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Maybe, as Haseeb Hameed suggests, there really is an element of “fate” in his selection for his Test debut?
In an ideal world, he may have gained some experience at this level in Bangladesh. And, in an ideal world, he might have graduated through a Lions tour and another season of county cricket before facing the No.1-ranked Test side and the No.1-ranked Test bowler in conditions in which he has limited experience. A year ago, after all, he had never made a first-class century. Gareth Batty, his England team-mate, made his first-class debut in 1997, the year Hameed was born.
But, as he looks forward to make his Test debut in Gujarat, the state in which his family have their roots and where, last weekend, his brother, Numan, was married, it is hard to avoid the conclusion he would have it no other way. He will have family here to support him – he had family in Bangladesh to support him when all he was doing was running drinks on to the field – and he will be playing both with and against his heroes. He gleams with joy at the thought.
Hameed will become Alastair Cook’s tenth opening partner since the retirement of Andrew Strauss at the end of the 2012 English season when he walks out to bat in the first Test of the series against India this week in Rajkot. It is a statistic that reflects, by and large, a catalogue of failure. In the end, the England management have decided they should not reward success in county cricket so much as pick a talent out of it and mould them in the manner they require.
We need not look far for examples of such selections bearing fruit. Cook was only 21 when he made his Test debut. Joe Root, too. James Anderson and Steven Finn were both 20. The idea that England are more reluctant than other sides to blood young players is based partially in myth and partially in some suspect birth certificates.
Hameed has, therefore, been picked with a long-term view. If all goes well, England hope his career will follow a similar pattern to Cook’s. It would be unreasonable to expect so much of him at this stage, but the fact that he will be the youngest man to debut for England as an opening batsman and the fifth-youngest of all time does underline the belief held in him. He hasn’t been picked just on potential; he has been picked because they believe he is the best man for the job right now.
Perhaps it underlines England’s desperation, too? It’s not as if they haven’t tried almost everyone else. Hameed’s county coach, Ashley Giles, had suggested that, in an ideal world, a Lions tour might come before a Test debut. But these are not ideal times. And so taken was Andy Flower – not officially a selector, but a hugely influential figure in English cricket – with Hameed that he has been fast-tracked.
How much Trevor Bayliss had seen of him before the tour remains unclear. He had been sent footage during the season, but it is quite possible that the Rajkot Test will represent the first time he has seen him bat in a first-class match.
At first glance, it may seem a slightly contradictory selection. Bayliss, has previously spoken of his desire for dynamic players at the top of the order and Hameed is a player in a more old-fashioned mould. It is not accurate to refer to him as a blocker, though. While he is most unlikely to demonstrate the reverse-sweeps we saw from Ben Duckett in Dhaka, Hameed is an unusually elegant player with a wide range of strokes. He will build his innings, certainly, but he will put away the loose ball too.
He has two other key assets. A temperament described as “unflappable” by Cook and some experience of these conditions gained when his father, Ismail – a huge cricket lover who has clearly played a huge part in his son’s development – arranged for him to spend time playing in Mumbai as a 13-year old. There he worked with the coach, Vidya Paradkar, and spent a couple of months playing on the city’s maidans and learning to combat spin.
He returned ahead of the England Under-19 visit to Sri Lanka, spending a month developing his game, learning to use the crease and adding options to his game to ensure he wouldn’t be tied down by spin bowling. It may take him a while to adjust – this is a huge jump in quality – but he should be able to rotate the strike better than many.
“One of the qualities you can say has been instilled in me is to not get too high or too low,” Hameed says now. “Cricket is a very up-and-down game. You can be on top of the world one minute and come down quite quickly, so it’s important to stay level-headed and take things in the short term, day by day, ball by ball, as it comes.
“I have been to India a couple of times on my own. I have trained a bit in Mumbai, where I was fortunate that a coach, Vidya Paradkar, helped me get used to conditions.
“Spin plays a massive role here, but it’s not just spin, there is more reverse swing than back home in England, I guess the more time you spend out here playing and batting and get used to it, you learn things about yourself and what the ball will do. I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to come out here before and it’s helped me get used to it.”
He recalls watching the 2012 series on TV and marvelling at Cook’s prolific form – he recorded centuries in the first three Tests of the series – and Kevin Pietersen’s remarkable innings in Mumbai. But Sachin Tendulkar, who posed for a photo with a seven-year-old Hameed in Mumbai, and Virat Kohli, whom he has never met, were every bit as much his heroes.
“That is one of the amazing things,” he says, “but I try not to think about it too much and take it in my stride. There are guys on both sides I can watch and learn from. I have to do a job as well, but it’s important to pick up things as I’m young and starting my Test career. It would be amazing to speak to a guy like Virat.
“I guess a lot of things are meant to be. The fact that it is against India in the home state of my parents – they are from a small village near Bharuch and my dad’s village is called Umraj – the way it has fallen in to place is amazing. My brother has just had his wedding in Gujarat. I see it as fate.”
There is another lesson from that 2012 series that may be relevant.
“I remember England were underdogs and India were favourites, but England pulled off a remarkable victory,” Hameed says. “We can take confidence: likewise, we are underdogs here and coming to India is the biggest challenge in cricket.
“But we’ve prepared well and it’s time to crack on now. I see it as an exciting challenge. It’s nothing to be afraid of. I’m 19, coming up against the best bowler in the world and the best team in the world. It will be a great experience and I’m sure at the end of the tour I’ll be a better player.”
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
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