The England cricket team is currently two games into a five-Test tour of India. Having secured a winning draw in the first Test two weeks ago, England collapsed in the second game last week. That England managed to slip from 87 for 2 at the end of day four to 158 all out half-way through day five was alarmingly quick, even by England’s standards. But it is often said in sport that losses teach a team more than a victory.
Eddie Jones, the sharp-talking, disconcertingly endearing Australian overseeing England rugby’s 12-match winning streak, had this to say after his side’s annihilation of Fiji last Saturday: “It’s always fun when you are winning. Our big test is when you lose a game. We’re not frightened of losing … we know if we do we will learn a lot from it”. As it happens, England’s cricket team have learnt a lot from their defeat to India. More specifically, they have learnt a lot about one particular player: Haseeb Hameed, captain Alastair Cook’s latest batting partner.
Some context: followers of English Test cricket like myself have long been in a bind. On the one hand, England have captured the imagination with their aggressive style (their ‘brand of cricket’). The likes of Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow have, since 2015, spearheaded a renaissance. England are no longer stodgy. Their batters bat with style and panache; their bowlers have rediscovered that ‘something’. In spite of, or perhaps because of, this improvement England have been unable to fill the opening batting slot. Aggressive players like Alex Hales and Adam Lyth have all been tried and discarded. The number of players who have lined up alongside Cook to open the innings has reached double figures. Madness. Mildly fanatical fans like myself were beginning to wonder: would there ever be an answer to Opener-gate?
This is where Haseeb Hameed comes in. Catapulted into the side for the first Test against India after the failure of yet another opening partner, Hameed was allowed, if not expected, to fail. India are the highest ranked team in the world. They possess in Ravi Ashwin the highest ranked bowler in the game. Since the start of 2015 Ashwin has taken 117 wickets in 18 games. India have not lost at home for four years. Hameed, a 19 year-old from Bolton, with only a year of first-class cricket for Lancashire behind him, faced up to the Indians. An impossible task? No.
Hameed made 31 and 82 in his first game for England. In so doing, he created history. Not since Alastair Cook’s own beginning in India exactly ten years ago had an England opener scored a 50 on debut. There is something poetic about this symmetry. Cook has enjoyed a prolific career, and he will go down as an England great. Hameed is very much in the Cook mould. His defensive technique is, like Cook’s, the foundation of his game. This offers him a solid base from which to attack: if you can keep the good balls out, you will be there to score off the bad ones. That Hameed has started on a similar path to Cook is promising.
The symmetry does not stop there, however. Hameed made his debut in Rajkot, in India’s Gujarat state. As fate would have it, this was the state from which Hameed’s father Ismail emigrated to Lancashire in 1969. Just a few days before the game, Hameed’s elder brother was married in Gujarat, and the whole family was at the ground to watch their lad play for England.
When Hameed scored his 50, his father could be seen crying tears of joy, the culmination of a long journey, 47 years in the making, from Gujarat to Bolton and back again. It is a powerful tale which speaks to the resolve of the family (Ismail Hameed gave up his job to ferry Haseeb to cricket practice). But it also reveals a significant dimension of modern Britain. Hameed joins three other British Muslims in the England side. Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid and now Zafar Ansari and Haseeb Hameed represent the contemporary face of English cricket and the strength of our multicultural society. That has to be celebrated.
This article began with a quote from an Australian. It ends with one from another, the famously belligerent wicket-keeper Adam Gilchrist, one-time slayer of English bowling attacks. Following Hameed’s 82 at Rajkot, Gilchrist tweeted: “Looks like England have found an absolute beauty in Haseeb Hameed”. If there is any doubt regarding Hameed’s class, trust Gilchrist’s judgement. He is Australian. They know a thing or two about cricket.