“TO SCORE runs and bring control with the ball. That’s all I can do if I play.” As self-assessments go, Liam Dawson probably had just set a new yardstick in the honesty quotient. “All I can do,” isn’t what you generally expect to hear from a cricketer after all, especially right after being picked in the national Test squad-a call-up that had shocked him as much as everyone else-for the first time.
On Friday, he became England’s fifth debutant on their Asian sojourn, which started in Bangladesh. But unlike the other four, Dawson’s debut came without any fanfare, or at least any high expectations. Even the English media, who otherwise aren’t shy of talking up and tagging their relative unknowns with hyperbolic fervour, didn’t seem too fussed about the 26-year-old left-arm spinner getting a go in the final Test of the series. At most, he was dismissed as the latest chapter in England’s new-found penchant to throw their young players into the deep end.
But in his first outing, he pretty much kept his word. He scored runs. In fact, he broke the record for the highest ever score by an English No 9 on debut by remaining unbeaten on 66.
It was a knock that began with the right-hander getting smacked on his helmet by a nasty Ishant Sharma bouncer. It was, or should have been anyway, a debilitating blow morale-wise too, considering Dawson had ducked and tried to sway his head away from the ball only to be struck head-on like potential roadkill who’d completely misjudged the direction of an oncoming vehicle.
This was also only the second delivery he faced in Test cricket. But he faced 146 more, and looked good for many more if not for the rest of his lower-order colleagues getting bowled out. It was his half-century, and the 108-run stand he shared with Adil Rashid, that propelled the visitors to their highest total of the series, setting up a decent enough challenge for the high-flying Indians over the next three days.
Game of attrition
It was one of those attrition-themed days that Test cricket throws up ever so often and can be both charming and exasperating in equal measure. One where even the ‘knowledgeable’ Chennai crowd couldn’t help themselves from breaking into ‘Dhoni, Dhoni’ and ‘CSK, CSK’ chants at certain times of the day as Dawson and Rashid went about wearing the Indian bowlers’ down.
Dawson bats No.6 for Hampshire, and in the past has been described as a ‘reluctant’ bowler. And here, he looked very adept and at ease against the Indian spinners, both defensively and aggressively, and played a huge role in R Ashwin ending up with his worst returns of the series-1/151 in 44 overs. If anything, his performance was heralded with the same surprise that met his inclusion.
Haseeb Hameed, still all of 18 and only a season-old in first-class cricket, came to India with great promise and the awe-inspiring moniker of Baby Boycott.
A lot had already been chronicled about Keaton Jennings and his background before he was flown in for the Mumbai Test once Hameed was injured.
Dawson was incidentally the other replacement announced during the one-week break between the third and fourth Tests, coming in place of the injured Zafar Ansari. But the reaction to his arrival mostly ranged between the “they must be kidding” to “well alright, why not?”.
Maybe it didn’t help that he came straight from a stint in the Bangladesh Premier League (BPL), not what you’ll call ideal preparation for your maiden tryst with Test cricket. Perhaps it didn’t help either that Dawson had himself admitted, “I find red-ball cricket harder, to be honest,” as recently as in July during the county season, where his returns were a paltry 20 wickets at 43.85. Dawson was the outsider.
It might be a series that England aren’t likely to look back at too fondly once they leave for Christmas. But in terms of individual contributions, there have more high-points than you would expect from a team which has been outplayed overall. A lot was expected of Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, and they have delivered. So has Ben Stokes with both bat and ball. Alastair Cook’s form might be concerning, along with the obvious question marks over his captaincy.
But funnily enough the biggest positives of the series have come from guys who have just come in, and how seamlessly they’ve settled to the challenge. Hameed dealt with the conditions like he’s done it all his life. Most of the English team hadn’t even met Jennings before his debut. But he made sure by the time he was out for the first time in Tests, he’d left an impression on both his dressing-room and the opposition.
In a way that’s been the case with the Indians too. Jayant Yadav wasn’t really considered by too many as a certain pick for the Test squad at the start of the season, but he’s come in and is now possibly the answer to India’s long-standing search for an all-rounder. Parthiv Patel to his credit came in after an eight-year hiatus and played a huge role in India winning the Mohali Test.
It would be easy for England to just want to drift through the Chennai Test and hope to put the campaign behind them as soon as possible. But it would be prudent that they look at this as a one-off, an opportunity to build to something. A new beginning, just like Dawson and the other new-comers have previously in the series.
At the end of the Dawson was as prudent as ever about his opening act, calling his half-century a small milestone. “I have done what I do for Hampshire and that’s all I can do,” is how he put it. Now, England will hope that he lives up to the other part of his admission, and provides control with the ball. They will need it.