Foxes, lizards and other bowlers
I no longer support teams, only bowling. This is an ecologically conscious decision, of course, a petition for preserving the balance of cricket. But it is also driven by greed for the comedy that is a batting collapse (Pakistan and England are somehow the funniest). Much of it, however, has to do with the rare pleasure of brilliant bowling. And last month was a beaut. Test cricket was back again, even though it lost yet another of its ace bowlers. Murali, Warne, Kumble, McGrath, Pollock, Vaas, Lee, Flintoff, Bond - by a rough count that's 4000 Test wickets gone in the last three years.
England and South Africa are the best venues to watch bowling nowadays. Australian pitches lately bounce as sorrowfully as dead kangaroos. Broken Indian pitches used to have their moments of glory (Mumbai 2004, Kanpur 2008), but match referees and the media have terrorised them into terminal blandness. South Africa's have pace, bounce, seam. But England has rain; rain enough to put juice into pitches and wobble in the air, but not enough to wash out matches altogether. Rain is critical to the ecology. Rain made uncovered pitches the exquisite roulettes we read about. And rain, drawing sweat from the surface underneath covers, still makes excellent bowling legendary.
On two wet first days at Lord's and Headingley, Pakistan's two Ms - may their success be as great as the two Ws - along with Umar Gul, hooped and frisbeed all around the Australians in collusive joy.
Mohammad Amir is a bee. He buzzes in his run-up, the ball buzzes in the air, either way, and off the pitch, either way. He buzzes in appeal. Honeybees die after a single sting, but not Amir. He chews gum with teenage vigour. He takes the hair out of his eyes. He buzzes in again.
Mohammad Asif is a snake (Wasim was both snake, King Cobra, and bee, Queen Bee. Waqar was a bull. Imran was a stallion. Shoaib is an unnamed genetically modified species comprising Shoaib Akhtar and occasionally Salman Khan).
Asif is no ordinary snake. He is both venomous and a constrictor. This is a very wise and languid snake indeed. He cannot be provoked into reckless bites or over-exerting constrictions. Doesn't have those ways. He may plot his prey days in advance, observing the victims. He fattens them if need be. Then he begins to paralyse them. One limb, then another, and another, then the entire nervous system. At last he slithers in, cool, wraps himself around, gentle, and swallows whole. Pups are tormented by him. Did you watch Michael Clarke?
How he laughs at desperate flingers. Osman Samiuddin tells the story of Asif narrating a tale from a domestic match. Asif is watching a whippet-like, floppy-haired, largely futile fast bowler, in and out of the national team for a decade, going at it as usual. "Pace pe pace. [Pace on pace]" Asif jogs in calmly, wrists it this way and that, picks up a couple of wickets. It is hot. He heads for the pavilion. The fast bowler is still at it, still wicketless. "Pace pe pace." Asif drinks tea, smokes a ciggy. Outside in the heat, "Pace pe pace." Asif returns. Takes two more.
Closer home, before the horror of Colombo, there was some eye-catching bowling in Galle. Ishant Sharma is a giraffe, though arguably more an ostrich. Neither animal has our very tall and thin fast bowler's Adam's apple, which leads his gangly loping run like a spear, his hair (unlike Pakistani hair, which is invariably cool) racing behind him like something forgotten. Ishant needed rain. Once he had it, he stood the ball on the seam, jagged it both ways, fast and sharp. He was coming in like the breeze, floating like a long ghost in follow-through. Preserving Ishant, however, might be a challenge too big for the Indian conservationist.
At any rate, Ishant was easily outbowled by Lasith Malinga, who is a frill-necked lizard. As that creature throws opens the startling umbrella around its neck to frighten predators, so Malinga - who otherwise smiles like a little girl with ribbons in her plaits, who kisses the ball softly every time he bowls it - so Malinga unveils at the very last moment the shock of his delivery action. And each time it is indeed a shock.
Bowlers have all kinds of philosophies. An uber-genius like Garry Sobers (who was the whole Ark) could say it depended on - not on the pitch, the day, or the match situation, no, it depended on the ball, its "character". "Some swing or spin, some don't." Ah! For others, like Jeff Thomson, "I just roll up and go whang." Malinga slings it like Thommo, and that's his approach. If the bouncer don't get ya, the yorker must.
Finally, there was a long and anxious bowl, one final time, from the great Muttiah Muralitharan. "Hello, superstars," he told MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh in the first innings, "this is Test cricket. Remember it well." In the second he grinned, he bore, and got to 800.
Murali is described often as a fox. This seems right. Unlike hedgehog bowlers who pursue one big idea, Murali, like a fox, had many ways of pursuit. Like a fox he did not hunt in a pack. Like a fox he was himself cruelly hunted for sport in some parts of the world. Fox-hunting was banned a few years ago in England, but is still legal in Australia.
Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket tour book Pundits from Pakistan. He writes a monthly column for Mint Lounge