Big hitter takes the big stage
If the opinions of a certain Shane Warne had had any influence on the decisions of England's selectors, then Dimitri Mascarenhas would not have remained a secret of the county circuit for so long. A nearly man in England's one-day reckoning for most of the 2000s, the closest Mascarenhas ever looked like coming to international honours was his selection for the Hong Kong Sixes in 2004.
Perhaps that now counts as a premonition, for Mascarenhas will be back on truncated international duty in the coming fortnight, and this time the eyes of the world will be watching. He may have been drafted into the ICC World Twenty20 as a late replacement for the injured Ryan Sidebottom, but after his feats against India in the week just gone, his name will be one of the very first that Paul Collingwood scribbles down on his team-sheet to face Zimbabwe on Thursday.
Warne always said that Mascarenhas could strike a cricket ball - in fact, he likened his style to that of the Australian one-day allrounder, Ian Harvey, who was nicknamed "Freak" for his ability to make things happen with bat, ball, and in the field. But Mascarenhas' exploits in the sixth and penultimate ODI at The Oval went way beyond even the expectations of his devoted captain.
Yuvraj Singh was the bowler - an unusual choice for the 50th over of a one-day international, but then again, throughout England's innings India's spinners had been the most economical option available to Rahul Dravid. For one and a half balls, Yuvraj seemed an inspired choice. Mascarenhas swung expansively at his first delivery and missed, and though he connected with the second, the shot was stunningly snaffled by a diving Piyush Chawla at cow corner.
But Chawla's momentum matched that of Mascarenhas's bat - he skidded over the ropes in his follow-through and the umpire signalled a maximum. There would be no more misjudgments to hold the batsman back. For the third delivery Mascarenhas took a stride outside leg and mowed Yuvraj for the flattest, fastest blow of the innings. The next ball was looped onto leg stump, so Mascarenhas went up and under, and lofted his shot high into the stands at midwicket.
With 300 now on the board, anything else was a bonus. So Mascarenhas opened his shoulders to their maximum possible width and drilled Yuvraj towards the hospitality boxes in the Laker Stand. With the crowd on their feet and the scoreboard spinning off its axis, Yuvraj came around the wicket to disrupt Mascarenhas's rhythm, but to no avail. The final ball of a historic over was slapped contemptuously in the same direction as the rest.
Mascarenhas had given an inkling of his abilities in the second game of the series at Bristol, when his 52 from 39 balls had carried England to within nine runs of India's vast 329. Then as now, he struck five sixes in his innings. Only once has one of his international boundaries bounced before reaching the rope. He could not have timed his charge to the Twenty20s more gloriously.
Only once has one of Mascarenhas' international boundaries bounced before reaching the rope. He could not have timed his charge to the
Twenty20s more gloriously
But Mascarenhas' game is about more than just big hitting. In the decisive seventh match of the NatWest Series, it was his stone-cold seamers that broke the back of India's challenge. With Matt Prior standing up to keep the batsmen honest, Mascarenhas bowled his ten overs straight off the reel, grabbed three vital wickets, including Robin Uthappa and the luckless Yuvraj, and didn't concede a boundary until his 51st delivery.
As Jeremy Snape's selection for the Twenty20s will testify, it is those bowlers who can take the pace off the ball who tend to thrive in this most frantic form of cricket. Mascarenhas can thump it with the best of them, is an asset in the field with his sparky, athletic demeanour, and in domestic Twenty20 games for Hampshire he has taken 30 wickets in 24 matches, including the format's first hat-trick - against Sussex at Hove in 2004.
He's got the knowhow and he's brimming with confidence as England touch down in Cape Town. Mascarenhas' journey has taken him from a family heritage in Sri Lanka to an upbringing in Melbourne and Perth, to a fulfilling but under-rewarded career with Hampshire at the Rose Bowl. In the coming fortnight he has the chance to underline the suspicion that England's limited-overs renaissance is more than just a flash in the pan. If that happens, then Warne for one will say: "I told you so."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo