May 19, 2013

All hail the box

There's no one better to sing the praises of the abdomen guard than someone who grew up playing without one, or wearing one with an infernal buckle

Thesis: the presence of a box has a calming influence on your defensive play © Getty Images

It was one of those days when I browsed old ESPNcricinfo pages. The Jury's Out item on the most influential innovation in cricket caught my eye, and as I re-read Jarrod Kimber's piece on overarm bowling, his irreverent sense of humour got me thinking about a topic that must have occupied the minds of every self-respecting cricketer during his playing days at one point or the other.

I submit that a well-designed personal abdomen guard is unquestionably the most important cricketing innovation. I'll address the doubters of this thesis thus:

The presence of the cricket abdomen guard, or more colloquially the box, and often its absence has been acutely felt by every cricketer at some point.

I can't be sure about cricketers elsewhere, but most of those who tried their hand at cricket in small-town India during the '80s have been hit in the unmentionables at least once.

Without a box on, that is. And everyone remembers that infamous first time. It's a bit like your first school punishment.

Vicious breakback it was, on a grassy patch that served as one of our many pitches, in my case. With a cork ball, no less.

The cork was a strange ball - just plain, hard cork without a seam or leather cover - that used to feature a lot in our after-school games, in the early-to-mid '80s.

I remember it like yesterday. One of us cricket-playing lot, Venu, had a short quick-step run-up with a whippy wind-up and uncoil - a legacy perhaps of his not-inconsiderable table-tennis skills. Most balls came in from short of a length. This one broke back in rapidly, past my seventh- grade (or so) forward defence. Smack into the middle of where a box should have been.

A box was unheard of then. Well, at least in our little crowd. And so there I was. Hit.

Inevitably the bat was dropped and the midriff grabbed as I plopped to the ground. Equally inevitably, someone picked me up and gave me a nice shake. This was standard practice in those days, post-hit. And you were then asked to run a quick round. As the rest of the gang doubled up in loud laughter.

Mine was like the old Jeff Thomson-David Boon story, except in reverse. Boon was supposed to have forgotten his box when he went out to bat one day against a rampaging Thommo. Discovering this little oversight at the end of play, he is said to have made doubly sure he had his box on the next day. Sure enough, the first ball of the morning struck and shattered his guard.

Most serious club and college games, after I was first hit, I've had my box on and have never been hit after. I believe the box has a decidedly calming effect on your defence, making it less prone to being breached. It is debatable, of course, that breakbacks became less pronounced, or that I just got plain lucky. I stubbornly maintain that in the wake of the undeniable calm that the box brings, your defence becomes effortlessly side-on, the eye follows the ball without fear and there's a far smaller chance of you getting hit.

Boxes were always in short supply for as long as I can remember. We had the bare minimum in club and college. Two.

No one owned one. Oddly for an item of personal use, the two were always assigned club ownership. We always seemed to have more bats than boxes. Yet no one questioned this odd norm. The box was a general object of neglect. The two were often found at the bottom of the team kit bag, and you had to dig them out from beneath bats, smelly gloves and pretty much everything else. It was like the cricketing validation of the Brazil nut theory.

If you were lucky enough to be opening, you could get an unused (for the day, that is) one. Equally importantly, you had time to push it into place properly and waddle around to get used to it, in the relative privacy of the pavilion. Or if you didn't have a pavilion, at least not in full view of everyone. If on the other hand, you were batting down the order, at times you were more concerned about having the box in its appointed place than about the opposition bowling. This might sound exaggerated, but I can promise you it isn't.

The darn thing came in all varieties. One in a jockstrap with a buckle. One with a damaged, useless strap, with a buckle. Another without a strap, just a plain old box.

You will admit the squaring of the shoulders and the pirouette that takes the ball away through square are performed much easier when in possession of your personal box that is fairly stationary and in place

The buckled variety was by far the most frustrating, especially if you were not opening. No one could work out the buckling part, because you had to do it quickly, in view of the opposition and crowd, while appearing wholly unconcerned by the exercise. As you walked out, you met the incoming bat halfway. He'd whisk his box out, buckle and all.

I remember this one time when I thought I'd done a reasonable job of buckling the thing in, until a few balls into my innings, when the box somehow contrived to begin sliding down. How I managed to retrieve it from its precarious perch and put it to proper use again was a minor miracle, the likes of which method couldn't obviously be reproduced on demand.

Lesson learnt. I would never trust the buckle again. If the box was of the buckled kind, I would just thrust it in, buckle and all.

Luckily the buckle would soon go out of fashion. On pads, on the box. Later, even on the helmet. This might all seem rather trivial now, but the buckle-less cricketing world is a far less demanding one, as anyone who has played the game in the '80s and before will testify.

As I was to learn in due course, a box is even more difficult to get hold of in Canada. I suppose I should count my blessings that cricket was played there in the first place. In any case, to be frank, the absence of a personal box did not strike me then as a particularly discomfiting handicap initially. Perhaps graduate-student frugality, and the habit of having shared a box before (plain old inertia, that is) caused me to not question this convention for a while.

Soon the inertia lifted, though, and I devised the dual-brief formula. This seemed a reasonable stop-gap arrangement. Two briefs and the box sliding in in between. Suitably becalmed at last, I was able to focus all my energies on countering the bowler.

Then one day I chanced upon an expat Indian who sold guards. Armed with my splendid new acquisition, I began to hook fluently. Well, okay, I exaggerate the correlation. It was perhaps because I started using a good buckle-less helmet around then as well.

But you will admit the squaring of the shoulders and the pirouette that takes the ball away through square are performed much easier when in possession of your personal box that is fairly stationary and in place.

Finally, I will point to an intervening period where I tried an ice-hockey abdomen guard. If you've ever tried batting in one of these, I need not go any further and will rest my case.

If you are unconvinced, I'd perhaps ask you to watch Sachin Tendulkar bat and decide for yourself. What he'd have had to go through if he had been the unfortunate recipient of a poorly designed abdomen guard must surely make the cricketing world wince and nod in sage agreement.