergone surgery, went through three bouts of chemotherapy after a small area of cancer was detected in his lymph nodes the following March.

Yet while Fell knows his successful fight against the disease will always be a big part of his story, he does not believe it explains his struggles on the field since.

On the contrary, his form during the second half of the 2016 campaign, after receiving the all-clear and returning to fitness was good, averaging just over 35.

“My illness isn’t something I think about a great deal these days, if I’m being honest,” he says. “Of course there are times when you do but I would never say it is the reason I lost form or use it as an excuse.

“It was one of those unfortunate things. It happened and I moved on from it pretty quickly.

“It would be nice for people just to think of me as a cricketer rather than the cricketer who had cancer. It isn’t a negative thing and if seeing what I went through helps other people it can only be good. But it isn’t something I think about all that much.”

What Fell has gone through on the pitch these past few years is more a battle against his own mind, coping with the loss of confidence when things which have always come naturally suddenly feel impossible.

Batting had always come naturally to Fell, from his time as a youngster at Wolverhampton Cricket Club, for whom he still plays in the Birmingham League, to his record-breaking stay at Oakham School in Rutland.

The presumption might be overcoming serious illness helps provide a sense of perspective when things aren’t going to plan in the middle. The reality is different.

“For a while after I first came back in 2016 I did have a sense of pure enjoyment and playing with real freedom, the sense I was playing cricket at all,” he says.

“But that doesn’t last forever. You do start getting on with your life again and probably forgetting about what happened before and then you start being like any other cricketer, when things aren’t going well you don’t tend to enjoy it.”

Fell’s form fell away dramatically in 2017, when he averaged less than 15. Gradually, the dip became a prolonged slump.

“Cricket, especially batting, is a huge confidence thing,” he says. “The scorecard gives you no hiding place.

“I just lost my confidence for a few games without making any runs and the longer that went on, the harder it got.

“The mind becomes frazzled. What happened is I was battling with myself mentally more than anything and maybe neglecting the little things in my technique which I was doing before.”

After playing only six matches in the 2019 season, Fell used last winter to regroup. More frequent appointments with Worcestershire’s sports psychologist helped clear the mind, while in the nets he embraced a back-to-basics approach.

“I worked on things like really nailing my forward defensive, which sounds simple but is something you can neglect at times,” he says.

“As a group we went back to basics with red ball cricket. We worked hard, hit a lot of balls. I think that was the key for me. I have prepared for every game the same way and the work we did over the winter paid off. The psychologist is someone I have used a lot in the last 12 to 18 months. It definitely helps.

“There is definitely a benefit to getting in the right frame of mind as so much of the game is mental. It is so important to have your routines and your methods to put you in the best position to do well.”

Fell’s renaissance was not the only one in a Worcestershire team which only just fell short of reaching the Bob Willis Trophy final.

Having recently signed a contract extension through to the end of 2022, he hopes the past few months can be the platform to sustained success.

“Hopefully this was just the start,” he says. “I know it was a short season and to do well in a short season is easier than doing it in a full one.

“Next year I want to kick on and build on what I have done. Looking back on these last few years there are things I could have done differently. But if I do go through a rough patch again, I feel I know how to get out of it.”

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