Batman begins: meet Haseeb Hameed, English cricket’s rising star – The Guardian
As the Observer’s photographer, Murdo, is about to take his first picture, Haseeb Hameed moves a step to the side, like he might do on the cricket field to interrupt the run-up of a bowler while he readies himself. “Hang on,” he says, before standing on one leg, hopping for balance. He removes first one sock, then the other and slips his bare feet back into his loafers. Hameed continues: “It was cold when I put them on this morning.”
It’s still pretty chilly for bare ankles now, to be fair, as we stand on a terraced street in south Bolton in mid-January. Murdo, as Scottish as shortbread, looks on approvingly. “You’re a hard man,” he says, before clicking the shutter.
In a fledgling career as a cricketer, 20-year-old Hameed – “Has” to his friends – has earned a reputation for toughness. Last November against India, in his third Test match for England, a ball snapped a bone in his little finger. England were getting thumped and Hameed could, and probably should, have retreated to the sick bay. But he came out for the second innings and batted with bravery and no little skill to score 59 not out, with only two paracetamol tablets to numb the pain. A “very special knock” said his captain Alastair Cook. Virat Kohli, the supreme stylist in cricket right now, was impressed, too. “You can sense it, this guy is intelligent,” the India captain commented. “He’s a great prospect for England and he’s definitely going to be a star in all forms.”
This is high praise and there are signs that we could be seeing the emergence of a very special talent. Aged eight, a tiny Hameed tried out for Lancashire under-11s; they decided he was too small, but he forced his way into the team the next year. At 13, Worcestershire tried to lure him to play for them, offering a boarding scholarship to the illustrious Malvern College – effectively worth £100,000 – as an incentive. Lancashire made a counter-offer, including a place at the fee-paying Bolton School, and Hameed stayed.
He had started playing against adults when he was 12 in the gnarly Bolton League and he became known locally as “Baby Boycott” – after the legendary England opening bat, Sir Geoffrey (though one suspects that the Greatest Living Yorkshireman is more of a socks-on guy). Opposing bowlers did not go easy on the diminutive Hameed, certainly not after he flayed them around the park. Last winter he became England’s youngest-ever opening batsman and, in short order, the first teenager to score two half-centuries for England in Test cricket.
Not bad for a kid who was trained by his dad on a concrete playground behind their house, and who still lives at home with his parents in a modest semi in Bolton. We meet at Farnworth Social Circle, Hameed’s first proper cricket club. It’s out of season, so we are let into the pavilion by the chair of Bolton Cricket League, John Hutchinson. As we wait for Hameed, Hutchinson talks about how he scored a century on his debut for the second XI – a precocious achievement for a child playing with seasoned grown-ups. When Hameed arrives bang on time, in a decidedly unfootballery Vauxhall Corsa, I ask him if he recalls the match. Sports people often have a savant’s recall for their past performances and Hameed is no different. “Actually, my first match for the second team was at Tonge,” he replies. “We bowled first and I got four wickets with my leggies [leg breaks] and then I got 83 not out chasing it, I think. I got my first 100 here, I don’t know how many games later.”
It is the day after his 20th birthday – big night? “Nah,” laughs Hameed, rubbing his elephantine little finger, still swollen from the surgery. “Just a nice meal at home with the family.” The highlight was his kit sponsor sending him a miniature set of gloves and pads for his four-year-old cricket-mad nephew. “He came out to India this winter and since then he’s been pestering everyone just to throw balls at him,” says Hameed. “And it’s funny because every time he wants to play, my mum and dad get memories of me wanting to do the same thing.” Hameed stops, ponders. “But it was weird, turning 20,” he goes on. “It sounds so… old.”
Hameed’s father, Ismail, and mother, Najma, moved to England in 1969 from the Indian village of Umraj in Gujarat. “We’ve never spoken about why they came here,” says Hameed, “but it’s a very small village, so I imagine it was to earn a decent living.” They settled in Bolton and Ismail became a driving instructor. The couple had five children: three boys, two girls.
Ismail was a fanatical cricketer, an opening bat and spin bowler, who played semi-professionally for Huddersfield Cricket Club. According to family lore, after one match, Iqbal Qasim – an international player for Pakistan – sought out Ismail in the car park and told him to go back to India and play cricket seriously. Hameed sighs affectionately, like he has heard the story many hundreds of times: “Apparently he said, ‘If you don’t play Test cricket for India, I’ll shave my ’tache off!’”
It didn’t happen for Ismail, but he began to wonder if his sons could make it as professional cricketers. The elder boys, Safwaan and Nuaman, both showed promise, but started to play seriously only as teenagers, comparatively late. That left Haseeb, who was born a decade later. When he was seven or eight, Ismail had an operation that meant that he could no longer work as a driving instructor. The family restructured: Safwaan went to work in a call centre for NatWest and became the main breadwinner, while Ismail became more involved in Haseeb’s cricket development.
This was clearly not an easy time for the Hameeds, and Haseeb is well aware of the sacrifices that his family made. “Obviously Dad stopped working, Mum has never worked, so my brother had to start working and unfortunately that meant having to put a stop on his dreams of playing professional cricket,” he says. “And Dad became not a full-time cricket coach as such, but he dedicated all his time towards me.”
Safwaan, who is 31 now, puts it simply: “Being the eldest son, I had to provide, you’ve got to pay mortgages and stuff like that, don’t you?” he says. “And we all knew that Has was a special talent. He was naturally so gifted; people would just watch him and be in awe of how good he was for his age. My dad’s always had a dream of one of his sons playing for England and for Has to finally achieve that is a great satisfaction for all of us really.”
Practice mostly took place on the playground behind their house, off the busy Halliwell Road. Ismail was particularly strict on technique. His heroes were not the showy, flamboyant batsmen, but the ornery, belligerent ones: men like Boycott, India’s Sunil Gavaskar and the Australian Ian Chappell. With Haseeb, he set out to create a cricketer with bulletproof methods; a player who was equally proficient against fearsome fast bowling and tricksy spinners.
“The process of learning the basics of the game happened quite early for me,” says Hameed. “Sometimes you just play the game and whack the ball as far as you can and you enjoy the game – and that was still the case for me, I was still loving it, but I was also learning the important aspects of the game with it. So it was always me trying to pursue a career in cricket from a very young age.”
In the summers Hameed, who is a Muslim, would play cricket, sprint off to mosque and then back to finish the game. “Personally I don’t want to put my success down to talent,” he goes on. “I don’t really think of it that way. I’m a believer in work.”
At home, the family tried to ensure there weren’t too many distractions, that he didn’t waste days playing computer games. To this day Hameed tends to be playing cricket, thinking about it or watching Manchester United. “Any normal child from the age of 13 or 14 would be hanging round with mates, playing football and all the rest of it,” says Safwaan. “But Has has just kept himself focused on cricket. And that’s what has got him to where he is now.”
The emergence of a new hero for English cricket is rather timely. It has been a wobbly few months for the national team. They lost five out of the seven Test matches they played this winter in Bangladesh and India, and finished the year fifth out of 10 in the world rankings. Alastair Cook, the country’s longest-serving Test captain, stepped down in February, admitting he didn’t have the energy to take the team forward. Meanwhile, the formidable South Africans await this summer, with the supreme test of an Ashes tour in Australia looming in November.
Hameed, who has only played three matches for England, is wary of getting ahead of himself, but you can feel his eyes scanning the horizon. “In terms of watching the game, my first real memory is the 2005 series against Australia,” he says, citing the thrilling matches where Andrew Flintoff et al regained the Ashes after 16 years. “I was eight years old then, so that’s the one that inspired me the most.”
The novelty of British-born Asians representing England is long gone, but Hameed still hopes he can be an example to others. According to official stats, almost 40% of recreational players in the UK are of Asian heritage, but only recently has that been reflected in the England test team. “I want to be a role model for the next generation of people,” he says. “To represent it well.”
He’s proud, too, to be a positive story coming out of Bolton, a town that is rated among the most deprived in England. “I remember when Amir Khan went to the Olympics at a young age and won silver,” he says. “You had someone representing Bolton on a world stage and so, of course, it inspired me. When he was coming out in his ring entrance and they said, ‘the Pride of Bolton Amir Khan’, it kind of stuck with me.”
This afternoon, the people of Bolton mostly seem a bit bemused why a young guy, with no socks on, is having his picture taken. A postman stops for a selfie, but most stare for a few seconds and move on. When the photographs are finally done, Hameed hastily grabs his jacket and retrieves his socks from his pocket. If he can show similar fortitude in the Ashes, then the Australians will be in for a fight.
So, I ask, how does standing around in the cold posing for the Observer compare to batting in a Test match with a broken finger? Hameed gives the question serious thought: “This is harder,” he decides.
Investec is the title sponsor of Test match cricket in England (investec.co.uk/banking)
Batman begins: meet Haseeb Hameed, English cricket’s rising star – The Guardian