Wednesday 22 August 2018

Third Test Notes: Ishant Sharma Keeps Running In; The Conversion Of Jonny Bairstow

Ishant Sharma was born in 1988. The Indian cricket team began that year by playing West Indies in Chennai, the final game of a four Test series. Opening the bowling for West Indies were Patrick Patterson and Courtney Walsh. Opening the bowling for India were Kapil Dev and Mohinder Amarnath. India won by 255 runs. Kapil sent down eleven overs in the match, Amarnath, in what was his 69th and last Test, just five.

Mohinder Amarnath took 32 wickets in his Test career and was really a batsman, but that didn't matter, because India was no place for fast bowlers. Kapil was simply the exception that proved the rule. Any cricket-mad parent would wish first that their kid was a batter, second that they were a spinner, thirdly, and impossibly, that they may be as good as Kapil. A fast bowler... Well in India, that was a calling of a different, far harsher kind...

When Ishant Sharma made his Test match debut in 2007, only four Indian fast bowlers had ever taken more than 100 Test wickets: Kapil, Karsan Ghavri, Javagal Srinath and Zaheer Khan, and of those, only Zaheer was still playing. At Perth in January 2008, Ishant Sharma, nineteen years old and running in like Peter Crouch trying to beat the offside trap, did something extraordinary. During the second innings he bowled a spell at Ricky Ponting that lives in the memory of all that saw it. Lightning-quick and with hurtful bounce, he barked the knuckles of the great number three, speared his head backwards on his neck, had him kicking at the crease-line open-eyed and rattled during eight overs that one reporter called: "as good as anything seen from a visiting fast bowler in a decade". Almost out on his feet, Sehwag urged him to bowl a ninth, and in it Ponting nicked to Dravid. India won. A star was born.

But it was just the fourth Test match for this nascent star. Ishant Sharma - gauche, gummy, rail-thin, accident-prone - had many miles still to travel. On dead pitches and in white-ball shoot-outs, he lost first his pace, then his confidence. When it happened, he stood out for the wrong reasons, too tall, too lanky, hidden in the field, lost at the bowling crease. His first fifty wickets cost him 31.76. By the time he had seventy-five, it was 37.40.

He came to Lord's in 2014 with 174, behind only Kapil, Srinath and Zaheer, the average still over 37, and bounced England out in one mad and glorious afternoon. With the old ball he produced what David Hopps described as "one of the most memorable spells in the history of Indian fast bowling," a careening rocket ride either side of lunch that brought India their first overseas Test win for more than three years, and only their second ever at Lord's.

Hopps went on: "India... will have eyes only for the performance of Ishant, who returned career-best figures of 7 for 74 and invited comparisons with the brilliant spell in Perth in 2008 when he roughed up no less a player of fast bowling than Ricky Ponting and encouraged India's hopes that they had a great fast bowler to reckon with. Ishant's career has never quite turned out like that..."

Ten months after Ishant had bowled that spell at Perth, Mitchell Johnson debuted for Australia against Sri Lanka. And the winter before Ishant destroyed England at Lord's, Mitchell Johnson had destroyed England in Australia. Johnson, who shared Ishant's capacity for haplessness as well as brilliance, had the classic, redemptive career arc, a three-act structure beloved of all scriptwriters: early promise, then rocky road, followed by last-reel, feel-good fulfilment.

In the week that Mitch hung them up for good, Ishant came to Trent Bridge with India needing something, anything, from a player other than Virat Kohli. They got it, too. England resumed their second innings miles behind but with their openers intact as the fourth day began. By inducing edges from first Jennings and then Cook, Ishant kicked open the door.

On the radio, Jonathan Agnew said of him: "He's not quite a one-trick pony, that would be harsh..." It was a backhanded compliment and you knew what he meant. Everyone understood how Ishant would bowl to England's left-handers, including Alastair Cook, who Ishant had dismissed ten times. Stopping him was another matter, and that is a hallmark of quality.

We invest great hopes and dreams in fast bowlers, yet even the real bruisers like Ryan Harris and Pat Cummins are physically fragile, always at the limits of what their bodies can do. Many of them, like Mitch and Ishant, are at the whim of the fates too, subject to a muse and rhythm that descends when it feels like it, rather than when we all think it should.

Things have changed for Ishant and for India. On TV commentary, Michael Holding noted that pitches for domestic competition there have become more conducive to fast bowling (well, it would have been hard for them to become less conducive...) and around Ishant were Jasprit Bumrah bowling in-slanting rockets for his first Test five-fer, and Mohammed Shami with his reverse swing touching 90mph. They have another swing bowling, hard-hitting all-rounder on the books, too, and plenty more where they came from.

Ishant has walked the bridge between then and now, and at times it has been a treacherous one to cross. The average is down to 35.16, and he has 249 wickets, behind only Zaheer and Kapil on the list. He has served his calling the best he can. He may not get Mitchell Johnson's final-act finish, but Ishant Sharma keeps running in.

NB: Sky produced an interesting stat: At the Trent Bridge Test, every Indian seamer bowled at least one delivery quicker than any of the England seamers

The Conversion of Jonny Bairstow

In a moment that felt like a Passing Of The Gloves, Jonny Bairstow got a broken finger and a golden duck, departing the crease moments after the standing ovation for Jos Buttler's century. The Gods seem to be pointing one way: Bairstow as the specialist batsman England crave, free from the onorous physicality of keeping wicket, Buttler as keeper, batting enforcer and captain in waiting.

England have middle order problems for sure, but they're nothing like England's top-order problems, where the openers don't score any runs and the number three looks tired, haunted and desperate to come in at number four. A thought emerged, from some knowledgeable ex-pros and commentators, that perhaps Bairstow, sans gloves, should open the batting.

My view, which is becoming, like many of my views, less popular by the second, is that Bairstow is not an opener in five-day cricket. His technique for the short forms is radically different, as demonstrated by the trouble he had in the first Test of the India series when he was so leg side of the ball he was almost conversing with the square leg umpire.

But there's a more interesting reason too. Bairstow would be making a strange kind of history should he successfully make such a switch. Trent Bridge was his 56th Test. He has batted 98 times, once, in 2016, at number four, and that aside, never higher than five. It poses the question, has anyone in the modern era successfully converted to opening so late in their career having never batted in the top four?

I couldn't think of anyone immediately, so I put out a Tweet, which produced this list of suggestions: Virender Sehwag; Justin Langer; Sanath Jayasuriya; Brendon McCullum; Simon Katich; Shane Watson; Tillakaratne Dilshan; Alec Stewart; Michael Vaughan; Ravi Shastri; Graham Gooch; Greg Blewett.

A pretty quick and unscientific search of cricinfo turned up the following info on when each first opened in a Test; their average as opener; and overall career average (F/T = full-time opener):

Sehwag: First opened in 6th Test; 8027 runs at 50.04; career 49.34
Langer: 2nd Test (F/T 42nd Test); 5112 runs at 48.22; career 45.27
Jayasuriya: 14th Test; 5932 runs at 41.48; career 40.07
McCullum: 1st Test (F/T 52nd Test); 1316 runs @39.87; career 38.64
Katich: 24th Test; 2928 runs at 50.48; career 45.03
Watson: 9th Test; 2049 runs @ 40.98; career 35.19
Dilshan: 55th Test; 2170 runs at 42.52; career 40.98
Stewart: 3rd Test; 3348 runs at 44.64; career 39.54
Vaughan: 16th Test; 3093 runs at 45.48; career 41.44
Shastri: 11th Test; 1101 runs at 44.04; career 35.79
Gooch: 3rd Test; 7811 runs at 43.88; career 42.58
Blewett: 34th Test; 588 runs at 29.40; career 34.02

On closer examination, many of these are easy to discount. Sehwag, Vaughan and Jayasuriya shifted early in their careers, and were top order batsmen already. Shane Watson also moved early and later dropped back down, as did Ravi Shastri. Justin Langer spent almost all of his first 40 Tests at number three. Simon Katich had been out of the Australian side for two and a half years when he returned as an opener. Graham Gooch spent the 1978-9 Ashes at number four plus a portion of the following summer, but opened for virtually all of his international career. Greg Blewett moved relatively late, and his record as an opener was worse than I remembered.

The remaining three are more intriguing. Tillakaratne Dilshan had played just two Tests fewer than Bairstow when he began opening, and like Bairstow, had never really batted higher than five.

McCullum and Stewart both kept wicket for long periods of their careers, and their key stat is perhaps average with and without the gloves. McCullum averaged 34.18 as keeper and 42.94 as a batsman. Alec Stewart was even more affected, averaging 34.92 with the gloves and 46.70 without.

Bairstow turns that stat on its head, averaging 42.33 when keeping and 28.96 when not. Surrendering the gloves and moving up to open after more Tests than anyone in the modern era would be quite a feat - according to the numbers at least.

Thursday 16 August 2018

Second Test Notes: In the Flesh

It was the first day of the second Test... Well it was the second day if you're being like that, but it was the first day on which there was any play, so that makes it the first day in most people's minds... In my mind, anyway.

So, it was the first day of the second Test, my first day at a Test since last year, first time seeing India for four years, and well... you forget don't you. The TV coverage is brilliant now (I saw a clip of Botham's Ashes the other day - the picture was almost square, the resolution like looking through a pair of someone else's glasses... Beefy's beard smeared across his face, the pitch-invading kids Lowry stick men...), it's brilliant but much of the depth and speed, all of the sensory joy, is lost among the pixels.

We were still on the stairs at the back of the stand when the first wicket went down, but everyone stuck outside knew what had happened. The noise was unmistakable. The wicket cheer. Slightly different to the wicket roar, which you only get occasionally at Lord's (it came later in the game though, when Broad got himself on another hat-trick), and to the DRS cheer (recent addition to the canon, but easy to distinguish). We pushed up to the top of the steps and could just see a thin line of the electronic scoreboard by the Pavilion: 'India 0-1', glowing quite orange-ly under heavy skies.

"What happened?"

"Jimmy bowled him..."

"Bowled who?"


Pujara was already out to the middle, radiating innocence in his usual way. He bears the look of someone whose dad still drives him to the game while the cool kids sit together on the coach (as someone whose dad used to drive him to games, I know it when I see it...).

"Who have they dropped then?"

The replay goes up on the big screen at that moment, Vijay, Bollywood hair falling from his helmet, trying to hit an outswinger through midwicket. A shame because on the last tour here, he was one of the few who batted well. Very solid. On the scoreboard I see 'KL Rahul', so poor Shikhar has gone the way of all flesh. Wouldn't have minded seeing the old moustache stroke a few of those glossy cover drives... Ah well...

The clouds banked up to the left of the Pavilion, unyeilding as tower blocks. Rahul drove Broad for four, and although Broad was 'only' bowling about 80mph, it happened quickly and with such precision, the small movement of the feet and hands, the batswing just a sweet little punch, like the ones that old boxers don't see coming. Rahul has a Kohli-esque beard, perhaps a subconscious act of hero worship, and his cover drive is like Kohli's too. He seemed to be compact and strong, a reaction to his terrible shots at Edgbaston, probably, and the likely Shastri bollocking that followed.

The groundsmen came on to the outfield behind the boundary rope with the hover cover. Rahul hit another four but then Jimmy Anderson nicked him off, and instead of signalling the grounsmen on with the cover, the umpires let Kohli walk out and face two deliveries. This was very poor, I thought. They knew they were going off, and within a minute it was raining and dark, the Pavilion looming like a mansion in a ghost story. How was that fair to Kohli, or to India, or to a lot of the people in the ground who'd paid out for their tickets in the hope of seeing Kohli have a go at the England bowling?

By 3pm, when the ground was essentially underwater, Kohli had comically run out Pujara, whose dad, if he was like mine, was probably sitting in the car quite annoyed. Kohli showed the self-preserving instincts of the superstar, and Pujara at least had the luxury of being able to graciously forgive his captain over lunch, and not have to worry about being out through his own error.

We'd sneaked into the Mound stand, and we sat and watched the standing water get funnelled off through little drains in the outfield until somehow the sun broke through and what had been a series of small lakes receded and Lord's became a jewel glowing in the luminous afternoon light.

From side-on it was easy to see why Kohli has a bad back. He likes to stand with his feet almost parallel to the stumps and then twist his torso so that his head is out in front of his body and looking squarely down the pitch. He managed to miss most of the miracle deliveries that England sent down by keeping his hands close to his chest, and then smiling phlegmatically at the slips as they moaned about him.

The slips were both brilliant and terrible. Root kept changing them around and joining in himself, which didn't help. The problem seemed obvious, especially when Anderson and Broad were on, in that they had to stand close enough to catch the soft-handed edges from balls bowled at eighty miles an hour, but then Anderson or Broad would occasionally send one down in the mid-eighties that bounced and then flew at Bairstow, threatening his chin.

Then when Woakes came on the slips didn't really seem to move back, even though he was noticably quicker. Buttler dropped a couple, one from Hardik Pandya that he went for like a wicketkeeper, hands cupped and trying to ride the bounce, and missed completely. Woakes didn't look too happy and gestured at Buttler to catch Australian style, with his fingers pointed up. Pandya nicked the next one too and this time Buttler did catch it, so, much like Pujara and Kohli, he and Woakes could be friends again.

It was that sort of day for India. They were on the wrong side of everything from the toss to the weather breaks. I suppose as a professional you get used to that happening occasionally. Everything seemed fated, and, like the rule that says work expands to fill the time allocated to it, so India's innings fitted perfectly inside the final session, with only the remarkable, redoubtable, spider-like Ashwin really resisting Woakes, with his bruiser's run-up and boxer's rhythm, and Anderson, who flitted around like Roger Federer and sent the ball swimming through the claggy air, its rough side resisting the path the smooth side wanted to cleave.

107 all out at nineteen minutes past seven. Cricket in England in the raw, in the flesh.

Sunday 5 August 2018

First Test Notes: Virat Breaks Bad; Root-mathing Rooty's Fifties; Worst Shot Award

In Breaking Bad Season Three, Walter White, the high school chemistry teacher turned methamphetamine kingpin of New Mexico, is almost exactly halfway through his transformation "from Mr Chips to Scarface". Walt has already, with varying degrees of willingness, killed several people, but now he is dealing with the genuine article, his dead-eyed boss in the crystal business, Gustavo Fring. Fring has manipulated the near fatal shooting of Walt's brother in law, the swaggering DEA agent Hank Schrader, and in doing so, steered the assassins away from Walt himself.

For Walter it's a revelatory moment. Not only does he puzzle out the "much deeper game" that Fring has designed, he admits - both to Fring and, implicitly, to himself - that "I would have done the same..." Less than a year later, he organises Gus Fring's murder.

Walter loves chemistry because chemistry is "the study of change". It's the metaphor for the show's five seasons, as Walt, in the words of his partner Jesse Pinkman, "breaks bad". Yet it becomes apparent, as Walt meets his fate, that change is also about accepting your true nature. Walt did what he did, he confesses at the end, "because I liked it..."

Okay, it's a writerly leap from Breaking Bad to Test match cricket, from Walter White to Virat Kohli. But what is Kohli if not a man who has embraced his true nature as India's alpha-dog player and the game's latest supernova, a man for whom batting is absolutely the study of change.

Sam Curran many have been the man of the match at Edgbaston, but the award fooled no-one. This Test match revolved around the powerful gravity of Kohli's star. By the game's third evening, England's players were openly admitting the obvious: that the result was intimately bound up with Virat's fate. Graham Gooch's 154 of England's 252 at Headingley in 1991 has been called Test cricket's greatest innings. Kohli's 149 of India's 274 walked in the foothills of such mastery. At Headingley the next best score was Mark Ramprakash's 27; at Edgbaston, it was Dhawan's 26.

Much has changed since 2014, and you can read about Kohli's transformation anywhere. He will talk happily about the small technical changes, tiny shifts of back foot and hip position, that have allowed him to do his thing. What is more impressive and more important is the act of will that has accompanied it. Kohli changed because he wanted to, because it is his nature, because he likes it.

He has evolved a preternatural, majestically orthodox style of batting that works in every format: all he does as he swaps between them is alter the tempo, retune himself to different frequencies. It is pure and beautiful. He is 29 years old and has 57 international hundreds. Only Kallis, Sangakkara, Ponting and Tendulkar have more, and all of them played over 500 games. Kohli has played 340.

More than this, Kohli's desire to fulfil himself and to leave his mark on history is important politically. India and the BCCI's commitment to Test cricket must match his - Kohli demands it, and the whole game benefits. He lifts us up.

Root-mathing Rooty's fifties

After Joe Root's first-innings run out, Jonathan Liew tweeted: 'You hear lots about Root's (very poor) conversion rate from 50 to 100, but very little about his conversion rate from 0 to 50, which is insane. It's 43%, which is the highest of any batsman since Bradman'.

It kicked off the old debate about whether it's better to have a champion player who scores fifty all the time, or one who scores 100 and then nought but averages fifty.

Since his last century, against West Indies in August 2017, Root has played twelve Tests, batted 21 times and made eleven scores of fifty-plus. Of those twelve Tests, England have lost seven and drawn two. All three victories have been at home, against West Indies (in a series win), Pakistan (draw) and India.

England players have made hundreds in some of those games: Stokes against West Indies at Leeds (lost); Malan and Bairstow against Australia in Perth (lost); Cook against Australia in Melbourne (drawn) and Bairstow against New Zealand in Christchurch (drawn), so the argument, when refined, is not just about one batsman making fifties.

The significance of course is that England came up against players that did convert, notably other members of the current Big Four, Steve Smith, Kane Williamson and Kohli. Steve Smith batted seven times, making three hundreds and two fifties; Williamson batted three times and made one hundred; Kohli has batted twice and made a hundred and a fifty.

It's a (too) small sample size, but it suggests a ruthlessness that shows up in their overall stats. Smith has batted 117 times in Test cricket for 23 hundreds and 22 fifties; Williamson 116 times for 18 and 26; Kohli 114 times for 22 and 17. Root stands at 128 innings, 13 hundreds and 41 fifties.

England are below India, Australia and New Zealand in the Test rankings. The question of which is better, consistency or big scores from players with similar averages and overall output, seems to have an answer - not that Bradman would have been in any doubt...

And the Worst Shot Award goes to...

Has there been a Test match in recent times in which so many good players have got out to such truly terrible shots? Not just the usual nick-offs, hole-outs and brain-fades, the workaday lapses of concentration and moments of fear and panic (of which there were plenty on both sides), but the kind of shots that you would be deeply embarrassed to play yourself.

There was KL Rahul determinedly dragging on a wide half volley second ball having edged his first through the slips. There was Ajinkya Rahane playing the weirdest of half-bat wafts to Ben Stokes - if he was trying to edge it to slip, he couldn't have done so any better; and then there was Stokes himself, essaying a magnificently atrocious, almost indescribable caught and bowled to Ashwin. He looked like an indulgent dad on the beach, contorting his arms to make sure that he directed a wayward tennis ball back at his three-year-old to catch.

Almost as culpable was Joe Root, who lollied Ashwin to leg gully off the face of the bat having just stared at the two (count 'em) fielders placed there, and Johnny Bairstow, following him in, playing the same shot to his first ball...

It was a wonderful Test match, made in part by its participants' fallability.