When Tom Banton finished England's T20I series at home to Pakistan as their leading run-scorer last summer, he seemed to have the world at his feet.
Banton was county cricket's breakout star in 2019, impressing in Somerset's Royal London Cup win and finishing second to his opening partner Babar Azam in the Vitality Blast run-scoring charts. As much as the runs, it was his style that caught the eye as he paddled, slogged and reverse-lapped himself into the England squad for the winter's T20I tour to New Zealand. Soon after, he was travelling to the Big Bash, the Abu Dhabi T10 and the PSL as one of the franchise scene's hottest young talents, and despite a quieter start to the 2020 summer, quick runs against Pakistan seemed to confirm that status.
But the eight months since have been tough. Banton managed 12 runs in three T20Is against Australia at the end of England's home season and flew straight to the UAE for the IPL - earning him a bizarre rebuke on Twitter from the actor John Cleese for missing Somerset's Bob Willis Trophy final against Essex. He played only twice for Kolkata Knight Riders, making 8 and 10, and was almost immediately on the plane again, heading to South Africa as a reserve for the white-ball squads.
Amid the Covid scare that cut the tour short, Banton pulled out of his planned return to the Brisbane Heat, citing bubble fatigue after so many nights staring at the walls of hotel rooms. Following a handful of cameos in the Abu Dhabi T10, he flew to Pakistan to fulfil his Quetta Gladiators contract; after two single-figure scores, he contracted Covid-19, meaning 10 days of isolation in his Karachi hotel and 10 more back home in the UK. The pandemic has put the franchise treadmill onto a setting so high that even the fastest runners struggle to keep up.
"There's been a lot of quarantine over the last year, and that kind of just tipped me over the edge to say I can't really go away and do hotels for a while now," Banton told ESPNcricinfo on Monday, speaking from Twickenham Stadium at a content day for the Hundred.
"I pulled out of a few things this winter, but I have to get the balance right. There's so many things going on every month, either with England or tournaments around the world, and I have to be very clear with what I'm doing and stick to it."
On top of the Big Bash, Banton also opted out of the IPL auction for this season, choosing instead to return to play in the County Championship for Somerset. The runs are yet to come - he has averaged 14.50 with a top score of 37, and has been left out in two of their last three games - but there are mitigating factors: he has been tasked with opening, having generally played as a middle-order batter in red-ball cricket in the past, and has still been suffering from his experiences over the winter.
"I've still probably got long Covid," he said. "My smell and taste aren't too good still, which is a bit weird - and a bit worrying, actually. It might have had an impact on the runs - who knows? - but apart from that it's been alright. I've felt probably [in] the best form I have done, but obviously the red ball sometimes has your name on it.
"[Before the IPL] I'd been in a bubble for a long time. It felt like I'd been away for years. Obviously the IPL is run so differently and it's so good to be a part of it - growing up as a kid, it's something I'd always wanted to do, so to actually be there was surreal. I thought I wouldn't go back into the auction and just get back and play cricket again. To be honest, I wouldn't have been picked up - I've had a pretty quiet year.
"I'm not worrying about [Championship form] too much. I enjoy the red-ball stuff but opening - is it suited to me, is it not? I don't know. I enjoyed it, but it's obviously tricky and you've got to be so patient. I'm looking forward to not worrying about wobbling red balls coming down, or having my stumps blown out. It's nice to get ready for the Blast and the Hundred - and hopefully England selection - in the summer."
Somerset's week off in the Championship and Banton's omission from the side has given him the opportunity to get away from the game for a week, seeing friends in London (though he was busy fixing the back windscreen of his car on Monday, following a break-in). When he gets back to training, his focus will be on building into a two-and-a-half month stretch of white-ball cricket comprising the Blast for Somerset, the Hundred for Welsh Fire, and limited-overs series against Sri Lanka and Pakistan for England, if selected.
"It's a busy summer of white-ball cricket," he said. "The Hundred felt like it was never going to start at one stage but now here it is, two months away. It's quite exciting for everyone: the new format will probably take a few games to get used to and then hopefully it'll be pretty normal from there. It'll be nice to have coloured kit on and bring back some of the old days from a few years ago, and have some fun again.
"It's a long summer, and one of the last times I played for England I got a few runs against Pakistan. The squad is so strong at the moment that I've got to score runs and that's all I can hope for, but I'm not expecting anything. I'm just going to keep enjoying my cricket - I've still enjoyed it over the last year, but sitting in hotels, doing quarantine [and] having no crowds does make a huge difference. I can't wait for things to get back to normal."
Banton's Welsh Fire side are bracing for news regarding their overseas signings: Qais Ahmad is expected to play the full tournament and Kieron Pollard is understood to be keen to fulfil his contract following international duty, but Jhye Richardson is among the Australians weighing up a two-week quarantine period on their return home and the possibility of a clash in dates with series in the Caribbean and Bangladesh. Either way, Banton is relishing the chance to target Cardiff's short straight boundaries.
"Fingers crossed they can all come over, but with international commitments, I'm not sure what it'll be like," he said. "It's tricky for Jhye - they have a two-week quarantine when they get back to Australia. It's not easy for these guys, especially when they've just come back from the IPL.
"I've been [to Cardiff] a few times for a few nights out - my brother [Jacques, who plays for Worcestershire's 2nd XI] goes to uni there and I have some other friends there, but I've played one game there and got 80-odd  which started off my whole journey, really. Fingers crossed the same thing happens again this summer: a few scoops, and some hacks and chips over mid-off and mid-on."