What's the best sight in cricket?
Bouncer avoidanceBy Andrew Miller
The greatest sporting moments occur at the crossover point between discipline and instinct - at the do-or-die moment, when all those hours and years of training have been processed by one's neurons to such an extent that your brain is responding to the moment long before the rest of your body is aware the moment is upon you.
It takes less than half a second for a great fast bowler to propel a cricket ball towards a batsman's head, and in the fractional leftovers of a second still available after the ball has been sighted and the intent of its trajectory gauged, a decision needs to be made. Do or die. Play or miss. Dodge, or Get The Hell Out Of Dodge.
In those split-milliseconds, the speed of human instinct reveals its extraordinary depths. The recognition of impending danger, processed by an eye that dares not let the fast-approaching orb out of its sight. The whiplash of back and neck as adrenaline kicks in and the need for survival takes over, and the roar of the crowd, and the intake of breath from a packed slip cordon that recognises that battle has been joined. The moment is gone in the blink of an eye. But he who blinks loses.
No other sport has a moment that quite matches the sight of a genuine batsman swaying out of the way of a genuine bouncer. It is a moment of defeat that can feel like a victory, if the batsman's resolve is strengthened by the sniff of leather, or a harbinger of impending doom, if the grip on his innings has been loosened by the jolt.
In my lifetime, no passage of play has better demonstrated the ghoulish thrill of the chase than Robin Smith's duel with Ian Bishop and Courtney Walsh in Antigua in 1989-90. The context was plain to see. England, to West Indies' vast indignation, had stolen an incredible victory in Jamaica, been denied by rain in Trinidad, been put back in their place by a late collapse in Barbados, and now, on a typical ARG flyer, were being lined up, quite literally, for the knockout blow.
The most memorable moment, since immortalised in the opening credits of Fire in Babylon, was the one that didn't get away. A vicious, snaking bouncer followed Smith all the way and, as Tony Greig morbidly observed from the commentary box, looked for all the world to have broken his jaw. It was the exception that proved the rule, because every such delivery that whistles by without impact has the makings of a moral victory, if the recipient is brave enough to view it as such.
The clarity of purpose on display in such duels is exquisite. Those who get caught between mindsets get hit or get out; only those who are sufficiently alive to the moment have the time to negotiate their own terms. And live to fight another day.
Andrew Miller is the editor of the Cricketer magazine
The cover driveBy Rob Steen
If the cover drive was a movie, it would be Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon - brimming with style, substance and excessive fondness for 18th century Britishness. A record? Van Morrison's Astral Weeks or the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds - a rhapsody to the human potential for ineffable beauty and utterly incomparable. A colour? Purple, natch.
For this peculiar obsession with angled elbows and unnaturally twisting bones, blame Herbert Fishwick: the malaise began with his majestic photograph of Walter Hammond in Sydney, snapped during the 1928-29 Ashes tour that would prove to be that formidable run-hoarder's glorious if premature peak. Shirtsleeves trimly folded, toes daintily planted, left knee well advanced but comfortably braced, left shoulder tugging right, high follow-through and that irresistible final flourish - a dark handkerchief blooming from a cream hip pocket. My earliest exposure to the art of sport left no option but to worship at the altar of the cover drive.
Of all the strokes on a batsman's palette, it's easily the vainest, especially off the front foot. To see it executed as exquisitely as it can be is to recall that nimble Chelsea playmaker Alan Hudson and his autobiography, The Working Man's Ballet. Does that make cricket an alternative pas de deux for the Swan Lake-loathing, pirouette-despising, tutu-scorning segment of the middle classes? The cover drive alone would justify such poncey pretentiousness.
In actuality, it's less art than creative science. Head, eyes, hands, feet and wood must be in precise harness and absolute harmony. As with a drummer, coordination, rhythm and fluency are all - of muscle and movement, timing and touch. The cover drive is a statement, of technical superiority or undentable self-belief, exuding authority or oozing effortlessness, radiating efficiency or dripping with disdain.
Granted, you could say pretty much the same of any shot, but in the hands of its most refined exponents - and even those who only get it right every other April - there's something distinctively different about the cover drive, something smooth and grooved and graceful that lifts it above mere mechanics. Something visually sublime. That's why, whenever we want to demonstrate a shot's quality to a fellow spectator who has popped to the loo and missed it, we let the wrist curve upwards at 45 degrees, no matter where it actually went. That's why the sublimest cover-drivers and the sublimest batsmen are so frequently one and the same. Do the first properly, adapt the same principles accordingly and everything should stem from there, the outrageous as well as the orthodox.
To the masters, the blade itself is both extra limb and extension of the nervous system, a brush flowing in an easeful arc. In the rich tapestry of pure sporting craftsmanship, nothing - nothing - can match the final product: not Roger Federer's backhand, not Jack Nicklaus's tee-shot, not Ken Griffey's home-run swing, not even the Ali shuffle.
But why? Perhaps because, for something that looks so innate when everything clicks, the line separating awe from awful is so desperately thin. One element out of sync and ignominy beckons. The wider you open the face, the greater the prospect of an edge; the more you lean back, the higher you lift your chin, the likelier the spoon to cover; the bigger the stride, the smaller the chance of adjustment if deceived. Why else was David Gower taunted as often as he was vaunted?
You may notice that, of the six heavenly cover-drivers celebrated in the accompanying sidebar, half are Poms. Well, style does count for a bit more in these parts. Style, after all, signifies class, and Pomland is uncommonly big on such things, home as it is to civilisation's most enduring class system, first-class tickets, first-class cricket, the class act and the classy shot (if not, mercifully, the classy broad).
In a land where bowlers were once the professionals and batsmen the shamateur dilettantes, the notion of crease occupation as self-aggrandisement fits in neatly. Runs? All well and good, but how much more satisfying to keep that left-arm lowlife in his place with the aura of purest insouciance made possible by the classiest stroke? And the more lavish the finish, of course, the louder the sneer.
But maybe, at bottom, it's less about sight than sound: of ball being lightly but surely middled, of willow whooshing through breeze, of leather skating over grass, of bisected fielders crashing to the turf in futility, of sudden gasps and involuntary purrs, of percussive applause and that collective satisfied "aah". The sounds of summer.
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton
The clean-bowledBy Rahul Bhattacharya
The good clean-bowled is a perfect dream. One night at the MCG, a World Cup on the line, Wasim Akram lasers it in from wide around the wicket and reflects it the other way off the pitch. A stump is sent into recline, at an angle that conveys Allan Lamb's incomprehension as vividly as his stiff-backed lurch and puzzled glance backwards. Life can be staid. Why not revel in the magical? The clean-bowled tells us this.
My friend Osman, clearly spoilt by the hauls Pakistani stump-hunters bring home, says the bowled is emphatic and obvious. But is it obvious? Even when anticipated it is always surprising, which makes it as momentous as a goal. It is a reminder that bowling is an art of geometric precision, yet of abstract mystery. The chances of penetrating a well-equipped, well-trained full-grown figure to hit a narrow target are slim. It may derive from some deviousness of speed, length, angle, swing, cut, turn, trajectory or none of the above; its deceit may take many forms.
In the famous Oval victory of 1971, India were 95 runs behind when BS Chandrasekhar, halfway into his run-up, decided to heed Dilip Sardesai's advice from slip, "ek Mill Reef daal". Mill Reef was the champion racehorse of the time, and many lengths faster than John Edrich, whose bat had barely entered the home stretch when the bails clicked behind him. At quite the other end of the spectrum, England's Chris Read once ducked a beamer from Chris Cairns. Only, it wasn't a beamer, it was a wicked slower delivery which looped picturesquely into his stumps. I agree the clean-bowled is emphatic.
The spectacle is of bowler confounding batsman, but not of that alone. They are collaborators in a drama where the true hero is the delivery. The heroic delivery is saved from anonymity. It is memorialised by the broken wicket. This may take the form of a lone bail fallen like an autumn leaf, or the entire apparatus scattered in far-flung ruins. In any event, the wicket is broken, the bowler has "disturbed the furniture", "shattered the stumps" and so on. It is the game's only dismissal involving direct disfigurement (the run-out and stumped feature interventions by the batsman and fielders), and invokes in us some primal bloodless hunting thrill. It is the only one without a lag, from a deliberating umpire or a catching fielder. The moment is climactic; the slow pressure cooking of cricket has whistled.
In Michael Holding's near-mythical over to Geoff Boycott in Barbados '81, the fevered culmination is a clean-bowled. Holding's mesmeric pace is made legend by a solo flying stump. The photographer Patrick Eagar remembers the stump covering half the distance to the boundary (not wholly supported by video, but then what is sport without folklore?), and a bail almost all of it. The dismissal is accompanied by a great life-affirming delirium of thousands of attentive watchers who have been given catharsis.
Nothing feels so jubilant as the clean-bowled, and also nothing so catastrophic. Recall the silence of a hundred thousand after Shoaib Akhtar, youthful and lithesome back in 1999, perpetrates the second of successive clean-bowleds at Eden Gardens. As the little man begins his distinctive walk to the centre, the tremendous roar gathers, crescendoing as Shoaib makes his sprinting, unstoppable run and leaps to unsling the swinging yorker that is every kid's fantasy. Sachin Tendulkar's golden duck is made iconic by a cleanly flattened, neatly ironed middle stump. In a flash of light and a void of noise, the game's essence is exposed. The batsman must protect his stumps at all costs and now the bowler has defeated him. The evidence is there for the world to see, five pieces of wood no longer in their careful time-honoured arrangement. It is beautiful and shocking.
Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of Pundits from Pakistan, about the Pakistan-India series of 2003-04, and the novel The Sly Company of People Who Care
The hookBy Christian Ryan
Hooking when the ball's high on him and heavy, two fielders posted backward and deep for the catch, makes no sense. Smell of sweaty leather pinching his nostrils and the team's prospects stuffed should he happen to hole out - and he hooks? These are high-wire stakes, especially if he misses, and even more so in pre-helmet days, or in not so far-off plastic flimsy faceguard days, when slap and a guy'd go down, a plank on the pitch crust, and fielders' palpitations would ratchet up in a collective unspoken will he live? is he o'right? must be stupid yeah?
If he hits, it's a sight to savour, the red ball spiralling, flying, dangling above green grass and in front of a speckled background, and everybody in the crowd's two eyes fixed on it. The near-miracle of escape: two catchers, that modest patch of green that's theirs to cover, yet the ball wins. And the wondering - what propels him to hook? - and the not quite knowing if it's compulsion or addiction or gullibility or some inbuilt instinct that he's here to provide entertainment, not just to stick it out, a dandy's instinct that eleven-and-a-half-months-per-year professionalism hasn't totally stamped out.
That ball's hard. So when you are calculating the batsman's motives you probably need to weave fear into the equation, the way it can make judgement wonky, and also the idiot pride that comes with being the one who attempts the most dangerous shot there is. "I'm a hooker," an old Australian Test opener once said to me.
Hooking off the neck, with two men waiting out deep, puts the watcher inside the batsman's head. You don't know why he's doing it. Does he know? Probably not.
Ravi Bopara at The Oval in July was a sight you didn't want to miss. Zero not out. Then an initial shaping up to hook; a clumsy about-turn; the too-late retraction of bat and pathetic snick to the wicketkeeper. "The product," tweeted the editor of Wisden, "of a slightly scrambled mind - why even think about the hook so early?"
Me, I smiled to myself, wished he'd gone through with the shot, hoped we'd be seeing Ravi again someday soon, knew chances are we wouldn't.
Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne and the author of Australia: Story of a Cricket Country
The catch in the slipsBy Osman Samiuddin
I'm not sure which was the first one I saw, but the first time I began to consciously appreciate the existence of the edge to slip was in the mid-'80s, during one of those ODI triangulars in Australia that looked like they were being played in the future. If slip catches are films, then Australia is their Hollywood, where they go to look, sound and feel slicker, bigger and more. Down under more than anywhere, this dismissal is an inevitability of being, like death and taxes.
What is the aesthetic appeal? Well, first, it's worth arguing that television captures the moment better than watching it live, mainly because it gives a better sense of just how reflexive and instinctive an act a slip catch is. Live at a ground, where you log how far back the slips stand, you can fool yourself into thinking (because you can't instantly compute the speed) that slippers have time to take a catch because they are so far back. TV, in 2D and from front-on, shortens that distance, so it looks like they have less time than they actually do.
Then there is the dense potentiality frozen in the precise instance of this dismissal, like in the lbw appeal before the umpire decides. Generally, as the bowler runs in on TV, you can see the slips. As he nears delivery, the camera narrows its focus so that only the wicketkeeper remains in frame. Any edge comes in this camera shot. But only the next frame reveals whether it is held, and in that moment between frames, the imagination bursts powerfully and briefly forth: Out, what's next, one more? Game changed? He's not, oh no, now what? Game changed? We're talking mere milliseconds, but they stretch.
Why else? Well, for years the edge to slip also felt like a novelty. Pakistani bowling has had no-nonsense modes of attack over the years. Bowl straight, aim for stumps or pads; there is a kind of infallible logic about that. An edge to slip? Uncommon. (And also, why? Why allow fielders control over your fate?)
That novelty endured, as novelty does, in two ways: by creating confusion and arousing curiosity. The confusion was initially over the terminology. Were commentators saying the batsman had nicked it or snicked it when he edged the ball? Many years later I discovered they said both (an early discovery of cricket's accommodating nature: even ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball commentators still use both). Even the curiosity was terminology-centric: why were they called "slips"? (Another belated discovery: an early description of a "long stop" position requires him to cover "many slips from the bat".) And why did they stand there, like a cradle behind play, not in front of it when, theoretically, play should unfold in front of the batsman?
The edge to slip wasn't abrupt like, say, the stumps being shattered. That was emphatic and obvious. The leg-before, like off side, was accepted by the newcomer as an unintelligible eccentricity. It was only enough to understand that pads must be kept out of the way. A catch in the outfield was also straightforward. The edge to slip? This was a jumble of unclear intent on the batsman's part (usually Pakistani, and so why even chase that?) and cricket's strange geometry.
The slip cordon itself holds a magnetic charm. These guys are the celebrities of the field. We talk vaguely - though less so than before - about so-and-so being a cheetah in the covers or point or close-in (sadly we never talk about a natural third man or fine leg). But with certainty and a degree of specificity, we know and talk about who is a good or great slipper and why. Their contributions - catches, not necessarily runs saved - are easily measured.
And because that is where they are seen chatting the most, I've always imagined the slips to be like a cross between speakers' corners and old coffee houses, where the game's greatest conversations occur and revolutions are hatched. No doubt it produces the greatest sledges. Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, outstanding both, may have talked about construction, kids, plumbing, and other domesticities, but Shane Warne and Mark Waugh? Maybe not.
They have probably all acknowledged at some point the occasional magnanimity of the dismissal when it grants all protagonists victory: bowler and catcher clearly, but also batsman whom we say sometimes has done well to even edge it.
Osman Samiuddin is a sportswriter at the National and the former Pakistan editor of ESPNcricinfo