Test match thriller lacks the perfect ending but England hope for better with difficult second novel


Like a holiday pot-boiler you pick up in the resort and read through almost to the end only to discover the person who left it behind has inexplicably ripped out the final 30 pages, the hardy souls who optimistically made it down to Trent Bridge – and the millions following on various platforms elsewhere – found themselves, because of rain, denied the satisfying conclusion the first Test between England and India demanded.

But cricket so often does this – you could probably write a noir thriller yourself about Test matches which have left you hanging uncertainly from a cliff-edge, waiting for the enemy to come and step on your fingers and put you out of your misery.

Maybe the literary cricket gods just ran out of ideas – confused themselves by the twists and turns of fate over the last four days, the intriguing sub-plots – trapped in a kind of writer’s block.

After all, what other seam of storytelling was there to mine? Of three of the four heroes of the past few days, KL Rahul, who made the most of being a bit-part character, had been written out by Stuart Broad; while Joe Root, with a fifty and a century, had already done enough – unless, in a highly unlikely development, the pitch had developed a fetish for round-arm spin, a storyline almost as implausible as expecting Jasprit Bumrah, so admirable in taking his match tally to nine wickets, to repeat his first-innings batting pyrotechnics in a match going down to the wire.

More likely, the sword-twirling musketeer himself, Ravindra Jadeja, would have been called upon to have the last word – because, in this author’s opinion, while England would probably have picked up a few more wickets, India would have reached their 209-run target by shortly after tea and gone to Lord’s with a four- or five-wicket victory in the ledger.

So, let us forget about the missing pages and think forward to headquarters and what sort of story we can expect to unfold there in four days’ time.

From an England perspective first, there are bound to be some character assassinations. Zak Crawley made an excellent first impression with readers last year, but like many of his ilk who have promised so much only for their returns to diminish quickly, his popularity is on the wane.

Dom Sibley even underwent a metamorphosis, losing the best part of two stone to convince us he was the answer to England’s opening problems but, while he scrubs up better, his batting personality has not proved to be as well-rounded as the body he previously inhabited.

There are also question marks over the rogue-like figures of Dan Lawrence, Jonny Bairstow and Rory Burns, although the latter probably survives for his piratical pony-tail alone.

Troublingly, however, even a writer with the wildest imagination cannot conjure convincing characters into existence from little material. With publishers preferring to put out tacky short stories over more challenging literature right now, and the big bookshops happy to put them in the window, that seems unlikely to change any time soon.

So do not expect any changes in the batting apart from, if he is passed fit, Ollie Pope for Lawrence and Haseeb Hameed for Crawley.

Hameed got rave reviews for his first blockbuster, published to great acclaim in India in particular in 2016, but success has since proved elusive, truly the stuff of the difficult second novel. He has begun to hint at a return to form – shaggier haircut, increased responsibility at Nottinghamshire and a Royal London One-Day Cup century to boot – but throw him in now and failure would consign the multi-book deal to history.

No such worries over the bowlers: ageing heart-throb Jimmy Anderson is still the best swinger in town and if his sidekick Stuart Broad was not convincing at Trent Bridge, he does not like to be overshadowed for too long; the edgy Sam Curran is so able to alter the narrative – in cricket parlance “make things happen” – that he deserves another chance, while Ollie Robinson, now that has learnt not to scribble down the first thing that comes into his head, is drawing admiring glances. Expect only Mark Wood for Broad, if England decide to rest one of the premier seamers, and maybe Jack Leach, the forgotten hero, to bring some variety to the tale – or tail.

Things should be more straightforward for the tourists. They will look at a storied middle order and know that it didn’t do itself justice in Nottingham, but of potential replacements, two of four are still on Covid-watch and, like another with concussion worries and the spare uncapped alternative, are happiest opening anyway.

Ravi Ashwin is unlikely to displace the swashbuckling Jadeja as sole spinner – he has only played one Test at Lord’s and took no wickets – and while he is the unluckiest character in the Indian manuscript with volumes of five-wicket performances to his name, India treasure the left-hander’s batting, not to mention what he brings in the field.

In the 2014 prequel at the home of cricket, Ishant Sharma wrote himself into the Indian fast-bowling lexicon with a career-best, match-winning seven wickets in the second innings, and will no doubt be keen to pen another chapter for his memoirs but it would be harsh on Shardul Thakur, who did little wrong with the ball while admittedly failing to contribute with his second-string.

So what to expect? The romantic in me hopes for another great cricket match containing action, adventure, suspense, mystery and a touch of fantasy – the one in which England reach 500 or more in a first innings and Root’s is not the most significant contribution.

Broadcast Schedule

England v Pakistan 2024 T20 series
1st T20, ENG v PAK, Headingley
22nd May
Start time: 6:30 pm BST