July 23, 2014

A strange, brutal magic

As Ishant Sharma showed at Lord's, short-pitched bowling can open old wounds and create sudden uncertainty

When faced with fast short-pitched bowling, younger players can be spooked, older players can be gun-shy © Getty Images

In the middle of Bankstown Oval lies a red pool. David Colley, the incoming batsman, sees it on his slow walk out. Greg Bush's blood. Sort of "squeezey" looking, like squirted sauce. Sick feeling in the stomach. Red blood on white creaseline. Try not to step in it. Colley gave Bush a lift to the ground that morning. Try not to get your friend's blood on you. Blood on the creaseline, behind it, in front of it. Red splash in the line of all three stumps. Got to know where middle stump is. Colley asks the umpire for middle and marks the spot with his boot. Red on white boot.

That is Christian Ryan writing about the fastest spell Jeff Thomson ever bowled, during a grade match between Bankstown and Mosman in Sydney in 1973, four years before the invention of the helmet.

Trott's battle with Johnson, and with himself, was briefly resumed, with England's number three the loser again. No sooner had Clarke posted his legside sentries than Trott, off balance and on edge, shovelled a nondescript delivery down long leg's throat. It was baffling - not least to Trott himself, who departed holding the bat by the blade, as though this was the way it now felt in his hands.

That is Gideon Haigh's match report from the first Ashes Test at Brisbane last year, where Mitchell Johnson asserted a grip on the imagination of England's batsmen that is evidently still there.

There are decades between the sequences of cricket being so vividly described, but they are united by the totemic force of fast, short-pitched bowling and the twin aspects of physical and psychological power that it holds. It is a part of the game like no other, unpredictable in its short- and long-term effects.

Lord's 2014, England v India, day five. Matt Prior is injured - bad hand, twanged Achilles, damaged quad - and has been all summer. He has also been discomforted and dismissed by short-pitched bowling several times since his return to the side. Ishant Sharma is in the middle of an inspirational spell. Dhoni's tactics are transparent: there are three men out for the pull but Matt Prior is playing it anyway. Perhaps it's the only response he's got left. He drags one from outside off stump to the man at cow corner. Out.

Ben Stokes is on a pair and in the middle of a horrible run of form with the bat. He knows what is coming from Ishant, but this ball isn't quite as short or as high as the others he has been watching from the pavilion. He moves back in his crease and plays a pull shot anyway, the arc of the blade moving down to up. The ball goes straight up and straight down in a mirror image of the bat. He knows the second he makes contact what he has done. Out.

Joe Root watches this unfold from the other end. The morning session seems a long time ago. He and Moeen had taken England to the brink of lunch but then Dhoni and Ishant had come up with their plan, and Ishant had unsettled him with some fast, accurate short balls that he was glad to survive with a single to the non-striker's end. Ishant bowled a couple of wide bouncers to Moeen and then gloved him with one right on the money…

Joe Root has seen all of this and he knows the game is slipping away, and yet when Ishant rushes in and bowls short again, he scoops his pull shot to deep square leg. Out.

Liam Plunkett comes in. Ishant bowls a couple more short. He pulls and middles them. He doesn't get out. England lose anyway…

There is a physical difference between facing short-pitched bowling bare-headed or in a helmet. There is another between the pace of a young Jeff Thomson and a revamped Mitchell Johnson on a fast wicket and Ishant Sharma with an old ball on a fifth-day pitch. But the psychological effects can be the same. Younger players can be spooked, unsettled. Older players can be gun-shy, suddenly wondering if their eye has lost an infinitesimal degree of its sharpness. The actions of others can impact upon their own. Players, spectators and viewers can all become caught up in it: gripped, excited, appalled. There is a strange and brutal magic to it.

Throughout the summer, England have used the same tactic. It has rarely worked. During India's first innings at Lord's, counterproductively, it brought the batting side back into the game. Why did it fail then and succeed four days later? Why does it work on some teams and not on others? Why are batsmen troubled by it one day and not bothered the next? How fast does it have to be in order to work?

In an age when analysis and statistics have unravelled many truths about the game, the allure and effect of spells like Ishant's remains in part mysterious, because so often it is opening old wounds, creating sudden uncertainty. England are in something of a pattern against it now, and it will take some shaking. There may no longer be blood on the wicket, but there was plenty of pain on display at Lord's.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here