London — Twenty thousand Englishmen baying at the enemy. Screaming themselves hoarse, urging their champion to strike flesh. And then, it happens: The enemy is hit. Yes! Unwilling to show pain, he removes his helmet. Blood — the sight most keenly craved for — trickles down. His entourage runs to assist him — he attempts nonchalance, but concussion is an issue. The crowd is ecstatic.
Is this the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings, eager for Norman gore? Or Wellington’s men at Waterloo, bayonets fixed for Frenchies? No, it’s June 2005 at Lord’s Cricket Ground, the spiritual home of cricket worldwide. And the bloodthirsty mob of 20,000 are mostly wearing blazers, brogues and club ties. On other days of the week, you’ll find them at work in arbitrage.
And the blood? Australian, of course — the ancient enemy, rival for the Ashes, as the trophy for each five-match tournament between England and Australia is known. What a start that was, and there were still some 24 more days of such glorious skirmishing to look forward to.
For the uninitiated: In cricket, the bowler (think pitcher) bounces the ball before it reaches the batsman (batter). Counterintuitively, a ball, or “delivery,” that reaches the batsman without bouncing (“a full toss”) is generally an easy hit. The bowler is aiming at “the stumps,” three wooden sticks creating a target almost hip high and nine inches wide. Strike those and the batsman is out (of one of the two innings).
For the side that’s in the field, that’s a desirable result. So, as a rule, the bowler bounces the ball near the batsman, aiming to hit those stumps. However, if a fast bowler makes the ball “pitch” — that is, land — halfway down the 22-yard strip, it will most likely have bounced to head height by the time it reaches the batsman. There is no question of hitting the stumps: The bouncer’s intended target is the batsman’s upper body or head. The projectile is a sphere of varnished red leather, weighing 5.75 ounces and marginally harder than a baseball, and traveling at approximately 90 miles per hour.
Of course, the bowler will claim that he hopes the batsman will use his bat to defend himself, the ball will fly off at an angle and the batsman will be out if the ball is caught. That’s merely the necessary pretense: The bowler’s primary objective is to terrify the batsman, and if in the course of this terror campaign a cheekbone is shattered, well, that’s dashed unlucky.
What are the batsman’s options, faced with this assault? He has about half a second to decide, from when the ball leaves the bowler’s hand to when it reaches him. The temptation is to use the bat to defend himself (my default method), in spite of the risk of giving a catch. Those blessed with spectacular reactions (not me) can swivel and, swinging the bat, “hook” the ball away for runs. A more circumspect batsman keeps his eye on the ball — tempting, yet fatal, though it is to flinch and blink — and sways away, like a dodging boxer. The truly steely player (never me, if I can help it) opts to “wear” it: Keeping his bat out of the way, he lets the ball strike his chest, shoulder or back.
That’s merely the prologue. If you’ve survived that delivery, you pretend nonchalance. You look around, as though planning your next scoring shot: Could you hit it as far as those chestnut trees next to the pub? In reality, you’re sweating about the next ball.
Unlike a batter in baseball, a cricketer needs to keep his head in line with the flight of the ball as it hurtles toward him. Because the ball has an equatorial seam which stands about an eighth of an inch proud, the bowler is scheming to use this asymmetry to make the ball deviate after it bounces. Most batsmen are out as a result of the ball’s glancing off the outer edge of the bat and being caught by the wicketkeeper (think catcher). The only way to avoid this is to watch the ball in direct line and thus read the seam movement instantaneously.
Here is the cumulative power of fear. The first ball almost booked you in to the dentist; so, less than a minute later, do you dare step into alignment with the next missile?
The best players do. It is partly a matter of technique and practice, but at bottom — and herein lies the Englishness of it all — it’s a simple matter of necessity. On a team of 11 players, only six or seven of you have been selected for your batting prowess. You have an obligation to score; it’s What You Have to Do.
All this and more was at stake when, not long ago, on a hot, humid Saturday in London’s Dulwich neighborhood, I answered an invitation to play for the Writers Guild XI. What’s an Oscar nomination or a Bafta award by comparison?
The changing room brought the first nasty shock: Not many writers had been drafted; the team seemed to comprise mostly keen cricketers, subbed in. I’d been relying on occasionals of all ages, not a squad of young, muscled colts. On the field came a second shock: Our opponents, allegedly a Royal College of Surgeons XI, appeared much the same.
In what, I have to concede, became my retirement game, I stood ready, padded and fortified. The bowler’s first four deliveries were “on a length,” bouncing just above knee height. I went forward and met the ball each time with a firm, straight bat.
After the last, the bowler strolled down the pitch toward me. Did he want to discuss the state of play, the weather, maybe the middle act of my latest play? No, he said just two words — “Next one’s ……” — and made a gesture, tapping a grass-stained fingernail against his front teeth.
He was as good as his word. I saw the ball hurtle from his hand, a Zeus-like thunderbolt, and bounce halfway down the pitch. I turned my head and felt the ball part the back of my hair. There was a trembling weakness in my knees that would not settle. And a wave of sadness that pointed to nothing but my advanced age.
This is the power of fear. You watch the fast bowler run in, gradually enlarging. You tell yourself to move to the ball — “smell the leather,” as your old school coach taught — but suddenly your feet seem stuck in cement. The ball rips through your defense and clatters into the stumps. The bouncer has done its work.
Which is exactly what happened that sad day in South London. I have not played since.
To succeed as a batsman means finding a way to defeat that fear. When English cricket fans applaud the national team for defeating Sri Lanka or South Africa or even Australia, it is this that we acknowledge and celebrate as much as anything else. And when the Little Hamblewick XI beats the King’s Head XI, it’s 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 languorous white, a sport that stops for tea, a sport where dissent to the umpire is quite unthinkable. And when it’s beautiful, it is an exquisite game: The batsman who times his stroke perfectly never even feels the ball touch the bat. That is the wonder of a magically sprung piece of willow: the furious pace of the bowler’s delivery is effortlessly reversed.
You crave that moment — I enjoyed about three such in my batting career and remember each distinctly — and suffer everything else in its pursuit. But without the fear, and the struggle to overcome it, cricket is nothing.