May 21, 2014

The corrida of uncertainty

There is much to admire in the rhythm and timing of a batsman's leave-alone, which at times seems to borrow from the quintessentially Iberian art of bullfighting

When Jack Russell left the ball alone he could have been pulling back a curtain Graham Chadwick / © Getty Images

There's something elemental, almost sacramental, about early-season cricket in England. Rested up over winter, their muscles twanged into readiness in nets and gyms, seamers are ready to come thundering out of dressing rooms and into the arena, near-frenzied by the scent of batsmen's blood.

They have been trained for this moment, and understand that April and May is their time. Meanwhile, faced with such coiled energy and focused menace, and with a dangerous projectile force, the opening batsman's job is to draw the sting from the bowler, to wear him down - conceding now, the better to conquer later.

It may not seem immediately obvious, but there is much in that quintessentially English early-season choreography that resembles the quintessentially Iberian art of bullfighting. Indeed, just as the aficionado's appreciation of the corrida lies mainly in the poise and refinement of the passes, each perhaps more daring and intimate than the last, so the cricketing connoisseur can be equally enthralled by a dexterous and graceful leave-alone.

It may well be passé in the T20 era to eulogise the prosaic skills of defensive batting, but Mike Hussey allowing the ball to pass over his stumps and under his eyes with a raising of the hands as measured and rhythmical as a windscreen wiper was a thing of esoteric beauty. And should the bowler have speed and aggression to add to his movement, the batsman will need nimbleness and, above all, cojones.

Kumar Sangakkara once left a Warne wrong'un, pitching middle, with such gorgeous disdain that it was a wonder the leggie didn't fall to his knees, broken

Where the valiant torero squeezes those cojones into his "suit of lights", the opening batsman will slip into an equally figure-hugging suit of lightweight protective material. Thereafter, stood typically in rigid profile, proud and unyielding, the batsman-torero will, with a sweep of the arms and swing of the back hip, allow the darting, rearing ball/bull to pass by stomach or snout, smelling its leathery exterior but not allowing his fear to be smelled in turn.

For the first half of this elegant veronica - the basic pass named after the saint who wiped the face of Christ on the way to Golgotha - the batsman's eyes will be fixed on the ball/bull until the deadly force of the snorter is dissipated by a smart thwack into the keeper's gloves. At its most refined, the rhythm and timing of the leave-alone embodies the bullfighting concept of templar: tempering the attack of the bull by moving the cape so that the bull never quite touches it, but not so early that he seeks another target - such as the torero, say! You might even say that the bullfighter is the only one in this death's edge dance that should be touching cloth.

Much as the bullfighter lures the bull in with his capote, so the batsman, through his judicious leaving of the ball, will hope to entice the bowling into his scoring areas, eventually driving him to distraction before administering the kill. However, where the bullfighter's art has evolved from movement to stillness - its great innovator Juan Belmonte, cover star of Time in 1925, said: "My theory was: You stand there, and the bull does not move you... if you know how to fight" - that of the batsman seems to have gone in the opposite direction.

In the corrida, it's the cape that moves and attracts the bull, the man being the ultimate target (the bull, of course, initially failing to realise it); in cricket, the immobile stumps are the bowler's ultimate target - certainly, if the batsman is leaving well (although he will also receive the counter-intuitive instruction not to get "too straight") - while a moving batsman can distract the bowler, entice him to another line. Making a similar conceptual leap to Belmonte, that sometime cape-wearing innovative genius Kevin Pietersen would often play Makhaya Ntini - bowling from the very edge of the return crease - with a quicksilver skip out toward mid-off that took lbw out of the game while simultaneously covering his stumps, enabling him to work Ntini's line into his favoured legside. Ungainly, perhaps, but effective.

In bullfighting, of course, aesthetics is paramount. It is to this day covered in the Arts and Culture sections of newspapers, while the three-tier scoring system - one ear, two ears, two ears and tail - is determined by the matador's faena ("display") as judged by the president of the plaza de toros in "dialogue" with the petitioning crowd and their handkerchiefs.

There is no hard-headed getting-the-job-done in an arena where even the most graceful faena can be ruined by a clumsy kill. In cricket, by contrast, pragmatism is all. Think of Jack Russell's "pulling back the curtain", a veronica seen many times at that famous cricketing bullring, the Wanderers in Johannesburg, when his unbeaten 29 from 235 deliveries helped Atherton tame a bullocking Pollock and Donald.

No, cricket's leave-alone is not about aesthetics. Indeed, the roundheads will tell you there are only two types of leave: good and bad. But that isn't strictly true. Just as certain passes are designed to show mastery of the bull, so some leave-alones can be as much about demoralising the opponent as immediate survival. Kumar Sangakkara once left a Warne wrong'un, pitching middle, with such gorgeous disdain - hands alongside the back hip in a classic torero's pose before a tellingly delayed one-handed shadow-drive swooshed the blade through as two very different types of smile were kept from the adversaries' faces - that it was a wonder the leggie, with something of the bull's heft back then, didn't fall to his knees, broken. ¡Olé!

And yet the "moment of truth" must eventually come for the bowler - a Death in the Afternoon anatomised in Ernest Hemingway's celebrated book on bullfighting, "the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter's honour". If not the afternoon, then later in the season, perhaps, when high sun has sapped life from limb and demons from pitch.

But April 20 to May 21 is truly the bull's time, and in that moment of passing peril - the ball in its ballistic destruction, the bull in its instinctual aggression - there is the shared thrill of proximate death that unites the matador's and the opener's art.

Scott Oliver tweets here

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