Onward, men of Middlesex
But for the atrocities in Mumbai, Middlesex, whose arrival at the Taj Palace hotel had been imminent at the time, would not only have spent the past week far from sodden London but been participating in the richest tournament in cricket history. Now two Seaxes have an opportunity to cheer up two nations.
If England are to emerge from the coming series with honour restored, they will have to pile up sufficient runs to counter the cock-a-hoop home order. With Kevin Pietersen likely to be more distracted than usual, the onus may well shift to the shoulders of Owais Shah and Andrew Strauss. They look broad enough.
Both have sunny memories of Mumbai. England's last Test in India, in March 2006, was played there, and the two most productive batsmen at the Wankhede Stadium - nobody else on either side reached 65 in an innings - were Strauss and Shah, the second-wicket pair, who between them accounted for more than 50% of the tourists' first-up 400. Men of Middlesex and Lord's both, albeit by way of Johannesburg and Karachi, it was their efforts, rather than India's butterfingered fielding or madcap capitulation to Shaun Udal on the final afternoon, that lay at the heart of that staggeringly improbable series-squaring triumph. It is fiendishly hard to remember any subsequent England Test XI functioning as well as it did then.
Darting down the pitch to his first delivery as a Test player, knowing the innings could revive a stuttering career, Shah exuded vitality. This was not what Poms were supposed to do. Getting to the pitch of the ball, daring to vacate the crease and risk the humiliation of a stumping, has always, by tradition and duty, been an affront to Englishness. Didn't Michael Atherton recall his coach at Manchester Grammar actively discouraging such extravagances? Spraying shots to all points of the compass from first to last, Shah's eventual 88 was one of the most assured and audacious maiden Test innings in recent memory, and certainly the most impressive debut by a bloke wearing three crowned lions on his cap since Graham Thorpe's Ashes hundred at Trent Bridge in 1993. "It's a topspin forehand through midwicket" was one slack-jawed commentator's verdict after a dismissive whip through midwicket off Sreesanth, essayed with left leg cocked and knee ever-so-languidly crooked.
There are no two ways about it. As England's most comfortable and comforting player of spin, Shah should be a first choice in any England XI picked to play in the subcontinent, regardless of format. This is, admittedly, the view of someone who has been watching him since he made his first-class debut at 17, but the fan club is expanding. In confidence and technique he is twice the batsman Paul Collingwood is. Ian Bell wishes he had such a range of strokes. Since that stirring Mumbai overture, however, Test rations have been severely restricted. Duncan Fletcher didn't take to him; hence Shah's complaints about neglect, neither of which helped his cause. Nor, for that matter, did a tendency towards slapdash fielding.
While growing in stature as a versatile, inventive and increasingly reliable run-maker in the 50- and 20-over frays - his last 10 ODI innings have produced 458 runs at 57, culminating in that streak of 58, 40, 72 and 66 not out against India - Shah was deemed worthy of but one further Test. Summoned once more as a late replacement, this time for last year's Lord's Test against West Indies, he was assured of nothing more than a renewal of that temporary status. Seemingly ravaged by anxiety and frozen by nerves, and perhaps the futility of it all, he twice fell for single-figure scores. The contrast with Mumbai could not have been starker. How could disappointment not have played a part? Imagine making such a dazzling first impression, and then being denied a chance to build on it for more than a year. And then just the once.
|In confidence and technique Shah is twice the batsman Paul Collingwood is. Ian Bell wishes he had such a range of strokes|
"I honestly don't know why I didn't fit in with Duncan Fletcher's plans," Shah told me a year ago, dismay and confusion still writ large. "He never said anything. I played reasonably well on my Test debut but didn't play the next game - what else do you want? If that wasn't enough, I thought, well, I've had it. And I thought Fletcher would always be in charge so long as I was around."
Fortunately, the coach's abrupt post-World Cup exit brought in Peter Moores, with whom Shah had worked extensively. The respect was unquestionably mutual. "He gave guys like me, [Graeme] Swann and [Ryan] Sidebottom a chance to show we can play. I played a bit more than them under Fletcher [in ODIs] but it was always two games in, one out, two in, two out. When you're constantly playing for your position you've got no hope. You can't play properly if you're always a replacement. You need to be part of the jigsaw, to have people say they can't play without you. I feel that now."
"Peter creates a better climate, a lot better," he went on, warming to his theme and contradicting many a perception. "The communication is unbelievably good. If he didn't think I was good enough, he'd tell me why, how I could fix it, and that he'd look at you when you've sorted it out. I was just frustrated that Fletcher never told me anything. I didn't get to know him, so I can't say if he was shy, but people do say he wasn't a good communicator. I'm sure they're right when they call him a great coach technically; I just wish I'd seen it."
That he has flourished under Moores cannot be mere coincidence. It remains to be seen whether the opportunity to prove his worth over five days is about to knock again. It should. Whether Bell or Collingwood is the man to give way is secondary: to ignore Shah's form in the one-day series would be crass in the extreme, just as India would be daft not to keep Yuvraj Singh in their line-up. The knowledge that it would be now or never, that you have no option but to grab the moment by the short and curlies and squeeze it until the pips squeak, would intimidate many, but I doubt it in Shah's case. Helpfully, he has a healthy streak of arrogance, the kind that makes opposing bowlers go all macho and saps their focus. Watching the DVD of that Mumbai knock the other day was to be reminded of how often he and the Indians exchanged barks and snarls. He won't back down now.
On that India tour in early 2006, somewhat inevitably, Strauss was tapering off after one of the most productive starts to any Test career (he'd averaged 60 in his first 11 outings). But still: that hundred in Mumbai was his eighth in 45 innings. Not quite Bradmanesque, granted, but closer than the vast majority of openers have ever come. By the end of the encounter with Pakistan at Headingley the following August, his 30th Test, in what was his first full series as captain, he'd harvested his 10th three-figure score, setting up a rubber-sealing win.
That, though, was his most recent peak. In 23 Tests and 42 innings since, the trough has seldom been far away. At odds with form and technique, deprived of a complementary chalk 'n' cheese partner in Marcus Trescothick - the buccaneering fellow southpaw with whom he forged England's second most fruitful opening alliance since Len Hutton and Cyril Washbrook - the returns have been modest: 1438 runs at 34.24, eight fifties and just two hundreds. Not since Port Elizabeth in 2004, his eighth Test, has he reached 50 in consecutive innings. Only twice in his last 22 attempts has he reached 65. Significantly, the strike-rate, so long hovering between 52 and 50 runs per 100 balls, has dipped below 49. Not a massive drop, true, but perhaps indicative of his state of mind, of the pragmatism in the parent he has become. The sense of a batsman narrowing in range and frayed by experience, one more inclined to be dictated to than set the terms - as he did to perfection in South Africa in 2004-05 - has been hard to suppress.
There remains more than a faint suspicion that this decline, which encompasses being dropped for last winter's tour of Sri Lanka, was also triggered by something as mortal as disappointment. For the 2006-07 Ashes tour, the selectors saw fit to relieve Strauss of the captaincy in favour of adding to Andrew Flintoff's already crippling burden, a brain-disengaged decision that never once looked likely to pay off. Strauss talked a good game, uttered the right, supportive words, appeared to take it all in that measured stride, but inside, deep down, behind the curtains, how could he not have felt hard done by? Some still believe he is a better candidate than the more excitable Pietersen to reacquaint England with consistency. To watch him make that career-saving 177 in Napier in March was to see evidence of a rare inner steel. To hear him last week, talking up the squad's return to India - and, especially, referring to what he perceives as a "duty to the game" - was to hear a born diplomat, yes, but also a man devoid of fear and brimful of appetite.
Strauss, moreover, is something of a talisman. Of this phlegmatic soul's dozen Test tons, not one has come in a losing cause: eight yielded victory, while two of the others (in Durban and at Old Trafford in 2005) came extremely close. If he can re-ignite that positive mindset, reclaim confidence in the searing cuts and cover-drives that once supplied the lion's share of his runs, and throw at least a modicum of caution to the winds - a la Shah - a second coming may not be beyond him.
The measure of any sportsman, of any man, is the capacity to cope with disappointment, to defy those pesky slings and outrageous arrows and bounce back with head high and grudges low. The coming weeks will demonstrate whether these two adopted sons of North London possess the requisite resilience.
So good luck, you Seaxes. Or rather, as veteran poker champion LC Cheever says to his son-rival Huck in Lucky You, Curtis Hanson's terrific celluloid dissection of another addictive pastime, good skill.
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton