Against the Grain

With the cricket season almost two months into the future and amid a vicious, bitter cold snap the prospect of a fascinating summer flashed before one’s eyes six days into February. During a lazy lunchtime peruse of Twitter news filtered through that Sussex had announced a marquee signing for the summer’s T20 Blast competition. The club already possessed the ever burgeoning services of pace bowler Jofra Archer but even the tall Barbadian is forced to take a back seat with regard to cricket’s most precocious young talent.

No team has made bigger strides in the last few years than the Afghan national team and leg-spin bowler Rashid Khan is arguably the team’s figurehead. Still a teenager, the Nagarhar native came to the attention of the cricketing world courtesy of a clutch of stunning performances in the blue of Afghanistan, leading to a globetrotting year playing in various T20 leagues. Somewhat bizarrely, county cricket was a little late to the table prior to Sussex signing Khan for the 2018 summer, although the vagaries of player qualification for associate nations may not have helped prior to Afghanistan being awarded full member status. Nevertheless, Khan’s stunning performances in the IPL, the Caribbean Premier League and the Big Bash had elevated him onto the highest echelon of cricket’s most fascinating performers. The opportunity to witness arguably the best spin bowler in the game proved particularly mouth-watering. Such excitement is understandable but in the modern era all the more acute. Time was when county cricket was awash with international stars but the demands of the international game has dictated a steady dilution of the quality on show. Thus, the arrival of a bona fide, world renowned name generated, and generates, plenty of excitement.

Said arrival would be more than enough to prove particularly mouth-watering but Rashid Khan wouldn’t be the only exciting young bowler on the billing for this T20 contest between neighbouring counties Hampshire and Sussex. Following the Afghan leg spinner on a similarly stratospheric ascendancy is the aforementioned Jofra Archer, wicket taking extraordinaire and superstar of the Big Bash and the IPL. Already a burgeoning star in the English domestic game, Archer’s brilliance in the T20 leagues have elevated him onto the same level as his new spinning team-mate. Those in the media are already talking about qualification periods and Archer playing for England, such are his obvious skills. Bowling alongside Rashid Khan really is a bona fide treat of the modern game. Throw in the similarly burgeoning talents of Khan’s fellow Afghan Mujeeb Ur Rahman and this particular edition of ‘El Clasicoast’ offers plenty for those who prefer a better balance between bat and ball.

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Ominous clouds over the Ageas Bowl

 

No matter the talent on show the threat of thunderstorms lingers in the build up to the contest, potentially curtailing the overs that could be bowled by the aforementioned players. Ominous dark grey cloud drifts close to the ground as the game starts but there is no initial delay and the sun breaks through as Hampshire are invited to bat first by Sharks skipper Luke Wright. Paceman Ollie Robinson opens the bowling whilst Jofra Archer bowls the first over from the pavilion end. His latent skills are very much blunted though as James Vince strikes three consecutive fours to dominate the early exchanges.

Vince is soon in imperious form, striking a flurry of powerplay boundaries off of the visiting pace bowlers. Archer switches ends and induces a miss-timed shot to curtail the Hampshire skipper’s innings but Colin Munro takes over from Vince as the hosts reach 59-1 at the conclusion of the powerplay.

Archer’s exploits around the world have afforded him a confidence that translates into a swagger with a fair dose of chutzpah. Both characteristics are somewhat endearing though, a young man confident in his abilities and comfortable with his place in the cricketing stratosphere. His approach to the crease is rather compact, arms almost wedded to his rib-cage as he approaches the popping crease but the action through the delivery phase exudes ease and minimum of movement, the right arm rising akin to a periscope before releasing the ball. One would not be surprised if batsmen were lulled into a false sense of security after watching a rather ambling approach. Most will only make such a mistake once.

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Archer prowls around the outfield

 

With Hampshire in the ascendancy Rashid Khan is introduced into the attack in the seventh over and a hush descends upon the crowd. At least in one’s imagination such a scenario occurs. Reality dictates that far too many have little idea about the identity of the diminutive Afghan with the thick mop of lustrous black hair and his beguiling abilities with the white ball in his hand whilst the crowd as a whole is sparse for such an attractive contest. Many of those in attendance are preoccupied with the de rigueur activities of a night at the T20 cricket: eating, drinking, trying to attract the attention of the roving cameraman and generally not really paying attention to the match itself. All of which is a little ironic as Khan is fast making his way in the cricketing world via the circuit of T20 leagues, the same circuit where plenty who watch his exploits aren’t really interested in his skills (many would likely rather see him clouted into the stands on a regular basis) or the story behind his meteoric rise.

No matter, there is a personal hush as Khan manoeuvres the field with a whirl of the arms and a succession of directions. In truth the fielders are almost superfluous; Khan has the ability to flummox and outfox the batsmen on show with his array of tricks. Perhaps some of the deception is in the run-up, a gangling affair with Khan’s arms looping out from his torso as he approaches the wicket followed by a skip through the crease. The completion of Khan’s action is more Paul Adams than Shane Warne, a whip of the arm with a brief dip of the head away from the wicket as the ball loops and fizzes through the air with menace.

The leg-spinner’s initial foray concedes just four singles but Wright elects to hold back his ace card until a little later in the innings. The hosts have stumbled to 86/1 after 10 overs and are soon hamstrung by ex-alumni Danny Briggs as the slow left-armer dismisses Sam Northeast, caught at long-off by Archer, and Rilee Rossouw three deliveries later as the Isle of Wight native wrestles centre stage from his illustrious team-mates.

He is soon joined by the returning Rashid Khan, in the twelfth over, but Briggs continues his ransacking of the Hampshire middle order, claiming another scalp in his next over whilst Khan proves particularly frugal as the spin twins hustle through eight overs for just 54 runs, Khan trapping Liam Dawson leg before wicket in the process as the hosts continue to labour, reaching just 130-5 with four overs remaining.

Archer returns to bowl a couple of death overs and concedes just three runs in the first, one delivery leaving Gareth Berg’s leg stump at forty-five degrees in the process. Lewis McManus is the Barbadian’s third wicket off of the penultimate delivery of the innings as Archer concedes just half a dozen runs from the final over, restricting the hosts in setting Sussex a modest target of just 159.

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Number one and who would disagree?

In response the Sharks begin circumspectly but accelerate during the latter half of the powerplay, prompting James Vince to introduce Mujeeb Ur Rehman for the final over of the first half a dozen. The teenage leg-spinner concedes seven runs from his first over before being switched to the hotel end from where he bowls tidily in tandem with Liam Dawson. Wickets are not forthcoming though and Sussex pair Luke Wright and Laurie Evans help their county to 83-1 at the halfway point of their allocation.
Wright records the first half century of the match in the 13th over and Evans clouts two straight sixes off of Dawson’s final over as the visitors begin to cruise toward their target. Wright is eventually caught at long-on, off of Gareth Berg, for a well judged innings of 68 but the dismissal proves little more than a footnote as the Sharks require less than a run a ball with four overs remaining, consecutive boundaries from Laurie Evans at the start of the penultimate over allowing Sussex to cross the finish line with ten deliveries to spare.

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Thursday night at the Bowl

 

Like it or loathe it, cricket is very much a game for those in possession of the bat. Ever since WG Grace curtly informed the opposition and umpires, upon being given out leg-before wicket in an exhibition match, that the crowd were here to see him bat, not them bowl, (or possibly umpire, depending on which version of the story one reads) cricket has arguably possessed a whiff of them and us, servants and masters, bourgeoisie and proletariat. Modern bats are thicker, boundaries regularly shorter, outfields quicker and pitches flatter, all developments in favour of those batting. Talk abounds of maintaining an even contest between bat and ball but reality dictates otherwise. Play a contest on a batting paradise and nobody cares a jot, play on an equivalent green top that yields wickets aplenty alongside low scores and all parties are glancing over their shoulders at the grim reaper that is the pitch inspector. The battle certainly isn’t fair, let alone even. Thus, when a team arrives with a performer or two that will challenge the status quo one cannot help but feel refreshed. Whatever the inherent delights of seeing the ball scudding through the ether and over the boundary rope with almost predictable regularity there is something satisfying about watching quality bowlers purveying their skills and asking questions of the batsmen that have dominated for so long. Perhaps it isn’t very T20 but it should be very cricket.

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