The primal contest
Cricket is a contest between bat and ball, a struggle that reaches its highest form in the Test arena. In most games the players are attempting the same skills and the result depends on the quality of the execution. Boxers and tennis players land the same sorts of blows, play the same type of shots. In cricket, as in baseball, the teams have the same aim but the process involves a primeval battle between batsman and bowler.
It is a confrontation between prey and predator, collector and hunter, reason and fury. Both sides strive with every power at their disposal to emerge triumphant. At first the bowler presses for a quick kill, for he knows his opponent is at his most vulnerable before he has settled. If the batsman survives his period of reconnoitering, his opponent might change his strategy, play a waiting game, set a trap, seek an opening, probe for weakness, mental or technical, or else invite his rival to reach too far. Victory alone matters and it can be attained by means slow or swift, fair or foul.
For his part the batsman strives to calm his nerves and become accustomed to light and pitch and ball. He tries to take his time and to give no hint of shakiness, even as the elephants dance in his belly. Most likely he will endeavour to play a tried and trusted game honed over the years. Every innings is different, though, and no bowler is quite the same, so the willow wielder needs to have his wits about him.
The attack might include a tearaway, a crafty veteran, an innocent-looking swinger, a mean fingerspinner, and a wristy one, capable of giving both ball and bottle a fearful rip. By and large all of them will fulfill their caricature. At the lower levels the aged chap is the one to watch. Bowlers learn a thing or two as they go along. Hence the saying, "Never underestimate a grey-haired bowler."
Not that a fellow ever learns that lesson. One of the delights of cricket is that even experienced and supposedly intelligent players keep making the same mistakes and keep berating themselves with the same curses. Pitted against a touring Australian side not so long ago, I managed to survive the opening onslaught and then licked my lips as the ball was thrown to a creaking purveyor of slow curlers. Too late I realised that the accursed pensioner was not as guileless as he seemed, and that his deliveries were not so much easy meat as poisoned chalice. By then the trudge back to that place of eternal wisdom and endless regret, the dressing room, was well underway.
Ordinarily the batsman will begin to widen his range of shots once established at the crease. It is not always a conscious decision. As often as not, the change of tempo happens of its own accord. Confidence, a tiring attack and frustration can combine to hasten the flow of runs. Unless the field is pushed back, innings advance in fits and starts. Placement, too, is less common than supposed. Batsmen might manoeuvre the ball into a gap or loft into empty spaces, but piercing the field with a full-blooded shot usually depends as much on luck as skill.
Of course batsmen and bowlers sometimes switch sides. Then the batsman becomes the predator, attacking from the outset and so changing the course of the contest. Even opening batsmen have become audacious. Previously the movement of the ball and a wider insecurity caused by Depressions and wars dampened ardour. Charlie Macartney, an incorrigible Australian (that might be repetitive), was an exception. By his reckoning an opener ought to dispatch a drive back at the bowler's head at the first opportunity, thereby informing him that he was in for a proper scrap. Nowadays the spread of briefer formats, the dryness of the pitches and the mood of the era encourage early attempts to seize the initiative.
Test cricket provides the opportunity for every player to express his talents to the utmost. Whereas the one-day game, to some degree, dictates terms to those taking part, limiting their overs, reducing their time at the crease, influencing field placements and bowling changes, a five-day match is as liberating as it is daunting.
Unsurprisingly the most compelling exchanges between bat and ball take place in the Test arena. Here the greatest players of the era are given the chance to try their luck against their equivalents, and the freedom to score 200 or a duck, take 10 wickets or concede a stack of runs without reward.
Bowlers, especially, relish the opportunity to prove their worth. At last they can set their own fields anyhow - so long as they don't copy Douglas Jardine - and bowl as many overs as captain and body allow. Inevitably the leading practitioners have produced their best work in this environment, constructing dazzling, tormenting spells that linger as long in the memory as the brilliant innings played by their temporary foes. Along the way they have reminded observers that bowling can be as rewarding as batting, and a lot more destructive.
Every cricket enthusiast will recall occasions when bowlers surpassed themselves. Michael Holding's stint at The Oval in 1976 was unforgettable. At once he was graceful and mesmerising, not so much running to the crease as gliding to it. Head upright, shoulders swaying slightly, toes barely touching the grass, he gathered himself at delivery and without apparent effort sent down thunderbolts that contained the charm of the antelope and the wrath of a vengeful god. Stumps kept toppling over like skittles and shaken batsmen came and went, knowing they had been undone by an irresistible force.
Richard Hadlee's performance in Brisbane was more surgical than stunning. Operating off a seasoned run, summoning formidable expertise, cutting the ball around off a track that helped him a little and others not at all, he worked his way through the local order. Even by his precise standards it was a tour de force. Like so many of the best spells, too, the wicket-taking deliveries were defined not so much by their deadliness as by the company they kept. Superb batsmen were harried and humiliated into error. The Kiwi did not bruise a single body but he damaged many egos.
Wasim Akram's virtuoso display at the MCG stands out because he had the ball upon a string, made it bend both ways at a scintillating pace and left accomplished batsmen gasping and groping. It's hard enough countering a bowler sending them down at 90mph and swinging it in one direction. When they start moving it both ways, it's downright unfair. Wasim streamed to the crease and with a gleam more mischievous than menacing, produced an astonishing spell.
Malcolm Marshall's most remarkable contribution came on a slow pitch at the SCG. West Indies had already won the series, and some suspected that the track had been prepared for the home spinners. Certainly West Indies were below their best. Amongst the flingers only Marshall rose to the challenge. Shortening his run, adjusting his length, he transformed himself from fearsome fast bowler to relentless, precise, probing swinger. And he kept at it for two days, even as the Australians piled on the runs. It was a thrilling, stunning piece of controlled, resourceful, pace bowling.
Among the modern masters, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne stand apart. McGrath looked like a hillbilly and bowled like a scientist. He was consistent and accurate, controlled and masterful, nagging away, securing extra bounce and movement, relying on skill alone to remove batsmen. He worked his way through an order as a rodent does a hunk of cheese, constantly nibbling, taking it piece by piece. If Lord's, with its inviting slope and disconcerting ridge witnessed his deadliest spells, it was because it suited him better than any other surface. But McGrath's greatness was most clearly revealed in his hat-trick taken in Perth against West Indies. His dismissals of Sherwin Campbell, Brian Lara and Jimmy Adams were notable for the precision of his analysis, the coldness of the execution, and the degree of craft required and revealed in the space of three balls. McGrath's combination included a perfectly pitched outswinger to an opening batsman inclined to hang back, a cutter landing on the sticks that drew a worried response from a gifted left-hander, and a bumper that rose at the shoulder of a tormented captain. Every delivery was inch perfect.
Warne's stature was revealed in his first and final contributions to Ashes series in England. His genius was shown by that very first delivery, to Mike Gatting, even as his character was confirmed by the fact that he dared to try his hardest-spun and least reliable offering. Twelve years later he was back in the old dart and trying to win an Ashes series off his own back. His performance in claiming 40 scalps in that ill-fated campaign stands alongside any contribution from any spinner in the history of the game. Although his powers were in decline, Warne's mind remained sharp, his determination was unwavering and his stamina superb. It was an unyielding, magnificent performance from a sportsman blessed with artistry, audacity, grit and bluff.
Of course many other great bowlers and bowling feats could be mentioned. The sight of Jeff Thomson unleashing another thunderbolt, Bishan Bedi lulling opponents to their doom, Murali spinning the ball at right angles in his early years, Waqar changing games with his sudden sandshoe crushers, Mike Procter in full flight, Derek Underwood landing it on a threepenny, and so many others pass easily into the mists of time.
That bowling has a beauty of its own is proven by these expert practitioners. They were as big a draw card as any batsman. The buzz that went around grounds as Warne marked out his run, the hush as the fast bowler stood at the top of his run, reinforces the point. Test cricket brings out the best in batsmen and bowlers alike, allows the game to reach its highest point. Confrontations between the giants - Lillee and Richards, Marshall and Gavaskar, Warne and Tendulkar - can be as exhilarating and satisfying. Then spectators and players remember what it was that that drew them to the game in the first place, and why they remain somewhat under its spell.
Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It