March 12, 2015

Twenty-two balls from Chris Jordan

Or how England can take a simple idea and stretch it till it makes no sense at all

Falling short: Jordan stuck to the one delivery that got him a wicket in Adelaide © Getty Images

Next month sees the 21st anniversary of a sentence of Ian Chappell's. "England's ability to over-theorise and complicate the game of cricket is legendary." It is a line from a time past, a vanished happiness, before quinoa, dossiers, ECB, FCF, numbered shirts, pre-game anthems, ball-tracking technology, or email, and thus before the late Bob Woolmer's brainwave of emailing on-field tactics to players' wristwatches: a past of Ceefax and outgrounds, of seats built from wood and no WAGs, nor children, allowed; a past when the backroom staff fitted in one room, at the back; a pre-Team England past before Scrumpy Jack's unveiling as the team's "official long alcoholic drink", before Lancashire's batsmen underwent specialist eye-testing consisting of them trying to catch the letters on the label of a spinning gramophone record, before the de-availablisation of cricket from every TV set, before a man - post-reconstructive facial surgery - could sue his old school for "laughing away" his instinct to wear a helmet when he was 15, a less titles-reliant past before "cricket supremo" was invented, before the first "international teams director" drove to Heathrow to scoop up England's players except meantime they'd flown into Gatwick, before "observers" were appointed to help selectors, the same selectors who selected 12 partners to partner Mike Atherton in the space of 92 Tests; Michael Lewis hadn't yet written Moneyball; Dickie Bird was a little-published (two autobiographies) umpire with cracking untold tales to tell; Wisden's Matthew Engel, in his annual Editor's Notes, was only just getting started in his mock-weary merrymaking at England's expense - such as (1) like "EastEnders without the varying storylines", 1997; and (2) "Cricket has some difficulty addressing the problems caused by drunks: Yorkshire's announcement that they would eject anyone who caused trouble by chanting was printed on a letterhead bearing the Tetley Bitter logo", 1994; and (3) "There was something rather endearing about Illy's claims to total power, which became a great deal less insistent when things were going wrong", 1996 - and further: no Bowl at Boycs existed, and "par" was golf talk. Hothousing was still something that happened to plants. Not people.

His face wears the strain of bowling fast lightly. He could be disembarking, in a pinstripe, at Liverpool Street tube station. Sometimes there's a Barbadian-style delivery leap. Other times, no leap materialises

No wind blew yet the clouds had a stringy quality as Chris Jordan began his second spell from the Cathedral End mid-afternoon last Monday. His second ball sent packing Soumya Sarkar, who flung head but not gloves out of the way of a short one. The shortness startled Sarkar. Twenty-one of Jordan's 22 balls that followed also pitched short. That was as long as his spell lasted.

Once, Shakib Al Hasan hooked late at a short one, the ball slapped the bat's edge, and the mis-hook lobbed over the leg-gully fielder. Jordan stood pitch-side, hand over his face and goatee, ruminative, then he smiled, flashed some teeth, thinking, this is working.

Another time, Jordan banged the ball in shorter still, maybe 15 feet from his own feet. At slip, Root clapped. Mahmudullah, the batsman, ducked comfortably enough under it that he was practising additional imaginary ducks even as the ball was tailing on the down-arc into the keeper's gloves.

He never feels nerves at the top of his bowling mark. The white ball sits front-on in Jordan's palm, the seam positioning easy to see. Frequently he grips it cross-seam, hoping for skid. Sixteen steps is his run-up. The steps are tiny. Ponying in, he is like a tall man in some novelty fright-house mirror, all legs, yet sprinting himself to a standstill, as if his gait's bung, and Alec Stewart once likened him to Malcolm Marshall before damping down that flattering comparison with the qualification "a young, poor man's Malcolm Marshall".

Two gold chains bob on his neck as he runs. His face wears the strain of bowling fast lightly. He could be disembarking, in a pinstripe, at Liverpool Street tube station. Sometimes there's a Barbadian-style delivery leap. Barbados is his birthplace. Other times, no leap materialises, and the follow-through is modest, although occasionally during his second spell he landed a short ball outside off stump, the batsman blocked it away, and Jordan kept following through as far as the batsman's immediate eyeline, as if eliciting a block out of a batsman was a moral victory. But who was zoomin' who here?

There's a time for quiet and a time for trying to get wickets © Getty Images

From the River End, an offspinner wheeled away, two minutes to an over. Not much time to catch breath. None of Jordan's 22 balls swung, seamed or by any method moved sideways.

No outward signs hinted at a head stuffed with data or notions of what score's "par". The feeling among some observers, the English ones, was that Jordan started bowling short because the ball stopped moving.

Moving the ball is hard. Some days it just won't go. To give it a chance, first you have to give it some air. Jordan hadn't. This eluded the English observers. Their feeling was Jordan's four overs did a job, kept things quiet. But there is a time for quiet and a time for trying to get wickets. Also, there's quiet, and there's a ruckus, and in his curious second spell Jordan's four overs went for 3, 3, 6 and 7 as Bangladesh posted 275 and the rest… everybody knows the rest.

A lot of cricket is about replicating with minute variations a simple act. Jordan took a wicket with a short ball and decided to bowl 21 of his next 22 balls short as well. In doing so, it could be claimed he was over-simplifying a simple idea until simplicity turned in on itself to make a complicated game extra-complicated. Over-simplifying, over-complicating, which is which, it's a mystery, but not one to get too morose about, it being only one of many mysteries that Monday afternoon and evening in Adelaide, and dwarfed by others, such as how, when no wind blows, clouds can go stringy.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy and Australia: Story of a Cricket Country. His new book is Rock Country

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