West Indies in England 2012 June 8, 2012

Samuels' Hooperesque breakthrough

The fascination of seeing him finally crack the nut that is Test cricket

In the absence of any play on the first day at Edgbaston, here are some thoughts, as promised, on Marlon Samuels, whose long-overdue success has illuminated a series which has thus far proceeded largely according to pundits' predictions, form-lines, statistical likelihood, Nostradamus, and the secret diktats of the shadowy Bilderberg Group who allegedly run the global economy and probably have a few fingers in cricket's various pies as well.

Samuels, hitherto an unfulfilled talent, has proved that spending a few weeks attempting to clonk a white ball around in the high-octane frenzy of the IPL is, contrary to what most cricketicians have always believed, ideal preparation for playing old-school Test innings of patience and classical technique in English conditions. We live and learn.

In accordance with modern West Indian tradition, Samuels has come to the crease with his team in deep trouble in all four innings this series (100 for 4, 65 for 4, 63 for 4 and 31 for 3), and, since a studious 31 in his first knock at Lord's was spoiled by a careless sploot to cover, he has played three innings of startling, career-average-defying quality.

It has been the kind of batting you would have expected of a man who, in his second Test, at the MCG in December 2000, against an Australian pace attack of McGrath, Gillespie and Bichel, scored 60 not out and 46 after coming to the crease at 28 for 4 (soon 28 for 5) and 17 for 5 (soon 23 for 6); but not the kind of batting you would have expected of a batsman who had scored two Test centuries and averaged 29 in 37 Tests, splattered over 11-and-a-half years as if Jackson Pollock had been chairman of West Indies' selectors. Which he might as well have been.

Samuels' on- and off-pitch travails in his interminable apprenticeship since that seemingly portentous teenage performance (in which he was only dismissed when last man out in the second innings, caught on the boundary off Colin Miller, perhaps unwilling to trust the batsmanship of Courtney Walsh to score the 363 runs West Indies still needed for victory) are eloquently examined by Rob Steen in this recent ESPNCricinfo article.

There is a fascination in seeing a player who has long disappointed finally crack the curious nut that is Test cricket, and particularly in seeing a player with an average of below 30 suddenly break out and bat like a timeless legend of the game. Steen draws comparisons between Samuels and Carl Hooper, who in his first 38 Tests, averaged 26, a frankly laughable figure for a man who could (and occasionally did) play like a computer-generated simulation of The Perfect Batsman, and who, like Samuels, had excelled in his second Test, scoring an unbeaten 100 in Calcutta as a 21-year-old (although this being still the 1980s, Hooper came in with the West Indies at 288 for 4, rather than 28 for 4).

In his 39th Test, the final match of the 1993 series against Pakistan, Hooper, moseying to the wicket with that average of 26 peeking mournfully out of the record books, and with an eyebrow-furrowing 75 runs in his previous eight Test innings, played what Wisden described as "an innings of stirring virtuosity". In an innings of 178 not out off 247 balls, he "overwhelmed the bowling with strokes both majestically orthodox and cutely improvised", against an attack featuring Wasim and Waqar. Over his next 58 Tests, up to an including his final Test hundred in 2002, he averaged 45, not earth-shattering, but a figure far more befitting the supernatural ease of his strokeplay, and, over that period, alongside Saeed Anwar, Ponting, Azharrudin, Mark Waugh, and Aravinda de Silva.

In the early phase of his career, his average placed him in the company of Kiran More, Jack Russell and Saleem Yousuf, suggesting that Hooper was in fact a wicketkeeper trapped in a batsman's body.

Before the Kolkata Test of March 2001 ‒ a game most Indian readers will probably remember rather fondly, although Australians may have marked it down as "the game in which Glenn McGrath scored a then-career-second-best 33 runs, and Michael Slater bowled a couple of tidy overs, conceding only four runs" ‒ VVS Laxman had scored one century and averaged 27 in 20 Tests over half a decade.

VVS hit a rapid 59 in India's disastrous and seemingly series-losing first innings, and then unleashed what is unarguably the Finest Innings Ever Played By A Batsman With A Career Average Below 30 ‒ partly because it is arguably The Finest Innings Ever Played By Any Batsman With A Career Average Of Anything. If he has never quite matched the staggering splendour of his 281 in that miraculous victory, it nevertheless proved his watershed as a cricketer - he averaged 52 in 100 Tests over the next 10 years.

In the previous Test in that series, at the Wankhede in Mumbai, a player who bounced vigorously on the opposite end of the stylistic see-saw to Hooper and Laxman, Matthew Hayden, had finally played his breakthrough innings. At the age of 29, after 13 Tests dotted over seven frustrating years in which he averaged 24 during an era of potent Australian batsmanship, Hayden was not only drinking in Last-Chance Saloon, he had been asked to leave by several punters and was receiving some filthy looks from the barman. Hayden called for a lock-in, scored 119 under pressure to set up a baggy-green victory, and unleashed a three-year bombardment of biff in which he thunder-clouted 19 centuries in 42 Tests, and averaged 70.

Who knows how Samuels' career will pan out. Perhaps he will revert to the level he has occupied for most of his decade-and-a-bit in Test cricket. Perhaps he will be the lynchpin of a newly emergent West Indies. Or the lynchpin of a still-quite-rubbish West Indies. Not all breakthrough innings herald the fulfilment of a talent. Mark Ramprakash, grotesquely mishandled by selectors after showing technique and temperament in his 1991 debut series, in which he batted for 17 hours in nine innings against Marshall, Walsh, Ambrose and Patterson (and was rewarded by being dropped on England's tour of New Zealand in favour of Dermot Reeve's only ever Tests), had averaged 19 before his maiden Test hundred, a textbook 154 in 1998 in Barbados that rescued England from 53 for 4. Ramprakash seemed to have solved the impermeable riddle of his own batting. However, after a decent 12 months of medium-weight run-scoring, he slumped again, and ended his Test career (assuming England's selectors do not get wildly carried away with their new hobby of resting players from Tests) averaging just 27), still awaiting the true Laxman moment his talents could so easily have sparked.

● The first-day Edgbaston washout which means that James Anderson is now only being rested from four days of Test cricket, rather than the intended five, meaning that he has in effect lost 20% of the resting time he was supposed to be resting himself in. Does this mean he will now have to rest from an ODI as well, or merely try to rest 25% harder over the next four days?

The fact that Anderson was resting at home rather than in the Edgbaston dressing room is a curious situation, in which cricket appears finally to have alchemically concocted a formula whereby two wrongs do probably make a right. Test matches should be the pinnacle of the game, and the idea of resting players from them undermines their status (albeit that one cursory glance at the West Indian batting line-up suggests that that status was already nervously clutching a receipt for one undermining (plus VAT)). The international schedule should, for the sake of its own validity and integrity, ensure that the top players are physically and logistically able to play in all their country's fixtures. It does not do that. It does not even contemplate that. Thus, resting players has become at least desirable, and possibly essential. England may be right to rest Anderson, but it should never have come to this.

It is also a tad befuddling that the ECB is resting Anderson from a Test match against his will in order to prolong and maximise his utility, but would not accept Pietersen ‒ a cricketer who has the same effect on opinion that Ernest Rutherford had on the atom ‒ resting from ODIs in order (possibly) to prolong and maximise his utility in Tests and T20Is. Conclusion (again): cricket's schedule needs urgent psychiatric help.

● Carl Hooper's belated flowering as a Test batsman roughly coincided with the start of the seemingly irretrievable slump in West Indian fortunes - 1994 was the last year in which they won more Tests than they lost, which illustrates the extent of the trough from which the current side are attempting to extricate themselves. As anyone who has ever attempted to extricate themselves from any form of trough will no doubt testify, it is harder to do so when you have various conflicting forces that ought to be giving you a helping hand out of the trough, instead clinging limpet-like to your trouser-leg trying to rugby tackle you back down into the trough, whilst shouting: "We've paid for this trough, we want to use it."

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer

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