the woeful world of Pankaj Singh

Lawrence Booth, editor of Wisden, met Pankaj Singh in a lift. They talked about Pankaj’s day, which turned into Pankaj’s luck. It was exactly the sort of conversation you would expect from any bowler in the world when talking about a wicketless day. At the end, Pankaj left Booth with the words: “That is cricket”.

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There is a ball that Pankaj Singh bowled in the IPL that hit the pitch and cleared the keeper’s head. That is a combination of pace and bounce. He also has swing. Lovely curling outswing that he can maintain even with an older ball. Then there is his offcutter. That makes him a bowler who can move the ball both ways, get bounce and bowl in the mid-80s mph.

His action is uncomplicated and rugged. His body seems to have been chipped from solid stone. His wrist position at release is good. He has got a smart bowling brain. He works with his captain on his fields. He works batsmen out. He bowls to plans. He is willing to do grunt work.

This is an international bowler. And for the last ten years he has been a domestic bowler. This Test may send him back there.

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If you were playing Indian Quick Bowler Bingo, Pankaj would go close to completing your sheet. He played U-19 cricket for India, went to the MRF pace factory, was a quick bowler, became a slower swing bowler, played one ODI, toured Australia without bowling a ball and then went about playing some IPL.

Pankaj is not a good IPL bowler. He averages 33 with the ball; he goes at over 8 an over. When you YouTube an Indian bowler’s name, you generally just find clips of them disappearing into riotous, crowds. Pankaj has a large selection of them. It’s not his format. So there is no hype for him.

Between his tour of Australia and this tour, India have used roughly 43 million other fast bowlers. Despite the fact that year after year Pankaj is near the top of the wicket-takers list in first-class cricket. Despite the fact that he has helped Rajasthan win the Ranji Trophy. Despite the fact he is obviously just a really good cricketer.

His one ODI game was in the Zimbabwean Triangular series of 2010, which was a tournament so useless, relocated witnesses running from the mob could have sat openly in the stands and not been found. His first ball almost took the edge of Upal Tharanga. But he ended with no wickets that day as well. He disappeared off India’s radar so completely that he might as well have been in a witness relocation programme.

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Cricket Journalists ooze cynicism from every single pore of their being. It’s the first thing you’re asked about when you apply for the job. So it’s rare that they get behind someone with match figures of 0 for 179. Usually that would invoke snide remarks, casual jokes and general chuckles. Something about Pankaj meant they didn’t do that.

Cries of “Get Pankaj on”, “Give Pankaj a bowl”, “Come on Pankaj” were heard as Pankaj thudded around the outfield. Sure, they still laughed when he fell over fielding the simplest ball. But no one thought he deserved the worst figures ever by a debutant. No one thought he hadn’t been unlucky. No one wanted the loveable lug to fail.

Even on Twitter where snark is king, people just seemed to feel sorry for him.

“@reverse_sweeper Please, someone give Pankaj a hug. Is there a backroom guy for that?”

“‪@SpiceBoxofEarth Would be a real shame if Pankaj Singh was judged on just his figures alone. This has been a very decent debut. “

“Yogesh ‏@YOGESHBOND The Oscar for making the unluckiest debut ever in tests goes to pankaj singh.. This guy needs a jaadu ki jhappi.. #UnluckyPankaj “

“Mark Pougatch ‏@markpougatch I’m not alone am I in really wanting Pankaj Singh to get a wicket?”

He is the MHMOTS (Most huggable man of the series).

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A right arm bowler coming around the wicket to a left hand batsman that can take the ball away is quite a skill. Few can do it. Pankaj can. He angles the ball in, Cook pushes at it as it seams away. His pace and bounce ensure it carries to slip. But Jadeja doesn’t take it.

Later Dhoni will try one of his leg slip traps to Ballance. To help make it work, Pankaj bowls the perfect inswinger on middle stump which Ballance gets enough bat on for it just to drop short of leg slip.

At the 80 over mark, Pankaj is promoted to new ball bowler status. Reward for being the best bowler of the day. Then he placed a ball on leg stump. Every single batsman in the world knew that meant it was slipping down leg. But it didn’t slip down, it didn’t even straighten, it came back towards middle. It was the ball swing bowlers wet dream over. It could not have been more perfect.

Pankaj appealed.

He appealed like he was trying to feed his family, his village, and every single person he had ever met. It was about as emotive as a human being could be. It was the closest any human being had ever been to making themselves explode. He wanted a wicket, he deserved a wicket, every single molecule that went into this impressive chunk of cricketer pleaded for a wicket.

Not out.

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Rohit Sharma got a wicket with a ball that missed the bat. Moeen Ali got one from a half tracker. And Ravi Jadeja, the man who cost Pankaj a wicket, and perhaps India a Test, took one with a half tracker down the legside that if you received it in the nets you would catch it and throw it back.

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Pankaj did not bowl overs full of the sweetest peaches at all times, he also bowled poorly. He couldn’t group the ball together enough. He got tired. And when England attacked he didn’t seem to have many answers.

The worst was Buttler. Buttler ‘Bryce McGained’ Pankaj. In five balls he took 20 runs. Pankaj probably won’t remember much more than a front leg clearing and a bat flying through. But the 20 runs in that over in England’s first innings was the 20 runs that helped him fly past Sohail Khan and Bryce McGain as the worst-ever bowling figures by a debutant in Test cricket history.

If he was unlucky not to get a wicket, then we need a new word to describe that achievement.

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There are many small things to like about Pankaj. On day one, it was his nipples. Which were probably the best seam bowling nipples seen in England’s South. He is also an unusually violent ball shiner. His throwing style is more like that of the local butcher playing a club game that a professional athlete. He doesn’t stop balls in the field as much as runs along beside them. His shirt is often untucked. He is an older player who has earned his position through deeds. His running often makes it look like his shoulders are too big for him to stay upright. And he bats like a proper 1930s tailender.

Pankaj is part of a small club of cricketers who have been stumped facing a seamer with the keeper standing back. It happened because he wanted to sledge Ajit Agarkar for bouncing him. You have to commend him for standing up for himself against a senior player like Agarkar. You have to laugh at him for getting stumped while he did it.

When Pankaj was asked what he would do with a million dollars, he said he would build schools, improve infrastructure and find jobs for his village. In almost every way he is a thoroughly lovable big lump of lad who has spent years trying to make it.

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There is brief excitement in the eyes of Pankaj as he sees another ball take the outside of Cook’s bat. The ball flies in the air towards a well set double gully trap. Had Mohammed Shami bowled the ball, it could have probably nestled into the hands of one of them. But this is Pankaj, so the excitement quickly becomes pain, then acceptance.

For a few seconds, he stares in the direction of the ball, even though it has been returned. He waits for Dhoni to say something, but nothing comes. Then he turns, a turn so heavy you can hear it from 100 metres away, and he gingerly walks back to the umpire, Rod Tucker, who is smiling sympathetically. It is the smile of a man who spent 103 first-class matches bowling luckless spells. Tucker says something and gives his cap back.

Pankaj walks alone towards the boundary. None of his team mates go over, the time for encouragement has passed. They know he has probably bowled his last ball this match, and possibly the last of his entire Test career. He fields one more ball, and then walks off the ground to get some treatment. No one claps, no one pats him on the back, he just moves through the few spectators and support staff, three stairs at a time.

Just as he is about to disappear into the changeroom, he takes off his cap and slams it on his leg.

That is cricket.

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Cook applauded for making it to lunch

The umpire called time and the crowd rose. They clapped. Almost every single one of them. The applause was jarring on a morning of closed-faced bunts and turgid run accumulation. Gary Ballance was out there, but no one was applauding him. It was all for Alastair Cook. He had survived until lunch. One whole session and the crowd rose to congratulate a man with 25 Test centuries and over 8000 Test runs because he didn’t get out.

It was un-ironic and spontaneous, they clapped not because Cook hadn’t been good, but more specifically because he wasn’t bad.

The crowd gave a collective “ugh” noise as the very first ball took his edge and went towards slip. This pitch and Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s pace meant that it travelled slowly but the potential car-crash nature of a Cook first-ball duck slowed it down to a an excruciating degree. Cook’s career was wobbling behind him. Most of the crowd were still yet to put their bags on the ground. Billy the Trumpet had not even finished wetting his lips. And had the ball carried all the way to second slip, Cook would have been gone. Gone.

The crowd didn’t applaud the edge falling short, but they all started breathing again as it did.

It didn’t get better. A ball hit the face of Cook’s bat and it turned his bat around. He played an off-side shot with the bat on an angle that would turn the stomach of many batsmen. His thigh pad was hit. Cook protects his thigh pad like it proves the existence of God when he is in form. This was not Cook in form. This was a wet-blanketed edgy bloke who missed balls on his pads.

Pankaj Singh came around the wicket to deliver a ball angling in, short of a length, and moving away. Cook edged it. Ravindra Jadeja dropped it.

Cook was working on everything. His guard had moved back to leg, from the middle at Lord’s. His feet were more open. And he was holding his bat in such a way he was physically forcing himself to play straight. Had he superglued his hands on to the bat, he could not have emphasised that he was trying to overcome his flaw. Even his backing up at the non-striker’s end was forced. Instead of a gentle walk in with bowler, or even an eager jog, he had adopted a near jump-and-pounce premeditated manoeuvre that left him in a cat-like pose waiting for the single. This was a man who had thought more about his game in the last week than people talk about tragedies on Twitter.

A normal defensive shot ended up looking like the bat and ball are determined to not meet. A juicy half volley was punished with a feather. Even his pull shots weren’t Cook pull shots, they were polite cross-bat paddles followed by a jog to the other end, happy enough to get off strike for another ball.

Finally there was a ball slow and terrible enough for Cook to bring out the true force of his family and smack it. It was short and disgusting, but as it flew through point the crowd cheered as if Cook had beheaded a wyvern. Sure, most of the crowd could have hit it for four, but Cook did it, their Cooky, they want him to succeed.

The celebration didn’t last long, his back foot inventing a new dance move as he played and missed. “The Cooky” may never catch on. A slash through gully put hands on heads of Indians and provided sharp intakes of breaths all around the bowl. A really, really, really slow short one from Rohit Sharma virtually hit itself for four and then applauded the shot as Cook watched on.

India dropped Cook, but they also helped by bowling as inconsistently as they could to him. They tried to bowl short, because they clearly didn’t see the viral video of how often he is dismissed from full balls. They were too wide. They were too straight. The impeccable groupings from Lord’s were replaced by single dots that seem to be following no real plan.

Cook wasn’t forced to play straight, so he didn’t. His traditional V of just behind and just in front of square leg reemerged. He didn’t charge down to reverse sweep a bouncer. He started hitting the balls on his hip, he hustled between the wickets , he bunted balls out to point and stole singles, he cashed in on short balls outside off stump, and he ignored the zone straight down the ground.

If batting could be compared to the good looks of Hollywood’s leading men, this was the Tor Johnson. It bumped into scenery, mumbled incomprehensibly and made you feel awkward for much of the time you were watching it. But it was an innings. An actual innings. One that they didn’t even seem to mind finishing five runs too soon.

The final ball. The seven-two leg field. The short filthy delivery down the leg side. The batsman trying to hit the ball a bit too hard. An umpire readjusting his trousers. Alastair Cook dismissed for 95. The crowd stood and applauded.

They stood and applauded him for getting to lunch. They stood and applauded him for getting to fifty. They stood and applauded him for getting to 95. They stood and applauded as he left the pitch, walked up the stairs, and then up the other stairs, and then as he finally disappeared into the dressing room. They stood and applauded him for simply not failing. They like him.

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A hole in England’s bucket – parts 1 & 2

A low ebb can typically be found in any city in the world at 3am on a Saturday morning. It’s someone lying in their own sick, urine and faeces. The night started with such high hopes.

In cricket, a low ebb is when you get the exact pitch you have ordered for a Test, you win the toss, and then you lose against a team which hasn’t won away from home in three years. The Test started with such high hopes.

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The ECB has a blueprint for its perfect kind of cricketer.

An English cricketer should be someone who has come through the English set-up in some way. County cricket form is less important. They need to have impressed at academies, on Lions tours, been through the testing systems, be easy to handle, aggressive but defend first, respectful of authority, and young.

The bowlers should be tall and fast, bowl long spells. The spinners should be orthodox and consistent. The body shapes should be slim, muscular and fit for purpose. And in leadership they should be from the right kind of family.

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A fresh-looking Stuart Broad bounces through to deliver a full and swinging ball to MS Dhoni. Dhoni plays an aggressive waft that looks designed largely to get an edge. India lead by 52.

Harbhajan Singh walks in at No. 8. Broad goes full and straight with this newish ball. It is given out lbw. Despite the obvious deflection. Broad is on a hat-trick. DRS schadenfreude takes full effect. India lead by 52.

Praveen Kumar faces the next ball. Broad is on a good length this time. Praveen’s bat seems to be operated by an invisible goblin that won’t allow it to move properly and the stumps fly. Broad flies past him into the arms of his ecstatic, hat-trick-happy team-mates. They bounce with joy. They are a team. They are as one. The fans raise their beers in triumph. Ian Botham applauds like a loving dad from the balcony.

It is . Before Broad’s intervention, India were 52 runs ahead with five wickets in hand. They would move that lead to 67. They would lose by 319 runs. India go down 2-0. Then 3-0, 4-0.

England are No. 1.

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Every kind of spin not in the MCC coaching manual is mystery spin when described in the UK. There is a whisper that Pippa Middleton’s former beau, Alex Loudon, had a doosra. But he’s now working in the city, meaning that one day he’ll end up back in cricket as a managing director.

The thing is, to the rest of the world, a delivery perfected in the ’90s and around since the ’60s, is not a mystery. It’s a delivery. It’s like a googly being called a mystery in the 1920s.

When England toured the UAE in 2012, Ajantha Mendis had been bowling the carrom ball for almost four years. Rangana Herath had bowled it more than 12 years ago. Jack Iverson played in 1950 with his carrom-like ball. Yet England were defeated by the mystery of a doosra in the UAE.

It was like dying from swine flu in four years’ time. Or still collecting beanie babies.

Saeed Ajmal used this “mystery” ball to torment England. And there is no problem going out to him. Players the world over have done it. But saying it’s a mystery, that’s the odd part.

Ajmal is obviously a genius. His hands should be saved for future generations. He will end up in working in Vegas. But Abdur Rehman is just a spinner. Not in a bad way. But he’s a normal human spinner to Ajmal’s alien-lizard-spin-god spinner. Yet Rehman took almost as many wickets against the newly crowned No. 1 team. That was the real mystery. Not that Rehman took wickets, but that he destroyed England. That they continued to play him like he was bowling cryptic crossword grenades. Rehman averages 27.75 in his career; 30.47 in the UAE; and 16.73 in that series.

Then there is Mohammad Hafeez, who took another five wickets. The three of them took 48 wickets in three Tests. Pakistan won 3-0. England had been No. 1 for a few months and their first series back they’d been smashed by a genius of modern conventional offspin, a quickish left-arm orthodox and a part-timer taking all but 12 of the wickets available to them.

England swept , stood and theorised as Pakistan won all three Tests. In the second Test in Abu Dhabi, they needed 145 to win. They nearly got halfway there. Not a mystery, more a horror.

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Ashton Agar was, had Australia named it as such, a flirt with a new era. The search for the magical teenager who could transport them back to the top. Agar was dropped after only two Tests. Now he’s a Big Bash novelty marketing item who may one day come back.

To England he is much more. He was a major sign that thinking on their feet wasn’t their strong point.

When England toured Australia, their menu made the media. It included superfoods like kale. Because when England do a team menu, they aren’t talking food groups to look out for, or general cuisines their players might like. They are giving chefs every single food they want, how it should be cooked, what it should be served with. Other than a cutlery preference, there is almost nothing left to chance.

At the time, you could fit into two camps, the “look at these morons thinking quinoa will help them bowl” camp. Or those who said: “Well, it’s a professional set-up, of course they monitor what their players eat, but do they have to be so extreme?” There is, of course, a third way of looking at it: that if England have taken away personal choices for players on meals to such an extent, what else is not in the player’s hands? What other decisions that normal human beings make do English cricketers not have to make?

We know their strategies are devised for them. We know they are based on cricket sabermetrics that most of us will never understand. Video crunched into meta data and then fed to them on specially designed Swiss-chard forks. This is the data, now implement the code, bowling unit.

David Saker is not a coach of technique, he is a coach of tactics. The beer-swilling bogan outswinger with a bad temper who could have been something with the ball, but instead is something with a bowling attack. But David Saker and the analysts didn’t have the data on young Ashton. He was at No. 11. He was a teenager. It was as if he had scrubbed all his private information from cricket’s Google and was just a naked virginal elfin boy in front of them.

It took England all of 98 runs to work him out: 98 carefree runs. Every single one of them was a giggle for him and pure frustration for them. They had no plans, they had to bowl to him like you would in club cricket. Work him out just from how he batted. They could not. England’s finest cricketers could not work him out and it almost cost them a Test match.

The Agar moment wasn’t a one-off. There is no English fan that hasn’t screamed at a ground, TV or radio for England to pitch it up. While attacks around the world have been bowling fuller and fuller, England have seemingly gone the other way. They’ve missed the good-length revolution and they continue with the lengths that just don’t seem to work. It’s hard to remember the last time they bowled fuller than their opposition.

Paul Farbrace said their plan to Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ravindra Jadeja after lunch at Lord’s on the fourth day was to pitch it up. But their bowlers bowled short. With no analysis, they are no good. With analysis they are no good. And sometimes they decide not even to listen to the analysis and are just as bad. Clearly their food is not super enough.

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Graham Gooch was the perfect man to talk about an epic innings. “To score runs like that you need attitude, you need good technique, you need knowledge and you need spot-on concentration.” The innings was Hashim Amla’s at The Oval.

In the past, England players had played innings like that. Jonathan Trott, Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen had all done it. But in the first innings of that Test, Cook made a hundred but then didn’t get to the pitch of a drive. Trott played a lazy drive on 71. And KP was out-thought by Jacques Kallis the over before the new ball. It felt like an aberration. This was not how England had played to get to No. 1.

They would surely fix it and come back strong from their innings-and-12-run loss. But it didn’t happen. Andrew Strauss’ form had already been free-falling, now it was free-falling into an inescapable black hole. Cook didn’t pass 50 again in the series. Trott made one more fifty. And KP played his innings at Headingley, then went to the after-match press conference and said it was “tough being me”.

Pietersen did this press conference without his captain by his side. Which is very rare for an end-of-match press conference. It then turned out why when he was dropped for calling Strauss a “doos” on a text message to Morne Morkel. It was then whispered that KP had been unforgivably hard about James Taylor, England’s debutant at Headingley. The dressing room had become an open book, a tacky romance novel. You could all but see the long-suffering Strauss being brutishly handled by the bare-chested Pietersen on the cover.

That all of this came in the series in which Hashim Amla made 482 serene, England-like runs just made it all the worse. England were upset with themselves. They were losing. And they weren’t making big daddy hundreds. They were also no longer No. 1.

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There should be no other emotion other than pure joy watching Tino Best bat. It’s like a puppy with a squeaky ball. At Edgbaston there were lofted off drives, edges that went past hands, cover drives off the spinner, a straight six off the sightscreen and the odd wondrous hoick to wherever the ball wanted to go. At one stage he told Denesh Ramdin to bat for him.

Eventually Graham Onions took his wicket. But not before Best had made 95. Steven Finn, Tim Bresnan and Onions had been hailed as the great back-ups that proved that England were producing quality cricketers who could continue to move them forward when Broad and James Anderson retired. The machine was what worked, the cricketers were just fresh products for ongoing domination. Two years later Onions is being ignored, Bresnan has never got back to his best after his injury and Finn, well, Finn…

Finn wasn’t ruined by Best. Despite the rumours, Finn wasn’t ruined by any one thing. But he was in ruins.

Graeme Smith played a part. Middlesex may have done so too.

But none of them were in Australia during the Ashes. None of them were there while one of the most naturally talented fast bowlers on earth was decomposing. None of them were in control of him, or up against him, as he bowled for England against a collection of 2nd XI players in Alice Springs. Finn’s bowling in Alice Springs was not first-class quality bowling.

It was as if Finn had done a brain swap with Simon Mackin. Mackin was a young, tall Aussie quick who had played not one first-class game at the time. He bowled the quick, hostile, clever spell, while Finn produced the spasmodic, random bowling of a club bowler who is not quite good enough. This was Finn who had been through every system, test, seminar, counselling session and analysis that England could come up with. And they’d taken him back to a state of a skinny, confused teenager. A skinny teenager with 90 Test wickets.

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When Andrew Strauss was asked in a sweaty Galle catering room whether he was nearing the end of his career, it made everyone there feel very uncomfortable.

“Andrew, all of us in this room respect what you’ve done for England, but that is now four successive defeats. Have you taken this team as far as you can?”

You could hear each sticky intake of breath.

Strauss’ team had become No. 1 only four Tests earlier. But England had lost all four and Strauss had made one hundred in his last 23 Tests. Strauss was respected as an Ashes winner, and as a batsman, but his batting had gone and his team was losing. The question shouldn’t have been ridiculed or gasped over. It should have been the question that was being asked by England. They could have quite clearly decided that he should stay, but they had to ask the question.

Instead, Strauss would play for seven more Tests, make two hundreds, lose, win and draw a series, and lose the No. 1 ranking. Then he would leave.

There was always a saying that it was harder to get out of the Australia team than get into it. England could never be accused of that. But at the heart of their team, that special group of people who all get along so well, it is not easy to get dropped.

If we are to believe what the gossip and insiders tell us, Pietersen is the single-worst human being to put his pads on. Now, that may or may not be true, but Pietersen played over 100 Tests. Trott was an emotional wreck at the Gabba but, had he wanted to, he would have played in Adelaide. Matt Prior must have suffered one of the biggest form slumps in the history of wicketkeeping during the Ashes. He missed two Tests before he was straight back in like it was all a bad dream.

And now Cook. He is averaging 14.33 this year. His team has not won a Test in their last ten. Cook has said he wants to keep fighting and that he is not a quitter. He also said Matt Prior could go on as long as he liked minutes before it was decided otherwise.

England refuse to be honest with reality. They have built a team ethic, and they are desperate to keep it. So instead of one man going off a cliff, they all jump holding hands.

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Read part one of this article here

You had to be at Headingley to really understand how much treacle Nick Compton was batting in. If it’s possible for a batsman to sink beneath a pitch and only pop up for air at the end of each over, Compton was doing that. He knew there was pressure on him to make runs. And while many were calling for him to speed up, many of them were cricket journalists who wanted to leave Leeds. England had more time than Harlequin and the Ticktockman.

Compton didn’t, though. He was an odd choice for England. He does not fit the blueprint of an English player. He is a county player who makes runs. He is a self-made man. It’s hard to see how he ever would have fit into their team environment. If Compton wasn’t an instant success, he wouldn’t last.

What is weird is that his batting is almost perfectly designed for England. It’s how they got to the top of the world. Top-order batsmen putting a exorbitant price on their wickets. Taking their sweet time. Tiring balls and bowlers. And building totals that gave their bowlers a psychological advantage almost every time they bowl. That is what Nick Compton does. He’s not pretty. He’s not fun. His batting reminds no one of jazz hands. He just accumulates in his own bubble until someone pops it.

This year he is averaging 42 in first-class cricket. He will score over 1000 runs for the fifth time. Compton made back-to-back hundreds in New Zealand. Three Tests later he was discarded. Dropped for not scoring quick enough in a game that England won by 247 runs, or just because he wasn’t the right kind of guy.

But Nick Compton will never play for England again. He is just not one of them.

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To the outside world Jonathan Trott seemed like a run-making robot. Face ball. Mark crease. Face ball. Inside the crowded England dressing room they knew better.

There had to be signs before the Gabba that everything was not right. And perhaps they even tried to do their best to keep Trott happy and performing. But it didn’t work. All that preparation looked silly when one Test into the Ashes their No. 3 went home. Their wellness technicians had failed.

Trott was the poster boy for calm, efficient, focused England. But after that Test he became the poster boy for everything that was wrong with English cricket. The lack of fun. The tedium. The strictness. The soul-sucking machine that ate the good times. Trott wasn’t having fun. He wasn’t feeling relaxed. So when his cricket went wrong he tried harder. Which just made it worse.

England did much the same. The team might have stayed on the tour. But mentally they checked out. The sight of an English player smiling at practice disappeared. Meanwhile Darren Lehmann had his face in perpetual smile mode. Andy Flower had been one of the best coaches in the world, but now he looked like a confused man. And he couldn’t change tack. He just kept sailing in the same direction he always had.

Flower backed himself and his ways. But while his ways did so much, they also appeared part of the problem. With England on seemingly endless tours, and playing and preparing in the same grinding way, it was no great surprise that key members couldn’t handle it anymore. Trott went home. Swann gave up. Anderson was zombiefied. And Matt Prior’s game stopped working.

When Andy Flower delivered his epic pre-match valediction in Sydney, Trott and Swann were gone. Prior was out. And the other senior players looked on blankly. Flower could no longer move his players.

In the Ashes, Mitchell Johnson provided shock and awe. England produced shlock and awful.

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Where did Simon Kerrigan go? Had Shane Watson actually blasted him into oblivion? Were there groundsmen sweeping him up off the pitch at the breaks? Because he bowled eight overs at The Oval, and then was never seen again. He was not even seen as Australia tripped all over their second-innings total-setting. Not even for an over. When Swann retired in Australia, he didn’t even get his name mentioned. James Tredwell did. Monty Panesar played. And Borthwick played.

Scott Borthwick. You remember, right? The Durham batsman who England picked as a bowler five Tests ago. He took wickets, perhaps not brilliant ones, but any wickets in Australia should have received a gift of land back in the UK. He shared his only Test with Boyd Rankin.

Rankin is gone as well. Not that he ever felt included. He was hired to play goon number three in the second act of the Ashes. Big men, bouncing the ball hard into the wicket and making Australia jump. He was an underwhelming understudy to Chris Tremlett.

Tremlett phoned his performance in. He was picked on memories and hope. One Test in and England decided he was not who they wanted. It seems like they never told him. He just continued to turn up day after day, essentially refiling paperwork that didn’t need refiling, not knowing if he’d ever be needed again. He and Michael Carberry are not fans of ECB communication.

Michael Carberry was sort of the follow-up to Nick Compton. He fit in better, and he could do a great Viv Richards impersonation. But despite all those people in the ECB camp, it seemed no one would provide him with an answer for why he wasn’t there anymore. He might as well be Graham Onions or James Taylor, if either of those people still exist.

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In the 2012 World T20 they failed to make the semi-finals when they turned up as reigning champions. They collapsed from a near unloseable position in the Champions Trophy final.

They lost to the Dutch.

****

At Trent Bridge a tired Stuart Broad ended the match bowling at Stuart Binny pace. There is a thought that Broad is a clever bowler who can out-think a batsman. He can be. But you know when he’s really good: when he bowls really fast. Full or short, but really fast. With swing, or even without, but fast, yeah. Because Broad can bowl really fast. He is a proper fast bowler. His spell at Durham in the Ashes was fast. His spell at Lord’s against the Kiwis was fast. His hat-trick against India was fast. His hat-trick against Sri Lanka was fast. So the sight of Matt Prior up at the stumps to him as he bowled the old man’s Saturday- afternoon spell of gentle outswing was not inspiring.

Broad has bowled a lot of overs. Graeme Swann has bowled more.

Swann bowled so much, he seemed to be playing for more teams than just England. I’m sure he must have played some ODIs for Sri Lanka, and a Test series for Bangladesh. Increasingly, you could hear the creak of his elbow as he bowled. He had it fixed once, and to celebrate, he bowled a lot more. England spent much of his career with no other spinner and no serious allrounder to share the load. Swann bowled until he was no longer good at it. He could have bowled in two more Tests while being no good at it, but he’d bowled enough. He doesn’t bowl now.

His friend Jimmy Anderson still bowls. He bowls more often than any seam bowler has ever bowled at Test level. He bowls more than spinners as well. At Trent Bridge a year ago, he bowled a 14-over spell. It won the Test match. It was his last five-wicket haul. He has not been horrible since then. He was Man of the Match at Trent Bridge. But he doesn’t look like the Anderson who helped England get to No. 1. He looks like a man who has bowled more deliveries than anyone else in the world. He’s a hologram of himself; you can literally see the flickering as he runs in.

When England’s batsmen stopped making their monumental totals, it was these three men who saved them. Regularly. Now one is gone, one is a hologram, and one is bowling slow. Why? Because England’s schedule is stupid. Stupid. They simply play too many Tests. They play Tests more often than India and Sri Lanka play ODIs. They play Tests while you are sleeping, when you wake up, and during your afternoon nap. They do it over and over again. They’re probably playing one now.

And while old players like to say modern players are soft and can’t handle workloads, and that they bowled 83-over spells barefoot in the snow, the truth is, no one has ever endured the workloads these three men have had to endure at the top level. And here is a little secret for you: others have played a lot of cricket, but most of it has been in county seasons. It rains a lot in county seasons. You can bowl in third gear in county seasons. You can coast in county seasons.

None of Swann, Broad or Anderson are all-time greats. Swann is the only one with a bowling average of under 30, and it’s 29.96. At Test level, they can’t coast. They are just not that good. They have to play at their absolute maximum or they will fail. They played to their best. They went as hard as they could.

During their time together they beat Australia. They beat India. They beat Pakistan. They beat Sri Lanka. They beat New Zealand. They beat West Indies. They beat Bangladesh. And they drew with South Africa.

They lost to the schedule.

****

The phrase “new era” is grating. And too close to “new error”. It sounds like it has been market-tested, or suggested by a sports psychologist. It’s positive and peppy, and it doesn’t really mean a thing. South Africa are in a new era. India are in a new era. Australia are using old players in a new era. Sri Lanka are about to enter a new era. It a new era for New Zealand too.

England could have used “rebuilding”. But it lacks the sparkle of “new era”. So it became a catchphrase. Low ebb, which some suggested, was never going to stick for the ECB.

So what is new? The chairman and captain are not new. The coach is not really new. The bowling coach is not new. The two main bowlers are not new. The No. 4 batsman and wicketkeeper are not new. The old coach is there, hiding somewhere behind his green curtain at Loughborough.

So what is new? The selectors are new. The assistant coach is new. Nos. 2, 3 and 6 are new. Two allrounders are new. And the managing director is new.

They fired their batsman most likely to win them matches. And their batting coach. And they continue to lose. It’s more than possible that a positive catchphrase won’t win it for them. It’s more than possible they can’t manage this. They couldn’t manage Kevin Pietersen, and these last nine Tests have been as bad as what they said, hinted or leaked KP’s behavior to be.

KP didn’t fail consistently against the short ball. KP didn’t bowl the wrong lengths. KP didn’t put six fielders out for a No. 10. KP didn’t bowl the bowlers to death. KP didn’t schedule the bowlers to death. KP didn’t drop all the simple chances. KP didn’t take over world cricket. KP didn’t mismanage the players. KP didn’t fail to communicate with the players. KP didn’t get the analysis wrong. KP wasn’t outcoached. KP didn’t get mankaded. KP doesn’t back people based on their family. KP was KP. For better or worse.

This whole team was crumbling in front of them and they were whistling new era at us and moaning about someone they asked their fans to move on from. There is a hole in your bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza.

****

When England officially announced their part in the Axis of Admin with Australia and India, they tried to spin it as their way of saving cricket. They thought we were all incredibly stupid people. Some in the “small seven” felt England were joining India and Australia in a new empire. One last chance at grabbing at power and money. Others were disgusted that England would be involved with those dastardly Indians, who were clearly running, or ruining, everything.

Their team has been just as bad.

They pissed on a cricket pitch. Some claim there was such bad karma that they haven’t won a Test since. But they also didn’t win at The Oval, so it might be more than urinating causality.

They stole Sri Lanka’s coach right before Sri Lanka came over to play them. They have more money than Sri Lanka, and they wanted Farbrace. They got Farbrace. It was all a bit, “I want an oompa loompa now, daddy.”

Stuart Broad not walking seemed to break the heart of every major sports newspaper writer in the UK. Those men who had not watched cricket outside the Ashes in decades suddenly noticed it and got upset. Stuart Broad had nicked to slip (actually it was a drop by Brad Haddin, first) and not walked. And he’d done it to the bowling of that terribly entertaining young No. 11, Ashton Agar. It was against the Spirit of Cricket.

They had also invoked the Spirit of Cricket rules when Ian Bell “made a mistake”, wandered out of his ground while the ball was still in play and was run out by India on the last ball before tea. Andrew Strauss wandered all the way into the Indian dressing room to have him reinstated. Or reintegrated.

Yet Broad is happy to do up his shoelaces for hours on end when England want to slow down the over rate. Or leave the field at the end of a drinks break to go to the toilet to take time out of a game. No team has ever been as organised or professional at time-wasting as England. They are the Neo of world cricket. Time literally stops when they want it too. And that has been a lot of late.

When the Sri Lankan offspinner Sachithra Senanayake legally mankaded Jos Buttler, England were upset. They were less upset about all the twos Buttler had scored while he was out of his ground, repeatedly getting a head start. Sri Lanka had broken the spirit of the game; Buttler had just broken the Laws, even after being warned.

When James Anderson puts his hand over his mouth, he is sledging someone. When Joe Root pretends he is clapping his hands near a batsman to gee on his team, he is really sledging. Swann once said he wanted to kill a player during a tour match in Sri Lanka. Pietersen bad-mouthed James Taylor to his own team, and abused Strauss to the opposition. His team-mates abused him back. The whole team had an honesty session. KP was too honest and they dobbed him in.

Off the field they are not much better. Paul Downton said stuff about Pietersen, then apologised. Giles Clarke, well, he is Giles Clarke, there is no other like him. Well, actually he is a lot like Pietersen. Arrogant, bombastic, prone to saying stupid things, and breathtakingly unapologetic. And ultimately living in his own world.

When he said that Alastair Cook came from the right kind of family, cricket groaned in the UK. It was a massive step backwards. It was proof that your upbringing and background still mattered in England. All the Sky money you want can’t shake that single damaging impression that cricket in the UK is still for those who went to schools older than Wisden.

There are some that think English cricket has an image problem. Really, they just have a problem.

****

The Lord’s balcony is a private place to chat. But conversations there can be seen by anyone left in the ground. So the conversations between Cook and Broad were looked at with great interest from the press box. So too were the conversations between Anderson and Moores. And then again when Cook and Moores sat there. All three conversations were had with the door of the balcony shut. All three were serious and long. England were still in the ground four hours after play.

It looked more like soul-searching than them naming their favourite songs from Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Occasionally there was a ghostly figure moving behind them, but the men didn’t turn around or fear them; they just continued their haunted conversations.

They seemed oblivious to the fans still drinking their champagne in the pavilion. They didn’t stop if someone stumbled out onto the ground to take an out-of-focus selfie. Nor when the Sky cables were removed or the boundary-rope triangles were collected.

All three conversations looked exactly like people breaking up in a public place. There was no anger, just a devastated acceptance. The stench of hurt and confusion could be smelt from the other side of the ground. They had the look of men who didn’t know how to get out or improve. It was a balcony. It could have been a gallows.

****

Sports teams love business fads, because people in sports haven’t worked in business much, so they have no idea how unimpressive business methods are. How pointless and depressing it all is. Group hugs. Thought showers. KPIs. Punch a puppy. Blue-sky thinking. Singing from the same hymn sheets. And endless matrixes. England’s backroom is littered with these sorts of things.

They even employed the famous Myers Briggs personality tests to better understand how to best use their players. Or how to best fire them.

You cannot fail a Myers Briggs Test. But if England took it right now, they would. If England lose 4-0 against India, they will be ranked sixth in the world. Supposedly the most professional side in cricket’s history. Sixth.

They manage. They test. They superfood. They analyse. They sabermetric. They annoy. They waste time. They spin. They rule. They catchphrase.

-

They lose.

LOL is Ishant Sharma’s middle name: The Ishant Sharma story

“LOL is Ishant Sharma’s middle name.”

Bangalore, 2007. India have made 626. Pakistan are 96 overs into their innings and every batsman has made a double-figure score. There have already been three hundreds and a double-hundred. A teen, more like a young boy, with more hair than any human needs and an extremely prominent Adam’s apple, comes on to bowl.

A ball from a good length jumps up and makes Faisal Iqbal’s forward defence look idiotic. It flies off the gloves to a deepish short leg. It is one of five wickets in the innings for a 19-year old bowling on the many remains of deceased seamers who went before him.

India had found their missing link.

“Ishant Sharma is God’s answer to BCCI’s wrongdoings.”

‘Why does Ishant Sharma keep getting picked?’ It’s one of the most asked questions to people who have just admitted they are cricket journalists. You cannot escape that when you have played over 50 Tests and average more than 35. The current Australian team might be number one, but mainstays and recent sensations Steve Smith, Shane Watson, Michael Clarke and Mitchell Johnson have been at times the most abused victims of their fans.

Indian fans, when they were taking a break from abusing Rohit Sharma, would whip the Ishant boy all over social media. Tall for nothing. Over-rated. Slow. Can’t keep his foot behind the line. Can’t move the ball away from right-handers. Falls apart under pressure. Google suggests Ishant-Sharma jokes as its third search suggestion.

It’s also not a shock to see why he is still around. He’s tall. He’s fast. He gets natural movement. He can reverse swing the ball. They don’t grow on trees in India, or really, anywhere. If he uses all these things right, he’s a match-winner. He’s also a match loser. Ishant isn’t as fast as Johnson, or as tall as Morne Morkel. On a bad day, he is a fast-medium bowler with a no-ball problem and average control. Potential is a powerful aphrodisiac.

“Behind every successful batsman there is a Kamran Akmal, but in front of them is Ishant Sharma.”

A typical good Ishant delivery is angled in at the right-hander. The good ones swing further in and carry above the stumps to the keeper with a bit of heat on it. Akmal missed one such delivery like this. And Ishant decided to tell him about it. Loudly.

The scene looks bad because Ishant is screaming over Akmal, who is about a foot and three inches of hair shorter. Not to mention sledging a guy with an ODI batting average of 26 is like picking on the kid who isn’t allowed to use scissors in class. Ishant has to be removed from the situation.

Against Australia, Ishant decided to sledge David Warner at the WACA during the innings where Warner swung and connected with India’s head. Warner came back with verbal aggression and they had to be separated. But not before Warner said, “You’re kidding yourself, you are a bad bowler”.

A short poor ball from Ishant is cut by Root. India are sure it is out. Ishant is more sure. He’s surer than sure. He stands a few feet from Root and discusses it with him. And discusses it. And discusses. Eventually the two have to be removed. Replays show Ishant may not have been right. Although I doubt any replay could have changed his mind.

It’s not even just small aggressive batsmen that Ishant likes. During a piece of glacier-like fielding from Zaheer Khan, Ishant used a term that suggested an incestuous relationship after watching the ageing seamer allow an extra run.

Ishant has the anger.

“There are good bowlers, and there are poor bowlers. Then there’s 500 feet of crap, and then there’s Ishant Sharma.”

Australia need 44 from 18.

47.1 A wide half-volley. Four.
47.2 A short ball. Six.
47.3 A straight half-volley. Six.
47.4 A short ball. Two.
47.5 A short ball. Six.

“47.6 I Sharma to Faulkner, SIX, SIX MORE, what on earth? Ishant Sharma had his critics before this game, there aren’t going to be many people backing him after this, short once more, another pull, right off the middle off the bat, and that sails into the crowd once more, crowd not sure whether to be gobsmacked by this hitting from Faulkner or be thrilled by this sensational turnaround, that’s Faulkner’s 50 as well”

Australia win with three balls to spare.

“Dear single guys, if a girl gives you as many chances as Dhoni has given Ishant Sharma, marry her.”

Ishant’s last Test started with him cutting down New Zealand’s top order. He bowled quick. The ball moved. And Ishant took 6 for 51. There were sexy short balls and tricky straight balls. It was lovely and New Zealand had no answer to it. It was the sort of performance that should have justified the selectors faith in him.

The next innings in the same game, Ishant bowled 45 overs, took no wickets and went for 164 runs. It doesn’t seem to matter how good or bad Ishant is, Ishant remains.

“Dhoni isn’t India’s greatest finisher, Ishant Sharma is.”

The 50th over at Trent Bridge started with a no-ball. Ishant bowls a lot of no balls. Ishant is known for no balls. Then Ishant bowled a fast, reverse-swinging ball that tailed in and smashed into Sam Robson’s pads. Ishant does bowl reverse-swinging balls that tail in and smash into pads. Ishant is known for reverse-swinging balls that tail in and smash into pads. Ishant aggressively sent off Robson. Ishant often does aggressive send-offs. Ishant is known for aggressive send-offs. Ishant then bowled a short, slow long-hop that Ian Bell smacked for four. Ishant bowls a lot of short, slow long-hops that get smacked for four. Ishant is known for short, slow long-hops that get smacked for four. Ishant bowls a ball drifting down leg side. Ishant bowls a lot of balls drifting down leg side. Ishant is known for drifting the ball down the leg side.

That was one over. That was Ishant’s career.

“It was Ishant Sharma’s stunning form that made MS Dhoni take up bowling”.

A highlight package of Ishant’s best work looks as good as anything. Balls flying off a length. Quick swinging balls. Fast short balls. The hair, the necklace, the stare, the aggression. This is a fast bowler; you can smell it through the screen.

Ishant’s best delivery is a short of a length ball that angles in, tails further in and bounces quite well to the keeper. It’s a sexy ball, but it’s not that likely to get you out. An edge will probably be an inside edge that flies past the keeper. His height means the ball goes over the stumps. It’s essentially a theatre ball for people to “oh” and “ah” about. In the end, it’s a tragedy delivery. It’s the unlucky Ishant ball.

Ishant was once clocked at 152kph, but his wrist doesn’t stay behind the ball like it did that summer. Sometimes his head falls away as well. If you can get the ball to reverse in, you should also have the attributes to conventionally swing the ball out. Somehow Ishant doesn’t. He’s flawed. And he’s a rhythm bowler, which is often code for – he can be good, or really rubbish.

“RT if you can bowl better than Ishant Sharma!”

Australians have a different view of Ishant. They saw the young kid on his first tour bowl very good, and on occasion, very quick. This is despite the fact he only averages 44 against Australia, has an average of 73 in Australia and only has a best of 3 for 115 in Australia. It’s because of how many times Ishant dismissed Ricky Ponting.

In 2008, Ishant took Ponting’s wicket five times in Tests. Five times. Ishant had the pace and bounce, and when combined with a bowler who naturally moved the ball in, it was something Ponting never did well against. Here was a teenager doing it. Over, and over, and over again.

Somehow this guy had made a master look like an awkward teen. They had switched places. It wasn’t just the wickets that he took, but how silly Ponting looked in them. His bat splayed weirdly. His balance leaving him. He was always late. He was always trying to survive. At the other end he would be Ponting, at Ishant’s end he was the soon-to-be-massacred bunny.

Ponting eventually overcame it, and was only ever dismissed twice more in Tests by Ishant. By then though, the bunny stuff had stuck. And so it should. How many bowlers in Ponting’s career dominated him for a minute, let alone a year?

If you couldn’t get excited with Ishant at that stage, you were really fighting against basic human instincts.

“Newton’s third law modified: For every N Srinivasan, there is an equal and opposite Ishant Sharma.”

In the tour game in Leicestershire before Trent Bridge, Ishant conceded 64 runs in nine overs. He took two wickets, but even his mother would find it hard to justify that spell. It was made worse by the fact that his team-mates never took any of the Leicestershire players for more than five an over.

Today, in his last seven overs, Ishant took five wickets for 27 runs. He did it with five short balls. He did it with pace. He did it with energy. He did it with passion. He did it with all his flaws. He did it.

He will forever be the bowler who bowled India to victory at Lord’s.

If you allow me to walk you through the third wall for a moment, you may notice that there are some “jokes” in quotations throughout this piece. When you google Ishant Sharma, ‘Ishant Sharma jokes’ is the third result. There are many, many, many websites with lists of these jokes. There is much history to make fun of. Little of it can be realistically defended.

Ishant’s age at the moment is 25. Ishant is much maligned. Ishant is unlucky. Ishant is a bad bowler. Ishant is a 25-year old Indian quick who just took 7 for 74 at Lord’s to win a Test.

Today the joke was on England.

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