A marketing opportunity missed
The grand old men of Pakistan cricket deliver a series win
Perhaps only boxing rivals cricket for the pleasure it affords at a distance. Obviously it’s best to be there to witness the action but, especially these days with all the technology that is brought to bear, watching cricket on a television or computer screen is an experience unrecognisable from my youth, when you would see the action from one fixed camera and catch the score from a five seconds shot of the scoreboard. That said, listening to cricket on the radio or following live text coverage creates its own rhythm to a day’s play, its own specific explanation of the action, its space for thoughts and reflection.
In July, I took a train and then a bus from London to Sheffield for a conference about something already long forgotten and en route I followed the text updates of Pakistan’s chase of 377 required to defeat Sri Lanka and win a Test series away from home – not many sides do that these days. Both Shan Masood and Younis Khan had started the day in three figures, but Masood soon fell to Tharindu Kaushal which brought the captain, Misbah-ul-Haq, to the crease with 122 runs still to get. And everyone knows how Pakistan can collapse, right?
The two old men (37 and 41) got on with the job, the runs accumulating steadily. Maidens were permitted, but the spinners were never allowed to settle into the rhythm of dot balls that builds the pressure that brings the wickets. In my mind’s eye, I could see Younis and Misbah watching the ball from the hand, judging length early, going forward or back as a result, then hitting the bad ball for runs and occasionally punching the good one into a gap just to keep the scoreboard ticking over. Targeting the inexperienced Kaushal, they exacted a high price for his dismissal of Masood.
I had to stop following the score updates for a while, and when I logged on again, there was the result. Pakistan win the Test by seven wickets, Misbah hitting its last ball for six to finish on 59 with Younis at the other end, 171 not out having batted over seven hours. I sat back and wondered at the extent of his achievement.
Records had tumbled, but I was more interested in placing Younis’s innings in a subjective historical context. He had come to the crease at 13-2 and taken the score to 382-4; he had nursed Masood to a century in only his fifth Test in a huge fourth innings chase away from home; and he had steadied the ship and allowed his captain ease into his innings (at one point Misbah blocked 22 dot balls) without anxiety bubbling up. It was clearly the innings of a master batsman bringing all he had learned over a long career to the crease and executing a game plan perfectly (as they say these days). But where did it fit in cricket’s history? The best innings of the year? Of the decade? Of the century?
As Chairman Mao is purported to have remarked about assessing the impact of the French Revolution, perhaps it is too early to say, but, on seeing that result, I mused again on how cricket, at thousands of miles distance and with barely a few words refreshing on a tiny phone screen, could fill my mind with such thoughts and wonder.
Shane Watson LBW at Cardiff
England had, of course, been annihilated by a Mitchell Johnson inspired Australia as The Ashes, won somewhat unconvincingly in 2013, had been wrenched back with menaces Down Under a few months later. Back on England’s own patch, things would be different, wouldn’t they? The Aussies hadn’t won here since 2001 after all, and just because they had lifted the World Cup a few weeks earlier… well, that was ODI cricket and this was Test cricket, so that didn’t count, did it?
For those of us who lived through the long years between Stephen Waugh’s 1989 runfest and “Jones… Bowden” in 2005, shaking off the aura that surrounds those Baggy Greens, each, as a friend once remarked, perched atop “six foot of bastard”, wasn’t easy. Sure our boys looked good – well, some did – and there was no McGrath and Warne to frighten your wife and servants, but, you know, Australia!!!
The First Test would be crucial – isn’t it always – but more crucial this time because, depending on how it went, we would be talking about 1989 or 2009; about the return of the strutting supermen with the narrowed eyes or another bunch of flaky fakers who would bully anyone at home, but faded away overseas.
Joe Root had done his job with a century in the first innings and he had found good support from a hesitant Gary Ballance, a belligerent Ben Stokes and a silky Moeen Ali. The Aussies had replied with an under par score with only Chris Rogers converting a start, as England picked up wickets when they needed them. The hosts’ second dig had relied on a decent stand between Root and Ian Bell with some late order biffing from Mark Wood to get the target above 400 with two full days left.
A sunny Saturday morning dawned and England fans considered the pitch, the innings scores which had descended from 400-odd to 300-odd to 200-odd and contemplated the equation: they needed 412 runs and we needed 10 wickets. And then hope began to buckle a little in the face of doubt. “What if Warner gets going?” “Rogers won’t want to fall five short of a ton this time round.” “Clarke must be thinking about making a statement with a big one and Smith is the best batsman in the world”. “And Haddin, bloody Haddin.” Soon what looked like a routine wrapping up of a perfectly constructed Test Match win yielded to worry. “We’ll have to bowl well and take our catches” was the preferred euphemism to express our jittery nervousness.
The new ball had taken just the one wicket and, as lunch approached, Australia were 97-1, with the session very much theirs, David Warner and Steve Smith comfortable. Then Moeen slid one into Warner’s pads and England had separated Australia’s most dangerous batsmen – lunch suddenly tasted a whole lot better.
Wickets fell regularly in the afternoon, but it was the demise of Shane Watson that proved to us that this was 2009 revisited and not 1989. One of the “Dad’s Army”, he had dug in for well over an hour for his 19 runs sensing (as it proved, correctly) that his Test career was on the line. Then Wood skidded one into that giant front pad and… up went the finger. And then, comedy merging with tragedy, a forlorn Watson reluctantly called for the review, only, inevitably, to be given out again.
It was too good to be true for England fans, who were laughing at the sheer predictability of it all (here is my reaction – warning: includes naughty word). There was still a long way to go before we could be assured of another series like 2009 or 2013, but we all knew that nobody laughed at the 1989 Australians. Smiles of relief all round.
Jos Buttler rediscovers his mojo
Amidst The Ashes euphoria, Jos Buttler’s form had quietly crumbled and his Test place had been surrendered to Jonny Bairstow, the Yorkie taking the gloves in the UAE to open a place in the batting order. Buttler’s feet were stuck in the crease, his hands groped for the ball and his outrageous talent was lost in the kind of crisis of confidence that leaves a batsman unsure if he will ever middle one again – inevitably, his hitherto improving and tidy keeping was beginning to suffer too. Those, like me, who believed in him, pointed to plenty of other batsmen who shone brightly early in their international careers and then faded, only to return to the colours stronger for the experience – look at Joe Root and Steven Smith after all!
But Jonny B was ahead of Jos on that trajectory – he was back in the side having scored a mountain of runs in the county game – and, if he was now the preferred gloveman, where did that leave Jos? Something needed to be done if the prospect of England’s most naturally gifted batsman since David Gower slipping out of England colours was to be averted.
There had been a hint of returning form in the Third ODI vs Pakistan, as Buttler had steered England to an easy win in the company of James Taylor, but 49 not out isn’t really enough to quell the doubters.
In the Fourth ODI, England sought quick runs in the last 15 overs after Jason Roy’s century had set them up for the kind of score that would have been excellent in 2005, but in the new age of white ball cricket was merely adequate. Buttler was promoted to Number Four with a brief to turn a 300 total into a 330 total. He could not have asked for a job more suited to his skills and his needs – and, boy, did he deliver!
But not immediately. Apart from a loosening of the shoulders to lift Shoaib Malik over cow corner, he was 20 balls into his innings before his wagon wheel burst into life like a Catherine Wheel, the sixes and fours flailed all round the ground. As is often the case with those whose talent appears unrestrained by conventional limits, Buttler looked like he could barely believe it himself, an initially wry smile broadening to a big grin as the scoreboard whirred round and hopes of 330 turned into expectations of 340 and ultimately a total of 355, Buttler’s share 116, the last 99 of which coming from 33 balls.
It was not one of the sixes that projected the white ball high into the Dubai sky that stood out as the moment that I knew Buttler was back, it was one of those shots that perhaps only he and AB de Villiers can play. He had premeditated the ramp shot over his head down to the long leg boundary, but Mohammad Irfan (7ft tall and sharp enough, lest we forget) had read his intention and fired it wide of off stump. Buttler simply, but astonishingly, reversed his shot’s destination from onside to offside and, through a combination of eye and wrist work, ramped the ball over Short Third Man, up inside the circle, and away to boundary for four.
It was a shot born of imagination, skill and confidence given to few in the game’s history and it showed us that this was a talent that wasn’t done yet. Buttler will be back.