In Come to Think of it, we bring new perspectives to bear on received cricket wisdom. This week, we sympathise with a tailender who played one of the most widely derided shots in recent memory.
"Why did he do that?"
The words are by now iconic. There is restrained anger in the voice of West Indies cricket on radio, Fazeer Mohammed. Excellent commentator that he is, Fazeer doesn't labour the point and quickly moves on to describing the scenes of jubilation among the Pakistan team. West Indies coach Stuart Law is seen with his head in his hand. The rest of the support staff throw bemused looks at each other. A common description elsewhere for Shannon Gabriel's shot that brought to an end the the Dominica Test of 2017 is "inexplicable".
An opinion piece in the Jamaica Observer likened it to absentmindedly jumping a red light at high speed, "a moment of utter, unadulterated madness… a brain fade". A few months later, wisden.com labelled it the worst shot ever played in the history of Test cricket.
The outrage is still mild compared to the meltdown that would have ensued had this Test involved any of the big three nations. Match-fixing allegations might have flown all over had this shot been played by someone from another team. In that regard, Gabriel seems to have got off lightly, but he still deserves a defence counsel.
When he played the shot, West Indies' last wicket needed to hang in for seven more balls to draw the Test, and with that, the series. Gabriel had toughed it out for over half an hour, playing only one remotely aggressive shot. At the other end was Roston Chase, who had fought for over six hours and was batting on 101. Gabriel had one ball to keep out, and then he had to hand it over to his senior batting partner to play out the last over for a draw that hadn't looked possible half a day before. Now it was within their grasp. And Gabriel played a big shot, a slog really, trying to hit the legspinner Yasir Shah to the leg side and inside-edging into his off stump.
"The perfection of Fazeer Mohammed's commentary," wisden.com says, "is in direct opposition to the terrifying brainlessness of the shot, which, now executed, has seen the ball trickle off the whirling toe of his offending bat and onto his stumps. 'WHY DID HE DO THAT?!' cried Fazeer. We're still no nearer to finding our answer."
Why Gabriel did that is the easiest bit to answer. Percentages. Look at the field . Slip, gully, two silly points, short cover, silly mid-off, silly mid-on, forward short leg, leg gully. Eight fielders within five or six yards of the bat and one about 16 yards away. Any small error on a defensive shot and there are vultures around the bat to catch you. Whereas if you play the big shot, even a half-decent hit is certain to clear the fielders.
Two balls previously, Gabriel had been given out caught at silly point only for the DRS to save him. He had looked to defend then. It is understandable that he didn't want to repeat that risk, especially with Shah's variations. And if the direction he went to is any indication, Gabriel knew the delivery was not a legbreak. You just instinctively know that a bowler as skilful as Shah is not going to bowl a wide legbreak to end his series. And that's when you think, "Hell, I can't leave this one." And if you play at it, not knowing whether it is a slider or a wrong'un - Younis Khan, in his final act as a Test cricketer, had suggested to Shah that he bowl the slider - those nine men around the bat can make you panic.
It's not a hill I'd die on, but have always felt there is a certain logic to the shot. All fielders around bat, doesn't trust his defence, thinks a ball on that line must be the googly, so can't leave. It's poorly executed, but not necessarily poorly thought out. https://t.co/lgC5cZNErc— Jon Hotten (@theoldbatsman) May 14, 2020
Jon Hotten, who writes the delightful blog The Old Batsman and has written for this site, thinks similarly. The discussion below that tweet is instructive. People and coaches would really be okay if a tailender had been caught bat-pad when defending because that is proper Test-match cricket but not this.
If anything, it was a brave and selfless shot from Gabriel. He didn't think of the pundits and fans ripping into him the next day but about what was best for the team. Of course the execution was nowhere near ideal, but it's not too different to a No. 11 playing a defensive shot to a legspinner with nine fielders and a wicketkeeper ready for the catch. It had almost happened two balls earlier.
Unfortunately, with Test cricket, optics can sometimes override logic. This clip, after all, is played on loop with angry comments flying all over. Five days of sweat and tears - sometimes blood too - is condensed into one bit of action, usually in the final exchanges, and the wrath of Test cricket's purity is unleashed on one criminal.
Nobody wants to be that guy. This fear can sometimes cripple the clearest of thinkers. I suspect this fear was at play when Hardik Pandya didn't try to scare England in the final moments of the Edgbaston Test in 2018. India still needed 40 runs when he was joined by the No. 11, Umesh Yadav. There was no way India were going to win playing "proper Test-match cricket". Pandya was well set, batting on 23. He had hit hat-tricks of sixes four times in international cricket, including once in Tests. The occasion called for him to not worry about the optics and put some fear back into the England bowlers to push them off their Plan A. I was writing ESPNcricinfo's Live Report, and I predicted Pandya would try to halve the target in one over when Joe Root took the risk of bowling Adil Rashid with Pandya on strike and 35 to get.
I expected this for four reasons. That Pandya's was an unencumbered brain, that he had done this before, that there was practically nothing to lose now, and that Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri had many times said they didn't care about what was said or written about them. Then again, it is easier to type it out than be the man who has to risk becoming the face of the party that "let the skipper down". Possibly Rashid didn't give Pandya a ball he could feel confident trying a six off, but more likely it was the optics of Test cricket at play.
In the 4.2 overs of that last partnership, India added just eight runs, and Pandya was out caught at slip playing a defensive shot. Nobody looks back at that match and thinks of Pandya's innings. Everybody recalls Dominica for Gabriel. That's just how things are remembered.
More Come to Think of it here