It was shortly before tea at a clammy, claustrophobic Headingley when Jack Leach stepped up to bowl the final over of the session. After a promising start Leach had begun to lose the thread a little, and so had England.
Henry Nicholls had dropped anchor for 98 balls; Daryl Mitchell had simply picked up where he left off at Lord’s and Nottingham; the partnership between them had lasted 20 overs and was slowly squeezing the air out of the day.
By now, you’ve probably seen what happened next. In a way, the virality of the moment – the way social media can beam it to a billion mobile devices within a matter of seconds – quickly eroded its effect. The thunderous straight drive by Nicholls, the evasive squirm by Mitchell at the other end, the looping deflection off his hanging bat, the simple catch by a disbelieving Alex Lees: as with all content, watch it enough times and before long it all begins to feel a little inevitable, almost predestined.
The closest parallel, perhaps, was with the freak boundary off Ben Stokes’s bat in the final over of the 2019 World Cup final. Of course, that won England a World Cup, whereas the stakes here were on a different scale entirely. Indeed, given that Nicholls’s dismissal simply brought in Tom Blundell, who insouciantly accompanied Mitchell to stumps and hauled New Zealand back into the game, you might argue it barely affected the course of the match at all.
And yet for the spectators at Headingley on Thursday you suspect it will be the passage of play they remember above all others; the one they will discuss around the dinner table; the one they will recount in years to come. For Leach, coming into this game short of form and nursing a poor record against left-handers, it may prove a quietly pivotal moment. For Nicholls, too, trying to bat himself back into nick after missing the Lord’s Test with Covid, it was the sort of spectacular injustice upon which entire careers can change direction.
The moment itself largely defies analysis. On the television commentary Nasser Hussain gamely tried to explain the wicket as the product of a Stokes field change just a few balls earlier, bringing long-on up to save the single and encouraging Nicholls to go over the top. Which, while intuitively plausible, is a bit like trying to explain the phenomenon of Jesus walking on water in terms of non-Newtonian fluid viscosity and shear stress. There are times when you just have to sit back and let the bafflement wash over you.
So, the deflection. As the ball whistles towards him, umpire Richard Kettleborough takes desperate evasive action. Mitchell does the same, and yet by some kind of irrepressible muscle memory, he still manages to meet the ball with the middle of his bat. That’s how well Mitchell is playing at the moment: he can middle the ball even when he’s trying to avoid it entirely. Had it struck literally anything else – the edge of the bat, the toe, the handle, the glove, Nicholls himself – there is no conceivable way it could have flown 25 yards through the air for Lees to catch.
Earlier this week the organisers of the Caribbean Premier League announced a new short-form tournament called The 6ixty, to begin later this year.
Accompanying the launch was an explanatory video, filmed by Chris Gayle with all the dead-eyed energy of a man trying to flog diet supplements on cable TV at 4am. Gayle dolefully talked us through the rules of the new competition. Sixty balls. Six wickets per team. A bonus Powerplay over for sides who hit two sixes in the first 12 balls. A “mystery free hit”, the timing of which will be decided by a live online vote. A quick-fire general knowledge round. A sexy hideaway fitted with infrared cameras. Live panthers.
On first glance, the 6ixty feels like another empty cricketing gimmick: a further blurring of the line between sport and game show. But the really interesting part is how desperately it strives to manufacture the randomness that five-day cricket incorporates naturally. In a way, this is the paradox of short-form cricket: as the format contracts and the range of possible outcomes narrows, it increasingly needs to generate artificial chaos in order to avoid becoming formulaic.
Of course, Nicholls’s dismissal might just as easily have occurred in a Twenty20 or a Ten10. But it wouldn’t have had the same startling effect. It would, instead, have felt like a mere extension of the product: simply the latest in a string of outlandish events. This is the problem with constructing a sporting universe in which supposedly miraculous feats occur every other ball: when the real miracles, happen, they’re much harder to spot.
Which is why, on a slow and taut day in Leeds, in the 2,467th men’s Test match, a single flukish deflection felt so special. It wasn’t the result of a grand masterplan. It wasn’t written into the rules. It wasn’t voted into existence by television viewers. It happened for no reason, and if you watch Test cricket until your dying day you might never see it happen again. Here, perhaps, was the real moral: if you want something to appear out of nothing, you need to let nothing happen in the first place.