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”.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
England had one last chance to win at Trent Bridge. India were 220 in front, seven wickets down, with still more than 40 overs left in the day. The new ball was 13 deliveries old and had just claimed Ravindra Jadeja. The match had stumbled on it’s way to a draw and England knew this was their last chance of winning. Their bowlers put in one last effort. Their sound went from mute to 11. Every single delivery was ooheed, aahed, moaned and groaned. Joe Root found a reason to be as close to the wicket as possible, clapping and yapping, right in the ear of the young number nine.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar seemed to barely notice. He batted the same way right through and finished unbeaten on 63.
Allan Donald once said of Bhuvneshwar: “He is a very quiet guy, does what he needs to do.”
Sachin Tendulkar’s record against debutants in Test cricket might lead you to think he underestimates young players. It is probably not true, his record is mostly like that because he has faced more debutants than other cricketers. But it is a feeling that some had. When Bhuvneshwar bowled to him, it was not his first class debut, it was his 13th game. But he did not have an IPL team. He was not an Indian age-group cricketer. He did not come from a big school, club, academy or city. There was no hype or marketing deals, he was just a swing bowler with a tidy action.
Tendulkar may not have underestimated him. But he was dismissed by him. For his first ever Ranji trophy duck.
Others have underestimated him. In fact, his parents did. It was his sister who suggested he be pushed towards cricket. Even his coach, the metronomic Venkatesh Prasad thought he would be an ideal third bowler for India. In the first Test a five-wicket haul and matching 50s was not enough for him to be Man of the Match. He is at his third IPL team. Yet somehow this overlooked, underestimated player is India’s most important this series.
219 for 6 was the score in the 2012-13 Duleep Trophy semi final when Bhuvneshwar came in. North Zone had scored 451 in the first innings. For Central Zone to make the final, they needed to score 233 more runs in that innings, as an outright win looked unlikely. Mohammad Kaif had just departed for 63, the top score so far that innings. Mahesh Rawat put on a small partnership with Bhuvneshwar, before departing for 71. All North Zone needed were three wickets and all Central Zone needed was 201 runs. The invitations to the final were all but written.
Bhuvneshwar rewrote them. He shielded the tail. Batted resolutely. Farmed the strike. Scored at a sensible pace. On 99, with his team still behind, he refused singles that would have taken him to his maiden first-class hundred, because they were not the right thing for the team. Bhuvneshwar was eventually dismissed for 128. But only after a tenth-wicket partnership of 127. It earned a lead of 18 runs. And his Central Zone went to the final.
Bhuvneshwar is straight. Exceptionally straight. His bat, his front arm, his strokes, his wrist, his crease position and his posture. Straight. Probably the only thing that is not straight is the the ball once it comes out of his hand. He has the magic wrist. The sort of wrist position that old bowlers drool over when leaning on bars because their knees can no longer hold them up.
It is the wrist that has got him there. Asian batsmen get their wrists festishized by cricket writers the world over, but Bhuvneshwar’s wrist is not wristy, it is swingy. If he did not have the magic wrist he would not be playing. He does not have any height. He has very little pace. He is not a reverse swing merchant. Since uncovered pitches disappeared, the medium-fast bowlers have become rarer and rarer to find, like the seam of a Kookaburra after 35 overs.
To be a regular international bowler these days at Bhuvneshwar’s pace, you need to be something special. Just to make it, you need to be. All the academies in all the lands are not looking for the next canny seam bowler, they are looking for height and pace. Movement is an afterthought, and by the way they think, can be taught to any lumbering monster with a fast arm.
But every now and then, a slower bowler crawls up through the broken bodies of the wannabe 90mph gang and shows the way. Mohammad Asif was one. Stuart Clark was another. And then there was Praveen Kumar.
We might never see Praveen Kumar again. Asif was the surgeon. Clark the slippery lawyer. Praveen was the stoner philosopher. The ball wobbled hypnotically. Batsmen were left wondering which way it would finally dart off. And then his seam position was so perfect, so exact, so romantic, that he also took a bit of seam as well. In six angry beautiful Test matches, Praveen averaged 25 with the ball.
Tragically Praveen was not meant for Test cricket, at least, right now. He is an artist, a poet, a self saboteur. And he disappeared. But he had a bowling partner that was like a little brother. Bhuvneshwar Kumar. They played together at Central Zone, UP and at Victoria Park club in Meerut.
Kumar the junior saw Kumar the senior all the time. It was like he had an inbuilt mentor and hero. A swing bowling allrounder who did not bowl quick enough to excite selectors. Kumar the junior also went one better than his hero, because he was a more stable person. He did not need to worry about rage to fire him up. He did not fly off unpredictably. He was the Kumar you could take home to mum, or plan the next few years around. The white knight to Praveen’s dark knight.
Christmas Day , 2012: a slight swing bowler plays in a T20 match against arch enemies Pakistan. His first over has a wicket. He takes three more. In his four overs he only concedes nine runs, yet India still lose.
England are 73 for 2 chasing 285 at Kochi. Kevin Pietersen is on a-run-a-ball 42. Bhuvneshwar brings back a ball and bowls him. Two balls later, Bhuvneshwar moves one away from Eoin Morgan who is edging behind. He had already taken Alastair Cook’s wicket. He finishes with 3 for 29 and England lose massively.
Chris Gayle made the world go crazy. 175 off 66 balls. Songs were written about it before he finished it. Bowlers were used as dental floss. But in his 175, only 11 runs were scored off Bhuvneshwar. In that match, while he had to run through the remains of his bowling unit, he finished with 23 runs off his 24 balls.
In the Champions Trophy, Bhuvneshwar never bowled a full ten overs. He only got three overs in the final. But he also went at only 3.90 an over against the world’s most powerful batting line-ups.
The Port of Spain’s rain shortened one of the many ODIs between India and Sri Lanka. India made 119 for 3 in their allocated 29 overs. Bhuvneshwar took the new ball. He took the first four wickets. He took 4 for 8. Sri Lanka lost.
Duncan Fletcher was a man who loved his 90mph bowlers as much as anyone. He also likes height. But Bhuvneshwar does tick his other two boxes. Movement both ways and being able to strengthen the tail with the bat. There are simply no bowlers in India who tick all the boxes, or many of the boxes. But what India has produced consistently throughout their history is swing bowlers.
In Perth, 2008, Australia took in pace, India took in swing. Madan Lal took three wickets in the 1983 World Cup final: Haynes, Richards and Gomes. Adelaide 2003 had a six-wicket haul for Ajit Agarkar. Sreesanth took another six at the Wanderers. And Zaheer Khan‘s nine-wicket haul at Trent Bridge in 2007 won a Test. While the world spent over a decade kissing the feat of India’s many batting Gods, it was Zaheer many heroic spells on flat pitches that took India to No. 1.
Bhuvneshwar is just in a long line of swing bowlers. But of recent times, many of them have been tampered with or discarded. RP Singh, Ashish Nehra and Irfan Pathan will all retire having never got the most out of themselves or won nearly enough Tests for their country. Some have been told to bowl faster. Some have been told to change the way they are.
India is a country that creates swing bowlers, and often destroys swing bowlers.
Bhuvneshwar’s first Test was against Australia. He opened up with the first four overs. Then didn’t bowl again for 60 overs. He bowled 13 overs for the entire match, all in the first innings. MS Dhoni, it seemed, had underrated him.
But when Bhuvneshwar came to the wicket in the first innings, India were only 26 ahead. He was batting at No. 10. He would make a composed 38. He would use a straight bat. He would be sensible. He would let the senior partner make the decisions. He would let the senior partner make a double century. He would let the senior partner end Australia’s hopes. He would outlast the senior partner.
And at some stage during that 140-run partnership, the senior partner, his captain, must have looked at the other end at his new ball specialist from the badlands and thought, this is a man I can rely on.
The first ball Bhuvneshwar faced came flying back in at him. India’s best batsman this tour had just been outfoxed by James Anderson. The lead was barely 200. And England had the new ball that was 16 balls old. Bhuvneshwar played it with a straight bat. There was no discernible proof to say he was not the next Indian batting sensation, so technically perfect was his defence. His back foot drive off Anderson was just as correct. In fact, through the off side he was a batsman, forget where he was in the order.
It was not until he got to 50 that he looked like he was slogging a bit more. But, you are at Lord’s, you are in form, why not smack Ben Stokes back over his head to bring up your first fifty? He had taken the lead from just over 200 to just over 300. Jadeja had managed to sticky tape his technique together and trust himself to counterattack. But it looked like his innings could end any ball. Bhuvneshwar’s looked like it would end when his job was done.
In this series he has taken a five-for, a six-for, made an important 36 and three fifties. Almost every single time India have needed him, he has been there. He is slow and unsexy. He is not tall, or a natural leader. And he is no one’s first pick.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar just does what he needs to do.
A young boy gets on a motorbike for the first time. The instructions are given to him. He looks on quietly. People expect him to struggle. Instead he takes to it fairly well. Muddy dirt tracks are handled with ease. He jumps off little ramps and holds on. He mostly works out the brakes and how to turn and tries, but fails, to pull off a wheelie. Eventually he stops, and the next boy gets on. A boy who has ridden a motorbike for years: yet he makes a simple mistake and rides straight into a BBQ.
Alastair Cook’s first ball catches him by surprise. He has more Test hundreds than any other England batsman but he reacts late to the movement into him and an inside edge ends up at backward square leg. It is not a stunning show of confidence as he wanders to the other end confused.
Mohammed Shami’s first ball is a length ball, India’s No. 11 rocked forward and defends with the sort of certainty a man with a Test Average of 3.33 really shouldn’t have. He’s not overawed by his first moment in England. He’s not overawed by facing Stuart Broad. He’s not even overawed by the sudden collapse that has led to him being in. He’s just playing a forward defensive shot.
Cook handles the next few balls fine. A yorker is dug out. He pushes to the legside looking for runs. He is handling the pitch with no demons like it’s a pitch with no demons. The ball is not swinging or seaming.
Shami also handles his first few balls well. They bowl short, and he defends well and misses when trying to attack. He cracks one to point. And turns a ball into the leg side to get off the mark.
Shami’s first boundary is a heave over the legside against a confused James Anderson. Shami is full of confidence having survived for a while and is now flexing a bit of muscle. He also whips a ball off his pads so well that he beats a man in the deep. He smacks Moeen Ali long and deep with a dance down the pitch. He cracks a short ball to the point boundary and no fielders move. And then to finally get to his 50 he hits a Test bowler with 358 Test wickets over the sightscreen.
Cook gets a ball on his hip and turns it to the rope.
Shami’s innings is not all grace and beauty. He tries to upper cut one to third man. He mistimes one so badly he can’t even find a fielder. Almost loses his off stump. Almost loses his toe. And is actually caught behind, despite the fact England didn’t hear it. It was a quality innings for a No. 11, but not a quality innings.
Cook’s innings isn’t quality.
Cook faces nine of his ten balls from Shami, including the last one. Getting bowled around your legs can look unlucky. Bowlers don’t plan for it very often. And even when they do, it rarely works. This is the sort of ball that Cook could have literally flicked to the leg side with a blindfold on, handcuffed upside down in a tank of water. Now his head leads away from the ball, his body tumbles after it.
Cook has never been pretty, but now he’s ungainly and needlessly mobile. He can’t stand up properly and exposes the leg stump. The ball flicks his pads and instead of rolling away safely for a leg bye it slams into legs tump. Cook has lost his way so much he can almost see the ball hitting the stumps.
Mohammed Shami had made a 50 before today, for Bengal U-22s four years ago. Alastair Cook has made 35 fifties at Test Level. Not forgetting 19 fifties in ODIs. There are also a few hundreds. And he once made 294. But Cook hasn’t scored more than 51 in his last five Tests.
Today the bunny with no batting pedigree scored more runs than the man with 8,130 runs.
Today two men batted: one with little expectation or hope, the other with fear and uncertainty. One made an unbeaten. The other hit the BBQ.
“I love this format of the eight best teams.”
If you heard it once during the Champions Trophy coverage, you were probably only listening to a few minutes of the coverage. The official memo must have been pretty clear: “This is not a nothing tournament that we once cancelled due a lack of general interest. This is the best eight teams in a ring, duking it out. Sell them on that.”
That is what the Champions Trophy has become. It was never meant to be that.
The first two tournaments were to grow the game. A tournament in Kenya and Bangladesh to grow the game there. The child of Jagmohan Dalmiya. The money would also be handy to the ICC, who then probably had less staff than the current England team has backroom staff. It was noble and practical when the ICC Knockout Tournament was born.
No one cared about it. Why would you? It wasn’t an Olympics, it was the Goodwill Games.
You may have noticed that Bangladesh are no longer invited to the tournament they first hosted. Of course, they also weren’t invited to the one they hosted. It was an eight-team knockout event, and New Zealand had to play Zimbabwe in a qualifying game to make the tournament. Bangladesh had no games at all. Way to win over the locals. The Bangladesh players were presumably at the grounds, training hard in a passive-aggressive way as ICC officials walked past. South Africa won the tournament.
Kenya, the next hosts, got a qualifying game. They played India. They lost. Bangladesh had a qualifying game against England. They lost. Oddly, Zimbabwe had automatically qualified. West Indies never even made the tournament, as they were knocked out by Sri Lanka in qualifying. The crowds were close to non-existent at some games. Inspired by the great Glen Sulzberger being in their squad, the Kiwis won their first and only ICC event.
In 2002 the tournament was changed to the Champions Trophy and played in Sri Lanka. Five months before the World Cup. Whoops. To celebrate, all ten Test nations played, as did Kenya and Netherlands. Two teams won. There was a washout during the final and on the back-up day. So India and Sri Lanka were crowned co-winners. Which really needs no further comment.
In 2004, it was played in England, and America and Kenya were invited. Kenya were fresh off their 2003 World Cup semi-final, America were hopeless and lost a game to Australia with only 31.5 overs in the entire match. This tournament did produce the most memorable final ever, as Ian Bradshaw and Courtney Browne crept West Indies home with two wickets to spare.
In 2006, the tournament was moved to India. Only the Test-playing nations showed up. Australia won it, and Damien Martyn helped Sharad Pawar off the stage with a push. That was far more memorable than the final, a Duckworth-Lewis smashing of West Indies.
The 2008 edition was placed in Pakistan, so that never happened.
In 2009, South Africa hosted the top eight teams. Pakistan lost the semi-final; the country’s politicians claimed fixing. Australia won the final; they wore white jackets, no one knows why.
With the World Twenty20 doing well, and being played about every 18 minutes, the Champions Trophy was surplus, and now in the way of a more successful and loved tournament. With the Test Championship on its way, the Champions Trophy was easiest to kill.
Few cried. There were no protests at Lord’s or Wankhede. No major petitions. No press outcry. It was just a weird tournament that had never really captured any imagination and was disappearing back into the obscurity that most of the matches were played in.
Had the World Test Championship not been so unattractive to TV companies, the Champions Trophy would have never come back.
But the evolution of the Champions Trophy is exactly what the ICC wants. And by the ICC, I don’t mean the administrators who race around the corridors of Dubai Sport City. I mean the ICC that is the run by the ten cricket boards. The real ICC. The ICC that has gone out of its way time and time again to keep cricket a private club that they hold the keys to.
Before this tournament Ireland tied a game with Pakistan and lost the next match by two wickets. Ireland had no means of qualifying for this tournament, neither did Bangladesh nor Zimbabwe. Like Test cricket, it’s by invitation only. No Banglas, no Zims, no Irish.
At the very least, imagine if the tournament was co-hosted by the Irish. That could be the future model. England and Ireland. India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. These are countries that love cricket. In Ireland they are making it as professional as you can outside the big eight. Nepal’s cricket crowds are some of the best in the world. And according to Gideon Haigh’s piece for the Nightwatchman, Papua New Guinea are mad for cricket.
That’s a utopia where cricket outside the Test-playing nations is actually valued and pushed. Remember how the ICC is structured – ten votes for ten nations, three representatives for every other country that plays cricket.
Some fans and press have revelled in the top-eight notion. They have said that this is how the World Cup should be. It’s quick. Every game matters. And there are no minnow games to ignore.
You can see their point. Of course, if you watch what is actually happening in world cricket, even the big eight don’t matter. It’s easy and lazy to point at India and suggest every single problem in the world of cricket leads back to them. But they have two able and willing accomplices who are happily making the big eight into a powerful three.
Australia, England and India are forming a cabal.
Australia and India played Test series in 2007-08, 2008-09, 2010-11, 2011-12, and 2012-13. Outside of ICC tournaments they have also played more than 20 ODIs and T20s. Australia have not played Bangladesh in a Test match in that time. They have played six ODIs.
England have played Tests against Bangladesh, home and away in 2010. Since then they have played eight Tests against India; next summer they have five more.
Bangladesh have never played a Test match in India. The two played in one series since 2007.
From July 2013 to January 2015, Australia, India and England will have been involved in 19 Test matches together.
Any other country from the “best eight teams” or the ten Test-playing nations is expendable and getting frozen out. This cabal of powerful boards has known that it makes the most money playing each other for a while now. Now the three are cashing in often. They are devolving the game right in front of our eyes.
Last summer South Africa played England for the No. 1 crown in Test cricket. It was a three-Test series. Why? Because England were hosting Australia for ODIs that practically no one will ever remember.
While it is nice to have a well-run, short, sharp tournament without any of those pesky Test cricket strugglers or Associates clogging up the format, if they can get rid of them, who else can they get rid of? Sri Lanka, New Zealand and West Indies don’t seem to make any money. Pakistan are in limbo. And South Africa are stuck in neutral.
What makes any of these countries safe in the future? Other than to host them, India, England and Australia have no real need for global tournaments. They have no real need to play anyone other than each other. They have no real need for a Future Tours Programme. They have no real need for the ICC.
India don’t even need England and Australia. They could easily go the route of American sports and play world championships amongst themselves while using overseas players when required. Australia and England could continue to make solid and dependable money without India.
That probably won’t happen. Although, as the ICC’s film on the history of the Champions Trophy said, this is probably the last tournament. No one knows what will happen next in cricket. Often no one knows what is happening in cricket right now.
A few days after India play England in the final at Edgbaston, the chairmen of the Test-playing nations will meet in London in what is the most important meeting in cricket. During breaks in the meeting, no ex-players will sit at a fake desk analysing what has been said. The press will not be allowed to sit in and judge the meeting. And there will be no facile interviews of board members as they come out of the room. That meeting is more important than the entirety of the Champions Trophy put together. The eight best teams plus the two others will decide cricket’s future. A private club. That we didn’t vote for. Deciding cricket’s future.
Maybe they can replace the Champions Trophy with a Test match championship that only Australia, India and England are invited to.
“Good morning cricket fans, the excitement is really amazing in Chennai, this is a cracking tournament, it’s played by the best three teams…”
During the last World Twenty20 I had a chat with a senior cricket writer who wanted to quit cricket. He had spent a long time writing about cricket, and just thought there were more important things he could have written about. For a minute, I argued the opposition. But the truth is, I could see his point.
I mean, what is writing about cricket really? It involves travelling to summer-drenched places (and England) and sitting in a usually comfortable glassed box where you are fed free food while writing about someone who is trying not to be hit by a bouncer so you don’t tap on your crumb-riddled keyboard that they have a weakness, before ignoring the next ball to look at a stream of tweets saying essentially the same thing.
That is probably cricket writing at its very worst.
At its best, well it’s still a lot of those things, but you get to see something that actually moves you. Something original. Something funny. Something horrific. Something that you love.
Yet, mid-tournament blues can still come in. The thought that this isn’t really that important. I could be writing about an animal that is being wiped out. An atrocity that people are ignoring. Or outing a businessman for pouring poison into a school playground. Instead I’m trying to work out how to write about Trott’s strike rate of 87 in a losing total for the 1743rd time.
A few days after my chat with the writer about cricket’s lack of importance, I was at the game that is often the most hyped, most underplayed and most important to cricket. India v Pakistan.
Australia and England might have been at it for longer, but really for most Aussies and Poms, the Ashes is just a thing that happens. I doubt many fans lose sleep over the result. Cricket is not the favourite sport in England; if it is in Australia, it’s by default. Australia and England are trade partners; they share Naomi Watts, Germaine Greer and the Bee Gees. You can travel between the two pretty easily. Australia has not attacked England, nor has England retaliated in quite some time. Individual groups based on political and religious beliefs do not plan to do the other country harm.
It’s great that the Ashes exists, and cricket is lucky to have it. But it’s of less and less cultural importance these days. Australia no longer see England as the mother country. Young Australians don’t flock over here to work. More and more Aussies have completely different mother countries. Mostly countries that have no interest in cricket at all. Cricket gets less important by the decade in English society. It’s seen by many as a posh sport; state schools don’t really play it. If your posh or Asian parents don’t introduce it, you’d have to find it by accident to get involved.
For many reasons, most blatantly obvious, the India-Pakistan series is far more important. It has more people involved. Many of those people do lose sleep over the result. Many take the matches incredibly seriously. It’s important. It’s not front-page news, it is the news.
An Indian fan recently told me that Imran Khan was overrated and Pakistan were a fourth-tier nation. It wasn’t sane. It was fanatical. It was India v Pakistan.
And I get it. I’m told by Asian fans I often don’t get the culture. That as a white man, I could never understand it. Of course these same fans tell me exactly what is wrong with England or Australia quite often. If I don’t understand it after six years of writing and fighting about cricket, I never will.
Let me explain the culture as I see it. Pakistan fans can handle losing a tournament, but not losing to India. Indian fans can handle losing a tournament, but not losing to Pakistan. That is not unique. There is barely a sport in the world without this rivalry. Collingwood wants to beat Carlton, the Lakers want to beat the Celtics, the Celtics want to beat the Rangers, Jennifer Jones wants to beat Kelly Scott, and Royal College wants to beat St Thomas’ College.
The next part is a mixture of personal history and nonsense. The final bit includes wars and weapons. It stems from ugliness. But you put it all together and you have the world’s most important sporting rivalry. And the only two teams that could completely reincarnate a dead rubber.
Yet, before the World Twenty20 match, I felt no extra excitement. I was merely on my way to another cricket match. I was jaded, tired, and bored of T20 matches I could barely remember the next day. Even with the crowd cramming in, and the game starting, I was still not excited.
Then I looked around. And suddenly I saw something amazing. Indians and Pakistanis cheering next to each other. Now I’ve been to a college basketball match that had a brawl. I’ve seen pictures of football fans ripping each other apart. And I once went to a suburban Aussie Rules game that ended when every supporter in the ground went onto the field.
And here I was with the world’s biggest sporting rivalry, between two countries that are in constant arguments. That have nuclear weapons as deterrents. That war, fight, scrap, blame, curse and mock each other all the time. And their fans were cheering like mad men or sulking like babies, a few feet from each other.
So I left the press box and went to watch the match.
Indian fans abuse Rohit. And Pakistan fans abuse Akmal and Malik. Suresh Raina shushed the crowd in a cheeky way, and even the Pakistanis loved him for it. I saw a Pakistani man dance with an Indian. And two Indian guys accidentally head-butt each other while dancing.
Fans from both countries abused me for being English; I never stopped to correct them.
Pakistani supporters stare mournfully at the screen for the longest time when their team does something really stupid. Indian fans will all turn in and discuss any bad moments like their conversation can help solve them. The Indian crowd will chant Sachin’s name even though he is not there. A Pakistani man without a Pakistan shirt on seems almost impossible.
No matter the shot, if it makes runs, it is awesome. People with face-paint are more likely to dance. People with wigs are more likely to scream. The mobile phone is an active member of the experience.
Pakistani fans will leave once the result is obvious, but for hours after the game they will roam the streets outside the stadium. Indian fans will cheer the TV interviews like it’s another boundary.
It was just another cricket match, and it wasn’t just another cricket match.
I loved it. Every second of it, even the bit where I was called English. Watching the fans, it felt like something. Like this game was actually needed. That it wasn’t just something that was happening, that it was happening for a reason. That it should be covered. That I should be there.
I wish they could play five-Test series in both countries all the time. I wish I could be at every India-Pakistan match. I wish every cricket match felt like this one. I wish the fans would have opportunities to troll each other every couple of months. I wish the conflict would end, but that the cricket passion never does.
Today I’ll head to Edgbaston jaded. But no matter how much this game doesn’t matter, this tournament doesn’t matter, and this format of cricket doesn’t matter, I know I’ll feel something. I’ll be glad I was there. I’ll cherish every moment of this contest. Probably even the rain breaks. I’ll leave my glass cocoon of comfort and stand among the fans. I’ll be glad I did.
This match, like all India-Pakistan matches, is important, because of the history, and because of the now. That they happen at all is a miracle. And I’m glad I get the chance to be at them. Especially as I’m a jaded white guy who doesn’t understand.