Postcard from a morning in hell: Boland and Cummins unleash on India

Pat Cummins hit Shardul Thakur in the right forearm two balls in a row
June 09, 2023

Good morning.

Here is a postcard from hell.

Hell is morning. Nothing good ever came from mornings. Bodies, slow, minds slower. Probably children somewhere, not being slow or mindful, the very accessories of hell.

The day before this Test began Rohit Sharma arrived at a press conference at The Oval and, no lie, it took him a minute to begin to even compose a response to the first question. It was 9:15am. I'm pretty sure as the question began, Rohit was still in REM sleep. If we can ever know anything for certain about Rohit Sharma without knowing anything about him, it is that he is not a morning person. And no man should be attending to formal duties at this hour, let alone having to face questions from journalists.

This Test has been starting earlier than usual for England. At 11am, we're on the border between morning and afternoon, waiting to cross into noon. But at 10:30am, we're rubbing the sleep from our eyes.

But you know who else, apart from children, likes mornings? Fast bowlers.

If children are the accessories to hell fast bowlers are the furniture. They love mornings. The rest of us are trying to string a two-word sentence together and failing, trying not to be like when the audio and video of your screen is all out of sync; meanwhile these heroes are catwalking in from 30 yards, bodies loose and lean, joints and limbs and muscles in biological harmony, hurling stuff at you at 90mph.

First thing in the morning, Scott Boland. I mean. That's like waking up straight into a math exam.

Whatever else hell might be, ChatGPT will be there. And what is Scott Boland if not the ChatGPT response to the question of who is the perfect fast-medium bowler? Boland does fast-medium bowling exactly as it has been prescribed, except he does it so exactly that it can't be real. It must be a likeness of real, that's how good it is.

Who bowls the ball he bowled second up this morning? KS Bharat is waking up, we're all waking up really, and here's Boland asking him to disprove the Riemann Hypothesis.

"You what? Wait, what's that sound? Is that my stumps?"

It's a ball you might not be able to keep out at 2pm, 5pm, 9pm or any pm. At 10:32am? No chance in hell.

Next ball he raps Shardul Thakur on the gloves. This is a sign. Pain is incoming. Having brought balls back thus far, the last one holds its line and Thakur edges it, just beyond the slips. This is also a sign because fortune is also incoming. If fast-medium bowling as we've known it (Stuart Clark, Mohammad Asif, Mohammad Abbas) is hell, then in the high 80s for speeds, Boland's is Hell+.

The greatest trick hell ever pulled is, of course, Pat Cummins, who's up next. How can anyone who looks that good be so bad for you? How can anyone look that good this early in the morning? How can anyone be so considered and considerate, so full of empathy, and yet also be trying to crack your body open at least 120 times a day?

First ball he's in. Can't drive it. Can't not play at it. Can't play it even when you can't not play at it. It's seaming away from Ajinkya Rahane. What coffee do they serve in hell? Cummins keeps pulling his length fractionally backwards or forwards of good length, allowing the variation in bounce in the surface to come in play for the rest of the over. Then, at the end, having fed Thakur all this heat, he throws him the illusion of a cold wet towel. A full ball. Outside off. Drive it. Seek relief. Thakur can't see it from all the sweat in his eyes and misses.

Boland got hit for his first six in Tests on Thursday. On Friday, he bowls his first ever bad delivery in Tests, four wides way down legside. India celebrate the runs. Humanity celebrates a glitch in the ChatGPT algorithm: there's hope for all of us. Hold your horses though. Other than that ball, Boland's over seams in, then holds, seams in, then holds again, then seams in. Thakur edges, but it scoots along the field past slips for four.

The next over from Cummins has so many medical personnel on the field, it's like a scene from Grey's Anatomy which, of course, is the same thing as a scene from hell. Thakur is struck twice in two balls, on the exact same spot on his forearm, off two exact same deliveries. Not short but quick, bouncing but also seaming away. Hell is a life lived over. At the non-striker's end, another truth bomb has struck Rahane. Hell is other people.

Hell is also not over. Thakur pops a pill, puts on an extra arm guard (although at this precise moment, Tony Stark's latest armour isn't going to help him any) and gets hit on the glove, high up on the bat handle next ball. The last ball of the over is a conventional legbreak. At nearly 90mph.

Rahane plays out an over from Boland which feels like, I dunno, maybe having a cigarette in hell. He takes six runs by opening the face of his bat but is beaten in between by one that jags away from very close to off. Smoking's not good for your health. But it's less bad for your health than hell.

Thakur is dropped by Cameron Green at gully off Cummins. It is a dolly. He's hit high on the pads the next ball and then in the midriff the ball after. It's a no-ball too, so an extra ball to face. One nips in, almost rolls on to the stumps off Thakur's bottom edge. At this point, the drop seems cruel and unfair on Thakur. Cricday records his control percentage as 40%. It seems a lot on the high side.

Boland is still going because AI never sleeps. Rahane defends solidly, then plays a nice off-drive and it might be that he's getting the hang of this. Duly he drives, duly the ball shapes away and duly the edge falls just short of gully.

It's past 11 now, so creeping into non-morning territory. It might be that someone's turned the AC on in hell, or at least turned the heat down. Rahane first gets lucky, jabbing at and edging a wideish length ball from Cummins for four. Rahane then gets classy, hooking the next ball, high and long for six and nearly, very nearly out of hell.

There's still time for Boland to have a whole over of fun with Thakur. Back of length, fuller, in, out, shake it all about. It leaves Thakur requiring more treatment, this time on his thumb. He may need to talk to someone about what his mind and soul have just been put through.

But he's gotten through it. It's 11:22am. It's not even been a full hour but my watch is telling me it's been eternity. Morning has ended and as Mitchell Starc comes on, so too has hell.

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