Borthwick eager to restate England credentials
England's Test batting line-up underwent considerable changes last year and it remains to be seen who takes the field in Joe Root's first outing as captain, against South Africa at Lord's in July. James Vince, Ben Duckett, Haseeb Hameed and Keaton Jennings were handed debuts; Gary Balance was recalled and dropped again; Jos Buttler returned to the middle order and Moeen Ali was shunted up and down the order.
At the start of the Sri Lanka series last May, there was also the unfortunate need to fill James Taylor's position. The revolving door in the middle order since his untimely retirement suggests that it is something they haven't yet managed. Then, by the start of the Pakistan series, they needed to replace Nick Compton whose form and confidence had disintegrated.
That was the moment when Scott Borthwick's name came firmly into view. Selected as a legspinner against Australia at the tail-end of the 2013-14 Ashes whitewash, following Graeme Swann's mid-series retirement, he had since transformed himself into a stellar No. 3 for Durham - not least at his home ground of Chester-le-Street, one of the tougher places to chisel out runs, where he scored back-to-back centuries against Lancashire last season.
Even in the 2013 season, before his England Test debut, Borthwick had passed 1000 runs, a feat he would repeat in each of the following three summers. By the time the selectors were looking for Compton's replacement, he had already scored three centuries in nine Championship innings, including an unbeaten 188 against a Nottinghamshire attack featuring Jake Ball, Harry Gurney and Jackson Bird. Comparisons with Steven Smith - leggie turned top-order batsman - were being made.
He was next in line. Or so it seemed. Then came the curveball from the selectors. Ballance was named in the squad to face Pakistan in the first Test, on the back of a productive two rounds of matches, which included a fine century against Middlesex at Scarborough, and with a hint of irony, 78 against Durham. At the same time, Borthwick's runs dried up (or his luck changed) with three single-figure scores in the same period.
"Looking back at the two games that were between the Test series - we played Yorkshire and I got run out in the first innings and Adam Lyth got me in the second with one which kept low," he tells ESPNcricinfo in Wellington during a spell as an overseas player with Firebirds. "I'm sitting there scratching my head, thinking I'm still in good form, I've just had two freakish dismissals.
"Then we went to Hampshire and I left one which hit the bottom of the bat and goes onto the stumps. The game is like that. What I did learn is that, if you get ahead of yourself, it has a way of biting you back. That was maybe a learning curve and it's about keeping your emotions as level as you can. It is something I think I've done well in the last four years. Sometimes you get good balls, sometimes you make a mistake, sometimes it's just not your day."
Borthwick had tried not to let talk of a potential England recall bother him, and is reluctant to suggest it was the reason for the untimely run of low scores, but he admits he thought the call-up was close after conversations with his county captain - and England one-day coach - Paul Collingwood.
"I spoke quite closely to Colly and he thought I was going to get picked," Borthwick says. "So I believed him, he's in the know. The selectors came and watched, but no one actually spoke to me to say I was close or whatever. I don't know how close I really was. I just had to put that to the back of my mind."
After his unbeaten century against Nottinghamshire, Borthwick did not score another hundred in 19 first-class innings for the season. However, his summer was not a write-off. There was a top score of 92 against Warwickshire at Edgbaston, and he passed 1000 runs for the fourth consecutive summer. "That was a big for me and a relief," he says.
Though the England call eluded him, the fact he got close purely as a batsman is something he takes great pride in. "For me, it was more the excitement of people talking about me as batsman, because it had never really happened before. The thought of playing Test cricket as a batsman was exciting, I was proud of the fact I was getting talked about and people were mentioning my name."
After a somewhat disappointing second half to the season, Borthwick did not earn a place in the various England Lions squads. It could have been construed as him slipping down the pecking order, but as he points out, "I'm only 26", and he has endeavoured to turn the setback into a positive. Before the 2016 season was finished, it had been announced he was heading to Surrey, along with team-mate Mark Stoneman, in the biggest county moves of the year. It was time to take stock.
He had a pre-Christmas break - his first decent spell away from cricket in four or five years - before heading to Wellington at the start of 2017. He made a big impression in the preceding New Zealand summer with a century in his first appearance and 532 runs at 48.36 all told in the Plunket Shield. His current stint has been less successful but he hopes the time in the middle will help him kick-start his pre-season with Surrey, for which he is returning to England early.
Although plenty of English cricketers now travel the world for various T20 leagues, an overseas pro in first-class cricket remains uncommon and Borthwick has found it a fulfilling experience. "Last year was really good for me to have six or seven four-day games for Wellington, and it was nice of them to ask if I could come back.
"I think what helped is, I got a hundred in my first game and got a few wickets. You go into the dressing room with confidence. Despite the runs I'd scored in England, it was important to do it in front of them here. It showed the lads I could play.
"I spoke to Hamish Marshall [the former Gloucestershire batsman who plays for Wellington] and he said sometimes, as an overseas, you don't always have to win games so long as you are contributing even off the field. That's what I wanted to do. Of course I wanted to win games but I also wanted to help in other ways. And now I can go into the season with some cricket behind me."
His Surrey move came before confirmation of the sanctions against Durham, which resulted in them being relegated and docked points for an ECB financial bail-out, so it cannot be said he jumped ship to further his career. The chance to work alongside his former Durham team-mate Michael Di Venuto - "one of the best batting coaches in the world" - along with a desire to develop his legspin and improve his one-day game on better wickets were chief among his reasons.
The bowling, the skill that earned him a Test cap, has certainly taken a back seat over the last three years, although you could hardly find a more inhospitable climate for legspin than Chester-le-Street. In the 2013 season he claimed 34 wickets at a very respectable 33.52 (the three seasons from 2011-2013 brought 84 wickets at 31.48) but the following three summers tallied 56 wickets at 48.14. The 2016 season did, though, include the heaviest bowling workload of his career.
"Hopefully I can stay in the top three, and if I'm bowling well, I can get wickets down there as well. I want to keep learning. As a legspinner, you never stop learning," he says. "My white-ball batting is something I want to keep on improving. Hopefully on better wickets I can trust myself to try and hit the ball. I haven't quite worked out one-day cricket as well as I have red-ball. I know my game much better as a four-day batter than a one-day batter. But I've scored runs in one-day cricket, it's about kicking on, and I'm confident that I will work it out. I want to keep developing new skills."
With England currently on a six-month hiatus from Tests while the game switches to a one-day focus, a lot can change, and with a different balance of side likely than was used in Bangladesh and India, a middle-order slot could yet open up depending on whether Buttler is retained and how the plethora of allrounders are used. But Borthwick is not going to let the thought preoccupy him, nor will he start fretting about whether his opportunity is going to arise.
"Obviously I want to hit the ground running but there are plenty of players who have got back into the side in their late 20s. I certainly don't think if it doesn't happen this year that I'm a write-off, but hopefully I can get people talking about me again."
Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo