Saturday, January 21, 2017

An ambulance and a God at the Basin

The need to call in at work for the first time since Christmas to make sure that they remember who I am has delayed the appearance of this account of the final two days of a surprisingly good test match.

First, an apology to the pitch and its caregivers. In accounts of the first three days I wrote it off, making the mistake of assuming that it would behave as test pitches at the Basin have done over the decade or so that I have been watching there. It didn’t give any help to the spinners as a test pitch should ideally do on the fourth and fifth days, but it did not curl up and die either. It was wrong to say that the pitch was heading into extinction, the opposite if anything; it had found the secret of eternal life, retaining its pace (or at least bounce) right through the game. A test pitch on which the game is resolved within the last scheduled hour is almost by definition a good one.

I cannot recall seeing more players hit on the head than I saw in these two days, including Santner twice, Wagner three times and, most chillingly, Mushfiqur, who was taken straight from the pitch to hospital by an ambulance that was driven onto the field to collect him, another spectating first for me. Courtney Walsh, here as Bangladesh’s bowling coach, looked a little misty-eyed at the sight of all those batsmen going down like felled trees.

On day four Tom Latham and Henry Nicholls took their resumed fourth-wicket partnership to 142 before Nicholls turned a delivery from Shakib into the hands of Mehidi at leg slip. Usually a half-century would enhance a young player’s reputation, but I’m not sure that this was so here. Nicholls can dispatch the bad ball, but finds it difficult to rotate the strike against accurate bowling, especially early in the innings. He survived a DRS review for lbw only on an umpire’s call, and was dropped. Sometimes batsmen score runs against a lesser attack which means that the selectors are obliged to keep them in the team against stronger opposition that they may not be up to. I don’t know if Nicholls falls into this category, but the question remains open.

Nobody else is suggesting this, but I would give Martin Guptill a run in the middle order as long as his form is reasonable. As an opener has played 47 tests with three centuries at an average a snip under 30. He has Ramprakash syndrome, the symptoms of which are to look unbearably good in other forms and at other levels of the game, but not to be able to turn the quality into test-match runs. Take Guptill away from the new ball and those runs might flow.

If the jury is still out on Nicholls, it is close to a verdict on de Grandhomme, to the sound of gallows being hammered together. Bang! On four after 13 balls, he scythed a four to third man. Crash! The next ball cleared the seats at deep square leg. Woe! A mow at a wide ball outside off and he was caught behind next ball. This is not the work of a No 6 test batsman.

Meanwhile, Tom Latham cruised on, if anything more relaxed than on day three. A casual lift over long on off Shakib for the first six of the innings showed how well he was seeing the ball, though he was dropped on 138, a hard diving chance at second slip.

Just when he looked set for a double hundred Latham swept Shakib, but missed and was plumb lbw, barely waiting for the umpire’s decision. Since both Dempster and Mills scored centuries in the first Basin test in 1930 (both dismissed by Kent’s Frank Woolley, who took seven for 76 at the age of 42), only John Wright among New Zealand openers had scored a century before Latham, which shows what trouble the position has been for us in these parts over the years.

BJ Watling had reached 49 in his usual unobtrusive way when occasional off spinner Mahmudullah was thrown the ball, which he immediately propelled some way down the legside. Watling, seeing an easy path to fifty, hurled the bat at the ball, which was collected by Imrul Kayes, standing in with the gloves for Mushfiqur Rahman. Imrul became very excited, which everybody thought was because he had made a decent legside take (for once). However, the DRS revealed that Watling had got a pretty solid touch and that Imrul had taken a catch that would have been remarkable even if he had been looking at the ball, which he wasn’t.

Mahmudullah wasn’t done. Three balls later Southee missed a straight one to be lbw. It is to be hoped that the young off spinner Mehedi (35 wicketless overs for 111 at this point) is the contemplative sort who can find it within to rue the fickleness of cricket and move on.

Mitch Santner made a career-best 73, but, as with Nicholls, it was not convincing. Against tired bowlers he struggled against the short ball, something that will have been noted by Kagiso Rabada among others.

An innings from Wagner that was a mixture of percussion and concussion, and that was that. New Zealand reached 539, a deficit of 56. The radio commentators took the view that Williamson should have declared at least 50 runs earlier as the best way of achieving a result. Of course, events vindicated Williamson’s approach completely, but I thought at the time that Bryan Waddle & co were mistaken, as they seemed to believe that Bangladesh would want to push for a victory. But the fact that they went defensive quite early on in the New Zealand innings showed both that they were aware of their own limitations and that after two years without overseas tests, a draw would be as good as a win for them.

Bangladesh’s sterling performance with the bat, and perseverance with the ball had made people forget how inexperienced they are; I haven’t checked, but some of the team may not have played on the fifth day before, and any attack that bowls 148 overs in the first innings will be tired in the second. These factors, along with a couple of hefty side servings of misfortune, meant that New Zealand had the keys to the safe when the Bangladeshis began their second innings with 90 minutes to go on the fourth afternoon.

For the second time in the game, Southee’s attempt to throw down the stumps in the follow through hit the batsman, despite the fact that he was located some distance from the target. Imrul Kayes responded perfectly by depositing Southee in the cheap seats later in the over.

After an hour all was fine, Imrul and Tamim were going well and thought drifted to which book to bring on the last day. Suddenly, Tamim pushed one to point and called Imrul for a single, a tough ask for someone who had just finished 148 overs of unexpected wicketkeeping. Imrul hurled himself at the crease, making the run, but hurt his leg in the process. He left the field on a stretcher, the first time I can recall seeing this (the second occurred the next day). Basin stalwarts recall Syd Lawrence exiting in this manner when he split his kneecap in 1992.

The incident disturbed Bangladesh’s equilibrium: Tamim was bowled by Santner and Mahmudullah was caught behind off Wagner. Then in the last over of the day some comedy running combined with a direct hit by Santner to remove nightwatchman Mehedi.

With three (possibly effectively four) down and the lead 122 a New Zealand win was on the cards, not that you could have discerned this from the local cricketing public, who years of shredded hopes has left with a demeanour compared to which Eeyore is a cock-eyed optimist.

Shakib strode to the crease like a concert pianist who, having knocked out some Beethoven to critical acclaim one night feels able to deal to Tchaikovsky next evening without rehearsal or practice in the interim. He tried to get off the mark by belting Santner over mid on, only to be  caught there by Williamson.

Mominul Haque was caught in the gully, but then Mushfiqur (still suffering from the hand injury that had prevented him keeping wicket) and Sabbir steadied things. In doing so they focused on time rather than runs. They batted together for 15 overs (both were dropped once), but scored only 18 runs. If the scoreboard doesn’t move much that can cancel out the time side of the match-saving equation.

The ball that caused the entry of the ambulance was not that short; Mushfiqur ducked into it and it hit him on the back of the helmet. It was a worrying few moments with the Phil Hughes tragedy so fresh in our minds, but the medical reaction was precautionary as much as anything and Mishfiqur returned to the ground by the end of the day. It was, however, the breakthrough that New Zealand were starting to get a little restless for.

Taskin was dropped at short leg by Latham—New Zealand’s catching has been poor—but bowled next ball by Boult. At lunch Bangladesh were 193 ahead with three to come, including the hobbling Imrul.

After lunch we had one of those periods that I find more irritating than anything else about modern cricket, and which makes me channel my inner Fred Trueman. For Sabbir—a No 7 batsman in the 40s playing his first overseas test—the field was set right back to give away a single so that the attack could bowl at Kamrul. I can’t understand why, when you want just three wickets to effectively win the match, you give up trying to get one of the batsmen out.

Kamrul was out (without getting on strike with a gifted single), then Sabbir defeated the strategy with a plan of Baldrickian cunningness: with no slips he contrived to be caught at the wicket by flailing at a short one.

Imrul Kayes returned, and unbelievably the single-gifting strategy continued, even though Imrul was clearly incapable of running a single; the desired outcome of the plan would be achieved only if two fielders had picked Imrul up and carried him to the other end. Runners are not allowed. I miss runners for the anarchy they so often introduced to proceedings.

Some boundaries from Imrul and the innings was over, leaving a target of 217 from 51 overs.

Mehedi located fresh reserves of pessimism among the locals by removing both openers, the young spinner’s first overseas wickets and well-deserved. This brought Taylor and Williamson together, which had the soothing effect of a deep massage on the spectators. Entry was free so Wellingtonians converged on the Basin from all over the CBD. The ground was fuller at the end of the game than at any other time.

Taylor was at his quick-handed best, swiftly onto anything fractionally short and unsettling all the faster bowlers, playing on their inexperience. His 60 came in just 75 balls. The third-wicket partnership was worth 163 and took just 25 overs.

Williamson batted like a God. Time after time, what seemed like a push into a gap for a single sped to the boundary, so perfect was the timing. Three fours in three balls off Taskin just before tea were sublime. His fifty came up in 43 balls, his hundred in 89, one of the fastest ever seen in the fourth innings of a test.

Had New Zealand won by an innings in three days (as we expected) this game would have swiftly disappeared from the memory. Because New Zealand were outplayed by Bangladesh in the first innings, a narrower victory was more of an achievement, Williamson’s magnificence on the last afternoon finishing it off perfectly.

Bangladesh made us forget how inexperienced they are, or that this was their first away test in more than two years, which is a scandal. There has to be a plan for Bangladesh to have at least five home and five away tests a year. India, England and Australia all need to step up here. There is obvious talent and potential here and world cricket must not let it go to waste. What is the point of (I hate this term) growing the game when an existing test country is given so little support? All talk of Ireland (or anybody else) being given test status is hopeless unless a coherent programme of guaranteed fixtures for ten years can be worked out first.

It was a pleasure to be at the Basin for this test match. The pohutukawas were out, there were surprises, records, ambulances and some brilliant, spirited cricket played with modesty and good humour. A great start to the year.

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