Cricket can seem very distant when you’re sitting on a train chugging through the white forests of Scandinavia, especially when the broadband connection is up and down and only strong enough for a text service anyway. But England really did have 500, Ben Stokes really did have 200 and Jonny Bairstow really was 95 not out in the heat and sunshine of Cape Town as lunch was taken on Day Two of the Second Test.
Three years earlier, Young Jonny Bairstow (he’ll always be “Young” Jonny Bairstow – some players just are) had been on 95 against the same opponents with the the Lord’s Honours Board engraver sharpening his blade, when Morne Morkel did what most observers expected sooner or later and bowled him, the Yorkie’s bottom hand dragging the bat across the line from off to leg, a deserved maiden century left out in the middle.
England fans were disappointed, perhaps none more so that the many kids waiting every morning by the Nursery Ground with whom YJB had posed for selfies, the big cheesy grin under the mop of red hair flashed by phones over and over again. Ten minutes later, carrot top the dead giveaway, I saw him besieged again by the Tavern Stand, patient on his walk back to the dressing room, perhaps remembering his own days on the other side of the ropes.
In the period since 2012, he had been in and out of the side, never quite a specialist keeper, never quite a specialist batsman, but scoring mountains of runs for Yorkshire as they secured two County Championships, the eccentricities being expunged from his technique. A 79 in the First Test in Durban (his best since the near miss at Lord’s) was a confidence builder and, then, in the wake of Ben Stokes’ assault and after a nervous lunch, suddenly the helmet was off, the arms aloft and the eyes cast heavenwards. A three and a half year wait was over.
Or maybe the wait was much longer than that. Jonny’s father, David, played 25 times for England, never improving on the 59 he made on Test debut. David took his own life 18 years previously (to the week), Jonny and his family confronting that anniversary every “Happy New Year everybody!” since. The son scored the century for his team, but he also scored it for the father – and for everyone who remembered the gritty, pugnacious Tyke with a tear in their eye whether in sunny Cape Town or snowy Sweden.
Misbah pushes on and pushes up
The Media Centre at Lord’s late in the day changes character from the quiet buzz of sotto voce conversations as old friends catch up and the shape of the day’s play might be discussed, to a place of industry, keyboards tapping as deadlines approach, the odd curse thrown into the air if a Microsoft Windows Update unexpectedly kicks in. The scorer’s announcements are listened to more keenly, as those stats are dropped into copy soon to appear on screens around the world.
Like most colleagues, I was probably typing words like “Misbah’s single takes him to a well-deserved century” in a tweet for an “on the whistle” report when I heard genuine laughter peal around me and a few “Did you see that?”s and a lot more “What? What happened?”s, the journalist’s nightmare of missing the day’s big story suddenly an unwelcome possibility.
The TV screens soon showed us what many of us had missed. On reaching three figures, Pakistan’s 42 year-old captain had offered a salute to his team-mates and back room staff and dropped to the turf to crank out 10 press-ups like a man half his age. It was a beautifully judged gesture, a small joke against himself, a genuine show of gratitude to the staff who had led the squad’s pre-tour conditioning programme and a reminder that, even after some of Pakistan’s darkest cricketing hours, Misbah knew that cricket was just a game – albeit a glorious one.
Ravichandran Ashwin lands one perfectly
High on the list of players enjoying great years in 2016, one would find the names of Jonny Bairstow (using the springboard of his Cape Town ton to register all kinds of batting and keeping records) and India’s Michelle Machine, Ravichandran Ashwin.
In the Mumbai Test, with England’s inexorably sliding towards defeat in the match and series, only the two Yorkies had held up Virat Kohli’s men, Joe Root making 77 and Jonny Bairstow on 51. So Ashwin bowled and the ball hit Bairstow’s pads right in front of the stumps, plainly LBW. Nothing to see here. Except…
I was commentating at Guerilla Cricket, describing the action ball-by-ball, but `I couldn’t work out what had happened exactly – it looked wrong and I couldn’t do my job for the listeners. Had the ball taken the leading edge and the coming review would save Jonny? Had the bat become tangled with the pad somehow? Had Jonny suffered an uncharacteristic rush of blood and suddenly attempted to hit the ball into the Arabian Sea, the slog failing?
The review revealed all. Ashwin had delivered the carrom ball – not much used in the series so far – from the front of the hand and poor Jonny hadn’t picked it at all. Pitching on a length on middle, it turned to off and squared up the England batsman who missed it by (perhaps) the width of a set of stumps as he played for the off break. I had been confused by the sheer space between the ball and the bat as one went one way, the other going the other.I had, quite literally, not believed my eyes.
If not quite as spectacular as Shane Warne’s Ball of the Century, it was every bit as magnificent an example of the spinner’s art and an illustration of a great player in peak form producing exactly what he wanted at the exact moment he wanted it. One for R. Ashwin’s mantlepiece.