Cricket? What exactly is it? This beauty of a game involving bat and ball?
It has something to do with the smell. In cricket both the bat and ball smell. The ball smells of leather and human perspiration. The bat smells of linseed oil. They are smells that have stayed with me albeit tucked away in a recess of my mind.
‘They’ say that football is the ‘beautiful game.’ As a football fan, I find myself reluctant to disagree with that. But ‘they’ are wrong. Cricket is truly the beautiful game.
Is Cricket a Team Sport?
Cricket is seen as a team sport. It is. Yet, therein lies a paradox. The batter and the bowler are the individual gladiators within a team setting.
The batter relies only 1% on his team when batting. That percentage represents the ability of his team mate, his fellow batter, to call, be called and run between the wickets in a proper fashion. Running can be an art form in itself. For 99% of the time at the crease the batter is reliant on his own eyes and skills. He is pitting his skills versus the bowler.
The bowler is more reliant on his fellow team mates. He cannot rely on taking wickets solely by striking the stumps with the well-delivered ball. He needs the wicket keeper to catch edges from the batter. He needs the same keeper to whip off the bails for a stumping. The bowler expects the remaining nine fielders to catch everything that stays airborne. Damn it! That same bowler expects a fielder to catch the lofted ball even when it is thirty yards away from that team mate in the field.
The bowler is mainly interested in his wickets. The bowled, LBW, caught and stumped columns on the score sheet. Of course, he is a member of a team so he has more than a passing interest in run-outs. But a run-out is not a wicket for him. Thus, it’s not quite in the same category.
Bowlers ply their trade in various guises. There are the quick bowlers. They rely on pure speed to force the ball past the bat before the batter can react or adjust. Many of them also possess the ability to swing the ball in the air either away or in to the batter. Some can also produce movement off the wicket (the ground) after the ball has pitched. Even fewer can do both – swing the ball in the air and move it off the pitch.
The movers of the shiny red leather ball through the air or off the pitch, bowl at all kinds of speeds ranging from fast to medium-slow, or slow-medium if you prefer.
Cricket has a place for the slow bowler. They are the magicians. They spin the ball as it leaves the hand either by wrist or finger movement. And. probably a mixture of the two if they happen to be a member of the ‘magic circle.’
The slower bowlers are also known as ‘spinners.’ ‘Off-spin’ and ‘leg-spin’ are the two branches of the spinners’ club. The former is when the ball pitches and turns in to the right-handed batter. The latter turns away from the right-hander.
If that sounds simple, then consider this: masters of the art of spinning can also bowl a delivery that does the unexpected. The off-spinner can make the ball move the ‘wrong’ way or go straight on instead of turning. The same applies to the leg-spinner. Both of them can develop the art of delivering a ball that ‘pops’ or ‘spits’ at the batter.
To make matters even worse for the batter, these devilish spin bowlers may also have acquired the knack of moving the ball in the air as well as off the ground. In any event. the better slow bowlers vary the speed of the delivery and its trajectory.
These slow bowlers are capable of bowling all day long. They take a short run and deliver the ball. Indeed, part of their armoury can be to bowl in rapid-fire mode to try and unsettle the batter. I did say they were a devilish breed!
Quick bowlers by way of contrast take a long run-up before delivering the ball. That is done in order to develop maximum body velocity at the point of delivery. That assists in the coiling of the upper body like a tight spring. Then they are able to throw the body forward with the trailing delivery arm whipping over as fast as possible before they release the ball.
The effort put in by the truly quick bowler is plain to see. No wonder they expect every airborne ball to be caught! He will return slowly to his mark that denotes the start of his run-up. The quick bowler also expects all fielders to ‘work’ on the ball. They must shine it on one side only to assist the ball to swing in the air. The bowler will also work on it when it is returned to him.
He will rub the shiny side vigorously on his pants before setting off again on his long run-up. He, and the other fielders, are permitted within the laws of the game to apply sweat to the shiny side. No other substances are permitted. Neither is any player allowed to use dirt or any other method to deliberately scuff up one side of the ball to try and induce ‘reverse swing.’
Batter Bats Bowler Bowls
The batter bats. The bowler bowls. At those two moments cricket is not a team game. It is mano a mano, me and thee.
The batter is seeking to strike the ball and score runs. It matters not whether they are boundary shots worth four or six runs, or an ‘all-run’ run when the struck ball didn’t reach the boundary.
The bowler, if he is a quickie, is trying primarily to strike the batsman’s wicket; bowling him. To a fast bowler, and many onlookers, there is no finer sight than bails flying skywards and stumps cartwheeling in a violent backwards motion.
There are secondary sources of satisfaction for the fast bowler. One of them is to intimidate the batter by sheer speed. The skill and courage of a batter is tested by the ball that pitches and then rears up at his throat. That short-pitched ball is a major weapon in the fast bowler’s arsenal. Many fast bowlers are inwardly happy if they hurt an opposing batter. They don’t wish him serious harm but sufficient pain to make batting uncomfortable.
The full-pitched fast delivery aimed at the feet of the batter is a ‘wicked’ tactic. It is known as a ‘yorker.’ If the batter doesn’t react quickly enough then he will be unable to ‘jam’ down the bat on the ball. It will pitch around where his feet are positioned, bounce and strike the stumps. Yorked! On occasions, the batter may suffer the misfortune of being struck on the toes by such a delivery. That is painful.
A further aim is to induce a false stroke finding the edge of the bat. The batter’s mistake results in him being caught, often behind the wicket by the keeper or the cordon of slip catchers. Aiming to trap the batter ‘leg before wicket’ (LBW) is also a source of satisfaction for a bowler whether quick or slow.
A different kind of satisfaction is experienced by the quick bowler if the batter ‘slogs’ out and is caught by a fielder in ‘the deep.’ The bowler invariably is disdainful of such a shot. To him, it shows either a lack of respect for his bowling or a distinct lack of batting skill.
The latter’s name, besides being one of the all-time great fast bowlers, once brought a slice of humour to a cricket commentary. The radio commentator was updating the listeners and reminding them who was currently bowling and batting. The statement, “The bowler’s [H]olding the batsman’s Willey” has gone down as one of cricket’s funniest moments. [Peter Willey of England was the batter in question]
Oops! Apparently it was never said! But is still known as one of the funniest cricket “sayings.”
Fast bowlers have taken up a few words from me. One of the reasons is that I (at my peak) was a medium-fast bowler. I discovered at an early age that I had an innate ability to swing the ball in the air away from the batsman. On a good day, particularly if the wicket was wet, I would also ‘break back’ the ball off a wet pitch into the batter.
I find it strange that at the time my bowling skills were on the wane, through age, I suddenly found the ability to swing the ball the other way. I was able to bowl my stock ‘outswing’ and ‘inswing’ at will. At the time I was playing second eleven cricket for my club in Yorkshire. I took eight wickets in the game (out of a maximum of 10) mostly bowled using the ‘in swinger’ as my new-found surprise weapon. Those wickets included a ‘hat-trick,’ three wickets in consecutive deliveries.
The opposition skipper that day was a veteran of the Yorkshire leagues and had played at county level for Yorkshire. I proudly recall the fact he shook my hand after I had bowled him. He paid me the compliment of saying it was the finest swing bowling he had faced in his career.
Sadly, shortly after, and again for some unknown reason, my bowling fell apart. I developed the ‘yips.’ That meant I simply could not let go of the ball at the point of delivery. At forty something years of age I decided to concentrate on my batting. I wasn’t ready to quit this game that I loved.
The strange thing about me and batting is that I always thought I was capable of scoring runs. Yet, I never did. I was a successful bowler from an early age. I was pigeonholed and thus successive captains of various teams would bat me at number 10 or 11. The result was that I batted like a ‘rabbit’ at 10 and 11. ‘Nine, Ten, Jack’ is the term used for the last three batters. It was used in a derogatory sense in that as soon as the opposition number 9 arrived at the batting crease, then the fielding team sensed it was all over bar the shouting.
When I stopped bowling, I concentrated on batting. ‘Concentrating’ is the key word. I was about fifteen when I first played competitive league cricket starting off in the Manchester Association in Lancashire. I was forty plus when I made my mind up to become a batter.
My father would spend countless hours coaching batting with me and my brother when we were kids. As a result, I knew I possessed ‘all the shots.’ My catalogue of shots was added to by watching Test cricket on the TV. I learned how to, and practiced, pull shots, hook shots, drives, cuts and glances. This education was complemented by watching cricket live. That usually took the form of watching my father play; or accompanying him to Lancashire League matches to see the likes of Conrad Hunte and Bobby Simpson. Once my father took me, my brother and cousins to Headingley, Leeds to watch England versus the West Indies. I also went to Old Trafford, Manchester with a school mate and witnessed Everton Weekes scoring a magnificent century versus England.
I knew I had the shots. Earlier I wrote that “‘concentrating’ is the key word.” It wasn’t until I decided to turn myself into a batter that I realised how true this was. For all my father’s love of cricket, clearly inherited by me, he never told me the secret to staying at the crease a long time and therefore creating the opportunity to score runs.
He wasn’t the only person guilty of this ‘crime.’ My first cricket mentor, other than my Dad, was a septuagenarian who was still playing cricket when I knew him. He had played for Burnley in the Lancashire League for many years alongside the famous Learie Constantine. He never revealed ‘the secret.’ Neither did Eddie Paynter of Bodyline fame. My father introduced me to him when I was aged about nine. Dad knew him well.
What was this secret? I discovered it myself and kicked myself once I knew of its simplicity. It is the key to scoring runs as a batter.
Watch the ball! Watch it in the bowler’s hand as he runs up prior to delivery. Watch it leave his hand. Watch it in the air. Watch it hit the ground and above all else watch it all the way on to your bat. Never let it leave your sight!
I came to understand that previously I was batting with an intuition. Sure, I was watching the ball part of the way as it came towards me. But, 90% of my reactions were based on intuition and not sheer bloody-minded concentration.
I would insert these words at the beginning of any batting coaching manual – watch the bloody ball!
My batting and my scores improved dramatically following the discovery of ‘the secret.’ I was soon opening the batting for my club team. I was a ‘re-born cricketer.’
I never forgot my cricketing roots as a bowler. Yet, there is something completely satisfying about batting well. It was now my turn to bat. It was a pleasant Spring day and an away game against local opponents – a ‘grudge match.’ They had a fierce fast opening bowler. He could swing the ball in the air. I opened our innings.
His first over of six balls was a little wayward. He was warming to the afternoon’s task in front of him. I watched the first three deliveries sail past harmlessly wide. There was no need to play a shot. They all swung in the air away from me as I am a right-handed batter. The fourth was a fuller delivery. It started out wide of my leg stump and pitched so I reached it on the half-volley with one stride forward. I watched it come on to the full face of my bat then quickly turned my bat to my left. It was the perfect leg-glance. No power is needed. It’s all wrist work. The stroke uses the speed of the ball and resulted in the ball rocketing towards the boundary along the ground – four runs.
The bowler stared at me. I stared back. He must have been angry. The next ball whistled over my head. We, my opening batsman partner and me, ran a single. It was Peter’s (my batting partner) turn to face the bowler. Peter’s first ball was his last. He edged an out swinger to the slips and was caught. Five runs for one wicket in the first over was not an auspicious start.
My friend, Alan, was the next batter. He was the type of batter that likes to ‘get on with things.’ He takes the game ‘by the scruff of the neck.’ Alan’s style was limited in that he had few shots in his locker. But he used them to good effect.
The opposition’s fast bowler went on to bowl twelve overs before he was taken, bloodied, out of the fray. It’s not that he bowled poorly. He bowled well. But it was my day and not his. Of course, that is with support from Alan.
It didn’t matter what the fast bowler did. He sometimes pitched the ball up to allow it to swing. I watched it swing in the air; watched it land on the ground. By this time my feet were in position. My bat struck in an arc to the point where the ball landed. My left front foot was alongside but outside the ball. My nose was over the ball, watching it and ‘sniffing’ it. Crack! That is the beautiful noise of a willow cricket bat striking leather. No need to run! The red leather ball has raced to the boundary. Another four runs.
The bowler mixed it up. This time, not from anger but a realisation that he was going to have to work hard to get me out. He pitched it short rather than full. I watched the ball. It was clear to me that the ball was going to land short.
The bowler’s plan was to have me jump about in my batting area in fear of the short ball. Instead I used the ‘secret.’ Full concentration resulted in me knowing and seeing where this delivery was to land. I shifted my weight to my back foot and waited. Whilst waiting, I opened up my stance so I was no longer sideways on to the bowler. The ball bounced off the hard surface and rose. If I had done nothing further the ball would likely have struck me in the middle of my forehead. That didn’t appeal to me so I watched some more.
I raised my bat further now. It was already raised and ‘cocked’ in readiness for the next stage. Watching the ball, my bat arced from right to left across my head. The middle of the bat connected with the ball just short of an arm’s length from the middle of my head. Crack! Six runs!
Six runs because I had deliberately ‘lifted’ the ball. The leg (to my left) boundary was close. There was no danger of failing to reach the boundary. Therefore, no possibility of being caught in the deep outfield by an opposition fielder.
These types of shots, and more, continued until I had accumulated sixty-eight runs. I tried the last shot once too many times. I was tired and lost concentration. I was guilty of a failure to watch the ball all the way on to the face of the bat. It is so easy to fall into the trap of ‘muscle memory’ when batting. It can have ‘fatal’ consequences. I had enjoyed my innings. I had enjoyed the battle against the opposition fast bowler.
There was little disappointment in my being caught. What there was disappeared in a feeling of love for this special game. I walked up to my fast-bowling ‘foe’. After removing the batting glove from my right hand, I shook his hand and said, “Well bowled.” He was as succinct in replying, “Well batted.”
Several people, both spectators and players at that game, commented favourably on that sporting handshake. That is how this great sport should be played. That game took place in Yorkshire. It is an English county renowned for a ‘tough’ version of cricket at all levels. Yet, they are a sporting bunch. As a native of Lancashire, I was also brought up in a ‘tough school’ of cricket. Play hard but fair could be the motto of both counties. Two counties separated by the M62 Motorway and the War of the Roses but united in a love of cricket.
It was always a source of irony to me that the only time I saw blatant cheating at cricket was in Hampshire. You know, Hampshire – one of the gentrified Home Counties. I was playing at the beautiful May’s Bounty ground in Basingstoke. It was in the days of me as a ‘Nine, Ten, Jack.” I went in to bat with us needing about six runs to win the match. As I marched towards the batting crease, I heard the words, “watch out for their keeper” ringing in my ears. I thought nothing of it as I didn’t know what it meant. I soon found out.
The keeper was an older guy who had been around the leagues. He nodded to me as I took guard and prepared to face my first delivery. I played a forward defensive shot but missed contact with the ball by a country mile. I heard the ball smack into the keeper’s gloves. I heard something else before the thud of the ball in gloves.
“Howzat?” yelled the keeper. I turned and saw he was appealing towards the square leg umpire for a decision on my dismissal. Momentarily, I was bewildered. How could he appeal for a ‘caught behind’ when I had not made any contact with the ball? It was then I noticed that the bails were on the ground. He was appealing for a stumping on the ground that my back foot was raised off the ground while playing the forward defensive shot.
The only flaw was that the keeper must be holding the ball when he removes the bails in order to be given ‘out’ by the umpire. He had appealed before the ball thudded into his gloves!
I saw the dreaded sight of the umpire raising his index finger to give me ‘out.’
This keeper had a reputation for claiming stumping victims by flicking off the bails using his pads. I was merely yet another victim of his cheating ways!
Thankfully, such stories are rare in cricket. In my experience, such rogues are also rare in cricket.
I much prefer all my happy memories of this great sport. It bound my father and me in a common shared love of cricket. He was a father who was not prone to lavish praise. He saw me play competitive cricket only once in his life. During that game I played the perfect ‘leg-sweep.’ It is a difficult shot to play effectively. After that game my father spoke to me over a beer.
“You know what, son, I could never play that shot.”
Cricket could be said to be life-lite. Within the game one can find most of the highs and lows experienced in life. Sport is a great teacher.
Do you know what my favorite part of the game is? The opportunity to play – Mike Singletary