The fire within: Jimmy Peirson's burning Test ambition
After a breakout summer off the back of some valuable lessons from a couple of the world's best, the Queensland and Brisbane Heat gloveman feels – for the first time – comfortable in boldly declaring his Baggy Green dream
Jimmy Peirson was steeling himself for the opening Marsh Sheffield Shield match of last summer when he looked across Adelaide's Park 25 and spotted his rival gloveman, Tim Paine.
Initially, Peirson had only glanced over, but he found his eyes wandering back to Paine, the Tasmania and Australia Test wicketkeeper, even as the Bulls were going through their warm-up routine.
"I probably watched him for 40 minutes," the Queensland 'keeper tells cricket.com.au. "Just because he's the best in the business, and I wanted to see what he was doing differently from what I do."
Peirson was stood beside Usman Khawaja and Marnus Labuschagne, the three players all receiving catches as they sharpened their eyes and warmed their hands ahead of game time. But the man with the gloves was distracted. Still in his periphery was Paine, crouched behind a single stump, working on catching low edges with a batter in front of him holding a nicker bat, and a thrower in close proximity.
"He was just working away at his spin work – catch, catch, catch – and I thought, That's something I don't do that much of.
"I said to Marnus and Uzzy, 'Look how much work he's doing over there – I wonder why he does so much of that'.
"Uzzy goes, 'Why don't you ask him?'
"I don't know Painey that well, I didn't want to look like a weirdo going up and asking him.
"Uzzy goes, 'I'll set it up, don't worry'."
Four days later, as the Bulls were toasting an innings victory, Khawaja walked into the changerooms and made a beeline for Peirson.
"Painey's waiting for you," he told his teammate.
"I was like, 'What?'" Peirson laughs. "I was shitting myself. But I ran over and I had a great chat to Painey about why he did what he did, and how he trained.
"It was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me in terms of adding that into my game. I've started doing heaps of (the same spin work) and I actually think this year has been one of the best years for me with the gloves, particularly up to the stumps."
Former Test 'keeper Brad Haddin, who watched Peirson's development closely last summer, agrees.
"His 'keeping since Wade Seccombe has taken over at Queensland (as head coach) has gone from strength to strength," Haddin says. "He's also benefited from having spinners like Mujeeb (Ur Rahman) and (Mitch) Swepson in Big Bash and Shield cricket, and that's taken his glovework up to the stumps to a new level.
"At his age (28), he's starting to understand his craft. He'll have a really good understanding of his technique now and what works for him, and having Seccombe there to bounce ideas off is invaluable."
Paine isn't the only one Peirson has been learning from. Both before and during a breakthrough season, the 28-year-old has been mimicking the habits of a couple of the best. After a decade of uncertainty, he has opened his mind and narrowed his focus, and his plans have crystallised.
"Right now I feel like the (Test) 'keeping role with Australia, Painey is there for as long as he wants," Peirson says. "But after that, I honestly believe it's open slather.
"I see it as my opportunity now to get into that Test team."
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When Jimmy Peirson was a teenager, he drew up and then stuck up a chart on his bedroom wall. On it he had detailed the progression points for a young Queensland cricketer; the teams he wanted to make on his way to realising his ambition of wearing the Baggy Green.
"And I would cross off the goals as I went – 17s Queensland, 19s Queensland, Second XI, Bulls," he explains.
"There's one thing I haven't ticked off, which is playing for Australia.
"I remember hearing Michael Clarke talking when I was much younger and he said, 'When you're playing state cricket, you often don't understand how close you actually are to playing for Australia'.
"That's stuck with me."
Across the past two years, Peirson has had an enviable vantage point for the finest contemporary example of Clarke's point, in the dizzying rise of Labuschagne.
As well as being long-time state teammates, the two share a Premier Cricket club in Redlands, have worked closely with several of the same coaches, attended Brisbane State High School, and have known each other since Peirson was 10 (Labuschagne is 20 months younger).
Peirson says Labuschagne's spectacular success has made his own goals feel that much more "real", while 12 months ago, it was the processes behind the success that helped plant a seed for the 'keeper-batsman.
As he and his wife Amy took a break from lockdown to walk along Kedron Brook in Brisbane's northern suburbs, talk turned to his cricket future.
"Amy said, 'What are you going to do next year? How are you going to get your cricket to where you want it to be?', because I was whingeing about how I wanted to play more cricket," he explains.
"And she said, 'Why don't you get a bowling machine?'
"I said, 'Nah, I'm not going to do that, it's five grand'. But by the end of the walk, we'd decided I was going to get one."
Ticking away in the back of Peirson's mind was the sheer volume of high-quality practice he had seen Labuschagne putting in for as long as he could recall. And there were two other facets of his teammate's cricketing ideology he felt he could also implement into his game.
"Mindset, work ethic and self-belief – they're the three things Marnus has got," Peirson says, before expanding on each.
"The way he approaches the game is about his processes – he doesn't get caught in outcomes because he knows that'll take care of itself.
"With his work ethic, he's first to arrive, last to leave, but during that time he's working efficiently on something – he's not just hitting balls to be seen hitting balls, he's doing something to make himself better prepared for the next task.
"And his self-belief is incredible. It's something he's always had but I do think you can build self-belief off success and confidence in what you're doing."
After a decade in the Queensland Cricket set-up – he earned his first rookie contract in 2011-12 but didn't make his Shield debut until 2017 – Peirson felt he had reached a tipping point in his career.
With encouragement from Amy to "give it a crack", his state contract set to expire at the end of the 2020-21 summer, and Labuschagne's blueprint for batting success at his fingertips, the time was right to dive into his work.
"I was like, 'Righto, I want to play Test cricket for Australia'," he says. "I'm at that age now where you can either just be where you are and cruise, and yeah, you might have a 10-year career with Queensland – which is great, there's nothing wrong with that – but if you want to play cricket for Australia, you need to be doing something that people aren't doing, and Marnus is the example I use; years and years of hitting that amount of balls, and look where he is.
"So (I thought): How am I going to get my game to where it needs to be to play Test cricket? And I threw myself into it.
"The difference (between he and Labuschagne) was, I wasn't doing enough outside of our (regular) sessions. So I got the bowling machine, I went away and I just worked through it, I hit four or five times as many balls as I normally would (in an off-season)."
Peirson and his portable bowling machine became regular travel partners, from local practice nets in nearby Ferny Grove all the way up to Caloundra on the Sunshine Coast, where his dad Andrew, or little brothers, Chris and Jono, would feed him balls.
On other occasions he would meet up with Bulls teammate Joe Burns, while he concedes there were even days when Amy, who is currently pregnant with their second child, helped him out by loading up the very machine she had suggested he purchase.
It was an investment in ambition. Together with former England captain and Queensland Cricket coaching assistant Adam Hollioake, Peirson had identified several areas for improvement during the back-end of the previous Shield season, when the Dukes ball had highlighted some weaknesses in his batting technique.
The need to better cover his stumps, to drive through wide mid-off instead of extra cover, and to defend with a straight blade rather than an angled one were all magnified by the swinging ball. And as he began to address each problem in the nets, Peirson soon realised the solutions would improve his game in all conditions. From there, it was about working his backside off.
"I definitely know playing against the Dukes ball made me a better batter," he says. "It was about going, 'Right, this is tough, so how am I going to score runs against a ball that's moving so much?'
"So that was the stuff I built on: my defensive work, covering my stumps, and back-foot play to spin – opening up scoring options off the back foot as well.
"And then working on my strengths, too; hitting my pull, my cut, and making sure I'm maximising those strengths.
"There's no doubt that hitting more balls gave me confidence in what I was doing, and allowed me to develop my game in those areas I needed to work on."
As he set about finding new ways of exhausting all avenues, Peirson also broadened a mindset that had previously been somewhat blinkered. He had never been convinced of the worth of visualisation as part of match preparation, but with his fresh, leave-no-stone-unturned attitude, he bought in.
"I never really spent much time on that because, to be honest, I thought it was a bit of a pull," he says. "I'm not a very imaginative person so I may have struggled to actually put myself in those situations, but this year I thought, You know what, I'm going to give everything a crack.
"Now I feel as though I prepare really well by actually visualising how I want to go about things. So just for example, coming up against the NSW bowling attack can be quite daunting, so one thing I used this year that helped me was going through the process of actually visualising facing those guys.
"Then when you go out in the middle you've almost done it before, and that can help you get a little bit more confidence, a bit more of an edge when you're going against the best bowling attacks, because they're the teams you want to score runs against – the Test-quality bowlers.
"And it might only be 10 minutes the night before a game, but I definitely think it alleviates a little bit of that anxiety around a game.
"It's something I did across all formats – I did it for club cricket, for Big Bash, for Shield, and it's definitely something that fed into my success."
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Before a ball had been bowled in the 2020-21 summer, Peirson had been able to borrow the 'mindset' and 'work ethic' principles from the Labuschagne playbook. The third principle – self-belief – was always going to be an upshot of performance, but with the first two in play, he was able to quickly move towards finding his holy trinity.
Against Tasmania, he made 62 in an innings win, and then he followed it up with a first-innings 66 against a New South Wales attack featuring Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon.
In Queensland's next outing, against South Australia, he made a rollicking 109 from 125 deliveries. It was his maiden Shield hundred, in his 36th match, and one that, for a long time, he didn't believe he was capable of making.
"When I was younger, there was something in my brain that, because I hadn't scored a first-class hundred, I just didn't think I could – it felt like it was out of reach for me," he says.
"It wasn't until I started working my game out, and I went into this last season knowing I was going to get one at some point. I'd made a few in club cricket and I'd been putting those (training) practices in place, and it became a bit of a habit, so then for me it was just a matter of when.
"I feel like my entire career I've been searching for something, and sometimes falling into that trap of thinking, It's going to be my day today. But it's not until you switch your thinking and start thinking the way the best players do – like Marnus or Steve Smith – it's about, 'OK, what's my preparation look like for this game? What's my mental prep?'. Then the (outcomes) take care of themselves.
"In the past, I didn't really know how I wanted to play my game, but I think certainly in the last season, I've identified how I want to bat, and I've stuck true to that."
Peirson only batted nine times through an abbreviated Shield summer but passed fifty more often than not, and averaged 44.66 for the campaign. Those numbers were backed up by what was comfortably the finest of his seven KFC BBL seasons for the Brisbane Heat, during which he was unbeaten in nine of 16 innings, including a quite remarkable 69no from 36 balls against Adelaide that almost snatched victory from a near-impossible situation.
When his side reached the finals, Peirson's new-found confidence came to the fore. It had been more than eight years since the Heat had won a BBL knockout match and Peirson, with contrasting but equally composed hands of 47no and 43no, helped them to two in three days.
"He made tough runs, both in the Shield and the Big Bash," says Haddin, who enjoyed watching Peirson's development closely last summer as a commentator with Fox Sports.
"Plenty of times he came in under pressure, changed the momentum of the innings, and got a job done for his team.
"That's part of a wicketkeeper's role and I've been really impressed with how he's done that, and just the toughness of his character."
Impressive too was his leadership in the absence of regular Heat captain Chris Lynn, which helped right a stuttering Heat ship early in the season and prompted calls for the level-headed gloveman to take the reins full-time. Even late last month, Heat coach Darren Lehmann floated the possibility for BBL|11.
"I love that onus on leadership, and being the man to step up, and it's something I want to embrace more, given the opportunities," Peirson says.
"Captaining under that pressure in the Big Bash, when everyone is watching, is a cool opportunity, and given the opportunity moving forward, I'll do it for sure. But that needs to be with great respect to what 'Lynny' wants to do."
Peirson, who captained Queensland Under 19s and famously led the Bulls to a Shield title in 2017-18 in just his 16th first-class match, views his leadership nous as a potential factor in his favour at the selection table, but he knows his Test ambitions will hinge primarily on runs and glovework.
Recently, Queensland coach Wade Seccombe expressed his frustrations at the absence of his 'keeper's name in the post-Paine national Test selection discussion. Instead, Australia's one-day gloveman Alex Carey is widely viewed as Paine's heir apparent and was named as part of the Test squad for this year's cancelled tour of South Africa, while West Australian Josh Inglis is renowned for his tidy 'keeping and hit three hundreds in the Shield season.
Peirson admits he is keeping tabs on his wicketkeeping rivals, just as he is sure they are keeping tabs on him.
"There's one 'keeper in every side so you know who's doing your job, and you know who's going for the same job as you, so you're aware of how they're going," he says. "And you know what? It's great to have that competition. That's what drives you to be the best you can be.
"If someone's pipping you, you want to be better than them. That's certainly one of my great driving factors: I want to be the best, I want to be the next man in.
"These guys are setting their benchmark, and I want to set my benchmark higher, and maybe bring a few other attributes into that as well, through leadership or whatever else.
"It's an exciting time for me. I really am driven to be where I want to be and I know there are people pushing for that same role, and that definitely just drives me more."
Three post-Paine 'keeping contenders (first-class records)
Alex Carey (SA, 29) | M: 40 | R: 2,313 | 100s: 5 | 50s: 12 | Ave: 36.14 | Ct: 142| St: 2
Josh Inglis (WA, 26) | M: 42 | R: 2,077 | 100s: 3 | 50s: 11 | Ave: 34.04 | Ct: 142 | St: 3
Jimmy Peirson (Qld, 28) | M: 43 | R: 1,851 | 100s: 1 | 50s: 13 | Ave: 31.37 | Ct: 154 | St: 1
It is at least partly that ambition that has pushed him towards agreeing to this interview. For the first time, Peirson feels justified in talking publicly about his career, both in past and future tense. He sees it as another means of pushing himself beyond his comfort zone, just as he has been striving to do with his cricket.
"I think I am naturally quite laidback, and that can be great, but to be the best cricketer you can be, you need to have that streak of mongrel in you as well," he explains. "That's not meaning you're an arsehole, but it certainly means you take opportunities when you get them.
"Even opportunities like this (interview) … I think it's a chance to tell your story, and you know, if you've had a good year like I've had, it's an opportunity to talk about it and make a bit of noise. It's OK to do that if you're playing well because at the end of the day, if you want to play Test cricket for Australia, you need to be talked about.
"My personality might not be to do that sort of stuff but it's something I want to embrace. I think it's OK to say, 'Yeah, I am going well at the moment, and I want to keep going well'.
"That's where I'm starting to shift my mindset, and that comes from the confidence of playing well and having success.
"I haven't had success before this season really – I've just done enough to be there and that's great – but now that I know that I can do it, it's the most ready I've felt to say, 'Righto, I feel like I can play Test cricket for Australia'. I know there's more work to be done, but here I am, I want to do it.
"I'm not an outspoken person, but if I need to be a bit more chirpy, if I need to make more noise, I'm happy to do that – as long as my performances are matching the chat.
"Yeah, I've had one good year – that's great – but now I need to make it back-to-back good years."
Peirson was 24 when he made his Shield debut after serving a long apprenticeship under Bulls legend Chris Hartley. Looking back, he believes having to bide his time served him well. Now he feels the same about Test cricket; the way he sees it, if Paine stays behind the stumps through this summer's Ashes, that is simply another opportunity for him to put together a strong Shield season. He will be 29 by then, a year younger than Haddin was when he made his Test debut.
"He's still young enough, no doubt," Haddin says. "Look at the age Tim Paine got back into the side at. I started (with Australia) when I was 30.
"He's actually starting to come into his prime years as a 'keeper."
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Peirson is speaking just 13 days on from the Shield final, which marked the conclusion to a seven-month 'summer' for many of Australia's domestic cricketers. But he is both disappointed the season is over, and eager for a new one to begin. He sees the possibilities in this next phase of his career, and he is determined to put in the work to ensure he is as well placed as he can be to realise them.
"I wanted the season to keep going because I had so much momentum," he says. "I wanted to keep putting my best foot forward.
"I've already identified where I want to work – I want to work on my spin play, I want to come back much bigger and better next year with that. I want to work more closely with Marn when he's around and explore different ways of batting with him – we saw how he played Nathan Lyon in that Shield final, and I need to find ways to put the best spinners under the pump like that.
"I just can't wait to rip back in. Take stock for a week or two and then go again. I see this next little window as my opportunity to put my hand up to be the next Test 'keeper for Australia. There's plenty of guys who want that role so it's about how can you differentiate yourself from the others, and that's a question that will come up a lot in the next season or so."
Much of it comes back to the lessons from Labuschagne. Mind-set. Work ethic. Self-belief. Seemingly simple traits that have served his old mate so well.
"If I can nail those three things down, that's when I'll start having the success I need to be playing for Australia," Peirson says. "Playing cricket for Australia is, for the first time in my career, something I genuinely feel like I can achieve.
"I haven't got that chart on my wall anymore, but in my mind I can still see it there. That's the progression, and it's not unachievable – I've got mates who are doing it, so why can't I?
"It's OK to dare to dream."