On a day ruled by two men who started the series out of the team, Ben Jones reflects on the joy of the cricketing comeback.
“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”.
Neither Moeen Ali or Cheteshwar Pujara were selected for the first Test of this series. At the time, you’d have found more voices bemoaning the absence of the Indian No.3 than the England all-rounder, but today the idea that either man wouldn’t be an absolute lock in their respective line-ups seem rather silly. They have returned to impact the series beyond all expectations.
For Moeen, the return has taken more time, but as a result feels all the more earned. After being dropped from the side in New Zealand, he did what he was supposed to do. After a few attacking innings for Royal Challengers Bangalore, to blow out a few cobwebs, he returned to County Cricket and proceeded to play his way back into the side. Averages of 85.33 with the bat and 16.18 with the ball were exactly what Ed Smith et al wanted to see.
Equally, as well as churning out runs and wickets for Worcestershire, Moeen spent that time making a few technical tweaks. Today at Southampton, he bowled slower than he has in 11 of his last 12 innings. He’s imparting far more spin on the ball, more than 4.5° today; the last time he turned the ball as much in the first innings of a Test match was on his last tour of India. He’s never turned it more in the first innings of a home Test match.
21% of Moeen’s deliveries were hitting the stumps, compared to 28% in his career to date. He’s bowled a wider, more attacking line to the right-hander, targeting the edge more than the stumps; more deliveries than not to the right-hander (53%) were in the channel outside off, up on Moeen’s career average of 47%. He has returned to the Test side a different bowler. Only slightly different, but enough to remedy the issues which saw him depart it.
This is testament to the selectors decision to both remove him from the side, and then return him. In the case of Moeen, a good dropping was exactly what he needed. He looked completely shot at the end of the Ashes; the 7% false shots he found as a bowler across the series, was his worst ever in a contests where he played more than once. He wasn’t threatening, and he wasn’t scoring runs, and arguably the only mistake the selectors made was to drop him as late as they did.
In different ways, Moeen and Pujara are both defined by being a bit different from the rest of their team. You need only to glance at the ECB’s “No Boundaries” advertising campaign, resplendent next to Moeen’s bearded face, to see how the powers that be recognise this. With Vijay out of the side, Pujara is the only member of the Indian side who you wouldn’t really want in the modern cricketing behemoth that is the IPL. Both go against the grain.
Indeed, today felt like an emphatic statement of that difference from Pujara. The enraged teacher in the film ‘Whiplash’ watches the young protegee drummer, going through his rhythmic practices. When he rushes, he screams to let him know, and the same when he’s dragging. The session ends, frustrated, with a cry of “Not quite my tempo”. Whilst the mild-mannered Pujara is hardly one to rant and rage, you can imagine that at times this series hell have felt like the game has been going along far, far too quickly for him. In no way has this series been going at Pujara’s tempo.
Today was something of an offering to the Gods of Traditional Test Cricket. Pujara’s innings was dogged, controlled, coming from a place deep within the Indian. It was the longest innings of the series, from anyone on either side.
Of course, Pujara went through the gears when he needed to. His attacking shot percentage before Ishant Sharma was dismissed was 18% – after then, it was 56%. He has the ability to, when the situation requires it. But it’s on his terms. When Pujara attacks, he does it prudently – as evidenced by his remarkable record compared to his teammates.
Pujara has often been treated rather poorly by the Indian selectors. Indeed, his return at Lord’s was the fifth time he’s had to make a return to the Test team, the fifth time he’s been dropped from the side. Yet unlike Moeen, Pujara has remained loyal to the method which brought him success. Before this series, Pujara averaged 20% attacking shots in Test cricket. This series, he’s recorded 17%. He’s returned to the side the same player, a little more cautious in tough conditions, but the essentially the same batsman. Good job.
Indeed, this Test really has been one for the returning players. England’s first innings is the only time in Test history that two players have been recalled into the side, and contributed more than 50% of their team’s runs in the first innings. Allied with the key contributions of Moeen and Pujara today, it’s been a series for comebacks, for men returning to the side after periods away to work on their game, returning improved.
With that in mind, consider Keaton Jennings. His dismissal in the first innings was indicative of a scrambled mind, of a batsman who needs some time away from the white hot heat of international cricket. It needn’t be terminal – England’s treatment of James Vince shows they’re willing to forgive – but at times holding a batsman closer to the fire for too long leaves them well and truly cooked. Unless he makes a substantial contribution in the second, he shouldn’t play at the Oval. It could be the making of him.
Because today, the power of being dropped was all too clear. These were improved players, performing at their peak. As always with these things, some strokes of luck were required. Moeen’s false shot percentage as a bowler is the lowest of anyone in this series. The chances he created were gilt-edged ones, but he didn’t create that many. Pujara has only once played more false shots in a Test innings. Not that anyone will care, and nor should they. Because these two have overcome significant odds in getting back into the side, returning from the hardest place a sportsperson can find themselves – not in the game.
Of course, the nature of Test cricket these days is that it is more of a squad game. Players will, over the coming years, no doubt be more accustomed to being ‘rotated’ rather than dropped, and the stigma of being dropped will fade away from the game. But with that, the sharp intensity of the comeback will be softened, some of its ardour removed. With that in mind, today was a celebration of the joy inherent in comebacks, a hopeful beacon to any and all out of the side, any side. And that can only be a wonderful thing.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.