Haseeb Hameed’s struggle for form is starting to become county cricket’s soap opera. Or perhaps a blockbuster about a Marvel superhero losing their powers.
It is now almost 18 months since the Lancashire opener was in anything that could be termed as form. That was during his brief stint at the top of England’s Test-match order in India.
He played three Tests in that series, making two half-centuries and leaving an enormous impression on the global cricketing public, at the tender age of just 19. He broke the little finger in his left hand in that third Test and was forced to head home early.
Hameed, 18 months later, has still only played three Tests.
The reason for that is remarkably clear – he’s barely made a significant score for Lancashire since. And yet the England talk still surrounds him like a fog. The questions, the speculation, the interest, is inescapable.
It was his incredible 2016 first-class season for the Red Rose that earned him England recognition. He amassed 1198 runs, notching four centuries and seven half-centuries. And he did so in a style that caught the eye. It was something of an old-fashioned style, one built on solidity and pragmatism, the kind of approach that it was felt had drifted out of a game so heavily influenced by the T20 era.
The nickname ‘Baby Boycott’ would be flung his way and would follow him around with irritating regularity, like a ground bee buzzing around your ears relentlessly on a spring afternoon.
His success therefore on his arrival on the Test stage brought great delight and attracted great interest. Here was a lad who could bat ‘properly’, as it were, with the capacity to occupy the crease and offer resistance against the new ball.
They were skills many felt had been sorely lacking by a string of England openers as the country sought to find a genuine successor to Andrew Strauss. Too many had come and gone, undone by carelessness, the loose shot, the lack of concentration.
His hand injury was rotten luck. It robbed him of a sensational start to a Test career and it robbed the country of the player we had collectively decided was to be our great white hope.
Come the following summer then, of 2017, it was naturally assumed that Hameed would return to England’s Test side – probably along with the man who had replaced him, Keaton Jennings, after his similarly impressive Test bow.
It didn’t go to plan.
Hameed’s start to the 2017 season was wretched. No score at all came his way and, as a result, neither did a Test recall. Jennings would feature, though his own low scores soon saw him replaced by Mark Stoneman – who is now the latest to underwhelm and come under scrutiny.
That’s fast-forwarding somewhat but, in the intervening period, Hameed’s form has not improved. 2017 yielded only three Championship half-centuries and a high-score of 88. His introduction to Lancashire’s 50-over side was a relative, though not resounding, success – but many blamed his move to white-ball cricket for his slump in form.
Correlation is not causation. His poor form began prior to the Royal London One-Day Cup and continued long after it.
So what is the cause? A technical flaw, issue of concentration, over-confidence, lack of confidence, the hand injury still troubling him, the pressure of England, all of the above?
Nobody knows, probably least of of all Hameed. He is working tirelessly to recapture that form and to score runs for Lancashire. Which he will. Eventually, it will happen.
But what is really fascinating is the continued interest and scrutiny in his performances and his chance of returning to the international stage. It’s 18 months since he was an England player, they’ve been through two openers since and are casting glances around for a third. Dozens and dozens of English-qualified players have scored more runs than him. But still his form is a cause of national interest.
Ahead of the latest England squad selection, Hameed still featured in the list of possible openers for consideration in almost every publication. He has a total of 35 runs in six innings this season. A high-score of 19. He was even dropped from the Lancashire side for the visit of Somerset, so it’s really quite remarkable that the England conversation is still happening.
In a round-up of the County Championship scores last week, Hameed’s duck against Nottinghamshire got a mention. Plenty of other batsmen got low scores, but his was worth a line.
Perhaps therein lies the secret for Hameed. To find a way to get scores that are un-noteworthy, but not so un-noteworthy to become in of themselves, noteworthy. Then, perhaps, the talk will cease and he can just bat.
So, why is there such an interest in him?
There are plenty of other England openers of recent times who’ve returned to county cricket and barely get a mention. People aren’t gathering like twitchers at a rare birds nest to find out Adam Lyth’s scores, for instance. Any of you reading this from outside the Leeds area might be forgiven for saying, ‘ah yes, I remember him’. He came, he went away again, nobody is all that fussed.
But they are fussed about Hameed. Collectively, the English cricketing public are like anxious parents when it comes to the now 21-year-old. We saw our super-child exceed expectations, he spoke fluently way before the expected age, but now can’t utter another word as children all around him are flourishing.
It is perhaps because, unlike the other openers England have tried, Hameed was never dropped. He was removed from the side because of that injury, therefore many see it as a question of when he will retake the spot that is technically still his.
Or maybe it’s because of that style, that way of batting that it was thought might have had been lost in the modern generation. As fans, we latched on to his approach with fondness and have that desire for him to succeed.
It’s also a result of the simple fact that England are still searching for the answer to their top-order conundrum. Stoneman’s indifferent form during the winter, coupled with a poor start to the 2018 season, has restarted the search again. In a funny way, Hameed could perhaps do with someone nailing down that spot for a while.
There’s a saying that you should not be concerned when they are talking about you, but be concerned when they are not. It’s a saying that has a lot of merit but, in this case, Hameed needs people to stop talking.
Lancashire batting coach Mark Chilton has echoed that sentiment. The England noise around him needs to quieten. Hameed has reached a stage where it’s his Lancashire place he’s fighting for, rather than England honours.
And yet, rest assured, he will return. The talent that was abundantly clear to all in 2016 hasn’t deserted him altogether, it’s there somewhere. He just needs to find a way to unlock it and churn out runs consistently once again. When that happens, the talk can start again.
Until that time, let’s just leave him be.