Rewind 15 months and Gus Atkinson was yet to even establish himself on the domestic circuit.

A horror run of injuries and a stacked Surrey seam attack had restricted opportunities, even if those at his county still sensed that they had another special talent in their midst.

A few heads were turned after a handful of impressive outings in Surrey’s title-winning campaign in 2022 but at 25, he was no more than a peripheral figure at county level. Up to that point his professional career amounted to a grand total of nine first-class games and 23 T20 appearances, hardly the body of work of a future England player. 

Atkinson’s stock rose at pace the following summer. He dismissed Sir Alastair Cook in his first appearance of the year before impressing in front of the Sky cameras a week later. And then came the moment that changed it all, clocking 95mph in a Hundred game in August with a spell that had England white-ball openers Jos Buttler and Phil Salt hopping – a display that catapulted him into national contention in all three formats. 

England opportunities first arrived in coloured clothing before a call-up came for the ill-fated Test tour of India where he was one of two unused squad members. His ascension into the Test side feels both meteoric given where he was at the start of last summer, but also steady given the time he has spent around the national set-up since September.

While it was raw pace that initially created headlines, other attributes, ones that initially brought him success in red-ball cricket, were on display on his Test debut at Lord’s. 

That 95mph peak in The Hundred is a slightly misleading figure. Atkinson generally operates in the high-eighties rather than the low-nineties. He is brisk, but rarely exhibits Mark Wood levels of raw pace, where speed alone is threatening enough to pose problematic questions to the very best batters.

In many ways, Atkinson is a more classical English bowler who happens to bowl a yard or so quicker than most of his peers. He is accurate and capable of nibbling the ball in both directions, both through the air and off the pitch with the wobble-seam delivery. Across two spells either side of lunch he was irresistible. In the second, he took five wickets, including three in an over to put him on course for the second-best figures ever recorded by an Englishman on debut. 


But it was arguably his first spell that more demonstrated the extent of his potential. Brought on to replace the tidy but unpenetrative James Anderson, Atkinson struck with his second delivery. In truth, it was a loosener, well wide of Kraigg Braithwaite whose indeterminate footwork contributed to his downfall as much as anything. According to CricViz, though, it was the second fastest first over on record flung down by an English debutant in Test cricket; on the latest of a long line of slow pitches Lord’s have produced this summer, it was a point of difference that England had hitherto been lacking.

It wasn’t long before Atkinson picked up his second wicket, Kirk McKenzie nicking behind to give Zak Crawley a regulation chance in the slip cordon. Atkinson’s finished his first spell with figures of 5-4-2-2, the only two runs he conceded coming courtesy of an uncharacteristic misfield from his skipper Ben Stokes. 

It was encouraging that Stokes saw beyond Atkinson’s pace. Too often in England’s recent past they have pigeon-holed quicker bowlers, asking to them use the short ball as Plan A, particularly on slower pitches; see the use of a young Stuart Broad, or a pre-injury Jofra Archer. Atkinson is more than just an out-and-out quick bowler, he is a skilful bowler who happens to be quick – he was used accordingly today.

All in all, it was the perfect justification for England’s desire to hit the reset button. Anderson’s recent seven-for for Lancashire was viewed in some quarters as a sign that the push had come too early, but in reality, his spell today – pretty, but not game-changing – has increasingly become the norm for him in England whites over the last year or so. Since the start of the 2023 Ashes, Anderson averages one wicket per innings. 

Elsewhere, Chris Woakes was off the pace often operating in the mid-to-late seventies, a good five to eight miles per hour down on his usual speed. It’s the sort of performance that Ollie Robinson has been castigated for in recent times.

Stokes aside – whose wince-free return to bowling at full tilt was welcome – Atkinson’s energy was a necessary point of difference. Sterner tests against more experienced batting line-ups await, but it was a seriously impressive entry to Test cricket that suggests there is much more to come.

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