March 18, 2015

Elegy for runlessness

Chatara to Dhawan: six balls, no runs, six paragraphs. There's a certain poetry about the maiden over

Danger on an Auckland Saturday: did you watch Chatara v Dhawan? © ICC

Tendai Chatara's left, non-bowling arm and hand did not rise, thrust, point, fall, cock the catapult or perform a vital body-stabilising function when he bowled last Saturday. Instead his arm and hand hung idly stiff, by his side, with a crook at the elbow. And all the load was on his back foot, the wrong foot. This is how his action is. Cricket is getting old. Its identikit pitches, atmospherics, helmet-wearing batsmen and titanium-grilled wicketkeepers sometimes seem each to be melting into one. Yet no two bowling actions are alike. The game's cultural base widens and bowling actions grow ever more unalike. Each new bowler lands on our TV sets with a bowling action subtly or markedly different to anyone's who went before. The effect is rejuvenating; cricket stays in a constant cycle of regeneration. Last Saturday, like a one-armed postman inserting a letter in a letterbox, Chatara bowled a ball outside off stump, angling further away, and Shikhar Dhawan left it well alone.

Second ball of the over was another dot ball, another leave-alone. Probably this did not suit Dhawan. Through the off side, he is deadly. The force rests in his hands and eye, not much exaggerated movement of feet, except when his feet skip, dart, tease, out of the crease, messing with a bowler's rhythms. Chatara, 24, from the province of Manicaland, will have been an international cricketer for five years come June but until this World Cup hadn't played a Test, ODI or T20 outside Zimbabwe, the Caribbean or Bangladesh. Chances are he'll be seldom sighted hereafter in cricket's well-to-do locales. Journalist Firdose Moonda was in Harare once for a fifth-day Zimbabwean beating of Pakistan. Chatara won it for them. After taking a wicket, he'd dash to fine leg. His team-mates were startled. No fans sat near there. Pressed to explain it, Chatara couldn't say why either. It came out later that where he was running was in the direction of Mutare, "the ghetto" as he phrased it, home. On Saturday in Auckland, Chatara's run-up, length, line and speed - svelte, just short, just wide, 140kph - flashed danger. But caution most likely sat unhappily with Dhawan who never, for instance, faced a single maiden over in one-day cricket until Angelo Mathews bowled to him in his 805th career minute at the crease.

There is a little part inside most batsmen that wishes to deny the bowler, to rob him of his maiden, it's one of those many reverse pressures and mini-tensions within any game of cricket that the observer is barely alert to, but it's there

"Bowl him six good ones," wrote John Arlott of Vijay Merchant, "and he would stop every one", although Merchant was a late-cutting, teetotalling man of fastidiousness whom the 21st-century cricketer might pose next to for tourist snaps, presuming him to be made of wax. Chatara's third ball was straighter and Dhawan's hunch was it was coming at him. But Chatara's wide crease positioning had misled him a little. The ball swung in, then zipped away after pitching. Dhawan, seeking runs - a tincture of anxiety - realised too late this was not one to be fishing at, stiff-armed. The ball missed the blade's edge. Maiden overs are recorded in scorebooks for the bowler, not against the batsman, but there is a little part inside most batsmen that wishes to deny the bowler, to rob him of his maiden, it's one of those many reverse pressures and mini-tensions within any game of cricket that the observer is barely alert to, but it's there.

In the pines, a tree's roots stick out of cracked earth. We sense the world getting hotter. We know maidens are getting fewer. Fourth ball of the over, Dhawan finally hit one, the ball screwing away off the bat. Dhawan's feet followed after it, breaking into a gallop. Groan; a flung-out left arm - his partner Rohit Sharma ordered him back. No run. Every 23 overs in this World Cup a maiden occurs. For slightly unfair comparison's sake, the 1983 World Cup - played on late-spring English pitches that hadn't had the moisture blasted out of them - contained a maiden every eight overs. When Martin Snedden produced figures of 12-1-105-2 the "-1-" bit was deemed so unremarkable that neither the Times nor Guardian mentioned who the temporarily run-less batsman was. On current stats trends we will see one maiden per team innings by 2047 and zero maidens whatsoever by the 2103 World Cup - i.e. within the lifespan of children watching this World Cup. Who can tell, if maidens do go the way of the donkey drop, whether we'll still record/non-record them in a bowler's bowling figures?

Ever kept this man quiet? G Lawson lived to tell the tale © Getty Images

Something different: Chatara was metres away, bounding in, fifth ball of the over, and Dhawan was bending at the knees then abruptly snapping upright. Next, his feet went wandering, two shuffle-steps sideways. Chatara still hadn't arrived. The ball when it came inhabited the same roughly hazardous zone as the first two deliveries. Dhawan let it fly by. "Greatest spell of bowling of mine," Geoff Lawson is saying down the phone line, "Paddington End, a filthy, dusty SCG wicket, was my five straight maidens at Viv Richards who was going [35 not out] for his hundredth first-class hundred. New South Wales versus West Indies. The ball was reversing a bit and I had about a 4-5 field because you almost set spin-bowling fields on that kind of SCG. Viv was on strike. First over: everything on the money, every ball coming in towards him, late, and you know what? He seemed to be thinking, 'Better not f*** it up. Better not play across the line.' Second over. Another maiden. I thought, 'I am not giving this bloke anything' - no variety, no outswinging, no big offcutter or big offbreak. G Matthews was on at the other end. And the strike did not turn over. Whoever the other batsman [Gus Logie] was, he was getting twos or none. I bowled Viv 4.5 overs of the same ball - you know, 145k-an-hour reverse-inswing, each one hitting off stump exactly three quarters of the way up. We got to the last ball before stumps. And I thought, f*** it. He was wearing his cap, right? Bowled him a bouncer. Shitty SCG wicket. Old ball. I bowled him an absolute ripsnorter. Normally he'd never duck. He would have a hook. But he had been concentrating so hard on defence, and he was on the front foot, and… and it was a f****** beauty. He went to sort of duck and half-hook it and his cap fell off, it landed next to off stump, and the umpire said "Stumps" and Viv bent over, very calmly, picked the cap up, put it back on his head, and as we were walking off the field he caught up with me halfway. They'd already named the first Test side. I wasn't in it. And Viv said, 'Lawso, I'll see you in the second Test, man.' Next day, G Matthews lobbed up a knee-high full toss and Viv smacked it over midwicket for his hundredth hundred."

Why it appears second, not third, in a bowler's figures is one of those unasked unanswerables. But that's the maiden over all over. A case can be made that it is the most superfluous stat on the scorecard - good only, if you're a bowler, for making sure the captain doesn't drag you. Dhawan defended Chatara's final ball, straightest of the six, to mid-off and you won't find it on YouTube, it's already past, but it was wild and tense and there is richness in superfluity, trust me, and it was fraught. What an over. Maiden over. Greatest six-part melodrama in sport. I wish you could have seen it.

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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