Saturday, 24 September 2016

A thrilling finale

Saturday, 24 September 2016
At first, it all came down to 16 runs. 16 of the most tense runs I have witnessed, each one met with its own round of applause. And all this, merely to keep Yorkshire in the title race, never mind the result. 350 runs were needed to pick up that crucial batting bonus point, the one that meant Yorkshire would finish ahead of Somerset if they won the match, and here they were, nine wickets down. As if it wasn't drama enough, at 349/9, down came the rain.

But once they came out again and the sun began to shine, they got the job done. Ryan Sidebottom, an unlikely hero with the bat but a hero nonetheless, clipped the ball away to the boundary for four. The crowd roared. Sidebottom and his batting partner Tim Bresnan, who himself had played one of the great county innings for 142*, embraced. But this was only the end of act one.

Somerset had done all they needed to, their own heroes casting the die. Chris Rogers, who announced his retirement from first class cricket after the game, signing off in style with a century in each innings. Marcus Trescothick, evergreen at 40, going strong throughout the season. James Hildreth, fracturing his ankle early on in his innings but making 135 of the most crucial runs. They had their share of drama, too - a collapse from 302/2 to 322/9, including five wickets falling for no score on 322. Jack Leach and Dominic Bess came to the rescue, taking Somerset to a total of 365. They did their work with the ball too, taking eight wickets between them in Nottinghamshire's first innings before Leach picked up four in the second. The victory was by 325 runs, as comprehensive as they come. But both teams at Lord's knew a win would secure them the title. Somerset were left to wait, the hardest game of them all.

Back at Lord's, maybe the game was starting to drift. After an electric start where a wicket apiece for Sidebottom and Brooks left Middlesex 2-2, the recovery was taking place with first innings centurion Nick Gubbins (93) alongside Dawid Malan (116). Middlesex were 120 behind, and needed to dig in. And so they did, the partnership broken only on the eve of lunch the next day, when Gubbins fell just short of a second century. But a draw had started to look the most likely outcome. Somerset fans could dare to dream, but for the fact that a draw was in neither Middlesex nor Yorkshire's interests.

A spot of declaration bowling had to come. It wasn't great to watch, and certainly not for Somerset. But any team in that situation would have done the same; needs must. There was nothing to gain from either side in hanging around for a draw. 240 runs were needed then, with 40 overs to go. It offered enough time to dismiss a team, but with a score that would always keep Yorkshire interested even if a few wickets fell. One session then, stood between three teams for the title. The finale was upon us.

It might have looked a rather generous declaration at first; it turned out to be spot on. Yorkshire had gone in with just the four specialist batsmen, always having a risk of being exposed (much as they were in the first innings, when three of the top four fell for ducks). The pitch was the sort that a batsman could stay in on - but not necessarily one easy to score on. Tim Bresnan was the only man who ever really looked settled for Yorkshire, but - not for lack of trying - his second innings heroics weren't quite the match of his first. But there were still plenty of twists and turns for that last session. A fifty partnership between Bresnan and Ballance, when it looked like Yorkshire might make it. When it looked like Somerset could be the winners, with five wickets still needed from the last ten overs after Bresnan's dismissal. And then the final piece. A hat trick for Toby Roland-Jones, a wicket for Finn sandwiched between. Yorkshire were all out; Middlesex were champions.

Roland-Jones tore away, the hero of the hour. Middlesex players bundled to the ground in celebration. Somerset and Yorkshire were left heartbroken. Sixteen matches across six months, and it had all come down to the last five overs. As thrilling as it could be.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

On records, Hales, and Hameed

Tuesday, 13 September 2016
Not long ago, after Jason Roy scored 162 in an ODI against Sri Lanka, I wrote that it was only a matter of time before Robin Smith's 23-year-old record for England's highest individual ODI score would be broken. In this series against Pakistan, it happened - by Roy's opening partner, Alex Hales.

Gone were those struggles of the test series, with Hales the test batsman replaced by Hales the ODI batsman, those different characters he often seems to play. The man who had already scored three ODI centuries in the last twelve months added another, and his greatest score yet: 171, that record of Robin Smith's finally falling. And not the last record to fall in the day. England surpassed their own  highest ODI score, then it was the world's best - 444/3. Buttler (90*), Root (85), and Morgan (57*) were all involved as well. And even Pakistan got their own record too, Mohammad Amir (58) hitting the highest score by a number eleven batsmen - sadly, all futile by that stage. On went England to a 4-1 series victory, and despite defeat in the Twenty20 that followed, they showed again how they have developed into a serious force in the shortened formats.

But international cricket moves on as quickly as it ever does, and even ODI heroics would have been unlikely to save Hales for the fast approaching test series in Bangladesh. In any case, Hales will not be joining the England squads for the tour, choosing alongside the captain Eoin Morgan to sit out the tour through security fears. It's a decision that for both has brought much scrutiny and often criticism. But such a harsh fare as both, and especially Morgan, have faced feels rather unjust. Assurances have been made, but the ultimate decision was always to be given to the players themselves, with a promise of no consequences. So for the decision to then be called 'disappointing' by the ECB, and then lambasted from many quarters as well, all seems a bit unfair. Sure, I might have liked to see them tour, but it was given as a personal decision for the players and their families, and so it should be left as such.

Lancashire's Haseeb Hameed currently looks like the latest man set to be given the job as Alastair Cook's partner at the top of the order. At least, he is the man currently being 'floated' as the likely option - a recent trend by the selectors to see how the player reacts to an increased spotlight, one that didn't work out well for Scott Borthwick earlier in the summer. Of course, Hameed cannot be mentioned without reference to both his achievements, and his age. Just nineteen years old, so far this season he has scored 1129 runs at 51.31 with four centuries and seven fifties. But the flipside is that - he is just nineteen. Will it be too much, too soon?

The argument has always been there - if you're good enough, you're old enough. The evidence has suggested Hameed is good enough, and certainly he has a huge future in the game. He's something of a throwback in this current age, more traditional in approach than is typical of the Twenty20 generation. It's an approach and mentality not dissimilar from Cook's, and one suited to the test match arena. And, by all accounts, he is a natural. Though touring the subcontinent can be a daunting start to a test career, it is a place where openers can prosper, and is often the best time in the innings to bat. Indeed, Cook made his debut in India aged only 21 - and we know what happened there. Joe Root as well, though not opening, made his mark straight away at a young age. They were good enough, so they were old enough.

If they do choose Hameed, they need to stick with him. He can be a big hit, but there will be bad days too. Some things can be learnt only from experience. It is an investment for the future as much as the present, and so the ups and downs must both be accepted. England need their opening batsman to still be their opening batsman when they visit Australia in just over a year's time. This is the chance to blood the new man, give them that experience, and not just be starting fresh with the pressures of an Ashes tour. But to focus on the present, this is the perfect chance for a new man to make his mark.
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