About Cricket – London — Twenty thousand Englishmen rush at the enemy. Hoarsely yells, prompting his champion to strike the flesh. And then it happens: the enemy hits. Yes! Not wanting to show his pain, he takes off his helmet. Blood is the most desirable sight – oozing. His entourage rushes to his aid – he tries to be nonchalant, but the concussion is a problem. The audience is delighted.
Are they the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings, thirsting for Norman blood? Or Wellington’s men at Waterloo, bayonets rigged for the French? No, it’s June 2005 at Lord’s Cricket Ground, the spiritual home of cricket worldwide. And the bloodthirsty crowd of 20,000 mostly wear jackets, brogues and club ties. The rest of the week you will keep them at work in arbitration.
And the blood? Of course, the Australian is an ancient enemy, a rival from the ashes, as the trophy of every five-match tournament between England and Australia is famous. What a start it was and there are about 24 more days of such a great fight to come.
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In fact, the 2005 Ashes series turned out to be the greatest I’ve ever seen, with the likely outcome visible almost every hour. There were times when I had to leave the TV, my anxiety was too much. (The viewing can be more nerve-wracking than the game itself.) I still can’t watch highlights of the second leg, which England won by the biggest margin in the competition’s 123 years, without my pulse racing. It also remained the only time I attended a victory parade: that day Trafalgar Square in London was flooded with happy jackets and ties.
England v Australia in cricket may be one of the oldest sporting rivalries, but it is hardly the most chivalrous. Rather, this is when this so-civilized game really reveals its hideous, cruel essence. Cricket is perhaps the only team game in the world where a player is perfectly permitted to make a move whose sole purpose is to injure, if not hospitalize, an opponent. In cricket it is not a foul; no penalty is awarded and the result is not calculated. Because central to this gentleman’s pastimes – whether they’re playing on country grass or at Lord’s – is the “bouncer”.
For the uninitiated: In cricket, the bowler (think bowler) bounces the ball before it reaches the batsman (batsman). Counterintuitively, a ball, or “pitch,” that reaches the batter without bouncing (“a full pitch”) is usually a hit. A bowler shoots at “stumps” – three wooden sticks that create a target nearly hip-high and nine inches wide. Hit them and the batter will come out (from one of the two pitches).
For the team on the field, this is the desired result. So, as a general rule, the bowler hits the ball near the batsman, aiming at these stumps. However, if a fast bowler forces the ball to “throw” — that is, land — halfway down the 22-yard track, it will most likely bounce upside down by the time it reaches the batter. Hitting the stumps is out of the question: the bouncer’s intended target is the upper body or the batsman’s head. The projectile is a red patent leather ball weighing 5.75 ounces and slightly harder than a baseball, traveling at about 90 miles per hour.
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Of course, the bowler will argue that he hopes the batsman will use his bat to defend, that the ball will fly at an angle, and that the batsman will come out when the ball is caught. It’s just a necessary look: a bowler’s primary aim is to terrorize the batsman, and if his cheekbone is broken in the course of that campaign of terror, well, that’s unfortunate.
What are the options for a batsman when faced with this attack? He has about half a second to make a decision, from the time the ball leaves the bowler’s hand to the time it reaches him. The temptation is to defend myself with a club (my standard method) despite the risk of being caught. Those with spectacular reflexes (not me) can turn and swing the bat to “hook” the ball on the move. The more cautious batsman keeps his eyes on the ball—tempting but fatal, though wincing and blinking—and walks away like a dodger. A really steely player (never me, if I can help it) decides to “transfer”: holding the club to the side, he lets the ball hit him on the chest, shoulders or back.
This is just a prologue. If you survived that birth, pretend you’re not worried. You look around as if planning your next goal kick: can you hit those chestnuts outside the pub? In fact, you are sweating for the next ball.
Unlike a baseball batsman, a cricketer has to keep his head in line with the flight of the ball racing towards him. Since the ball has an equatorial seam that is about an eighth of an inch, the bowler plans to use this asymmetry to cause the ball to deflect after it bounces. Most of the batsmen were out because the ball flew off the outside edge of the bat and was caught by the keeper (presumably the catcher). The only way to avoid this is to watch the ball in a straight line and instantly read the movement of the seam.
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That is the cumulative power of fear. The first ball almost got you to the dentist; So, in less than a minute, will you dare to line up with the next missile?
That’s what the best players do. Partly this is a matter of technique and practice, but in essence – and therein lies the Englishness of it all – it is a simple necessity. In a team of 11 players, only six or seven of you are selected based on your batting skills. You have a duty to kill; this is what you should do.
All this and more was at stake when, not long ago, on a hot, humid Saturday in the London Borough of Dulwich, I responded to an invitation to speak for Writers Guild XI. How does an Oscar nomination or a Bafta award compare?
The locker room brought the first unpleasant shock: there are few writers; The team seemed to consist mostly of die-hard cricketers, underdogs. I was counting on regular players of all ages, not a team of muscular young mares. There was another shock on the pitch: our opponents, supposedly the Royal College of Surgeons XI, looked almost identical.
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In what I must admit became my retirement game, I was ready, pumped and fortified. The bowler’s first four deliveries were “length”, bouncing just above the knees. I went forward and met the ball with a hard straight club each time.
After the last one, the bowler walked across the field to me. Did he want to discuss the flow of the game, the weather, maybe the middle of my last play? No, he said only two words—”Next…”—and made a movement, tapping his grass-stained fingernail against his front teeth.
He was as good as he said. I saw the ball fly out of his hand like a thunderbolt from Zeus and bounce across half the field. I turned my head and felt my balls come apart. A weakness trembled in his knees, which could not subside. And a wave of sadness that pointed to nothing but my advanced years.
This is the power of fear. You watch the fast bowler gradually increase in size. You tell yourself to switch to the ball – “smell the skin” as your old high school coach taught – but suddenly your feet feel like they’re stuck in cement. The ball breaks through your defense and hits the stumps. The bouncer did his job.
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Succeeding as a batsman means finding a way to overcome that fear. When English cricket fans applaud the national team for a victory over Sri Lanka, South Africa or even Australia, that is something we recognize and celebrate as much as anything else. And with Little Hamblewick XI defeating King’s Head XI, this is no different.
Of course, this violence is cricket’s dirty secret. No Englishman would dream of talking about it. To the rest of the world, we promote it as a sport played in faded white, a sport that stops for tea, a sport where disagreement with the referee is virtually unthinkable. And if it is beautiful, it is a great game: a batsman who hits his shot accurately never feels the ball touching the bat. That’s the wonder of a magically thrown piece of willow: the ball’s frenetic pace changes easily.
You long for that moment – I’ve enjoyed three in my career, and I remember each one vividly – and endure everything else in search of it. But without fear and struggle to overcome it, cricket is nothing.
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