A Time of Doubt

April, for cricketers, is a time of optimism, but it is also a time of doubt.

If you are a county opening batsman who was once a prodigy - you were a Test player at 19 - but you have endured two seasons of abject poverty in an environment where the only hard currency is runs, you may have more doubts than most. Yes, you may have taken a student bowling attack for a double hundred the week before, but you know that is important only because it has refreshed your muscle memory and renewed your fragile confidence a little. That is all. You know that you need serious runs; runs made against hardened professional bowlers, three of whom, even though they are currently plying their trade in Division Two of the County Championship, know what it is to celebrate Test match wickets, and another who was once a prodigy himself. Former prodigies are everywhere; many become known mainly for their pasts and lost futures, and you do not want to join them.

At the day’s start the sun is briefly out but it soon gives way to leaden cloud. A strong easterly breeze scuds across Lord’s, and, by early afternoon, it feels like a raw day in late autumn or early winter. In a sense this is appropriate, for April’s doubts are not confined to the players. An early season crowd is, by definition, composed of devotees, and most of them will have concerns about where the game is heading. Thoughts of ‘The Hundred’, thoughts of the ECB’s gift for inflicting damage on the game it is supposed to be protecting, thoughts of how Championship cricket has come to this, and of how much further it may fall.

These are concerns that are as penetrating as the savage wind, but they can easily be rendered temporarily ephemeral by what goes on in the middle. The game is the thing, and any straw of aesthetic beauty or technical skill will be grasped and used as a defence against the worries, the pessimism, and the resentment.

This is how it is with Haseeb Hameed’s innings. Within a few overs it is clear how well he is timing his shots - you only need hear the sound his bat makes as it connects with the ball to know this - and the decisiveness of his footwork makes him look what he is: a player, for all his youth, and his slightness and his air of modesty, who genuinely knows how to bat. The crease is his natural home and it is where he is most comfortable, but he has spent precious little time there in recent seasons, so the impression is of someone - like a brain-injured patient re-learning how to talk with fluency - rediscovering a language they speak well, but in which they have temporarily lost their eloquence.

The drives - both eased through mid-on and caressed through the covers - and the flicks through midwicket are one thing, but what defines the innings and ensures its longevity is Hameed’s forward defensive. It is played time and again, and it is both watertight and positive; like any player of high talent he judges length quickly and his huge stride and the straightness of his bat make the stroke look as co-ordinated and smooth as a natural body movement. In reality it is the product of thousands of hours at the crease and in nets, facing bowlers and their mechanical doppelgängers, but other players have done all that and can’t play it like Hameed can.

A last vignette: As Hameed comes through the door into the Long Room to resume his innings after tea, he pulls on his gloves with an unfeigned air of nonchalance. The early tension has gone, to be replaced by familiarity and assurance. He is still short of his hundred but it is nothing to be concerned about. He has passed this way before, countless times. It will come, and it soon does, with a six to the short Grandstand boundary.

His innings comes to an end before too much longer, but no matter. His work is done.

Winter in England has ended, really, but in all kinds of ways it didn’t feel like it at Lord’s on Friday 12th April. Until a few seasons ago, Championship cricket wouldn’t even have begun by this point in the calendar, but this is life’s new reality. What a player like Hameed gives us, and what an innings like his signifies, is the way in which, at a time of unpleasant and unwanted change, so many of us - please count me right in - are looking to cling to anything that represents cricket as we know and love it.

And we want more. much more.

It is a lot to ask of a boy from Bolton, but this should not be a concern. If he can handle expectation like he can handle a bat, he will be fine.

And so - at least for a time, and even if only in our minds - will the game.

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