28th March 2020. It’s meant to be the eve of this year’ IPL and the reality has hit home. The streets of Mumbai should be teeming with life, jubilant Indians searching for the nearest net, a chance to emulate their heroes and worship the greats. If cricket is the religion here, then Kohli, Tendulkar and Dhoni are the Gods. Yes, this is India’s prime time, a tournament intertwined with Bollywood stars, and billion-dollar celebrities. Succeed, and global recognition awaits. Instead, cameras pan around a bare, despondent landscape fully feeling the effects of this global pandemic. We are living in a period of what-ifs, where the truth is toxic and the reality is deadly.
Wouldn’t twitter love to be arguing about Dhoni running onto the pitch for the second year running, not watching Ian Bell play cover-drives with toilet rolls. How good would it be to actually look forward to the upcoming hundred (remember that?) not binge-watching David Warner’s 335 at the Adelaide Oval, or Marnus’s 215 in Sydney?
The Cricket Mentoring team watch on as MS Dhoni trains for the Chennai Super Kings in the 2019 IPL
Let’s face it, we’ve all got too much time at the moment, so why not get the cricket photo album out and reflect on cricket’s great turnaround, that so few saw coming. The first arose in the wake of the Cape Town scandal. Barely hard to envisage, Australia’s golden boy is here escorted from the Airport, handled like a criminal. Not Steve Smith, the Australia’s Test captain and player of the series in the last ashes. The look on the New-South-Welshmen told the story of the game at the time. Nothing spoken, everything said. In a period of, who could we point the finger at, something needed to change. Tim Paine and Justin Langer are left in charge of an exhausted side after the unfolding of events had seen the captain and vice banned for 12 months. More importantly than that, the good Australian culture had disappeared. The hard but fair lads had become hard and unfair.
Flick a few pages forward and find the twin-tons at Edgbaston, sandpaper in the background to the Hollies and boos the soundtrack of Birmingham. But with every glance through square leg, exquisite on-drive or audacious upper-cut, the English public showed regard for what they were seeing – a batsman at the peak of his game. They jeered him at Edgbaston, booed him at Lord’s. They rose to him at the Oval. With London draped in Autumnal sunshine, and a full house at the Oval, redemption was complete.
Articles are still being published about the World Cup, books still written about the pinnacle of one-day cricket. The 2019 competition was the greatest in memory, full of breathtaking battles, with champions England clinching the trophy by “the barest of margins”. The scenes were unimaginable, sounds of “who let the dogs out” echoing off the Pavillion, where the rapturous MCC members are celebrating like schoolchildren let out for the summer term. In the foreground, hero Ben Stokes could be seen crawling around on the ground somewhere, while Joe Root and fellow Yorkshireman Jonny Bairstow showed the emotion of a sensational 4-year turnaround.
Jos Buttler had barely broken the stumps and the old enemy arrived, with a potent mix of experienced campaigners and dashing young blood. Led by Tim Paine and with a banned trio of Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft returning, the feel-good factor was present but fortress Edgbaston would be waiting and the visitor’s good guy approach since Cape Town would here be put under more scrutiny than ever. Stick together lads, welcome to England.
Ricky Ponting coaches Steve Smith on the eve of the World Cup clash against England
So when did people sit up and take notice of Marnus Labuschagne? Was it those five tons in ten games for Glamorgan? Or the gritty 41 out of a team total of 105 in an Ashes warm-up? Perhaps it was the constant examination of Steve Smith’s mannerisms, the extra hour’s shadow batting with his idle in the dressing rooms. Most would say though that it all came to light in the second Test, where, after replacing Steve Smith and becoming the first concussion substitute ever, he was struck flush on the grill by debutant Archer but quickly bounced back up. Most at the ground that day won’t have even known the name Labuschagne, let alone given him a chance of saving the Test match. Displaying the same levels of energy that he has managed to associate himself with in his two year period wearing the baggy green, he marched on with such defiance that wore England into the ground that Test. He sweeps well and runs frantically, a kid in a hurry to make his mark on the biggest stage. Finishing with 59, he set himself up for one of the great summers in Australian cricket later that year climbing to third in the Test batting rankings. The lad who has been busy running the drinks had been thrown in under the highest pressure and passed with flying colours.
Instrumental in a historic Ashes win, the pace bowling attack consistently resisted the temptation to bowl too full where their opponents would sometimes go searching. We didn’t even catch a glimpse of Starc’s inswinging yorker until Old Trafford, with the sensational duo of Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood never straying from the top of off. Take that ball to Joe Root, late on the fourth day in Manchester, the toppest of off, the perfect snapshot of the brilliance of the man, currently number one in the world.
Should I talk about Headingley? Allow me a paragraph, I’ll keep it brief. Go on, search deep into Youtube and you’ll find highlights of that knock, the one Geoffrey Boycott labelled as the best ever. Throughout that third evening , skipper Root had battled hard to take England to a respectable total and it was hard to imagine the bloke with 2 off 50 balls would eventually guide England home. No longer will we have to keep referring back to Botham, there’s a new star on the block. The bad boy of cricket with a canny knack of rewriting the script where no else can had done it once more. Being in the zone is a phrase used by writers across the world, but what does it actually mean? Here Stokes provided the answer, where no-one can stop you and the time is right for you to write your name among great cricketing folklore. At least we can put the 81 tape away now, Headingley 19 sounds great, no?
After a memorable winter and with two exciting sides ready to lock horns now more than ever was the time the rest of the batting lineup needed to stand up. A Stuart Broad free summer lay ahead and Warner took full advantage. On an idyllic summer night in Adelaide, the old bad boy of cricket brought up 300 with the signature jump then bow. After all the noise surrounding Steve Smith, Warner went away during his ban and re-invented himself into a more respected bloke. The shift became obvious here-if anything this was calculated accumulation, not the brash, free-scoring cricket he had become so known for. A year that started with Warner still banned from the game ended with him commentating on the family friendly big bash.
With two exciting sides in Pakistan and New Zealand, the summer posed two different challenges and it was here that the batting line-up came into its own. Warner’s smart running and Labuschagne’s willingness to bat for days, along with a hint of the quirks and flicks of Smith, provided a potent mix for big first-innings runs.
Once more the Big Bash’s colour saw huge crowds flock to stadiums across the country for a glimpse of the talent that was on show. Josh Phillipe got the Sixers campaign off and running in the opening game (you know the clip we’ve all seen loads where he hits Richardson out the SCG) and was set up for a huge winter with Australia before the virus came along. The bowling attacks were clinical and, where given the chance, the top-order batters cashed in, especially towards the latter part of the tournament.
Cricket Mentoring ambassador Josh Philippe brings up his 50 for the Sydney Sixers in BBL09
Then came one of the most memorable yet crazy weeks of cricket as Australian’s women won the World T20 world cup. In front of 86,000. At the MCG. Five days later, shots emerge of Lockie Ferguson and Trent Boult looking for a ball that Aaron Finch has just hit into the stands. There are no crowds here. In fact, we were lucky to get a game. The next morning the rest of that series is called off, and the IPL, England’s tour of Sri Lanka and the County Championship are all put back. Right now though, sport isn’t the most important thing.
So instead of reflecting on what might have been, take time and reflect on cricket’s great turnaround. We could be sitting here having never witnessed the genius of Steve Smith again, or the booming voice of Warner calling his partner through for a run. Ben Stokes may never have recovered from his Bristol brawl and no-one would ever known about Headingley. So yes, it would have been nice to be watching Cummins, Smith and Stokes and all the rest in the IPL, but does it really matter? So the camera does pan round the bare Mumbai – but it could be worse. Get used to it, this could be a while. There’s a lot of time for shadow batting Smithy.