It is easy to forget in the middle of all that sound and light, the frivolity in the stands – not to mention, in Abu Dhabi, a PA system overseen by the holder of the World’s Most Excited Man title – that T20 is a brutal business.
Cricket has always been a cruel sport. In the shortest form that cruelty becomes a relentless thing, meted out in the brightest of lights. Plenty of cricketers around the world have been a little chewed up by this during the past 18 months on the franchise treadmill. Bowlers, in particular, need the skin of a rhino, the mind of a chess master, the long‑suffering spirit of a heavyweight sparring partner. Sometimes you just have to laugh, too.
Tymal Mills came on to bowl the 10th over of the Bangladesh innings in Abu Dhabi. The score was 49 for three, the game already being reeled in by England’s powerplay bowlers. The start from Mills wasn’t great. He bowled a little too short to batters who love to swish away, sat right back on their stumps. The over went for 11. Mills shrugged, grinned at a comment from Eoin Morgan, and set that razor sharp strategist’s brain whirring, calibrating his adjustments.
He was back for the 16th over, setting off with the usual hitch-kick start to his run, like a man sparking the engine on his moped. From there, in his last three overs Mills took three for 16 as he ran right up and down the scales of his death-bowling skills, from the weird, dipping yorker, to back-of-the hand slower ball of death, to the throat-singeing bouncer.
Mills was a late addition for England, a death specialist at a tournament where those skills are clearly going to be vital. Aged 29, this was only his seventh international game. England have basically let him manage his own time, with an understanding they might just send up the bat signal in a moment of tournament need.
There will be more hostile theatres than this in the next three weeks, more brutal adversaries in that game of bluff than the Bangladesh lower order. But two things do seem certain. Mills won’t blink. Eight months ago he was wearing a back brace he removed only to shower or sleep. Six years ago he was told playing cricket could end up killing him. And yet, here he is, bowling 89mph in a World Cup game, long‑hauling his way across the globe. Finding the right length under the Abu Dhabi sun? Pfft.
And secondly, it was just beautiful to watch, a performance of skill, bluff and misdirection, tucked way in the middle of an utterly clinical England win. Bangladesh had won the toss and batted. Moeen Ali was exceptional once again opening the bowling, varying his flight and pace with great skill, and drawing both openers into half-baked slogs. Shakib Al Hasan appeared, the face that launched a thousand gels and ointments and car batteries back home, but Chris Woakes did for him with a short ball that was scooped into the arc of a magnificent scramble-dive from Adil Rashid.
And so on to Mills, and a spell that will carry a wider significance for England’s World Cup hopes on grippy, tiring pitches. The first ball of that three-over death spell was a beauty. Mahedi Hasan tried a pre-hatched scoop, but found himself watching and waiting as the slower ball floated down, before bunting it straight to Woakes.
The next ball was 89mph and tight on off stump. The quicker balls from Mills are horrible for lower order players, skiddy, vicious left-arm stuff from the same smooth run. Often this feels a little fingers-crossed, a man running in to bowl on a tightrope. But right now Mills is in mid-season form. He was superbly miserly in the domestic Hundred, exceptional in the Blast. He has five for 44 in eight overs so far at this World Cup. In Abu Dhabi Nurul Hasan hacked blindly at a couple of 69mph slower balls, then saw a bouncer clip his glove, head jerked back, a man all at sea. Next up Mustafizur Rahman was deceived first ball by a dipping yorker that pinged back his leg stump and left Mills on a hat-trick next game.
England galloped home chasing 124, as Bangladesh chose to explore any lurking weakness in Jason Roy’s game against wide long hops and Dawid Malan found some rhythm at the other end.
It seems unlikely England will have an easier day at this World Cup. For Mills the real jeopardy awaits. A little later in the day David Wiese could be seen running through his own variations as Namibia restricted Scotland to 109, and death bowling is likely to become one of the key arts of this World Cup.
The Bangladesh lower order presents its own challenges. Will he be able to produce something similar against the best players in the world, those freaks with the fast-twitch forearms and the bulging pupils, the ones who see it right out of the hand, who give you no margin?
England have their own modern history of doomed variation merchants, from the age of Dernbach to the recent struggles of Tom Curran and Pat Brown. Mills has one or two things on his side. First, he has genuine speed and an action that doesn’t really change. Second, he really does seem to love this stuff, a genuine bowling nerd out there applying his science, and putting on a show of short-form art in Abu Dhabi.