It was a picture-perfect day at Lord's in mid-June, 2005. An MCC XI was playing an International XI in a 50-over one-dayer to raise relief money in the aftermath of the devastating tsunami that had wrecked coastal Sri Lanka about half a year before. As the world's best cricketers went through their warm-ups, a sense of relaxed anticipation suffused the packed ground.
Perched on the lower lip of the upper deck right behind the bowler's arm, I had about as good a vantage to watch the game as one can have. Anil Kumble was getting ready to bowl to Brian Lara. As the ball was about to be delivered, Lara made as if to come down the track, and Kumble pushed the ball in a bit quicker and shortened its length. Lara, already well out of his crease and realising he couldn't possibly reach the ball on the half-volley, stopped mid-stride and played a checked straight drive with almost no follow-through.
The ball rose from the bat in a gentle arc over the head of Kumble, who turned to see if either mid-on or mid-off might come into play to complete a simple catch. The ball kept soaring and landed not far from where I was sitting - a straight six as pure as anything the game has ever seen. At that moment, I discovered the sound of 25,000 people collectively gasping in astonishment.
Over 540 runs were scored that day, with Stephen Fleming, Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, Andy Flower, VVS Laxman and Kumar Sangakkara getting into the 40s or more, and there were a number of sparkling shots. Yet the enduring memory for me from that entire sun-dappled day's cricket is Lara's checked straight drive for six.
In addition to timing the ball to perfection, some batsmen are able to choreograph their shots in such a way as to evoke grace and effortlessness
His bat could have made an arc of no more than a few feet, even given Lara's extravagant backlift. The ball had reversed direction and travelled something like 85 yards in the air. Yet there hadn't been the barest hint of effort or power. Had a lesser batsman tried that shot, the ball might have landed comfortably in mid-on's hands. For the average club cricketer, such a shot would have resulted in a simple caught-and-bowled.
At this point, of course, the connoisseur of the game will have a simple one-word explanation for what we had witnessed: timing. Lara's genius lay in the ability to transfer his entire body weight into that point of contact between the middle of his bat and the ball at the precise nanosecond of maximum efficacy. The word "kinaesthetic" captures the combination of physics and aesthetics that goes into producing such a moment.
It's a skill that seems - depressingly for most of us - substantially inborn and less a matter of coaching or practice, though practice undoubtedly has much to do with perfecting timing. In my youth I used to watch with envy as friends with stick-like forearms sent the ball scudding to the boundary, turning the bowler's effort and energy against him. My own desperate heaves only sent jarring vibrations up my arms, and produced a most unmelodious thunk; they rarely resulted in the ball getting past the infield. Furthermore, as amateur cricketers discover, timing the ball well is vastly more difficult when you throw the element of physical danger into the mixture.
Even in the rarefied world of Test match cricket, where it's obvious that all batsmen have a phenomenal sense of timing, there are some that are truly gifted: I suppose that's where the aesthetic part overshadows the kinetic in kinaesthetic. I am sorry to report that a decade later I do not recollect a single shot by Kallis or Smith or Fleming or Flower that day (they all scored fifties), but I do remember a sublime square drive hit on the up by Sourav Ganguly (who made only 14). In addition to timing the ball to perfection, some batsmen are able to choreograph their shots in such a way as to evoke grace and effortlessness.
Even at the highest level, timing seems to be something that comes and goes. There are few sights more painful than a normally stylish batsman who is out of form. Their sense of timing has deserted them and no one quite knows how, when and why it might come back. It may return in the course of a single innings - or it may never come back till it's too late. We have all seen batsmen like Rahul Dravid or Ian Bell struggle for what seems to be hours where nothing seems to work. And then, out of nowhere, a square drive rockets off the meat of the bat, bisects gully and cover point, crashes into the boards and the batsman is a man transformed. Suddenly the feet are moving again, the gaps pinged effortlessly, and the sound of bat on ball has a reassuring thwock. Just as inexplicably as it deserted him, the batsman's sense of timing is back and all is well with the world.
A final vignette about this business of timing, one that I can still see in my mind's eye though it happened four decades ago. It was late on the first day at Chepauk during the 1975 Pongal Test against Clive Lloyd's West Indies. Their openers had a few overs to negotiate before the close. India's left arm medium-pacer Karsan Ghavri dug in a short one in the very first over. Roy Fredericks swivelled and simply feathered the ball, depositing it high over fine leg for a six. It was as if a ballerina had played a hook shot. Yes, timing is everything.