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England v India

Haseeb Hameed, the boy who had the lot and almost blew it, is back for his third act

haseeb hameed
Phil Walker by Phil Walker 5 minute read

Haseeb Hameed, the prodigy who had it all and nearly lost the lot is back for the third act. Phil Walker, who first interviewed Hameed in 2016, considers his extraordinary rise and fall, and why he’s needed now more than ever. First published in issue 47 of Wisden Cricket Monthly.

While only a few make it to the top, even fewer truly expect to. What’s more, for a fair few of those very few, there’s an impermanence to their arrival at the summit, propelled as they are by some sudden surge of form and fortune that can’t and won’t last. None of which applied to Haseeb Hameed in 2016.

He was 19 but already so good, so prodigiously famous, that the name itself was enough. “A Lancs legend”, says his teammate Saqib Mahmood, even before the scholarship boy had slipped out of Bolton School.

Everybody knew. Bearded stalwarts spoke in hushed deference. In Hameed’s eighth first-class match, Graham Onions told him after an hour of fruitless endeavour that the most he most he could hope for was to get him to remove his batting sweater. In the Roses game at Old Trafford, Tim Bresnan tried to rough him up, and finished clapping him all the way to the pavilion after his second hundred in the match. Tino Best was cuffed away for trying to knock his head off with a leg-theory field. On a turner at Manchester, Jeetan Patel, county cricket’s best spinner at the time, basically gave up after 38 overs.

That summer, his first full season, Hameed made four hundreds and 1,200 runs. As much as cricket disdains a sure bet, he was as near as you could find to one.

I first interviewed him at the end of that summer. He was funny and unpolished with a blade-sharp recall of the minutiae of a match, shot through with the confidence of a boy who knew in his bones that he was special and had been told as much from the earliest days. Like most watchers, I’d already seen him on the telly, making a string of immaculately grooved knocks for England under 19s against South Africa. “Simply a batting machine,” recalls Mark Butcher, who’d been commentating at the time.

Much like a golfer or a boxer swelled by their entourage, Hameed tended to refer to himself in the plural (as in “We have worked hard to get here”); a nod to the one-man support system known to the Bolton cricket community as Ismail, the father, a semi-pro club player who emigrated from India and passed his obsession onto his three sons, his youngest recalling an early memory of Ismail throwing balls at him in the living room of their Bolton terrace and the boy punching them back along the carpet with a mini bat “which I’ve still got to this day”. He duly dedicated his first Championship hundred to the man who “probably sacrificed his whole life for moments like this”.
Ismail was there by his side at Rajkot for his Test debut, listening in to Kohli announce the arrival of a great new talent after Hameed’s assured 82 in the second innings. And he would appear in the story again.

It’s necessary to ground all this, to illustrate the steepness of the fall. The causes of the what happened-next remain shrouded to this day, for here was a tale turned so cautionary that few dared ask how Hameed could go from all of this, with all those garlands tossed his way from all those deities, and the wise old English folk brought to their knees… to two years later averaging 9.44 across a whole season.

In the deathly quiet after his 2018 collapse (18 innings, highest score 31), WCM spoke to Paul Allott, his director of cricket at Lancashire. “Not only is he a million miles away from England,” Allott said, in a quote which was widely interpreted as proof of frayed relations between Team Hameed and the club, “but he’s hanging on by his fingertips at Lancashire.” He added bluntly (though not unreasonably, given the numbers) that he’d probably been given more opportunities in 2018 than he deserved, before attaching the corollary that he’d not seen a more talented young opening batsman in his 40 years in the game.

Post 2016, across three campaigns and 35 first-class matches, he’d managed six fifties, a solitary hundred and 28 single-figure scores. He averaged 18.3 against pace. It became a running joke in the game that it was impossible to tell if he’d lost it because he’d have nicked off before anyone had time to judge. In that time, the average top-six batter in England was getting out caught behind about 23 per cent of the time. For Hameed, it was 34 per cent.

It was done. Within a year, Hameed had left the club. It was the only move left. Rumour and counter-rumour swirled around those final months. Accusations were levelled at his father of the kind that tend to circulate around prominent patriarchs from ethnic backgrounds who are integral to their child’s development. Whatever happened behind the scenes, Haseeb Hameed’s game had fallen off a cliff, and with it went his love for the only thing he’d ever really known.

We know all about the vagaries of form. How a kind of paralysis takes hold and overloads the brain. We’ve all seen it take hold of good players, denuding them of swagger until, one day, it just returns. But this was something else. Rarely if ever in British sport, let alone this corner of it, can a youthful prodigy have fallen so far, so emphatically, and in such agonising slow motion, and for so long.

Nottingham offered a haven and space after his move. The clean-cut early version was supplanted by the post-struggle survivalist – the hair less kempt, the beard a testament – with a technique, following various tinkering and iterations, that looks like a more fluid thing: less rigid in its tramlines, more nimble in those pre-release nanoseconds, now moving into the ball from his still beautifully unweighted middle-and-leg stance. He made a few runs in the 2019 season, and head coach Peter Moores spoke of Hameed’s journey back to some kind of love for the game. Pleased by their latest restoration of a stray lost talent, Notts gave him the 50-overs armband and the club’s vice-captaincy ahead of this season.

“He’s really grown his game,” Moores continued in late April, after Hameed’s maiden hundreds for the club, a brace of tons against Worcestershire. “He’d got to a place where he was [just] surviving as a player: trying not to get out and block the new ball, but he’s now someone who is a lovely player to watch with a lovely flow to him.”

A week after those comments, I saw him make an immaculate 49 on a cabbage patch against the reigning champions Essex. It was batting on a different plane.

We all knew what was coming. The calls to keep him under wraps and just let him play were loud and persuasive and reinforced by the numbers: a good month, after all, could barely begin to overwrite the horrors of the last few years, and of course it remains the case that he has made just four first-class centuries in five years. But then there was this other side, this side that says nothing about Hameed’s story is normal. The side that says his ascent was as prodigious as his fall, and thus must be viewed somewhere outside the rational. That his style, Dravid-like in its expressive correctitude, sits beyond the humdrum expectations of the modern beefcake. That his talent is not like that of the others, and should be considered in some kind of isolation.

This was presumably the thinking of Chris Silverwood when it came to reinforcing the squad for the Edgbaston Test in June. Called up as cover, there was never a serious chance that Hameed would play. But just seeing him there, ambling around the nets, talking in depth to Kane Williamson on the outfield post-match, was enough. A few weeks later, he strummed a superb hundred for a county select XI against India, and then a 91-ball ton – his first in the format – for Notts in the One-Day Cup. There was no point denying it any longer. The third act was on.

With Hameed named in the Test squad for the first two matches of the India series, it will be known by the time you read this which way England have gone. Do they dare turn to him again, knowing how brittle this still feels, and with that record against pace, and with the blitzes to come? It’s a tough call, made tougher by a masochistic calendar in which their Test players will barely have hit a red ball in weeks.

The percentage call will be to persist with the top three that traipsed away from Edgbaston. Rory Burns, dropped last winter but back with scores of 132 and 81 against New Zealand, will definitely start. Dominic Sibley’s royal guardsman act may still count for more than the 13 single-figure scores he’d made in 14 Tests before this series. And surely Zak Crawley’s horror run (123 runs in 12 knocks) will come to an end sooner or later, though one can’t shake the feeling of having heard that one before. One has to squint, however, to see this top order repelling a great seam attack for five Tests in a row, and that’s before we even consider what lurks over the hill this winter.

The energy then is for Hameed. Even now (especially now), he occupies a seductive place in the English cricketing psyche, as the child-genius of first-gen immigrants, giving life to the agnostic’s search for lines of beauty in a game turned coarse; as the maestro who left his baton on the tube; as the boy who had the lot and almost blew it.

He is at once all of these things, and yet at the same time something else. It wasn’t just about the sporting pain of seeing a brilliant kid lose their way. For Haseeb Hameed, and perhaps he knew this too well, offered us a glimpse at a future vision of cricket where the old orthodoxies would not be obsolete after all. He is the resistance. And if you’re in any doubt, just spend a few hours watching him bat, moving and swaying to the rhythms of the red.

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