Tuesday, July 23, 2024

I witnessed Josh Baker’s battle with Ben Stokes and saw his spirit shine through

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Bending his back knee, as he could in those days, Stokes “got under the ball” and levered it over the leg-side, five times in a row. It would have been shattering for any bowler, all the more so for one who had recently been representing England Under-19s.

Yet Baker did not hesitate in his run-up or delivery stride, or get rid of the sixth ball of his over meekly. He conferred long with his captain – not that there was much field-placing to be done as every Worcestershire fielder was guarding the boundaries – then fired a ball at the England captain’s legs.

It was a triumph of a kind. Stokes could not quite get under this ball and hit it cleanly. It still whistled past the umpire and bowler, and whistled past the sightscreen too, but on the bounce. If every ball in a cricket match is a battle, the honours were shared on this occasion. Stokes could not hit it for six to give Baker a permanent place in the records as the conceder of six sixes in an over. It went for only four, and 34 off the over.

It was cricket at its best when Stokes messaged Baker after this game: he said he would have tried to take any spinner down, even – or especially – Nathan Lyon. Baker replied to the effect that he was still very much up for future challenges.

Only a fortnight ago I saw Baker playing for Worcestershire at Kidderminster. He was fielding at extra-cover and the ball was pushed towards him as a Somerset batsman played forward to a seamer. Yet the ball eluded his hands, and tapped him on the ankles, and trickled behind Baker for a single. It made one realise how young he still was, only 20, with his whole career to come; and for any 20 year-old nowadays, who is not obsessive, it may not be easy to concentrate all day long.

When a ball was hit to his left a couple of minutes later, Baker was alert and swift, flinging the ball back to his wicketkeeper. He was reassuring his team-mates that he was back in business, that he was “working hard” as they say nowadays when playing cricket.

And Baker could have been forgiven for day-dreaming when he misfielded. It might only take one injury to Tom Hartley, England’s left-arm spinner in India, for him, Josh, to be on England’s plane to Pakistan for the Test series this autumn. Stranger things are happening in English cricket.

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