Nicholas Hogg, at ESPNcricinfo,com, where the title is
Sweden isn’t known for its cricketers. Or even its baseball players. It’s a proud Scandinavian nation that gave the world Vikings, Abba, Volvo cars, and flat pack furniture. Not willow bats and leather balls. So the mystery deepens as to how a Swedish holidaymaker walked into a game of beach cricket in Sri Lanka, and started launching the local bowlers into the hotel pool.
Earlier this month I was – working, I shall quickly add, not sipping cocktails by that pool watching sixes splash into the deep end – in Negombo, a fishing town turned tourist hub just north of Colombo. Between interviewing crab fishermen for my writing assignment, I wandered across the sand to an ad hoc game of beach cricket. Joining the throng of keen Sri Lankans, players drawn from kids barely in high school to men who could be their granddads, there was a single foreigner – apart from me, of course. As I was there “working”, I decided to take some photos. Rather than walk in when the bowler started his run-up, I squatted in the covers and set my focus. The rough sand track was quickly deteriorating, and length balls either grubbed, leapt or stopped dead in the craters.
One of the locals, a lean young man who held the bat right at the top of the handle, fiercely clipped every other ball high over the boundary. The balls he missed darted past his leg stump, had him plumb lbw – if there were umpires – or scuttled across the beach like those famous Negombo crabs. Still, he hit high and hard, and entertained until a leading edge dropped into the tourist’s crocodile-snapping hands at mid-wicket.
Now, we cricketers are adept at judging, or thinking we can judge, ability by the slightest movement of our fellow players. If the tourist had turned his palms up to the sky and watched the ball into his hands, I’d have been certain he was an Aussie. He certainly wasn’t English, not with that caramel tan, and the shadow of a six-pack faithfully seeing his body out of a middle age where he’d obviously taken care of his physique.
Enter stage left: the Swede makes a quiet and deceptive appearance into the game at midwicket © Nicholas Hogg
Whoever he was, I guessed the locals thought him extraneous to their game until he took a catch. Just another idle foreigner curious about this sport of stick ball. Now he was part of the action he was asked if he wanted a bat. “Sure,” he shrugged his shoulders. “Why not?”
As he walked to the crease, I asked him where he was from.
“Have you played cricket before?”
The lean kid handed over the bat. The Swede looked at it, the bowed blade. He inspected the front, and then the back, and tested a grip. He held it like a man preparing to chop down a tree. A pine tree in a snowy forest. Then he faced the bowler. The locals smiled and readied for action, yet the energy of their knockabout had definitely been killed by humouring the foreigner, the smiling novice standing at the crease in his blue trunks and tanned chest, gently wafting the bat up and down.
To add some context to what happened next, Chris Gayle made history when he hit the first ball of a Test match for six. On his debut for the Authors CC, Iain O’Brien hit his first two balls out of the HAC ground in London, after a bottle of wine at lunch.
The Swede swiped his first ball – in any form of cricket – high over cow corner.
“Is that good?” he asked.
“Very good,” said the chuckling keeper. “A maximum.”
The Swede smiled. He had very white teeth. “I get another ball?”
“Yes, yes.” The keeper laughed. He shouted something in Sinhalese at the bowler, probably a bit of gentle abuse.
True, the first delivery had been a slow lob, some sympathy for the man holding the bat like a child. So the next ball was a yard quicker, and it pitched on a length around off stump. And the Swede scythed straight and hard, a sort of golf drive, except this target wasn’t sitting on a plastic tee, it was skewering off a sandy wicket and it didn’t matter because he’d absolutely middled it into the palm trees behind mid-on.
“This is fun,” said the Swede. He was already setting his stance, despite the fact the ball was still being retrieved from a litter of coconut husks.
The bowler, embarrassed by the sixes, hurled down the next delivery faster still. And the Swede did the same to that ball, and the two after. Now the Sri Lankans chattered. Some joked. Some looked annoyed. Then the lean kid, who’d cleared the boundary half as many times as the Swede, came on to bowl. He was sharp, slingy, firing in a yorker first ball.
The Swede picked him off his toes and put him over square leg. The lean kid shouted at a fielder. He wasn’t smiling like the Swede, who was now replaying some of his shots. He had no idea how good he was. He’d lifted six or seven consecutive deliveries over the rope. Sure, Sobers launched six of the best decades earlier, but that was on a grass wicket after years of practice.
It would take a ball to pitch and roll to bowl the Swede out. A freak delivery to dismiss the freak of nature. In total I counted eight or nine sixes in a row. A fifty in fewer than two overs.
“Is that it?” he asked, turning around to see the tennis ball stopped at the base of the stumps.
Nobody said anything, so I piped up told him that was it. “You’re out.”
“Oh.” He smiled with those very white teeth.”Thank you.” He gave the bat to the dumbstruck keeper, and waved good bye.
I watched him stride across the sand and back to the hotel, where he vanished into the dark of the lobby. And that was it.
I want to neatly finish this article with some sage words on unorthodoxy, how coaches can remove talent as much as they can make it. But it was more baffling than that. It was the greatest debut, and greatest final innings, I’ve ever seen. Certainly by a Swede.