#LordShardul changes the mood of the day

Shardul Thakur is pumped after raising a 31-ball fifty
September 02, 2021

You can have those Rohit Sharma pushes past mid-off early on, two of them because why not be generous? As smooth warm butter being spread on bread; even if the pair of shots fetched four runs between them and not actually a single boundary, they're to be measured in gold, not runs.

Pick out any of the Virat Kohli boundaries and take those home with you. Maybe the first one off James Anderson, an on-caress, or even the second four overs later. But that was off Craig Overton and #OvertonKohli is not really the headline clash of this - or any - series.

Cricket has evolved beyond recognition, it has grown around the globe (smirk) and been given different interpretations, it has spawned multiple formats, but from the day the game was born to now, it sighs and swoons loudest at the sight of a cover drive. It remains the game's money shot. And when you have four from Kohli to choose from, the day has been a bounty. Two of those required Kohli to end up down on one knee, which is cricket's purest shot in its most immaculate conception, as beautiful as a GIF, as an essay, as a meme, as a painting.

There was but a tiny glimpse of Rishabh Pant, unleashing himself on a perfectly reasonable length ball from Overton in a very unreasonable manner and muscling it through extra cover. It was one shot but it's becoming a battleground for those who think he is doing it all wrong and those who think he is taking batting into the light.

Ignoring momentarily that India were bowled out for 190, all together these shots constituted the rich tradition of Indian batting. Classical and orthodox but lately audacious and innovative too. If this is beginning to feel suspiciously like it's setting up for a gag to which the punchline is Shardul Thakur then yes, it is.

Because where were you when Thakur whipped Chris Woakes - the best bowler on the day by some distance - not over midwicket as you might expect to such a ball but only slightly wide of long-on for a massive six? Or when he straight-batted Overton high and back over his head for the first six?

Not your thing? Then surely the pulled six, flat and hard over midwicket which brought up his fifty and the celebration for which seemed, in some part, to double as a berating of his fellow, more established batters in the dressing room.

It's ridiculous to think that he probably hit three better shots than the ones above. As ridiculous as Thakur, possessor of a first-class batting average of 16, now has the fastest recorded Test fifty (in terms of balls faced) in England - and his second in a four-Test career. Over a hundred years of the game in this country and at the end of it, Shardul Thakur has the fastest fifty.

Think of all the specialist batters in this game and how much they pour into their dominant skill to become what they are. Joe Root's the number one Test batter in the world. Kohli is among the greatest to have played the game. Hour after hour facing throwdowns. Making micro-adjustments to their feet. Tweaking stances and strengthening their base. Mental conditioning. Visualising.

And here's Thakur - again, first-class batting average of 16 - being asked at the end of the day, in seriousness, about the virtues of playing with a straight bat in England. And him answering, just as seriously: "In English conditions if you attempt to play with straight bat you get the chance to score more runs. It swings and seams a lot here, so for the batsman the best chance to score is to play with a straight bat." Thakur, who goes by the social-media meme of #LordShardul, top-scoring and momentum shifting and keeping India alive in the series on a day when it looked like the whole thing was slipping away.

There's two semi-serious points to make about this. One is a timeless one about the inherent comedy lower-order batters spread around a game (and calling them the lower-order and teaching them to bat is actively designed to drain the game of that comedy). Thakur's presence turned a slow, attritional sort of collapse into a slightly scrambled and frazzled heap, as if he was shaking hands with the day but was wearing that electric buzzer. Unexpectedly great shots, missed chances, near-run outs, actual run-outs, fielders and bowlers looking a bit Three Stooges, a captain waving his arms around when not on his hips in the teapot pose; there's comedies on Netflix less entertaining than this kind of intervention.

They are also a strange way of reminding us of the fine margins on which this confounding game so often hinges. England's bowling lost the plot against India's tail at Lord's and paid for it. They didn't lose the plot here. To an admirable degree they kept their heads and, more or less, stuck to the plans that had dismissed far better batters. And they still paid for it.

It also drives home the point that few professions in life are as cruel as batting. It is essentially a one-ball game, especially in England, where 900 balls faced can be rendered meaningless by the 901st.

Kohli wasn't flawless for the time he was out there. He should've been dismissed for 22 at which point all the attention would've again been on him and that line outside off that he can't bring himself to leave. By the time he reached fifty, he was purring, having gotten through a few of the kinds of deliveries that, on other days in this series, have dismissed him. And then he was gone, perhaps too keen to push for a single on the legside, keen to keep the score moving, knowing it was important because he knew also that one ball, any ball, one mistake would be enough.

It may well have remained the innings of the day had it not been for Thakur, who came out to bat against the same bowlers, in broadly the same circumstances of an innings in trouble, with far less ingrained skill and in the same knowledge that one ball might do it for him. It didn't, at least not until he had perceptibly changed the mood of the day.

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