Pujara masterclass helps soothe the frustration
The first month of the season is over, and it has been an April unlike any I’ve known since becoming a professional cricketer. Normally a period that dents batters’ averages with the ball swinging and seaming around corners on early-season green tops, this April produced run-scoring that was unprecedented — our ultimately high-scoring draw with Durham last week being no exception.
A morale-boosting first championship victory of the season looked on the cards when we set Durham 315 to avoid an innings defeat after we racked up 538 in our only innings, inspired by another double century from Cheteshwar Pujara.
The way Sean Dickson and England batsman Alex Lees started their opening stand of 313, the fourth highest for Durham for any wicket in the County Championship, you knew they were looking to be positive. You can be tentative in those situations, and that could get you in a lot of trouble. But credit to them, they really played well with Dickson making a career-best 186 and Lees 105. Their counter-attack came off, even if they had a lot of luck. But I suppose it’s one of those things where you create your own luck. It was a good battle.
We hoped we might have a chance on the fourth morning with Durham starting on 169 for none, the bowlers rested and the second new ball not far away. It swung a little bit but the wicket had flattened out — a few balls were sort of going up and down, but not anything that was unplayable. We tried to get some swing in the air but overhead it was pretty sunny, so it was a little bit tough to sustain it. But I thought we bowled pretty well.
We came at them pretty hard and that’s all you can ask for. On another day, a few things could have gone our way and it would’ve been a different day; different sort of scenario going into day four.
The state of the wickets this early in the season is credit to most groundsmen; they have produced some very, very good wickets. Most wickets have been pretty good cricket wickets — they’ve done a bit but if you get in, you can go big. This is what a lot of the teams have been asking for, a good cricket wicket that does a bit early on, flattens out and then spins at the end. That has been evident in the few games that I’ve played in, which makes for better cricket, improves skill levels and results in a lot of games that go deep into day four.
Traditionally, spinners don’t play such a big role in the early months of a season. We talk about spinners in England and if you look at a lot of seamers, they’ve taken loads of wickets because the wickets in the last few years have been doing a good bit and been very helpful for them. It’s only right that you can get the best of both worlds or all three worlds, really, where batters can go big and spin bowlers can come into the game on day four, which is how it should be. It only helps skill levels go up and once you get to that next stage, Test cricket, that’s where the game goes into day four and day five, and it’s dried out and then spinning.
I enjoyed my spell, going for 2½ an over and picking up the one wicket. It was one of those situations where if a few things went our way as a team, and my way personally, I could have easily picked up three or four. But that’s how cricket goes: some people create their own luck and it was on their side this week. But I thought I bowled pretty well, grouped the ball well, and my figures (20-1-50-1) showed I was doing the job asked of me from the captain and the coaching team. I would have liked a few more wickets, but that’s how it goes.
The one wicket I took highlighted the all-round ability of Mohammad Rizwan, who had taken off the wicketkeeping gloves to field at first slip! It had been a long four days and he had done a lot of work behind the stumps. The game was dying out a little bit, so we let Rizzie swap as keeper and relax from catching for the last hour and a half. But then he still manages to get into the action and take a pretty good diving catch. It was a pretty spectacular effort.
I didn’t get much of a chance with the bat, as we were pushing for quick runs by the time I came in at No 8 [tailender Mason Crane was employed as the nightwatchman at the end of a first day in which Durham were shot out for 223 and Sussex replied with 82 for one]. We wanted to have 20 minutes to half an hour at them before tea. We knew the wicket was fairly flat, so we wanted to give ourselves as much chance as possible to try to take all ten wickets.
I was going to always look to be positive and be aggressive, especially with Chets at the other end going the way he was. He got out in the end for 203, his second double century in successive matches and third score above 100 in his past four innings, but it didn’t look like too much was going to knock him over. I got off the mark with a pull for six and would have liked to put on another 30 or 40 quickly — that was the aim — but it didn’t come off. We were still in a nice position to take ten wickets.
It’s no surprise to us how well Pujara is going. Everybody knows what a player he is; his numbers speak for themselves in international cricket and in first-class cricket. But to watch it sort of first hand, live in front of you, is pretty special. Just the way he goes about his work, how calm he is, his temperament, his tempo, his patience, it is something that all of us as a batting group can definitely learn from. He definitely shows the way to get your head down and go big once you’re in. It’s nice to be on this side of it after seeing a few hundreds scored against us this year!
It’s hard to believe his place in the India Test may be in jeopardy, as there has been a lot of talk about that in the press. We don’t know what goes on behind closed doors in the India management, but the way he has gone about it is the best way. The only thing you can do as a player under pressure for your place is just get your head down and do what’s asked of you. Just go and score big runs in his case, and that he’s definitely doing with two double hundreds. There’s no way that India are not noticing the scores and with one single Test to finish their postponed series with England, taking a man like him would be brilliant. Especially with him already being over here and being in form. It would make a lot of sense, but it’s up to the management and what direction they want to take the side under new captain Rohit Sharma. [The 2021 series was abruptly stopped after a Covid outbreak in the India camp with the touring side leading 2-1.]
Rizwan, our other overseas player, has showed he can catch — with and without the gloves — but in this match we got to see him close to his best with the bat as well in scoring a maiden half-century for us. It’s always difficult to come into English conditions and go bang straight away. But from his first week here, you’ve seen the progression of him being more confident and understanding the conditions more. Obviously, he has played a little bit of Test cricket over here, but county cricket is a bit different. It was nice to see him go about his business and score the runs the way he did [79 from 145 balls]. It’s definitely a positive for us and long the may it could continue; same with Pujara.
By the time that fifth and final Test is played at Edgbaston in July, Ben Stokes will have already overseen his first series as the official England captain, against New Zealand, after being announced last Thursday.
Looking at the core group of that squad, he’s definitely the right choice. He seems like he has a bit of respect within the group, everyone talks very highly of him and obviously there is his skill level and determination. His passion to play for England and win games of cricket for England just shows every time he steps on the park. There is no doubt that he will give it 110 per cent and also the ten behind him that take the field. So it is exciting to see where England’s cricket is going in the next 18 months in terms of Tests; hopefully a few Test wins, a few series wins and they build a nice team.
Where one chapter begins, another one ends. This time with the news that Kieron Pollard has retired from international cricket, handing over the reins of the white-ball captaincy to understudy Nicholas Pooran. A bit of a surprise, considering where he still ranks in terms of franchise cricket as probably one of the most sought-after players. The international cricket schedule has been fairly busy lately. Mixing that with franchise cricket and the possibility that West Indies may be looking to go in another direction and shift a couple of players on, he probably felt it was the right time.
Our fifth attempt to get off the mark in the championship will come against Middlesex, starting today at Hove. They look a strong outfit coming into the game with form bowlers and batters. It’s going to be a tough four days, but an exciting four days. We could have potentially a few players coming in as well. We welcome the return of Ollie Robinson from long-term injury as well as George Garton to boost our bowling attack. Looking forward to it; it should be a pretty good contest. Every time we play them, it has been a game that has sort of gone right down to the wire. Hopefully, this time we can come out on top.
• Delray Rawlins was talking to Dexter Smith