England’s Haseeb Hameed: ‘Those difficult moments toughen you up’

England’s Haseeb Hameed: ‘Those difficult moments toughen you up’

It was the old-fashioned handshake that sealed it. Haseeb Hameed and Rory Burns had just brought up their hundred partnership in the third Test against India and Hameed walked down the pitch and reached out his hand to the older man. In an age of fist bumps and other Covid-safe greetings, the celebration looked like an image from a newsreel. “Pretty old school,” says Hameed, laughing. “But then, I’ve always done it like that.”

Ain’t that the truth. The unique charm of the 24-year-old’s batting is the sense that it is being beamed to us from an earlier generation, which is why TV highlights could not capture the stylishness of his Headingley innings. Sure, they showed the boundaries. The musically timed upbeat of his foot movement that proved the anacrusis to a sweet-sounding square cut. The Root-ish glance, threaded through the gap between first and third slip like floss between incisors. And yet they failed to record the real beauties: the cultured, confident off-stump leaves, the expert and unstinting use of the forward defensive.

It is the technique modern times forgot, the legacy of his Gujarati father, Ismail. It is the technique for which England fans have been thirsty since they first had a sip five years ago, when Hameed became the youngest Englishman to score two half-centuries in Tests. And it is the technique he has rediscovered, after his career‑defying plunge in form three years ago, with the help of a new mentor, Peter Moores, at a new county, Nottinghamshire.

Moores was head coach at Lancashire when Hameed was at the academy, the first to get the scholarship boy involved with the senior pros. When Lancashire released Hameed in 2019, Moores met the suddenly club-less prodigy for a chat at the Oval, where Notts were playing Surrey. For both men, it was the kind of instant match eHarmony could only dream of.

“I’ve often had mentors,” says Hameed, “because I’ve been the youngest or the smallest in the teams I’ve played in. Mooresy fits that category. He’s good at understanding personalities and he’s respectful of the different things that are important to people. So I walked away feeling that it would be a good fit for me.” He pauses, thoughtfully. “And thankfully that’s been the case.”

Moores, for his part, describes working with Hameed as like “finding a soulmate”. “He’s a craftsman,” says the coach. “Someone passionate about the art of batting.”

Unfortunately, after his failures at Old Trafford, Hameed was batting like one whose only goal was survival. The biggest breakthrough, they agree, came in the first net session back after lockdown.

Hameed had spent two months playing little but air shots in front of the mirror and had retreated deep inside his own head. “He didn’t have his best net,” says Moores. The coach flicked him a ball and Hameed doggedly blocked it. “I told him I’d given Joe Root the same delivery three days before, and he’d hit it for four. I said: ‘Should you have attacked it?’”

Hameed hit out at the next two or three deliveries “and it was like he’d just let the cap off”, says Moores. “We started to see the true Has then.” Hameed chuckles at the memory. “From that moment onwards I changed the way I played,” he says.

There were technical adjustments to trigger movements and realignments that averted a tendency to wander too far to off stump; still, Hameed talks of it more as a homecoming. He had strayed too far from the path, “exploring other things”, convinced the grass was greener elsewhere.

“These last couple of years have brought me back really well to what I did previously. A lot of what I learned reminded me of things I used to learn from dad growing up and I started to feel really comfortable at the crease again.”

He seems pretty comfortable everywhere. The word from the Trent Bridge dressing room is that Hameed has the happy ability to get on with anyone and everyone – the kind of player a captain loves to have in his side and one reason he was made vice-captain at the start of the season. Learning to indulge his own “cheeky chappy” side has been part of Hameed’s progress. “He desperately wants to do well,” says Moores, “but he’s learned that his best way of doing that is with a smile.”

It is also possible the extreme highs and lows Hameed has already traversed have helped him to attain wisdom beyond his years – less Baby Boycott, more Baby Yoda. “I’d have developed anyway in that time,” he says, “but the experiences I’ve had forces a different kind of evolution on you as a person. Those difficult moments toughen you up and they also soften you in some places. It’s nice I’ve had those experiences quite young because now I can count on them to help me.”

It helped him to weather what could have been a fatal first-ball duck in his Test comeback at Lord’s. His faith has helped him keep a perspective on life that is just as important as resilience. He talks of coming to peace with his travails, seeing them as part of a much longer journey, and speaks movingly of how he went home to his parents when the pandemic first loomed – “I’d have struggled on my own” – and found an unexpected upside to lockdown.

“It was one of the first times I was able to spend the entire period of Ramadan with them. It’s quite an important and blessed month for us and we share a lot of things together, fasting and eating and praying together. So that quality time was really nice.”

Moores believes Hameed is much better prepared to perform at international level. “He’s started to understand his game in a much deeper way, which has allowed him to play well in different situations, under pressure.” He points out there is nothing particularly unusual about the journey the young batter has been on, just more exaggerated because he was so young when he first made his name. Hameed regrets none of it.

There is one more person who can take some credit for his return to international cricket. It is none other than Virat Kohli. “He’s someone I’ve admired immensely growing up,” says Hameed. “And he’s one person who continued to inspire me when things got difficult. Very open and honest about the fact he’s not been perfect, he’s made mistakes, but he’s had a mindset of learning every day and being willing to change. That kept me going.”

The two have not had a chance to talk during the series, although there was plenty of admiration on Kohli’s side five years ago, when he praised Hameed’s intelligent performances and identified him as a future star.

Connoisseurs of opening batting will be crossing everything this week at the Oval in the hope of seeing more. In an age of tonks and whizzbangs, of going aerial and hitting the maximum, Hameed’s is batting to soothe the soul and it carries the hope that somewhere, beneath the madness and mania of modern life, the longer view still exists.

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