Cricket in sunny St John’s Wood is always an amazing affair – the razzmatazz, the buzz of the crowd, waving of flags… and a World Cup clash.
There was a sea of green inside and outside the Lord’s ground as Pakistan and South Africa faced off last Sunday. The ‘home of cricket’ was buzzing and will continue to do so when it hosts the final in a few weeks from now.
On my way inside Lord’s on Sunday, I passed what is now a regular fixture at ICC tournaments and the English home season – the Gray-Nicolls stand, the official equipment supplier for the tournament. Anyone who is anyone in cricket has used their equipment at one time or another. They have had legends such as Brian Lara, Matthew Hayden, Alistair Cook and David Warner, not to mention England’s Jonny Bairstow and Shadab Khan of Pakistan among others.
The staff at Gray-Nicolls have one of the hardest jobs in this tournament, having to travel up and down the country for matches. Alex Hohenkerk, who is the one of the master batmakers in the company, has the unenviable task of setting up the stand at various venues during the course of the tournament. In the short time Alex could spare, I tried to understand what happens during a World Cup day at a Gray-Nicolls stand.
“I finished at Old Trafford last evening after the West Indies game, packed up, jumped on the motorway and headed south towards London, reached London at 2 am and was at Lord’s at 7:30 this morning,” Alex told Sport360.
“I need at least five cups of coffee to keep me going during the course of the day. Trust me, I need them all.”
What makes their job tougher is the fact that the stand has to be up and running at the six main venues at the World Cup during match days.
“It’s a tough thing to do, especially when you have to get representatives out to showcase the brand, talk about it. And to do so we have to cover the ‘platinum’ grounds, which are Lord’s, The Oval, Edgbaston, Old Trafford, the Rose Bowl, and Trent Bridge. You have to get a full team on board… we’ve five here today at Lord’s,” Alex explained.
“Logistically it sounds like a nightmare, but we have a great team here and it’s not as bad as it may sound. It gives us a chance to discuss our brand all over the country, which we all love doing. I mean anyone who loves cricket, can talk cricket all day long. Our products are always evolving, albeit with a traditional touch, which is something that attracts many players to Gray-Nicolls.”
It’s not all networking and corporate engagements though. There is the odd occasion when a contracted player needs a bat. At such times, that work takes precedence. “We get the odd non-contracted player also asking us to repair a bat,” says Alex.
“We set up stall each morning. Then during the course of the day we get all sorts of questions, anything from are we using English willow, what’s the cellular infrastructure of a bat… and so on. Not to forget the demand for kits, even from players, while I’m trying to make five to six bats.”
During the course of this interview, Alex was asked to make another bat. It is a long process and I’m surprised he does it with the limited amount of tools at hand. Not wanting to take up any more of his time, I asked him the most important question – who made the Gray-Nicolls guitar? It’s a special guitar made in the shape of a bat by the manufacturers and a regular feature at stands at the World Cup.
“I did, though it was strung at a guitar specialist in Taunton, a real work of art if I do say so myself,” Alex said with pride.
I left Alex to carry on with his bat making, returning to the confines of the media centre, happy in my new-found knowledge of cellular infrastructure of a bat.
Over the course of the next two games India will face arguably the two teams with the greatest firepower in their batting line-ups at the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup.
First, they take on the West Indies at Old Trafford, knowing a victory would put them within touching distance of the semi-finals, before a clash with England at Edgbaston.
And as they prepare for the challenge of subduing the Windies’ big hitters on Thursday, bowling coach Bharat Arun believes there will be opportunities against such an aggressive team.
He said: “They’re an outstanding side and they play real positive cricket. We are aware of the challenges that exist in this game. And I think our plans are pretty much in place and we are up for the challenge.
“They do have their strengths. And also it’s a big challenge for the bowlers too – especially when they come after you. But whenever batsmen come after you, if you’re willing to look at it deeply, there is a chance for it – in it for the bowlers, and I think that’s what the bowlers would be looking to do.”
One player who has emerged with great credit from a bowling perspective for India has been Hardik Pandya, who played a crucial role in the wins over Afghanistan and Pakistan.
His development has given the Indian selectors greater flexibility, and Arun explained how he has expanded his repertoire in order to become a reliable option to bowl a full complement of ten overs.
He said: “Over a period time it was a big challenge for Hardik to bowl those 10 overs, and he realised that to be able to bowl those 10 overs he needed to develop a certain armoury in his bowling.
“And that’s what he’s worked on. He’s worked on his slow balls, his slow bouncers also, and also he’s worked on perfecting his bouncers. So all these put together have given him the confidence to go through those 10 overs.”
While India remain unbeaten, they were given a scare by Afghanistan in their last match, the first time their batsmen have not really fired in the competition.
Instead it was Mohammed Shami who saw the team home, taking a hat-trick in the final over to seal an 11-run victory, and Arun revealed how a conversation when Shami was dropped back in 2018 had helped him turn things around.
Arun said: “It was a pretty long conversation. Shami was in a totally different mindset. And we had to – the head coach, me, all of us had to sit down and speak to him and kind of draw a future map for him and had to convince him regarding that. And he was going through certain personal problems as well at that point in time.
“So beyond all that, I think what has really got him into the situation that he is, his ability to play cricket and that’s exactly what we made him focus on. And I think the rest is there for everybody to see.”
Eoin Morgan refuted Kevin Pietersen’s opinion that the England captain had ‘looked scared’ while facing Mitchell Starc in his side’s Cricket World Cup loss to Australia on Tuesday.
Former England batsman Pietersen made his claim on Twitter, adding: “I’ve not seen a captain show such a weakness for a while.”
Asked at the post-match news conference whether he had feared the Aussie fast bowler, Morgan said: “No. No. I didn’t feel like that way at all.”
Morgan managed just four runs in the match at Lord’s though, falling to Starc, and England lost the match by 64 runs to put their hopes of reaching the semi-finals in doubt.