There is no good time to test positive for Covid-19 but for Jake Lintott, Sunday was a particularly frustrating one. He is due to miss at least three Birmingham Bears fixtures in the Vitality Blast while self-isolating, and the fact that the first ended in defeat underlined his importance to the side since the start of last year, during which time he has been their leading wicket-taker.
Lintott, a 28-year-old left-arm wristspinner who bowls nearly as many googlies as stock balls, had played three T20s for Gloucestershire in 2018 and a single one for Hampshire the year before, but as he headed into his late 20s, appeared destined for a career playing club, minor counties and second-team cricket, which he combined with a job as director of cricket at Queen's College, Taunton. His success for the Bears - Warwickshire's T20 moniker - in the Blast seemed a long way off 15 months ago.
Lintott had been due to travel to La Manga on Warwickshire's pre-season tour last March after Ian Westwood, the 2nd XI coach, had talked him up following some impressive performances the previous summer, but when the UK went into lockdown, he was furloughed from his job and uncertain about what lay ahead.
"I was in a bit of a grey area," he told ESPNcricinfo. "I didn't know where counties were going to come out financially at the end of it, and everything was a bit uncertain. When I got furloughed from the school job, I tried to use lockdown as a big opportunity to focus on me and invest as much time as I wanted to in myself.
Having struggled to find time to focus on his fitness while working during the week and playing every weekend, Lintott took up running and lost nearly three stone (18kg). "When you're in a full-time working environment, it can be really hard to find time for yourself. I've always moved quite well, even as a biggish lad, but to lose weight, it means the perception disappears and it's another box ticked. I think it was the last thing I had to do [to earn a contract]."
He had spent time on Zoom with Graeme Welch, the club's bowling coach, working on his action - "it sounds bizarre that he was coaching me through a computer screen" - but turned up to a second-team game before the Blast and left the coaching staff taken aback: "I think I looked like a completely different person, having lost all that weight."
On the first day of the 2020 group stage, he signed a short-term contract to cover the five weeks of Blast cricket, which he combined with his job at Queen's, regularly driving 130 miles up to Edgbaston and then 130 more back down to Taunton. While the Bears missed out on the quarter-finals after letting a winning position slip against Northamptonshire in their final group game, Lintott's return - 10 wickets in nine games, with an economy rate of just 6.30 - marked him out as one of the season's breakout stars.
After discussions over the winter - during which time he briefly trained with Jack Leach while working as a pathway spin coach for Somerset - Warwickshire offered him his first professional deal in February, which he is combining with his job at Queen's this season. He took eight wickets in his first five games in the Blast and since 2020, only three spinners - Matt Parkinson, Danny Briggs and Dan Moriarty - have taken more wickets in the competition; all three have a higher average and economy rate than Lintott.
"I've trained a couple of days a week since February up in Birmingham: travelled up, stayed overnight, two days of training, back to the school," he said. "To be honest, I've had no days off since April. It's tough work but it's all worth it.
"For a while I felt like I'd been a bit unfairly treated. It's quite hard to break into the county system once you've reached a certain age, and that was a good example of it. I felt like I was good enough but my age was holding me back. Because I do lots of coaching I understand that people develop at different ages, but I'm not sure the system here allows players to come in late. The fact I'm different and you see how big wristspin has become in T20 has always kept me going but it has taken a lot of determination. It would have been easy just to give up."
Naturally, he attributes much of his success to his novelty factor. Tabraiz Shamsi, Kuldeep Yadav, Zahir Khan and Noor Ahmad have made reputations for themselves around the world, and the percentage of balls bowled by left-arm wristspinners in T20s around the world has grown fourfold over the last eight years, according to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data. But they remain as rare as Fabergé eggs in England, a graveyard for unorthodoxy: Lintott is already the all-time leading wicket-taker among left-arm wristspinners in the Blast's history.
"I think I'm the only contracted one in the country," he said. "D'Arcy Short does it for Hampshire on a part-time basis and there are young lads in the academies at Northants [Freddie Heldreich] and Yorkshire [Sam Wisniewski] but there's really not much of it about. That's definitely an advantage: it's just different, isn't it? And that's a big thing in T20, being unpredictable. It makes me harder for batters to line up, because they're not used to it. It's good fun, as much as anything."
While Lintott has had to put up with various coaches suggesting he revert to bowling left-arm orthodox, wristspin has always come naturally to him. When he was nine years old, he naturally bowled out the back of his hand while masquerading as a seamer, and once he had realised wristspin was a viable option, he pursued it seriously. "It's nice to be able to spin the ball both ways. That's the best thing about it: my job is to take wickets and make batters look a bit silly."
The arrival of Briggs, the slow left-armer who is the Blast's all-time leading wicket-taker, at Warwickshire has worked in his favour, with their bowling styles and personalities naturally complementing each other. "I'm quite emotional and eccentric and like to get into the battle, whereas he's chilled and level-headed. He never really gets hit which means players have to start coming hard at me; that brings me into the game, spinning it both ways.
"I've been working on being more effective to left-handers: generally people think of me as spinning the ball away from them and into right-handers, but I bowl a lot of googlies - near enough a 50:50 split. With right-handers trying to slog me leg-side, I get wickets and dot balls going across them, whereas with left-handers, my legspinner doesn't rip quite as much as my googly, just because of my angles. I make it a big part of my routine to do analysis on where opposition batters like to hit boundaries, and where I can get dot balls to them."
Things have clicked for the Bears so far, joint-top of the North Group halfway through the group stage, with two players in particular standing out for Lintott. "I'm obviously biased, but how Sam Hain has not played for England is remarkable: he's easily the best white-ball batter in the country at the moment. Carlos Brathwaite has added a lot to the group as an overseas player, too - in terms of character, and obviously match-winning performances with bat and ball."
It was Brathwaite, a Manchester United fan, who came up with the idea for Lintott's newly-minted celebration: fists together with the thumb and forefinger pointing out to make a 'J' and an 'L', evoking midfielder Jesse Lingard's trademark 'J-Lingz' pose. "A few lads got their hair cut before we were on Sky but I don't need to worry about that… I guess T20's all about fun, isn't it?"
Propelling the Bears to a top-two finish in North Group after returning from self-isolation is his immediate focus, with a 'wildcard' spot in the Hundred or opportunities with Warwickshire in the Royal London Cup potentially down the line. "I know if I keep taking wickets I'll be in with a shout," he said. "I'm a really ambitious guy and want to take my cricket as far as I possibly can. That's shown in how hard I've had to work to get here. I'm just happy to finally be settled with a county: I've got three years to invest in Warwickshire, because they have invested in me."