Essex wicketkeeper Pepper back in frame
PUBLISHED: 07:00 27 May 2019
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Michael Pepper was lying in a hospital bed on the opening day of the season, minus his appendix, when he heard the news that Adam Wheater had broken his thumb.
As Essex's number two wicketkeeper, Pepper should have been the next cab off the rank. However, he was in no position to take up the gauntlet.
Not that there was any sympathy from his team-mates.
"I woke up to messages saying I needed to come back," said Pepper. "They were the first messages I received: 'Just get up and come back'.
"I couldn't believe it at the time. It was only about a week between my appendix operation and Wheater getting injured. It was obviously unfortunate timing, but there was nothing you could do about it."
Essex acted swiftly and used the loan system to bring in Robbie White from Middlesex, and he has played the last two Specsavers County Championship matches as well as the entire Royal London Cup campaign.
However, it looks as though Pepper's lengthy recuperation could finally end today as he has been named in the Essex squad for the four-day game against Kent at Chelmsford (11am start).
"The goal was to get back in the first team as quick as I could," he added. "Firstly, to get as fit as I could, then if I scored runs in the seconds I knew I'd have a decent chance.
"It's actually taken longer that I thought it would to come back, but I guess it always does with injuries. I needed to get back to full fitness, just little things like spending the whole day in the field, something my body needed to get used to again."
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The 20-year-old has hit form at the right time and last week scored back-to-back centuries in the 2nd XI's three-day friendly against the Club Cricket Conference XI at Billericay.
"It was important to get time in the middle," said Pepper and he certainly got that, taking five hours over his 109 in the first innings and just over half that for an unbeaten 101 in the second.
"The first innings was certainly a grind," he said. "I felt I had to work quite hard for my runs. I broke it down into smaller sessions rather than try and bat the whole day. That helped me just bat time. It helped me get my confidence back up, too."
Pepper was involved in big partnerships in both innings: 214 for the sixth wicket in the first with Aron Nijjar, who contributed 118, and another 214, this one unbroken for the second wicket, with Varun Chopra, who was also 101 not out at the declaration.
"It took me about four and a half weeks after I came out of hospital to be able to run without any pain," he added. "Even just light jogging took a good three weeks. The knock-on effects to my body were quite major. It took a while getting back in condition again."
His appendix had started grumbling soon after he returned from Essex's pre-season tour to Abu Dhabi and steadily got worse. It perforated on the morning he was due to play against Cambridge MCCU in late March and he spent the eight days in hospital following an emergency operation.
Things had been going well before that as he had spent the winter based in Cape Town playing for Western Province and receiving one-on-one tuition from Mark Boucher, the long-time South African wicketkeeper.
"It was amazing to work with arguably one of the best keepers ever, he taught me a lot," he said.
Pepper made his Essex debut last season in one of two Championship appearances as replacement for the injured Wheater, as well as turning out in four Vitality T20 Blast matches.
"It showed me what I needed to do to be able to play at that level, it made me work harder and definitely whetted my appetite to play more," he added.