In the final Harry Potter book our eponymous hero was presented with a golden snitch – if you are unaware of what a snitch is, imagine a golden object of your choice – bequeathed to him by (spoiler alert) his recently deceased headmaster and mentor Albus Dumbledore. On it he discovered a riddle: “I open at the close.” For months he and his friends Ron and Hermione puzzled over the phrase, but to no avail: “No matter how often they repeated the words, with many different inflections, they were unable to wring any more meaning from them.”
These days any fan of English cricket would solve the puzzle in seconds: it’s obviously Jason Roy. England’s white-ball opener and one-time magician of the willow wand has been teetering towards the end of something for the best part of a year, a man on the verge of a statistical breakdown, a reputational abyss.
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There is bad form, and then there is the trough Roy has been wading through. Between the end of a free-scoring three-game ODI series in the Netherlands at the start of last summer and the beginning of this year a player who had averaged 40.25 in the format managed just 20; in his last series of 2022 that slipped again to 13. In T20 internationals across the same period his average halved from 24.15 to 12.66. He had a huge impact on the first season of the Hundred in 2021, averaging an outstanding 37.20; last year he reached a meagre 8.50. He was left out of England’s squad for the T20 World Cup, went unsold in December’s IPL auction, and though he did get a deal with Paarl Royals in South Africa’s freshly launched SA20 he has averaged just 12.50 for them, and in his last five innings scored three, six, four, 21 and eight.
In any sport players demonstrate their quality by sustaining good performances over an extended period, which after 180 international appearances, 30 half-centuries and 11 tons Roy had very much done. Having done so a few bad displays can be dismissed as simply bad form, but there comes a time when those performances become such distant memories the player has to be reclassified. As Roy himself put it on Friday, he had come to risk being seen as “a guy who had a great career, smacked it everywhere, then all of a sudden had a year or whatever of crap and was a completely different player”.
It cannot have helped that while Roy’s credibility slipped, his erstwhile opening partner Jonny Bairstow was launching himself on precisely the opposite trajectory. For different teams, in different ways, what these two players produced in 2022 was so convincing, so compelling that nothing as temporary as form could cover it. Their displays were a cause for complete redefinition. “You start doubting yourself as a guy, becoming reserved,” Roy said.
And then, on Friday, having clung on to his place in the England side for just one more ODI series, he scored a spellbinding 113 against South Africa. Along the way there were moments – a beautifully-struck six off Aiden Markram; the absolute certainty with which he pulverised a free hit off Tabraiz Shamsi – of classic Roy. The thrill of sport is all about watching humans producing good, bad or indifferent individual performances in often extreme circumstances, but very occasionally it allows you to witness someone not just finding form, but finding themselves. Roy’s innings on Friday was one of those and the South African fielders, repeatedly sent scurrying after the ball, were not the only ones who were moved by the experience. “To mentally overcome doubts and thoughts I had in my head towards the latter part of last year, that’s probably the proudest I’ve been of myself,” Roy said.
The occasion was perhaps wasted on a mediocre crowd in Bloemfontein, with England continuing their global quest to illustrate the most ludicrous extremes of cricket’s currently bonkers schedule. The last white-ball cricket they played was in Australia last November, a series attached to the T20 World Cup in much the same way as the tail was once pinned to the donkey at kids’ parties: by people with no vision, expertise, inhibition or maturity, and possibly with the added handicap of being high on sugar. Australia’s players had just failed to get out of the group stage at their own tournament, while England’s either wanted to celebrate their success or were upset they had not been part of it. The one thing that united them all was that they had no desire to be there, and as it turned out neither did anyone else. Television viewers saw nobody watching games nobody wanted to play, a situation from which commentators gamely attempted to distract them by repeatedly shouting: “HE’S GOT HOLD OF THAT ONE!”
They then arrived in South Africa midway through the SA20, the country’s enthusiastically received new tournament, forcing it to shut down temporarily. England are World Cup champions in 20- and 50-over formats, a group that should be savoured and celebrated wherever they travel, but the game’s administrators contrived once again to turn them into interlopers. One local opinion piece before the series started predicted it would be ruined by the combination of “precious little advertising” and “ridiculous ticket prices” (ridiculousness is very much relative: the most expensive adult tickets cost 300 rand – about £14 – which in South Africa would get you 1.9 months of standard Netflix subscription or 5.7 Big Macs; the cheapest available adult ticket for an equivalent game in this country this summer costs £70, which is equivalent to 6.4 months of Netflix or 16.7 Big Macs – and still represents an absolute bargain compared with the cost of watching any of the Ashes).
As it turns out crowds have been decent and the cricket compelling. In Sunday’s second game Roy was beautifully bowled by Lungi Ngidi having scored just nine. It is probably a bit early to declare that the magic has returned, but for now it is enough that hope has.
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