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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Little_Aussie_Battler on December 1, 2013, 11:09 GMT

    Anybody who has played cricket at a reasonable level can attest to what it feels like to face real pace and the stuff deliberately aimed at your body. The only other time I felt that kind of fear was walking with a couple of lionesses in Zimbabwe.

  • dummy4fb on November 29, 2013, 10:45 GMT

    The very sight of menacing fast bowler starting run up makes many a batsmen uneasy in those days. The quartet pace battery of West lindies Malcolm Marsh, Joel Garner, Andy Roberts and Michael Holding and facing these bowlers was a nightmare for the batsmen around the world. And of course the likes of Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis were also deadly bowlers in their era. When Sachin Tendulkar made debut in 1989 in Pakistan at the age of 16 + years, he faced Wasim Akram, Imran Khan and of course another debutant Waqar younis. When Waqar Younis's ball hit him like a bullet his nose and he was bleeding profusely, he didn't leave the field and in fact he hit the next two balls to the boundary. What a courageous knock that little boy had. Later on in an interview he said, " Either I have to lose or gain confidence. I chose the latter" and he also said " I have faced the worst and now I can face any bowling". And the rest is history.

  • exiledtyke on November 28, 2013, 8:43 GMT

    Aditya Anchuri wrote "Funnily enough, I've trained against a bowling machine a couple of times, cranking it up to 85, and it actually feels easier than if a fast bowler were bowling at you."

    interesting. I find the exact opposite. I find it easier to face a quick bowler than a bowling machine at the same - or slower - speeds. You can get an idea of what the bowler is planning by his approach and you see the build up to the delivery. With the bowling machine you get less warning and you don't get the hints like the position of the arm/fingers, whether the bowler put more or less effort in, etc.

  • pestonji on November 27, 2013, 18:44 GMT

    I moved to the US in the early 70s. At that time I thought baseball looked so easy compared to cricket. this was the age of Lillee, Thommo and of course the WI quicks-take your pick. fast forward to today and how the tables have turned. "professional " cricket looks like a picnic compared to baseball where speeds of 90mph and higher are routine. make the pitches bowler friendly and restore cricket's lost lustre.

  • pestonji on November 27, 2013, 18:39 GMT

    Great article!! It was great to see the video highlights of Mitch Johnson bowling. It was a blast from the past when the WI had five guys like that!! Fast bowling is what makes cricket the sport that it is. It is a pity that cricket is being "slowed down". I saw Sehwag ht around 300 runs in one day. The only problem was that the bowlers and more importantly the pitch seemed so docile that a schoolboy could have hit those runs. Bring back lively pitches and restore then glory of cricket. What we get nowadays is thing gruel indeed!!

  • dummy4fb on November 27, 2013, 17:08 GMT

    Haha yes as a club cricketer I've been there. Nobody bowls quicker than 65-70 mph in club cricket, so even people who bowl around 75-80 are considered tearaways at our level. Funnily enough, I've trained against a bowling machine a couple of times, cranking it up to 85, and it actually feels easier than if a fast bowler were bowling at you. I think partly it's because of the intimidating run-up that fast bowlers have -- my coach told me that you shouldn't watch the fast bowler running might get scared. Look down and only look up as he's about to deliver (keep a count in your head).

  • nachiketajoshi on November 27, 2013, 16:36 GMT

    I faced a guy in nets who was a captain of a neighboring college team and people told me there was a wide chasm between his talent and that of the rest of the team. That evening I knew why. It was a winter evening, the air getting colder, and not only he bowled faster than anything I had faced until then, the deliveries were banana outswingers that I did not know what to do about. I faced close to an over, and connected to zero deliveries. Since then, my respect for openers facing the fast bowling on a moist pitch has gone several notches up!

  • dummy4fb on November 27, 2013, 14:16 GMT

    who was that bowler njr??

  • dummy4fb on November 27, 2013, 12:11 GMT

    I faced Doug Bollinger in the nets when I was younger and he came in full pace, all I could do was either block the straight one or get out the way of the bouncer, there was no thought of actually attempting a shot, non-existent back lift and the prayer that the shorter ball wouldn't jag back and crown me. Very scary. The ball hit the bat rather than the other way around.

  • dummy4fb on November 27, 2013, 1:17 GMT

    Last summer I faced an ex-international Windies quick. Even though he last played for the Windies a decade ago, I was staggered by how much pace and bounce he was generating as the ball fizzed past me to the keeper. The man is in his mid 30's probably bowling no more than 81-82mph with the odd effort ball probably touching mid 80's, yet it was still way faster than anything I had ever experienced in my life. I wasn't so much scared facing him with the new ball, but I can say that all my senses were on red alert as I knew full well that any wrong move was going to be extremely painful (and so it proved). I have thought back to that day often and have an even bigger respect for test batsmen who face 90mph deliveries in relative comfort (providing there is no disconcerting bounce). For me, the ball was just a blur fizzing past that I was lucky enough to get the bat in the way of from time to time.

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