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Anderson vs Rizwan, Messi vs Netherlands: two acts of grand-wizard magic

Ten days ago, two old masters added a special vignette apiece to their career highlights reels

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
21-Dec-2022
Rizwan vs Anderson: going one way, until it wasn't  •  Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Rizwan vs Anderson: going one way, until it wasn't  •  Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

This pass came first in Doha, the ball a day later in Multan. If you're into both sports, you probably don't need the geographic locators to figure the ball in question was delivered by James Anderson and the pass by Lionel Messi, or that, yes, they have nothing in common and yet it's impossible to dissociate the two; sat next to each other like strangers on a train, but on the same journey.
At least I've found it impossible to not think of them together, the main reason being the slightly absurd geometry of both acts - aesthetically fulfilling geometry being the absolute bedrock of sport. On the surface, Anderson's ball to Mohammad Rizwan doesn't look as showy as other balls that day that dismissed Babar Azam, or Abdullah Shafique. Those were out, loud and proud bits of reverse, breaking back big enough to get the protractors out.
The Anderson ball was subtler, far more ambiguous in intent, in what it did and how, and even now, slowed down, digested multiple times since, you're really just guessing. Rizwan said it was like being bowled by a Dukes ball in England: upright seam on release like with a new ball, which, at 16 overs old, it could have been. Except this was dry, dusty Multan.
In flight it teased old-ball reverse, swinging in towards the shiny side. And when it landed, it behaved like it had done so on a still-proud seam and broke away from the path it had teased. Anderson said it hit a crack, but honestly, given the conditions for fast bowling, it's more like it hit a glitch in the matrix. Rizwan left no gap between bat and pad, there was barely a glimmer of his off stump as bat came down and still it nailed the top of off. Like pitching Better Call Saul as merely the prequel to Breaking Bad, hitting the top of off has never more grossly undersold the possibilities of a ball like this that hits the top of off.
Similarly, a pass (no), an assist (no), a through ball (still no), none of it begins to capture what Messi did in the quarter-final against Netherlands. There was the universe as it was and then, in the 35th minute God said, let there be light, and then, unto Nahuel Molina did this message drop like a bomb.
Anderson said the ball to Rizwan hit a crack, but honestly, given the conditions, it's more like it hit a glitch in the matrix
As Messi cut in from the right, scuttling diagonally towards the box, options looked limited. The Dutch defence, well drilled, had formed two compact lines of three, harrying away in front of him. The possible-is-still-something option was Marcos Acuna, the left-back, who was in space to his left. Ahead of Messi were Julian Alvarez and Molina. Both had defenders tight enough to them to warrant passes unlikely.
He bluffed an early pass to Molina, running ahead to Messi's right straight into the box. That drew some pace out of Nathan Ake, the defender hitherto in Messi's face cutting down his vision and ambition like a big business acquisition of a start-up. It also bought Messi some breathing room.
An opinion: through balls are hands down one of the best things about football, the absolute zenith of its geometric possibilities. The greatest ones hit you like plot twists, the ending you hadn't seen coming - Andres Iniesta here or Xavi here. In most cases the passer has the luxury of the full view of play ahead of them - the pass is played having first been seen exactly where it needs to be played to.
Here, the angle of Messi's run meant he had cut off play over his right shoulder and that Molina's run was taking place outside his line of vision. If you slow the close-in angle from front-on right down maybe you see Messi's eyes dart to the right a couple of times as he's running. Maybe. He's definitely not turning his head to look and Ake is mostly obstructing that view. More, it's just Messi's sense that Molina is exactly where he should be, where he needs him to be, where he wants him to be. And then, having gained a bit on Ake, he flips the switch: a no-look through ball that totally reverses the direction of play, perfectly weighted, and which, at a stroke, has unemployed eight defenders (including the goalkeeper). Molina doesn't have to break stride or sweat, or even really think, to do what he does. The finish is cute but it's literally putting in the full stop at the end of a novel. This isn't a plot twist, it's the next great film you haven't yet seen.
Somehow, the most ordinary thing about it is the most extraordinary thing that most footballers can hope to do - the nutmegging of Ake for the pass itself.
Nobody saw that pass coming, like nobody saw the Anderson ball coming. It was all going this way until it was going completely the other way. A glitch in the matrix? A twitch of genius more like. There wasn't another ball like Anderson's all series, as there wasn't another pass like Messi's. Several years removed from now, some of us are going to be saying there's not been a whole lot like either before or after. These weren't possibilities we didn't know existed being created, these were entire realities being created in which this was the only possibility that could exist, a reality created by years of their lived, unique experience. And ultimately, they elevated everything around them, even (in time to come) bestowing a kind of honour upon the defeated. If it took that to beat them…
The other thing is the finality of it all. There are not going to be that many more times we're going to see Anderson and Messi. Messi probably won't play another World Cup, and next summer, an Ashes win at home might be the moment Anderson wakes up and decides that bowling 20 overs is not the funnest way to spend a day, that there is nothing left in the prospect of delivering those 20 overs to drive him. They grow older, grizzlier, yes, but also frailer, and all those things they could do in their sleep once are things that now put them to sleep from the exertion.
It has been grand watching them in this late stage. Anderson, Grumpy Ole Anderson, has bowled as if unburdened by mood, an old dog delighting in old tricks; Messi, meanwhile, has been a salty delight, like he's just learnt at the age of 35 that it's fun to troll human beings. The impending sense that it's all about to end has, of course, heightened these moments, making them feel even more exquisite and fragile and in need of cherishing. Sure, that also distorts them. There are other passes, other goals Messi has scored (his assist in the very next game, for one) other wickets Anderson has taken that, it could be argued, have been better.
That's fine, entirely reasonable.
But that ball, this pass, was never only the geometry each traced in those instants. It was that in them were manifest all those moments that form our memories of everything the pair have done, a history of the geometry they have produced as well, inevitably, as the geometry of their history. The wild parabolas Anderson's swing cut earlier, the mazy slices through half a side that felt like Messi's homage to Maradona but were actually all him; the subtler, nibbling Anderson bits, a seam canted like so, a finger left like that, a little wobble, the cute, curved Messi finishes from the edge of the box into a far corner somewhere; the hairstyles (Messi's had more fun with it than you might think at first); all blending together on this one long arc, each moment to the next to the next to the next to now, bowing to its end.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo