Uncomplicated Excellence that is Haseeb Hameed the Rookie England BatsmanNovember 19, 2016
Paul Edwards, in ESPNcricinfo, 13 September 2016, where the title is “A Chateau Lafite cricketer in a wine-box world”
Lancashire batsman Haseeb Hameed has a style that’s both simple and cultivated. What stands out, though, is his calmness Do you remember the first time you hit a ball with a bat? It doesn’t matter what type of ball it was or even whether you used a rough stick instead of a bat. Do you remember the thrill of making the ball travel some distance? Perhaps it went a fair way and eventually you discovered that this was achieved by “timing the stroke”. Perhaps you then nagged a parent, sibling or friend to provide balls for you to hit and before long you were asking them to “bowl” in the garden, yard or street.
Some people are lost to cricket from the very start. It is a little like love. Watching Haseeb Hameed bat is to be reminded of one’s innocence and of Blake’s “echoing green”. Like many prodigies, he makes what he does look dangerously simple. This is because for all the technique, the coaching, the selection of shot, there is in his play a palimpsest of his childhood and an eight-year-old boy pestering his father, Ismail, to let him play cricket with his elder brothers, Safwaan and Nuaman.
Hameed is no longer pestering; he is demanding. His batting is suffused with a style both simple and cultivated; it expresses his demand that he be allowed to bat for as long as possible. He has been so successful in his 18 first-class matches, all but four of them against Division One attacks, that he is demanding to be selected for England’s winter tours. Experienced Test and county bowlers try to dismiss him and then speak in admiration of his obvious skill, his preternatural self-possession at the crease, his ability to bat with a partner yet retreat into his own world, one which is inured to the comments of opponents. “Is it my turn to bat yet?”
It is a world in which shots are played to balls and then played again to imaginary deliveries as if the quest for perfection can never be completed. There is something Buddhist about all this although Hameed’s only noble truth on the field is the accumulation of runs. I cannot think of another young batsman who has radiated comparable tranquility.
His opponents say he will play for England. They are right. “Hameed is one of the best young players I’ve seen in a long time,” said Yorkshire’s captain, Andrew Gale. “He’s an old-fashioned opening batter who occupies the crease and didn’t get out of his shell all day. He just played beautifully.” Gale was speaking at the end of the first day of last month’s Roses match. Hameed had just made a century against his team. It was as if Joe Frasier has taken time out at the end of the seventh round in Manila to say that this chap Ali could actually box a bit. ‘Hameed possesses a cricketing understanding beyond thought and an appreciation of the game that cannot be coached’
Then Hameed made another hundred in the second innings. Everyone recorded the fact that he was the first Lancashire player to make two centuries in a Roses match and that he was the fifth-youngest player to make 1000 runs in an English season. What was rather overlooked was that Hameed had faced 209 balls and batted for over 302 minutes to make 114 in the first innings; he then faced 124 balls and batted for 173 minutes to make 100 not out in the second dig.
People on blogs have referred all season to the “Way of Hameed” – that Buddhism thing again? – but Hameed’s way is changing. Sharp coaches like Nottinghamshire’s Mick Newell have noticed that the tempo of his batting is quickening. This is happening not because he is hitting more boundaries – he has frequently collected as many fours as his partners – but because he is learning to work the ball around for ones and twos, often against attacks of international quality.
The statistics of Hameed’s short career – 18 first-class matches – have been seized on by the game’s gourmands but they are satisfying to the gourmets, too. In six innings in 2015 he averaged 42.83; after 23 innings in 2016 he averages 53.76. In his 29 innings he has been dismissed for single-figure scores on two occasions. He has been bowled three times in his first-class career and never with fewer than 44 runs against his name.
Hameed is an opening batsman. He is 19 years old. Now, please forgive the impertinence, think about those numbers again.
Lancashire’s director of cricket, Ashley Giles, speaks of Hameed with deep admiration and a touch of amusement. He understands that he and sensitive coaches like Mark Chilton have been charged with developing a very special talent. In May Giles was talking about Hameed playing for England within four years; now he knows it will happen sooner than that. He laughs as he talks about not being able to “pull the wool over people’s eyes any longer”. He also knows that a Test career is what the young batsman has always craved. After playing for Lancashire’s junior teams, almost always the one above his age, Hameed demanded to be picked for Lancashire’s senior side. Now he is demanding to be selected for England. We are back with the child whose only interest was playing cricket and in scoring as many runs as possible. “Can I bat now, please?”
Hameed has never hidden his ambition. First Lancashire, then England. His heroes are Test cricketers. First and above all, there was Sachin Tendulkar, “the great Sachin” as Hameed refers to him. Now there are also Virat Kohli and Joe Root. There must be a fair chance that Root will be Hameed’s England captain at some point. The two met during this year’s Old Trafford Test when Hameed was one of four twelfth men and, as he said, “Joe Root changed in my place” in the dressing room before making 254. His spot. Lucky Joe.
Yes, I know there are many stiff challenges ahead of Hameed and they will offer a more severe examination than he has received before. That is one of the tough delights of Test cricket. The point is that Hameed knows it as well. He wants to take his careful skills, the beautiful way in which he leaves the ball and match them against the best bowlers on Earth. He meets a bowler’s gaze but he does not reply to sledges. It is not necessary. He prefers to take a few steps towards square leg as if pondering all that he has learned in the seven or so seconds it takes to face a ball in a cricket match. Then he readies himself again. One imagines Dale Steyn is looking forward to making his acquaintance; maybe one or two Australian quicks have already watched a video or two; Bay 13 at the MCG probably can’t wait to greet him. The feeling will be mutual. Just give him a little time.
Among all the many judgments that have been made about Hameed one of the most illuminating is also the simplest and, paradoxically, the vaguest. “Has gets it,” says Giles. What he means is that Hameed possesses a cricketing understanding beyond thought and an appreciation of the game that cannot be coached. It is this that enables him to “calibrate risk”, (to take back a phrase that has passed from originality to cliché in less than two months). Hameed has all the shots but he will not play them until the odds are in his favour or the game requires him to do so. Otherwise, he might fall victim to one of the ways in which his innings can end and that is always awful. To see him walk from the wicket after someone has dismissed him for a low score is to see a young man beset with sorrow beyond consolation. He always wants to bat. “Please can I bat now?” Such, such are the joys.
Let me end with my first sight of Hameed for it has served as something of an epigraph to all that has followed. On July 3, 2014 Lancashire’s second XI were playing Warwickshire at Southport. I had that morning returned from watching the first team draw their match at Taunton. I ambled down to Trafalgar Road and saw a Lancashire side that needed 217 to win collapse from 99 for 1 to 143 for 5 as a series of batsmen with first-team experience played half-arsed fancy-dan shots.
Although not working at the game, I had taken a notebook. Hameed batted at No.6 and he faced a Warwickshire attack that included Recordo Gordon and Josh Poysden. I watched him play a few shots and started writing down phrases: “gently impressive…his shot selection clear and correct…” Later they were incorporated into a piece I wrote for the Lancashire website which included the following: “It was as if almost every shot Hameed played – there were three false ones in his 79 balls – was a justified consequence of intelligence he had collected.”
Hameed made 30 not out and Lancashire won the game by three wickets. He did not get off the mark until his 20th ball when he cover-drove a four. He didn’t add to that tally until his 40th ball when he pushed a single. That stroke marked a gradual increase in his run rate. Late in his innings, when all risks had been assessed, he drove Poysden for a low, sweet, straight six. Hameed talks intelligently but he is never more eloquent than when he is batting.
He was 17 years old and just at the end of Year 12 at Bolton School. Second-team coach Mark Chilton was pushing him hard, dropping him into difficult situations where he would be tested by good bowlers.
Above all, perhaps, there was calm. But then there almost always is with Hameed. Calmness is often the first impression made by watching him fulfil his vocation. He admits with a wry, self-aware grin that he has no idea what he would do in life were he not a cricketer. But that’s fine because, as his former Lancashire colleague, Ashwell Prince, tweeted during the Roses match, Hameed was “born to bat”.
He is a Chateau Lafite cricketer in a wine-box world.