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.