Essex (39-2) trail Lancashire (319) by 280 runs
After two operations – on his nose, to help his breathing, and on his right little finger – and a poor Lions tour, Haseeb Hameed needed some runs to prove he is more than a 20-year-old prodigy, and he contributed a classy 47 to Lancashire’s 319 on a ding-dong opening day of the Specsavers County Championship season.
Batting was not exactly what it will be against Australia in Perth but there were similarities with what Hameed will face this winter. It was gorgeous, cloudless weather, so much so that a gentle breeze off the river was welcome, although the Chelmer is not quite so broad as the Swan; and Essex, like Australia, had a good left-arm fast bowler from the southern hemisphere, even if Neil Wagner of New Zealand does not swing a new ball so much as Mitchell Starc.
“It’s nice to get a bit of a start and I think we did quite well to get to the score we did,” Hameed said. As for the finger he broke in India, which still has a metal plate: “The finger’s fine – that was a bit of a freak accident last week trapping it in the warm-up [against Cambridge] doing some short-leg practice.”
Both Hameed and Keaton Jennings have thrown their helmets into the ring by saying they would like to open for England with Alastair Cook, who is missing this game to rest his left hip, while adding diplomatically they would be happy to bat anywhere. But Hameed can offer a special quality, beyond the fact it is preferable to have one right-handed and one left-handed opener to disrupt the bowlers’ line.
Hameed is an outstanding “leaver.” He either lets the new ball pass or scores off it, not necessarily an attacking shot, maybe a push and a scamper. Sure, he made a misjudgment here after lunch when a ball from Jamie Porter seamed back and hit the top of his off stump, and he was similarly bowled once in the two Lions ‘Tests’ in Sri Lanka, when he made only 33 runs. But Hameed still plots the ball’s future trajectory so accurately that he leaves – a crucial skill against the new ball in Australia – with a veteran’s maturity.
A decent score was welcome for Hameed as Mark Stoneman was demonstrating that anyone who can make runs in Durham can rack up millions at the Oval: he marked his Surrey debut with 165. But Hameed and Jennings, having averaged 43 and 41 respectively in India, are guaranteed to start against South Africa, even with three months to go.
England’s batting coach, Mark Ramprakash, was also able to catch up on the forthright Liam Livingstone, who was promoted to No 3 to develop his technique on the strength of his Lions winter. Anyone who can make two centuries in a match in Sri Lankan conditions – even if it is against 10-year-olds bowling underarm – has remarkable powers, and if Livingstone can maintain his career graph, as a batsman and a spinner who bowls offspin and leg-spin, he too might tour Australia.
Whereas Hameed caressed the ball through the covers with soft hands, Livingstone whacked it with quick hands – or thick-edged to slip for 28 off 34 balls. His best shot was actually to his second ball which he drove through mid-wicket with breathtaking poise and nonchalance.
After Hameed and Livingstone, it turned into a game within a game between Wagner and Simon Harmer against Dane Vilas and Shiv Chanderpaul, returning to Lancashire in his 43rd year. The over after Chanderpaul had been slow to respond to Vilas’s call, he was too quick, and had no time to get back – run out for 15 – but he looks as though he will shovel runs for a while yet.
When Ryan McLaren replaced Chanderpaul, it was a South African old boys’ reunion as all four protagonists hailed from there, and it was fine cricket, if not perhaps what county cricket is now intended to be, whatever the legal definitions of their status.
Harmer is a shrewd acquisition as a very steady off-spinner, who should have had the Lancashire captain Steven Croft stumped. But it was missed by wicketkeeper Adam Wheater, preferred to Jamie Foster, who was dropped for the first time from Essex’s championship team.