It was the day the condemned and crucified resurrected in Chepauk. First was the much reviled and trolled Rishabh Pant constructing the most atypical of knocks, a exhibition of restrained aggression, before the constantly-rebuked Shimron Hetmyer not only muted his critics with a spectacularly calculative assault on India’s bowlers but also rekindled memories of the Caribbean heyday. The latter’s effort handed West Indies an eight-wicket win and an unprecedented 1-0 lead in the series.
In the Caribbean, few cricketers, young or experienced, polarise opinions as passionately as Hetmyer. For some, he is the most exciting cricketer on the planet, for some others he epitomises everything rotten in the modern game, a T20 hand-for-hire intoxicated by the figures on his cheque leaf. The former West Indies captain Richie Richardson perfectly summed up the joy and agony of Shimron Hetmyer batting in an interview last July: “When he bats well, he is like Lara, when he doesn’t, he resembles Walsh. Often, in the same innings, he can resemble both.”
Anyone who has followed the Guyanese batsman would concur — he can thrill you as much as he can infuriate, he can marvel you as much he can madden you. Talent there is, in immense proportions, only that he regularly blends it with a streak of self-destruction. There is something imminently likeable, there’s something staunchly unlikeable too.
Another Caribbean legend, Curtly Ambrose, feared whether all his talent would go wasted. His doubts weren’t unfounded as his expensive lifestyle has spun numerous juicy scuttlebutts. That he’s intoxicated by the fame and money that he has lost his fitness, is reluctant to practice, he’s speeding behind fancy cars, that curfews were imposed on him during the World Cup, that’s he treading the same alley of several other young Caribbean starlets. “The T20 leagues are killing him. But we wish he can be the world-beater he can be. He could be the greatest after Lara,” Richardson lamented. Irresistible it is to thrust greatness on young, promising cricketers.
Brian Lara comparisons can pause, but he showed he could be a world-beating batsman with a ruthless exhibition of stroke-play, a sparkling tribute to Caribbean batsmanship. There’s something intrinsically Caribbean about his demeanour—the floppy hat, he has dozens in his wardrobe too, the diamond earring, a gold chain around the neck with the cricket-bat pendent dangling when he sprints for runs, the repertoire of audacious strokes that flows from his bat, the lashing back-lift and the sheer insouciance. Often, the complain was that he was too Caribbean for his own good.
“Right now, he looks like someone who wants to hit every cricket ball out of the stadium. He needs to be more judicious,” observed Michael Holding during the World Cup. Or in other words, he needed to dilute the hedonistic Caribbeanism of his batting, which he accomplished to an extent in his 106-ball 139 in Chennai, easily the most influential knock of his budding career.
While the strike rate of 131.13 in this format could concede an impression that he was on an unrestrained, blind leather-hunt, he was perceptibly judicious until he surged past his century, displaying a streak of cold-blooded purpose. Read between his soaring sixes (7) and drilled boundaries (11), the picture gets clearer.
After roughed up Mohammed Shami — a top-edge and outside edge eluded the fielders— he exercised considerable caution to preserve his wicket. It was not until the debutant Shivam Dube came and offered him a slow back-of-length delivery on off-stump that scored his first intentional boundary. A thunderous pull over mid-on.
It’s the brutality of his horizontal-bat strokes that has elicited comparisons with Lara, in the swivel of his body and the extravagance of the flourish. Like Lara, he could leave the bowlers scarred and wounded. Dube, who ended up leaking 68 runs in 7.5 overs, would write a testimonial. Or like Kedar Jadhav, who he attacked straightaway. Realising that Jadhav could pose uncomfortable questions, with his low-trajectory on a slow surface, he slapped him for two boundaries in his first over. Both were marginally short, and hittable ones, but the sheer dismissiveness of his strokes unsettled Jadhav, who never bowled another over.
Buoyed, he took on Kuldeep Yadav, who likes to torment the left-handers. He nonchalantly slog-swept him over mid-wicket, against the turn. On cue, he began bowling faster and more back-of-length to him. Subsequently, he couldn’t turn the ball as pronouncedly as he usually does. A few boundaries under his belt, it’s usually the time he gets lulled into recklessness. But this time around, he was warier, talking and admonishing to himself whenever he strayed. He waited for 20 more deliveries for his next big stroke, a brace of sixes, shot balls brutally despatched, off Ravindra Jadeja.
The match, at this juncture, was on an even keel, with the visitors requiring 175 off 28 overs. But even their reputation to implode couldn’t prevent despondency from filtering into the Indian camp.
The intensity dropped, shoulders drooped and hope ebbed. It’s what destructive batsmen like Hetmyer leaves you with. What followed was an exhibition of splendorous stroke-play—even the otherwise impeccable Mohammad Shami wasn’t spared—a throwback to the 80s wherein Caribbean batsmen butchered all and sundry. And for once he wouldn’t split opinions. Neither did Pant on the day the condemned and crucified resurrected at the Chepauk.