It’s very tempting when writing about Haseeb Hameed to talk about the fall and rise.
A young hope, his light nearly snuffed out by injuries and a near-total cessation of runs, is cast out by his native county. He grows a beard, grows his hair, grows to love cricket again under more sympathetic stewardship at a club also searching for its soul after barren years. The runs come back, so too the wins, and he returns to the international fold like the prodigal son. Get some quotes, pad it out with some adverbs, bingo, 600 words of pure molten narrative. But this is not that piece.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I like narrative. I’m a commentator, how can I not?
Narrative is integral to the understanding and enjoyment of sport, perhaps no sport more than cricket where even the shortest format behooves you to spend three to four hours in its protagonists’ company.
Expand that to multiple blocks of four or five days, and, if you have a curious bone in your body, the story-making potential slaps you in the face. Narrative helps to frame on- and off-field events that individually can seem disconnected, inconsequential, or inexplicable. It’s what turns a person hurling a leather orb at another person wearing foam armour and wielding an expensive stick into something utterly captivating, something you will gleefully get up at 3am to talk about.
Narrative tells sport why it matters, and how much it matters – not too much, but always enough. “The most important of the least important things,” the great AC Milan manager Arrigo Sacchi called it, and without narrative we can’t understand either half of that beautifully simple truth. But narrative can also blind. They can turn events into inevitabilities, and people into units of drama.
The prodigal son, the reborn golden child, the chosen one – when we focus too much on these tropes, we forget that Hameed is not following a pre-set track, but is doing things with his bat and with his mind. He went to India to study batting against spin when he was a schoolboy. He kept fighting for runs when they would not come at Lancashire, when his director of cricket was criticising him in public.
He made the active choice to go to Nottinghamshire, to work with Peter Moores who, for all his failings as England head coach, is one of the best in the world at helping batters find their confidence again. He did the work to clear away the clutter and strip his game back to its component parts – judgement of line, belief in his method and, above all, scoring runs rather than survival for survival’s sake.
These things did not happen to him, did not arise as emergent properties of his character arc – he, a human being who is very skilled at his profession, did them. The reason sporting narratives are so compelling is that, unlike those on stage or screen, there is no script. Unlike those in books, you can’t skip to the end, because it has not been written. You can arm yourself with all of the numerical, experiential and observations tools at your disposal, use them entirely correctly and proportionately and still be wrong.
Haseeb Hameed is back in the England Test squad because, when a beautiful man called Ben slipped in his socks on a dressing room floor and England’s top-order backup had to take the gloves, there was a space for an opener and he had been scoring runs. The rise and fall is the cleaner narrative – but it’s the mess that makes sport great.