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Shai Hope – at odds with the world

Shai Hope – at odds with the world

The world of cricket has drifted into a state of revelry where instant serotonin satisfies the masses. As a result, the bats come out stronger, trying to hit every ball out of the park. The time taken to build innings has been reduced to a mere protocol to checking the surface and how fast the ball comes on to the bat. Once that has been accomplished, it’s fireworks time. Unleash the bat and wield it like a sword. The people love it, the experts love it and who can blame them.

However, somewhere in all of that explosiveness and ornamental hitting, Shai Hope defies the norm and stands out as a rare enigma. He’s not your average ODI cricketer – to be indispensable in the hard-hitting West Indies squad with a paltry strike rate of just 74 is an act of defiance and riot. It is all the more beguiling and profane at the same time given that it’s 2019 and the template for batting has been revolutionized by England.

Shai Hope, however, is his person and has no concerns given all of that. His average in ODIs is 52.94 and while the masses look up and count the sixes that have been dislodged to the stands, Shai Hope stands and builds and builds and more often than not, delivers and continues as one of the best batsmen of this generation.

Ever since Hope made his debut in November 2016, only the outliers Virat Kohli who has scored 3954 runs and Rohit Sharma with 3750 runs have more runs to their name than the young Windies batsman who is coming of age. Only Virat has faced more balls than him in this period. If his average stands out as majestic on one end of the spectrum, his strike rate lingers at the other end of the spectrum. Of the 61 batsmen that have faced more than 100 deliveries since November 2016, Shai Hope has the third-lowest strike-rate of 74.19. Only Rahmat Shah (71.23) and Craig Ervine (72.73) have it worse than him.

These are the contrasts that make Hope stand out as an enigma in world cricket, suggesting that his conventional scoring methods of the past are perhaps more efficient and there’s something in that that more than meets the eye. In the first ODI, his 149-ball ton against India was the slowest in One Day International cricket since July 2010, the slowest against India since 1991, but the undeniable assurance that he provided from one end of the pitch gave Shimron Hetmyer the license to do the big-hitting from the other end, thus, stealing a famous win in the subcontinent in which Shai Hope did not register the headlines but the heist was his planning and execution.

And where Hetmyer failed to Vishakhapatnam, Nicholas Pooran took the reins, even though it ended up in a defeat. In a fragile batting lineup that focuses mostly on power and explosion than resolve and determination, Shai Hope becomes indispensable, setting a standard for the batting plan. And the timing has also been apt for his non-conventional revelation as bowlers prioritize taking wickets more than stopping runs in ODIs. This is why Hope becomes all the more important because it’s the quantity of the runs he provides to the side that stands out at the day, and not so much the tempo at which they arrived, according to another legend of West Indies cricket, Ian Bishop.

“From the beginning of his career, Shai has been a high volume scorer and he’s remained that way. That works for West Indies because he provides solidity to an ODI team that hasn’t always shown the propensity to bat through their 50 overs,” Bishop tells Cricbuzz.
“I loathe criticizing anything he does. Because, after all the great players we have had – the likes of Sir Vivian Richards and Brian Lara – I don’t know if any West Indies batsman after 70 matches has scored the volume of runs that Shai has. He’s doing what this current team requires of him right now. He provides that solidity. But as he and as West Indies move forward, when they come up against the way England are playing, the way Australia is starting to play, with the scores going up all the time because of the fielding restrictions, when let’s say they are setting a total, that’s when Shai will have to get his strike rate in the 80s.

“It’s not a criticism of him. He’s done it before. You look at the start of the India tour last year until the last game of Ireland tri-series in 2019. Not only was his average very high during that period but his strike rate was bordering in the 90s. It shows that without taking risks, Shai can improve that as well. He has the ability; it’s just a matter of this team getting enough confidence.”

“He had received some criticism just before that India tour, in the third ODI against Bangladesh at St Kitt’s,” Bishop remembers. “His strike rate wasn’t great and there were people who, fairly or unfairly, felt he should have scored quicker because the result of the game depended on it. That could have been a catalyst for him to come to India and not just continue scoring runs but score them at a tempo. The hunger continued but his rotation of strike was better, and his tempo was better.”

There was little looking back for Hope since his career and his unorthodox methods continued to take flight. He followed that up with what was a good series in the tour of Bangladesh where he amassed 297 across three games with his average close to a hundred but scoring at a strike rate of 89. He had a better tri-series involving Bangladesh and hosts Ireland the following year scoring 470 runs across five games but his strike rate was 96 this time around. It put him in the place to be an indispensable starter for the all-important ICC Cricket World Cup in England and Wales where his returns (274 runs in 9 games) had more room for improvement.

However, concerning the World Cup, it must also be mentioned that Shai Hope averages 115, with 6 hundred and 5 fifties to his name, as an opener- a position he had to concede to Chris Gayle alongside mainstay Evin Lewis in the World Cup lineup. And his average dropped to 37.23 where he was asked to bat in the World Cup which showed for the decline in returns.

“He’s an opener. The stats and numbers show that, whenever possible, he should be opening the batting. But in that World Cup, who would you have replaced? When Gayle came back, having had the kind of series against England where he virtually carried the West Indies, it’s difficult. And some of the best players in the world have batted at three.”

Shai Hope is back at where he delivers from the best- at the top of the order. Under new leader Kieron Pollard who has always backed the talent of Shai Hope, there seems to be a lot more clarity on what his importance is to the West Indies side. He’s the anchor that holds the entire team together as the others keep on stepping their foot on the accelerators, quite often in a most reckless fashion. Shai Hope stands for the opposite and when he’s doing what he’s doing, there should not be any talk about why he should betray his style because he’s great at what he does, according to Pollard.

“Shai is very, very important,” Pollard stresses when talking about him in Visakhapatnam. “Sometimes, we get carried away by so many stats and so much data that you forget the importance of how you build a team at times. You can’t build a team with guys who only play shots. You got to have an anchor, you got to have somebody who can hold one end. If you look at the way we’ve played our cricket over the last few years, we’ve lost wickets early up.”

West Indies strike at 86.70 in the matches he’s featured in. Hope’s average in wins also shoots up to 82.80, and drops to 36.28 in losses — a good enough indicator of how crucial he’s to the side, and how more than capable West Indies could be when they have wickets in hand.

“You’ve got to build a foundation first,” Pollard said. “You can’t build the top part of the house and then look to build the bottom. We’ve identified Shai as the guy to lay the foundation for us. When you look at his stats opening the batting it’s phenomenal. You look at guys around him, the strike rates are pretty, pretty high. That’s how you get an average, right?”

Shai Hope is not just a great batsman that betrays the norms, he is also an excellent wicket-keeper. That is another pivotal role he plays to lay the foundation for the team. Of all the wicket-keeper batsmen since his debut, Hope has the most runs to his name – 908 runs clear of the next best on the list, South Africa’s opener, and skipper Quinton de Kock.

Shai Hope is the perfect antithesis to how West Indies approach games and perhaps, that is what makes him all the more essential because, in some ways, he’s the reason why they can open their hands and wield power like Goliaths. He’s scored over 1300 runs this year and takes about 125 balls on average to score his hundreds. Hope’s style means he won’t attract the glamour that usually follows explosive cricketers – there’s no IPL contract for him on the horizon either given that he has only two ODI hundreds that have arrived at more than run-a-ball pace.

However, Shai Hope must stay true to his self and his cricket and he must remind himself. “My role is to stay at one end, knock around the bowlers, and not give them any wickets,” he puts it. And it’s pretty sorted from a man so seemingly out of place in this brash West Indies side.

Shai Hope has carved out a unique template for himself in cricket that is so nostalgic of the past and he will only get better and better and better at it.

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