December 22, 2016

What is a cameo?

We've all seen them: innings of throwaway flair that transport us. But how exactly do you define one?
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WATCH - Russell's explosive cameo

Karun Nair was six runs shy of India's third Test match triple-hundred. All he needed was the strike and a sturdy heart. The second was no problem; the first was at that moment being held by Ravindra Jadeja. With singles available all over Chennai, Jadeja instead lifted Moeen Ali's umpteenth offbreak into the stands, nicked the bowling, got past fifty and then holed out at cow corner, all before Nair's moment of history came along.

Jadeja had made 51 of his team's 759 for 7, a classic cameo, an innings that represented well the exuberant, eccentric cricket of its creator, and added the glazing to the cherry on top of India's cake.

The cameo innings is a staple of the game, shorthand for something we all understand but rarely define. The Botham cameo. The Gilchrist cameo. The Pietersen cameo. The Sehwag cameo. We know instantly what they are, what they mean, perhaps even what they looked like. But the term is elastic, woolly, somehow lacking in weight. It's a word that can be thrown around in many circumstances: Just made 16 from three deliveries in the last over of a Powerplay? Maybe a flowing 70, surrounded by three centuries on the scorecard? Perhaps a sexy, mid-afternoon 40-odd in one of those rare Champo appearances allowed by your central contract? Any and all could be cameos. It's a word that suggests a carefree spirit, a desire to entertain, to connect once more with the simple joy of putting bat on ball. By its very nature a cameo will not be enough to win a game. It will not always change one, because it often comes from a team already on top - or alternatively already beaten.

In truth, the cameo is odd, elusive, fleeting. If we were to lay out its parameters, what would they be?

First, duration. A cameo must be brief within the context of the game in which it's played. A Test match cameo traditionally falls anywhere between 40 and 70. It won't be the highest individual score of the innings, or even close to it. It may carry, if it has come from a Lara or a Pietersen or a Gower, an air of melancholy, of something that ended too soon and was perhaps thrown away. Anything more than 70 is too significant a score for the label, while a whirlwind 30-odd from a big-hitting bowler may sneak in under the wire.

White-ball cricket changes the game: a cameo here is more likely at the start or the end of the innings than in the middle. Again the ratio of runs to the overall score applies, although in T20 the potential for fireworks is such that a three-ball cameo is perfectly plausible.

It's a word that suggests a carefree spirit, a desire to entertain, to connect once more with the simple joy of putting bat on ball. By its very nature a cameo will not be enough to win a game

Second comes the type of player. Is there an archetype for the cameo? There certainly used to be: a louche, flowing talent; an entertainer not tied down by the rigours of the game, a Fry or a Compton or a Miller. The air of a maverick helped. Shahid Afridi seemed to spend most of his life playing cameo innings, and yet it's not simply shorthand for someone who cannot stay in. Belligerent allrounders, fed up with a scorecard in stasis and a game going nowhere, may pull one from the hat. And at heart a cameo comes from a player who is capable of more. It's a distillation of their overall game, a tantalising hint of possibilities for another day.

Third, and the real key to the cameo, is its relevance - or lack of it. It can't really be a heroic innings. Carlos Brathwaite's lupine last-over savaging of Ben Stokes in the World T20 final had all of the elements of a cameo, except that it was too meaningful. A cameo is no description for an innings that changed the mood of a nation and Brathwaite's life.

It won't be the focal point, either. A cameo will not carry the newspaper headlines; rather, it will get a mention in the last paragraph or two of a match report. Ultimately the cameo gains part of its emotional effect from its throwaway nature. It can feel like a piece of flamboyant frippery, an innings that briefly lifts spectators from the seriousness of combat and into another, headier realm. Or it can feel sad and winsome, a promise not quite fulfilled, a message from the game itself that cricket is capricious and never to be taken for granted.

Most importantly, a cameo lingers in the mind for longer than a brief and unimportant innings should. When I think of India's last day of batting in Chennai, Nair's vast knock is a haze of nimble-footed cuts and sweeps, where Jadeja's mad six is sharp in the memory. The true cameo contributes less to the scorebook and more to the soul of playing.

Jon Hotten blogs here. @theoldbatsman

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Lokesh on December 24, 2016, 19:24 GMT

    This article is such a nice read. A wonderful perspective.

    It is a word reserved for batsmen though. It would be nice to have a word like that for a bowler. How does a bowler entertain? A brilliant spell with no wickets.? Lots of oos and aahs, close calls, unlucky edges, enough to entertain but not enough to change the game? Thoughts..?

  • Steve on December 24, 2016, 15:35 GMT

    To me, a cameo, by definition has to be one of aggressive in nature, against the run of play, a purposeful attempt intended to change the momentum of the innings. A typical scenario in tests: India batting in 3rd innings trying to set a target for their opponents. Vijay and Pujara bat the first 2 sessions of the 4th day scoring about 120 runs in 60 overs. A frustrated captain asks one of the batsmen to speed up, when then promptly gets himself out stumped trying to hit an unfamiliar aggressive shot. Skipper sends in Umesh Yadav to throw his bat around without care for his wkt. Umesh then scores 35 runs of 20 balls and skies out. I guess one say Umesh played a cameo.

  • Richard on December 24, 2016, 8:10 GMT

    No mention of Buttler. Isn't he the cameo specialist ?

  • Karthick on December 24, 2016, 4:30 GMT

    @Sarvi That Tendulkar innings was the one that immediately came to mind after reading this article. Chasing 300 was unheard of those days, but after that blistering start from Sachin, the equation tilted ever so slightly in our favour, and we believed. Sachin's knock on the match had left an everlasting impression. As has Srinath's and Kanitkar's knocks. Saurav's century and Robin's 80 odd have faded into memory. The scorecard will tell you that Saurav and Robin played defining knocks. What it won't tell you is that those three cameos (41, 11, 5) are the knocks etched in the memory of a cricket fan somewhere.

  • Saravanakumar on December 23, 2016, 19:08 GMT

    The famous 1998 independence cup 3rd final. Tendulkar scored a blink you miss 41 of 26 balls. That cameo set up the famous chase for Ganguly, Robin Singh and Kanitkar's heroics. I remember another cameo in Sharjah during 1996 vs Pakistan. Tendulkar and Sidhu scored hundreds and India was already looking to set 280+ target. Azhar who was in poor form for a while played a blinder to score 29 of 10 balls including 24 of Ata Ur Rahman's last over and India passed the 300 for the first time ever in ODI.

  • Anthony on December 23, 2016, 17:23 GMT

    Superb, as ever, from Hotten. But I think he puts the numbers for the cameo too high. I'd say a cameo is more 30-50. 70 is a decent knock. And isn't Botham's 4 ball 16 the platonic ideal of the cameo?

  • Johann on December 23, 2016, 12:07 GMT

    upsetting bowlers' rhythms and a fielding captain's containment plans, but without being outright destructive - on top of the statistical ideas of 40-70 in test match content, that captures the idea

    60 of 40 in a T20 is not a cameo, it is like a ton in test match cricket

  • vishal5129529 on December 23, 2016, 10:55 GMT

    I'm reminded of Rahul Dravid's classic 50 off 22 balls against New Zealand in 2003. 13 years later, I still remember that innings like I saw it last week. Highlight of the innings was magnificent centuries from Sehwag and Sachin but the innings Dravid played has firmly stuck in my mind than those centuries.

  • vishal5129529 on December 23, 2016, 10:54 GMT

    I'm reminded of Rahul Dravid's classic 50 off 22 balls against New Zealand in 2003. 13 years later, I still remember that innings like I saw it last week. Highlights of the innings was magnificent centuries from Sachin and Sehwag but the innings Dravid played has firmly stuck in my mind than those centuries.

  • vishal5129529 on December 23, 2016, 10:43 GMT

    I'm reminded of Rahul Dravid's classic 50 off 22 balls against New Zealand in 2003. 13 years later, I still remember that innings like I saw it last week. Highlight of the innings was magnificent centuries from Sehwag and Sachin but the innings Dravid played has firmly stuck in my mind than those centuries.