Touching God: The Seduction of Fast Bowling


Fast Bowling: The unbridgeable gap

Pick up the bat. Assume the stance. Crouch. Tap. Tap. Eyes fixed at a point in the distance, somewhere between the bed and the lamp. In the distance, the bowler bounds in. He jumps into his delivery stride, trigger movement, back leg movesback, batlifthighTHOCK.

The ball is bounding away through midwicket even as the flourish is extended just that little bit longer for the camera. VVS Laxman follows the ball far off towards the hoardings, getting ever smaller in the mirror. Bat flung away carelessly, plonk down on the bed. That ball keeps going and going. VVS smiles.

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I always loved this from Manan. Lifting the entire post:

He was a middle-aged man, balding, silver-dusted hair, a grey sweater, dark trousers. His belt buckle was, incongruently, the Texas pan-handle. He seemed to be walking intently, with long purposeful strides amid the chaos of the shopping center, his eyes fixed at some imaginary sign-post. Or perhaps it was a real sign, I honestly have no idea.

Suddenly, he broke his stride. Took two long gallops and corkscrewed his right arm to deliver, what looked like a leg-spin down the pitch. It was a startling interruption. Least expected. He let his hand linger at the top of the arc, letting his wrist sink down. I don’t know if his mind’s eye was relishing a wicket or maybe he had just hopelessly beaten the bat. He didn’t smile or cheer to reveal his vision.

And then he continued on.

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I am a child of the Enlightenment. Conclusions should be arrived at rationally, by reason, deduced by logic. So when I am forced to make an unfounded claim, I lamely appeal to first principles, certain axioms that form the bedrock of my worldview. With that disclaimer in place, I submit an axiomatic pillar of my cricketing compass:

Fast bowling is fundamentally different from virtually every other aspect of the sport.

This is not a claim made facetiously and some elaboration is in order. Fast bowling is different in so far as it lies outside the realms of imagination. I have spent an unhealthy amount of time batting against the wall of my bedroom, conjuring up various innovations to turn the humdrum confines of that space into the Elysian theaters of green grass and white flannel. Strategically arranged wooden slats convert the flattest bedroom carpeting into a subcontinent minefield. Little obstacles laid on the “pitch” create spots from which the ball rears in alarming ways. With a little imagination, I can easily enact a fantasy, Damien Martyn facing a greatest hits lineup of bowlers. Each one is faced with consummate ease, balls dispatched past the dresser at cover and the desk at gully. Rigorous nets practices usually take place in front of the mirror as I admire my various spin variations in slow motion.

Outside the home turf of my bedroom, things get a little more tricky; this Indian still hasn’t wholly shed the “poor traveler” tag. Those expansive cover drives do not come off quite so well in practice, flicks through square leg inexplicably end up as lobs to short cover. I realize why “spinning an onion on ice” can be complimentary, while the only drift I achieve sends the ball spearing towards fine leg.

The desired acts of batting and spin wizardry do not lie outside the bounds of imagination. Possibility, yes. Probability, almost certainly. Still, who amongst us has not twirled a bat and at some level believed that we could pull off as outrageous a shot as any top batsman?  I contend that these flights of imagination are somewhat precluded in the case of fast bowling. Setting aside the laziness of an appeal to first principles, one explanation suggests itself. The physicality of fast bowling sets it apart from most other cricketing acts. To be sure, batting for extended periods of time can be testing- just ask Dean Jones- while 90 overs spent in the field would tax most sportsmen. However, when it comes to singular acts, the delivery of a single fast ball is the pinnacle of physicality on a cricketing field.

It is in this realm of the physical that the capabilities of imagination are exhausted. Here is a simple exercise: Take a ball, run for fifteen yards and then throw it with all your might. One would be hard pressed to approach anything close to 90 miles per hour on such a delivery. Every time one bowls a cricket ball, there is a profound realization that speed is either immanently achievable, or intrinsically impossible. Perhaps batting instinct cannot be taught either, but acceptance of that requires more nuance, more profundity. The lure of speed lies in its simplicity: in the physical gap between the truly fast and everybody else falls the finite boundary of imagination.

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After the first powerful plain manifesto
The black statement of pistons, without more fuss
But gliding like a queen, she leaves the station.
Without bowing and with restrained unconcern
She passes the houses which humbly crowd outside,
The gasworks and at last the heavy page
Of death, printed by gravestones in the cemetery.
Beyond the town there lies the open country
Where, gathering speed, she acquires mystery,
The luminous self-possession of ships on ocean.
It is now she begins to sing- at first quite low
Then loud, and at last with a jazzy madness-
The song of her whistle screaming at curves,
Of deafening tunnels, brakes, innumerable bolts.
And always light, aerial, underneath
Goes the elate metre of her wheels.
Steaming through metal landscape on her lines
She plunges new eras of wild happiness
Where speed throws up strange shapes, broad curves
And parallels clean like the steel of guns.
At last, further than Edinburgh or Rome,
Beyond the crest of the world, she reaches night
Where only a low streamline brightness
Of phosphorous on the tossing hills is white.
Ah, like a comet through flame she moves entranced
Wrapt in her music no bird song, no, nor bough
Breaking with honey buds, shall ever equal.

– Stephen Spender, The Express

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All through India’s tour of England, commentators across the board harped on about Praveen Kumar’s lack of pace. His control and nous notwithstanding, the general perception seemed to be that a frontline fast bowler must be truly fast. While this is a point of debate, the seduction of speed is undeniable- at some level, speed is not something that can be taught. It also expands a bowler’s arsenal, given the requisite amount of control and thought. However, the matter goes beyond a simple cost-benefit calculus. The seduction of the tearaway quick is that of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the unattainable. It lies in the recognition of an ideal that we are keenly aware as being the purview of a select few. It lies in recognition, not imagination…and ultimately, in wistful reconciliation.

In the pilot episode of Friday Night Lights, fullback and general badass Tim Riggins tells his teammates on the eve of the season opening football game, “Let’s touch God this time boys. Let’s touch God.” The moment is popcorn inspiration, embracing cheesiness with a benevolent, self-indulgent smile. It is also the key to understanding the lure of speed. All of us try. Like Adam in Michelangelo’s famous fresco, we seek to bridge the gap.

But it is only the fast bowler who touches God. Therein lies the seduction.

– Rohit (@Noompa)

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2 responses to “Touching God: The Seduction of Fast Bowling

  1. Pingback: Touching God: The Lure of Speed « Chasing Fat Tails

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