November 26, 2013

The quickest spell I ever faced

When up against really fast bowling, the unconscious functions required to see the ball and judge it are overwhelmed by the sheer speed of what is happening

To face a bowler as fast as Mitchell Johnson is to confront the limit of your ability © Getty Images

A while ago I talked to a former Test cricketer about the reality of facing genuinely quick bowling, of the sort delivered by Mitchell Johnson in Brisbane.

"I've seen blokes cry in the dressing room," he said. "They'll be shit scared."

To play it is to confront the limit of your ability, and yet it's one of the experiences that is not confined to the professional player. Any cricketer can find the point at which the bowling is discomfortingly fast. Whether it's 75mph or a nice round 100 is irrelevant, except in the degree of damage the ball might inflict if it hits you. What matters is that tipping point at which the unconscious functions required to see the ball and judge it, to pick line and length, are overwhelmed by the sheer speed of what is happening.

The quickest spell I ever faced was in the nets at the old county ground in Southampton on a vivid summer's afternoon decades ago. Me and a bunch of other hopeful teens were there for a day under the watch of Peter Sainsbury, then Hampshire's coach, and a man whose rheumy eye and still-steady arm were informed by the wisdom of 1300-odd first-class wickets.

We were pecking away on a hot afternoon when Steve Malone turned up in the neighbouring net to bowl at one of the 2nd XI players. Steve, who laboured under the nickname "Piggy" after a character in a Two Ronnies sketch, wasn't with the first team for some reason and he wasn't happy about it. With Sainsbury watching out of the corner of his eye, Piggy worked up a real head of steam, fast and hostile.

I had a ringside seat, batting in the net next door. I could hear the ball cleave the air with its high-frequency buzz. The air was clear, the wickets were hard and Piggy was getting some bounce as well as pace. When he passed the bat, the ball sounded like it was hitting a chain-link fence rather than the fibre of the netting. Sainsbury, with a slim smile, suggested that the batsmen swap over for a while.

Piggy was unamused by this latest development in his downward spiral. He ran in, breathing fire and grunting as he let it go. He probably bowled nine or ten balls, but it seemed like a lot more. I had stepped into another universe, unknown to me until then. He pinned me. The balls I couldn't leave, I played from about an inch in front of the stumps. The front foot seemed like another country, a distant memory from a happier time. His pace had an actual physical effect on the nervous system, not unlike jumping into very cold water, sharp and breathless.

That day I learned about the gap that separated us from the real game. The real game was a different one to the one we played. It was like being in the foothills of a mountain range and catching sight of the shimmering face still some distance away, hazardous and sheer.

I sometimes think of it, of how disconcerting it was, but how thrilling too. It was the day I realised that I would never be a professional cricketer, and more than that, the day I got an understanding of how big and wide and varied the world of talent was. There were people out there who could do extraordinary things, who could bowl even faster than Steve Malone, and others who could face it, day after day, month after month, year upon year, at least until time and life wore them down.

I looked up Steve's profile in ESPNcricinfo recently. They described him as "fast-medium". Wonder what he thinks of that.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here

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