In Southampton, Pankaj Singh walked off the ground after England’s second innings completely alone. Not one team-mate waited for him to walk off. He had to make a 100-metre walk alone. If you watched him on the entire walk, you could hear the “sad Hulk” theme.
There is a red thread around Pankaj’s right wrist when he bowls. Despite Sunday being the Hindu festival Raksha Bandhan, this is not a Rakhi. It is not a sign of a bond between him and his sister. The Rakhi is a knot of protection. Whatever Pankaj’s wrist thread signifies, it’s not protection. And it’s certainly not for luck either.
There was a smile for Pankaj on day two at Old Trafford. It came, unsurprisingly, when he had no luck. Instead of getting angry or disappointed, he smiled.
A newspaper recently wrote in its death notices that “Deaths are coming”. The remnants of a tropical storm are about to flood England. Meanwhile, the Daily Express, is concerned about lunar activity: “The SUPERMOON will light up the sky in a beautiful spectacle on Sunday but may also act as a catalyst to Earth’s terrifying and dramatic conclusion.”
We could all be dead by the time Monday roles around. Pankaj Singh started Friday with the thought that he could end it as the single worst bowler in Test match history. And he smiled. He started Saturday with that in mind, and the potential for our global annihilation, and he smiled again. He smiled after another luckless over as he stood out on the ugly mush by the fine leg boundary. He stood on the semi-dried sludge, knowing that he might never ever take a Test wicket. And he smiled.
How can you not like Pankaj?
I know his gait, I know that it changes in different situations. I know the lean in when the ball is about to be bowled. I can see how he has a different step when walking around the field to when he’s coming in to bowl. I know all this because I have become obsessed with Pankaj. In between overs I stare at him through my binoculars. I watch his spells live, and then every single ball again on replay. I then Hawk-Eye the overs later.
I noticed his new thumb guard, needed after one of his all-too-common fumbles. Noticed that when he fields, on the very odd occasion, in a catching position, he does it with all the grace of a plumber performing a plié. I see when he finds himself at mid-off with no cover fielder, he asks a more agile fielder to swap with him. And I am watching close enough to notice that while in general he sort of flicks his feet out for each step, when it’s bowling time, he has more purpose, more strength in each step. Pankaj likes bowling time.
No matter how poor he bowled, how poor his luck was, how much the batsmen are taking him on, you can see it. He’s a born bowler. Nothing says that more than his batting.
It’s hard to not be romantic about him. Every single time he fronted up to the crease he seemed to be looking more and more likely to end up as the single worst bowler in the history of cricket, statistically speaking. Despite bowling well at times, really well even, he was somehow going further and further into Test-match bowling without taking a wicket. Ian Botham did some analysis on Sky that said he could have taken ten wickets so far. The press box was cheering him on. Twitter was tear-stained after every play and miss. His pain was seemingly everyone’s. We all just wanted him to have one wicket. Save the embarrassment, give him something. Forget the luck, just one. Please.
It’s not often a player gets picked for romantics or even on popular opinion. Behind the lovable-lug nature, the cold analysis is not as heart-warming for Pankaj. He’s not a perfect bowler. The outswing, offcut and bounce are all good. But his biggest problem is his lack of consistency ball after ball, over after over, day after day. On Saturday morning, he bowled two overs with the old ball. Twice he went past Jos Buttler’s edge with top class international deliveries. But then with the new ball, he was ordinary.
He struggled for a decent line, often just spraying wide and harmless. His length was poor as well. He didn’t correct it. And, not for the first time, MS Dhoni had to drag him off and overbowl Bhuvneshwar Kumar. His front arm is not strong, which could be the reason he sometimes doesn’t get it right. But the problem he really has is that at his pace, to succeed at this level, Test after Test, against big bats, flat pitches and an ever-encroaching boundary triangle, you need to be able to put 23 out of 24 balls in a place that is restricting the batsman. Pankaj doesn’t, yet. He’s a bowler who bowls you the odd ball that is too good, and occasionally gifts the batsman free runs. That’s not unlucky, that’s untidy.
Whatever the outcome of the ball, Pankaj reacts much the same. A look at where the ball has gone, the odd nostril flare or sideways glance at the batsman, and then head down and back to his mark. He doesn’t seek out any chat, or respond much to it. Once, Rod Tucker tried to suggest his feet were finding the pitch’s danger zone, but even then Pankaj didn’t really stop or listen, he just went back to his mark, and waited for the ball. Pankaj is almost always ready before his team-mates, waiting for the ball, yanking up his left shirt sleeve and waiting for one more chance.
It’s probably no different to what he has done more than 16,000 times in first-class cricket. It’s probably no different to how he has played for any of the 2424 days since he first played a tour game for India. Same again. One more spell. He had bowled 26 spells in Test cricket. One more over. He had bowled 69 overs. One more ball. He had bowled 415 balls. One more. One more.
On the 16,162nd ball of his first-class career, Pankaj comes in again. His action is slightly more hurried, he is searching for pace. But the ball isn’t quick, and it’s down the legside. It’s not a good ball. It’s not the ball that has got Pankaj selected. It’s not a swinger or a cutter. It’s a ball that Joe Root should score four from. Instead it bounces a little and brushes some glove. Dhoni takes it in front of his eyes.
Pankaj turns instantly to the umpire. He has appealed to these two umpires, Marais Erasmus and Rod Tucker, many times. They’ve never given him anything. But this time he doesn’t plead with both hands and the face of pure desperation, this time he appeals like he’s finally got a chance. Like he doesn’t have to prove himself, that his desperation is simply not needed. Erasmus sticks his finger up straight away. Pankaj looks to the sky. Deaths are not coming. There is no hurricane. The supermoon can’t defeat him.
This time the luck is his. Pankaj Singh has a lucky wicket. Pankaj Singh has a Test wicket. He is Pankaj Singh, Test wicket-taker.
The commentators cheer, the press box cheers, the Indian fans scream and even the English fans cheer. It’s rare that one wicket can give so much cheer to so many different cricket fans. I put my binoculars up to my eye. I tell myself it’s to see him close up. But I know it’s really to stop people seeing my tears. This is the happiest I’ve ever been for a crap leg-side dismissal. It’s probably close to as happy as I can be for someone I don’t actually know.
Those who do know him flock to him, his team-mates crowd around him. He tries to smile, but he’s too embarrassed to do it properly. They all look happier than he does. He’s taking big breaths and is clearly not comfortable with the attention for what was one of the worst wickets of his career. They love it. The team stay in a circle, smiling, laughing, joking, happy for their team-mate. Pankaj walks off back to his mark.
Pankaj is a bowler. He doesn’t need the adulation of a lucky wicket. He needs to bowl his next ball.
At the end of the innings, Pankaj has to make the long walk across the field. It’s every bit as far as his walk in Southampton. Yet again he walks all the way across the ground alone. This time his team-mates wait for him.