September 23, 2015

The fastest bowler I've faced

A tale of Brian Close-like courage and brotherly approval

Child's play: sometimes the stakes in neighbourhood games can be as high as those in Test matches © Getty Images

Cricket fans are fond of discussions that centre around the best bowler, the best batsman, the best team - you know the varietals. A central item in this series of disputations is that of the fastest bowler ever.

I've often thought the right sort of entry in this competition would be a fast bowler the fan in question had actually faced. This is not to say that fans should not question matters like the accuracy of a particular measurement of bowler speed, or dispute the margin of error in another one, but rather that the proof of the pudding in this matter really should be in the eating.

So here goes.

The fastest bowler I've ever seen was not a member of any of the famed West Indies quartets, or of any of the many terrible Australian or Pakistani duos that terrorised batsmen and entertained fans the world over. Rather, he was a quick I faced in a lowly park game. I played him for eight overs, perhaps my best batting performance ever. I don't recall scoring too many runs, but that didn't matter, because survival and the even more important business of saving face did.

Like in any "famous" batting performance against fast bowling - think Close against Holding, like I did during my gallant evening stand - I came away with a few body blows and the respect of the opposition. And I did so with only one pad, no gloves, and, needless to say but I'll say it anyway, without a helmet.

Let me set the stage for you, so that this tale of heroism can be best appreciated in its fullest context. In my school days I played, as the other children in my neighborhood did, in our local park. As I noted in another post here, our playing surfaces were badly pock-marked and cratered; batting on them was an adventure. Batting on them while facing anyone who tried to send the ball hurtling towards you was a fear-inducing business. But we played on them anyway. It was all we had.

Our playing group consisted of boys of roughly the same age, and I did not feel out of my depth. This was because by one of those magic acts of self-organisation that make social life so interesting, we found, and stuck with, a peer group of roughly equal playing ability.

I stopped caring about making runs - and truth be told, I was encouraged in this matter by some of my brother's kinder friends, who urged me to keep batting

My brother found his own playing group in another park, one that took a longer walk to get to, and which featured games of ever so slightly higher quality. My brother, older than me by two years, was never too keen to have me mingle with his friends - perhaps fearing I would embarrass him with my undoubted cricketing incompetence. (This apprehension might have been based on his memory of an incident that occurred when we had played soccer together. Then, I had gone down after a brutal tackle by an older boy, and had shown a tear or two on the soccer pitch.) His friends, though, were more encouraging, and would often urge me to join them for a game or two. I never took them up on this invitation, not wanting to defy my brother's implicit warnings to keep my distance.

But one day, while my brother was away, and his friends rolled by to pick him up for a game, they found me instead. On their urging, I joined them. I was a tad apprehensive and a little excited too. Perhaps now I would have a chance to show I belonged; perhaps glowing reports of my play would make it back to my brother. A trial by fire awaited.

All too soon I found myself facing a young man whose reputation as a fast bowler was well known to all and sundry; he already played for my school's junior team, i.e. the 2nd XI. I was out of my league. On realising that he was in the opposition, I felt a sensation that was a curious mix of nausea and fear; my stomach felt like it might give way in both directions all at once. I had seen him bowl in the nets at school practice and there was no doubt he was quick. What's more, he didn't seem particularly friendly, not too inclined to give this kid, his friend's younger brother, an even break. I hoped I would spend his overs at the non-striker's end, well protected by the skilful strike rotation of my batting partners.

Do you freeze or "Close" out when a ball hurtles towards you? © AFP

That was precisely what did not happen. All too soon I found myself facing the Terror. I gazed at his receding back as he strode to the end of his run-up, hoping he would change his mind and turn to crafty offbreaks instead. This hope was soon dashed and I found a red orb rapidly hurtling at my body. It missed everything - bat, stumps, body. The same happened on the second delivery and third. I finally made contact on the fourth ball.

I will happily confess that most of my batting that day was a blur. I could not take a single to demote myself to non-striker, and my batting partners were terrible at taking singles off the last ball at the other end. I dimly sensed that if I gave any indication of fear, word would get back to my brother, and my diminished stock in his eyes would plunge even further.

So I "Closed" it out. I did not back away; I did not flinch; I did not call for help. I defended my stumps and my body as best as I could, and yes, I copped the occasional blow. Thankfully they were all on the fleshiest parts of my body; no bones and no teeth became casualties. I stopped caring about making runs - and truth be told, I was encouraged in this matter by some of my brother's kinder friends, who urged me to keep batting. (I'm a little puzzled why my non-scoring was so tolerated; we were surely playing a limited-overs game and time was always at a premium in these settings. My memory is of no help here. Or perhaps I dreamed it all.)

Finally the quick tired, or rather, others insisted on bowling from his end. He was taken off. Almost immediately I lost my wicket, swinging wildly at his replacement, only to have my stumps uprooted. But my deeds were done. I walked off tired and pleased. And sore.

My batting performance had the intended effect. My friends told my brother I had acquitted myself well; my brother acquired a new respect for me. And that demon bowler? A year or so later, we were co-conspirators in crime, sneaking off to have an illicit cigarette or two together.

I never lost my fear of fast bowling, though. An eminently sensible attitude as far as I'm concerned. And I've still to see a faster spell than the one I faced that day, in the fading light of a north Indian winter, on an occasion when the stakes, personal ones, were great.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. @EyeonthePitch

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on September 27, 2015, 15:33 GMT

    Surprisingly though my most memorable bit of batting was against spin. The so called pitch we were playing on was a dirt track with several bumps and cracks and patchy grass here and there. The spinner was also much older and taller than me and used to play for his school. At first I stayed back but the ball kept beating the bat or bouncing a lot so I couldn't get on top of the ball. So out of frustration I decided to go at the ball before it pitched or as soon after that as possible. It was as if I caught him by surprise. I hit the ball quite nicely 4 about 30 or so balls with a few blocks here n there until 1 bounced up suddenly n hit me on my finger.I wasn't wearing gloves. In stead of concentrating on batting I was thinking about the pain n I got out stumped a few balls later.

  • Dummy4 on September 27, 2015, 15:18 GMT

    I also no the burden of playing cricket with ur bigger brother and his peers. I was about 7 and my brother was in his teens . This big tall guy named knoxy who used 2 play headley cup for his high school was bowling pretty quick i was scared but he was not as rough as my brother n turned the pace down a bit.

  • Dummy4 on September 27, 2015, 0:44 GMT

    I was probably in fifth or sixth grade then and never too handy with the bat. But the game needed 22 players and so I was always in a playing XI. The pitch was like million others in the subcontinent, a little valley here, a rock like fragment there. One day I went to out to bat , a tailender like always. The opposing Captain decide to take me out of my misery by having me facing his fastest bloke of all. The guy came charging in, obviously fresh from the break when the slows were plying their trade. The red canon ball came rushing in at rocket speed. It hit the deck where probably a crack or a rock colluded to make it go straight for my forehead. I only remember opening my eyes to find myself flat on the pitch; my terminator standing over me snarling " mar gaya sala". That was he end of my cricket playing days. I migrated to hockey instead where I eventually excelled. But that's another story.

  • niaz on September 26, 2015, 7:41 GMT

    I had no shots. I would stay in the wicket for a long time. In those days batting 20 overs would push the score to a total. (I was 13-14, this guy was 15 or 16). He came back from a fast bowling camp. He tried good length balls outside the offstamp, I even got a single or two. Then he tried bouncers I ducked. Suddenly he tried a yorker and I knew I was in trouble if he tries the yorker again. In the next over one after another, yorkers kept on coming and I was out in the 4th or 5th ball. That was it for me.. Everytime I came to bat, it was him and his yorkers...

  • Dummy4 on September 26, 2015, 7:30 GMT

    I survived 3 more snorters before swinging wildly and getting a faint nick to the keeper. He took 7 more. We were allout for 20 odd.. My next encounter with him happened almost two years later. This time my team won the toss and I was asked by my captain to open. Again Siyad charged in and first few balls was a blur. I scored a few runs mostly via edged singles before getting a fast Yorker right on my toes.. Our Third and final encounter was the best of the lot. It lasted two balls. First one was the first of the innings, a fast short ball which was sightly outside off for me to slash. Unbelievably, I middled it over point for a six. I looked at my best friend who used to play in my team to see him jumping up and down with joy and boy I felt good! Riding on the adrenaline, I swung at the next one which was on a length only to realise it was a slower one. With my off stump gone, I stood there to see the same chuckle he had on our first meeting. All I could do was to tip my cap and walk.

  • Dummy4 on September 25, 2015, 23:03 GMT

    We used to play in Koswatta 8 kanuwa pas-patiye. Every street had a soft ball team in 70's and 80's to win 6 a side tournament in our village was the ultimate prize. Nothing better when its tape ball cricket. As a old man in his late 40's now I play club cricket in Auckland , New Zealand. Could be that tape ball cricket experiance as a youngster.

  • Raj on September 25, 2015, 21:35 GMT

    After graduating from tennis ball to cricket ball our neighborhood team decided to participate in a local tournament. In the first game we ran into these two fearsome fast bowlers Rajesh Sood and Jaideep Dhar from one of top cricket colleges in the city. They terrorized me and the entire team and we were no match to their bowling. We wound up with 42 and lost the match. A few yrs later Rajesh and Jaideep went to different teams and I ended on Rajesh's team in the local league. I was a keeper and I used to stand a full pitch length behind the stumps for him. It was lot more fun being behind the stumps than in front for Rajesh. As far as Jaideep I evened it up with him when I hit him for a straight six in a league match.

  • Dummy4 on September 25, 2015, 14:37 GMT

    Well in my childhood I was in 7th grade and was pretty decent batsmen for my age! During school tournament there was this guy from 9th grade. I remember during our team meeting before match we planned not to give him any wickets by not thinking of runs at all in his overs as we knew he was fast. I got a chance to face him during the same match and I got a bouncer and in the process to save my face I hit the ball with the handle and It went for outside the ground even with the taped tennis ball - (As most of you know in Pakistan we tape the tennis ball to get hardness speed and weight ). He was fast and accurate too for his