March 15, 2006

Way of the red ball

This goes back some years. Longing for a respite from a spate of dismal news, I found a TV, switched to the sports channel and spent three hours in enthralled wonder.

For I had stumbled on the end -- sadly, just the end -- of a classic display of Test cricket bowling. You know: the bowler lopes in and tosses the ball up, from over the wicket, from around it, varies his line, flight, even the direction of spin on the ball. Razor-sharp fielders crowd the batsmen. Those poor goats prod and parry using feet, bat and pad, desperate to stay there, desperate for time to pass, knowing this is the only way to save the match.

And yet, despite spots of resistance, the batsmen are snared one by one, inexorably. When the last is bowled around his befuddled legs, Muttaiah Muralitharan has taken 9 wickets in the innings, 16 in the match. Two of his Sri Lankan teammates have to go out only to put the perfunctory finishing touches on a stunning, thumping Test match win over England: the England that had, till then, condescended to play the little island in just five Tests over two decades.

Top flight bowling is a delicious feast. Novice that I am, I used to think, foolishly, that there's little that bowlers can work with. You can vary the angle and pace the ball takes down the pitch, flight it, maybe that's all. So I once thought. But the best in the business take those measly scraps, knead several other ingredients into the mix, luxuriate in the time to experiment that only a Test affords, and produce a concoction that can turn batsmen into tentative putty.

Intoxicating stuff. Yet with matches like the recent Australia-South Africa run-feast, we grow to believe that only batting, and only in one-day cricket, can intoxicate us.

Well, batting is certainly fine. Yes, a Dravid or a Lara in form -- they are a joy to watch because they stroke elegantly, score at will, pound the ball imperiously into the gaps. You'll see audacious shots, swift running, fielders driven to distraction. Yet I've always felt that when a master bats like that, the delights come in gobs. (One reason I don't much enjoy watching Sehwag bat). The surfeit can get cloying.

In contrast, even master bowlers find wickets only every few dozen balls. The thrills are rationed, and that makes you savour them that much more. Yet there remains enough cracking tension in between those moments. They know every ball will not produce a wicket. So they hatch plans, plot wily dismissals. They probe, experiment, tease, soften up and bludgeon the batsman.

And suddenly, he's gone.

There was the time Courtney Walsh got some famed batsman -- I don't recall who -- out to a catch. Curiously, instead of running to embrace whoever caught the ball, he trotted right across the field to exchange jubilant high-fives with the other half of that lithe West Indian pace battery, Curtly Ambrose. It was odd, because nobody would have thought Ambrose had had anything to do with taking that wicket. But apparently Ambrose and Walsh had discussed the batsman's technique and tendencies, worked out a plan which they operated together. Then, when Walsh finally fed him the bait, he snapped it up and spat out an easy catch.

Just like that, like it was scripted. Which, in the hands of these two wizards, it actually had been.

In late 1996, I remember watching Allan Donald smash through the defence of our own genius, Tendulkar, turning his wicket into so much firewood. Here's how one report described it:
    Donald set him up by offering him two successive off-side half-volleys which were both driven majestically for fours. Then came a ball pitched on a perfect length just outside off stump which beat him for pace as it cut back to find the gap between a bat that was still coming down and pad.
You felt for Sachin, but which of us did not also feel a shivering chill in our bellies as that Donald special shot past Tendulkar, leaving him doubled over in silent, momentary, astonishment? (Is there a more electrifying sight in cricket than a magnificent fast bowler destroying the wicket of a superb batsman?)

Murali's performance in that Test in England was no less electric. In England's second innings, every ball he bowled did something different: fizzing, turning, jumping. Graeme Hick, lbw second ball, was made to look like he had never held a bat in his life. This was a man who had scored a confident century only three days earlier!

There are bowlers and bowlers, but the matchwinners take your breath away.

So give me a champion bowler in champion form in a Test match -- I'll take that every time. Donald, Srinath, McGrath, Ambrose and Akram at their murderous best; Warne, Kumble and Murali making the ball talk; so many illustrious names from days, and Tests, gone by.

These are the men whose skills can make Test cricket such a compelling spectacle: the bowlers. More power, or more wickets, to them. How about more Tests too?

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

dilip,
in general, i agree. odis, particularly in the subcon, are just meaningless slogfests. but you've got to give it to sunday's match. 300+ is bad. but 400+ is so bad it's good. it's like roger bannister ran the mile in 4 min,.. and lost the race.

Anonymous said...

What a great piece of writing! It reminds me of an essay in my English text book in high school, long time ago. The writer's name escapes me now.

I no longer watch cricket now, having lived in the US for more than 20 years now, but still your piece just made my mind wander back to those days in the 70's when I listened to the radio with friends crowding around.

Oh, the magic written words can weave....

Roshan said...

right on! more Tests, please. but i will also agree with the first commenter about that ODI being so bad it was good. that aside, i'll take Tests over ODIs any day.

Anirudh said...

More test matches would be nice. And yes, watching lovely bowlers is a great experience.

I, however, do not consider chuckers great bowlers (referring to Murali here, of course) and Kumble, though an underrated bowler isn't a great one. Warney is probably the only great spinner in the last fifteen years.