Close to a dozen years ago, I stood close to a boundary fence at the Sydney Cricket Ground, watching the fourth day's play of the fourth and final Test
of the series between India and Australia. India, with Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar at the crease, after taking a 231-run lead in the first innings, were engaged in the business of putting some quick runs on the board before declaring and asking Australia to have a crack at an implausible target.
As the pair of Indian batsmen hurtled toward the eventual innings score of 211 for 2 declared, one of them square drove to deep point. That position, the one where I happened to be standing and chatting with other fans, was, for some reason, not covered by a fielder. But third man was within running distance. And so third man, in this case Matthew Hayden
, intervened. As we watched in some amazement, the big man came sprinting over and in a quick movement reached down on the run, picked up the ball, swivelled and threw the ball back, hard and flat into the wicketkeeper's gloves.
We, the astonished spectators, spontaneously sucked in our collective breaths and then burst into applause. Hayden might have acknowledged us with a doffed cap, or perhaps, more likely, perceiving his efforts as just another day at the office, jogged back nonchalantly to his uncustomary fielding position.
I was then a sprightly almost 37-year-old. I still played cricket - occasionally, on my visits down under in the southern summer - with my old club, the Centrals, in Sydney's Northern Suburbs competition. There, I had come to realise, painfully, that my fielding was becoming subject to some of the same painful - literally - constraints that, thanks to my advancing years, were cropping up elsewhere in my life. Most prominently, bending down to retrieve a shot played across the ground was becoming embarrassingly harder. The joints creaked just a little; my lower back was often stiff from bowling; my hamstrings were a little tight. The quick swoop to retrieve the ball - à la Clive Lloyd or Colin Bland - was becoming impossible; if I had to stop a shot scudding across the turf, I would have to fling my body down in a dive. Which I sometimes did, but my timing was more often than not off, and all I had to show for my troubles was a face full of grass. These failures were among the most mortifying of mine on a cricket field. I was leaking runs, chasing leather, lumbering and ungraceful as I did so.
Yet again did the playing of cricket richly inform the watching of cricket. We, the ones watching, casual players of the game with friends, knew the difficulty of what Hayden was attempting
Thus, once again, that afternoon at the Sydney Cricket Ground, did a top-class cricketer remind a humble trier of both the proximity and the distance of the elite cricketer from the weekend recreational variety. And yet again did the playing of cricket richly inform the watching of cricket. We, the ones watching, casual players of the game with friends, knew the difficulty of what Hayden was attempting to pull off: he was running full tilt to intercept a delivery running perpendicular - at a fair rate of knots - to his path. He would have to decelerate, reach down, thus placing tremendous stress on his body's core, pick up, turn and throw. Accurately, if he wanted to make himself useful. Which is what he did, of course.
We also knew we were watching a piece of cricketing action that on television would come to seem just a little bland. For in our watching of Hayden, we had become aware of the sound he made as he ran; we could sense the momentum of his approaching bulk, the sound of his shoes on the cricket ground's turf; we could hear the ball's still-shiny surface and seam rasping across the grass; we could hear him grunt as he completed his manoeuvre, straining every sinew as he did so. At that moment, to be at the ground, and not watching on television in our living rooms, was a privileged position to occupy.
The moment was quickly over, the next ball was soon bowled. I do not know if Channel Nine's telecast showed many replays of Hayden's little feat down at deep point. But for those of us down on the boundary fence, it had been a magical moment, a little close-up glimpse into the heart of sporting excellence.
I wonder how many we see, and yet don't, as we watch yet another telecast, as we grow increasingly blasé about the offerings provided us by this game, as we continue to think of cricket as just another form of entertainment and not an activity that we ourselves participate in.
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. @EyeonthePitch