Stevie Eskinazi: 'I couldn't be sitting in front of the TV having done much more'

"I'm enjoying going out and trying to entertain people by pushing the boundaries of my own capabilities, playing shots that I never thought I could" CA/Cricket Australia/Getty Images

Stevie Eskinazi has dyed his hair peroxide blond, and no wonder. He has been ignored by the Hundred throughout its first two editions and with the 2023 draft taking place on Thursday evening, he will do just about anything to get himself noticed.

Across the last three seasons, nobody has scored as many runs in the Vitality Blast, the counties' T20 competition, as Eskinazi. He has been playing for - and last season, captaining - the second-worst team in the country, Middlesex, but has churned out runs with remarkable consistency while scoring at a strike rate of 147.

Yet in the Hundred, England's new, premier short-form tournament which is played in the height of summer, he has been unwanted. In the competition's first draft, back in 2019, that was understandable: he was relatively new to white-ball cricket, and had never managed more than 57 in a T20 innings.

In 2021, after the Hundred's first season was deferred by the pandemic, Eskinazi entered the re-draft as the second-highest run-scorer from the previous Blast season, but again went unpicked. Last year, after another strong Blast in 2021, he was overlooked again.

He seemed a safe bet for selection as a 'wildcard' or a replacement player after taking his strike rate to new heights, past 150, in the 2022 Blast, but the phone call he hoped for never came. In the 50-over Royal London Cup, which runs parallel to the Hundred, he hit 146, 182 and 135 in three consecutive innings, then watched on with incredulity as batters with a handful of professional T20 appearances won replacement deals ahead of him.

"I think 'surprised' is the right word," Eskinazi says over a flat white, while reflecting on three-and-a-half years of growing frustration. "It's tough to take, and it's taken quite a lot of inward thinking. You are asking yourself questions that you can't really get answers for.

"You think, I wonder why these people went for this player, when we do a similar role but I feel as though I've outperformed them? Is it my strike rate in the middle? Is it my conversion rate? Is it playing spin? You've got to try and dive deeper into your own game and I've found that challenging - particularly last year."

There is no smoking gun, no single explanation as to why he has been overlooked. There are an abundance of right-handed, top-order batters in English T20 cricket, many of whom prefer pace on the ball like Eskinazi. He has repeatedly sought feedback from coaches, general managers and analysts and has found some of it informative.

"But predominantly," he says, "it's just, 'sorry mate, that's just how the draft went'. I get it: in these competitions, I don't think it's a prerequisite… if they gave feedback to every player that didn't get in, it'd be a never-ending phone line. But it has certainly been something I've scratched my head at a little bit."

The eight Hundred clubs are all associated with counties, but the extent of that varies significantly. Middlesex's link with London Spirit, their affiliated Hundred team, has proved minimal: as things stand, none of their players have a contract at the Spirit this summer, and analyst Alex Fraser is the only common member of support staff.

That has meant bringing together a squad with minimal experience at Lord's and expecting them to perform: across two seasons, the Spirit have won only two home games. For Eskinazi, who has thrived there in T20 cricket, it has made for frustrating viewing.

"It's a difficult place to be consistent," he says. "It's not like Taunton, or Hove, or Bristol: you can't just stand up and hit everything down the ground. It's 80-odd metres straight at both ends, and 85 metres into the big pocket, one side. I've been privileged to play there as much as I have, and I feel so comfortable there.

"There's been a bit of that 'I'll show them' mentality... Particularly last year, I was going out feeling a bit like me against the world: 'these guys don't think I'm good enough - I want to give them absolutely no reason not to select me next year."

"I've found it a really tricky balance between playing in a way that is going to get me recognised - trying to further my career on the circuit - and playing in a way that's going to help me position my team to win. Often at Lord's, in a struggling team, that's not been going gung-ho… we have a young side, with some guys who need shepherding in the middle overs, and the games have been lower-scoring.

"I have had a level of disappointment with the Spirit - mainly because I feel like I could have impacted performance levels there. There's no God-given right for anyone to select you and they did well last year - but I was certainly disappointed to be overlooked at certain times there."

Lucrative contracts in the Hundred have enabled several county cricketers to double their annual earnings - or even more than that, with the competition also providing them with a platform to earn further deals in franchise leagues during the English winter.

But Eskinazi insists: "It's not about the money: what I've been really envious of is the exposure to playing against the best in the world. You're playing in massive games, against incredible players, on a stage that is being watched by a lot of people. That motivates me more than anything in this format - and it's what the Big Bash gave me."

The Big Bash was a career highlight. Born in Transvaal to an English mother and a Zimbabwean father, Eskinazi moved to the south of England as a young child and later to Perth, and decided to return to his old grade club Claremont Nedlands for some games before Christmas.

While in Western Australia, he won an opportunity with Perth Scorchers, whose overseas openers Faf du Plessis and Adam Lyth left the BBL mid-season for the SA20 and ILT20 respectively. A couple of half-centuries later, he found himself running onto the Optus Stadium outfield celebrating as his childhood team-mate Nick Hobson hit the winning boundary in the final, in front of a record crowd.

"It felt like a bit of vindication from my perspective," Eskinazi says. "The story couldn't have been written any better: I had links with the coaches and staff, and the majority of the guys there, I'd played with or against from the age of nine. Ash Turner was my captain at school; Nick Hobson and Matt Kelly played in the same under-10s team as me.

"I just wanted to be a part of what looked like an amazing franchise. I'd never played in front of a crowd like that, with how parochial it was. Lord's is a fantastic night out, but it's all people having a good time. They don't always know who's playing, or who's winning… to go to Perth and feel the buzz leading up to those knockout games was incredible."

Performing with some success in Australia - he averaged 26.75 with a strike rate of 131.28 in his nine games for the Scorchers - and a pair of 50-over half-centuries for England Lions last summer have reinforced Eskinazi's belief in his own ability. "It does spur you on a little bit," he says.

"I feel like I'm in a good position to try and capitalise on being a miles-better player now than I was at the age of 25. I've definitely tried to keep up with modern trends at the top of the order; put simply, it's just go bloody hard, and don't stop going hard." At 28, he is approaching his peak as a batter, and retains hope of winning an England cap one day.

But first, he has his sights set on Thursday's draft. "I don't reckon I could be sitting in front of the TV having done too much more than I have done in the last 11 months or so," he reflects. "I'll probably have my family around - and might have a beer or two, to either celebrate or commiserate."

He believes he has improved his game against spin over the winter after working with Adam Voges in Perth, and with Mark Ramprakash during Middlesex's pre-season training, and hopes that providing a wicketkeeping option - "I'm not saying I'm Jack Russell, but I did a lot of keeping earlier in my career" - can finally secure him a deal.

Yet counterintuitively, being overlooked repeatedly might just have made Eskinazi a better cricketer. At the time of the Hundred's first draft in 2019, he averaged 30.95 in T20 cricket with a strike rate of 130.40; in the three-and-a-half years since, he has averaged 36.42 while striking at 144.25.

"There's been a bit of that 'I'll show them' mentality," he reflects. "Particularly last year, I was going out feeling a bit like me against the world: 'these guys don't think I'm good enough - I want to give them absolutely no reason not to select me next year.'

"I'm enjoying going out and trying to entertain people by pushing the boundaries of my own capabilities, playing shots that I never thought I could, and just seeing how much fun I can have giving it an absolute whack, basically."

Whether that is good enough to merit a Hundred contract will become clear on Thursday evening.