In a piece originally from The Nightwatchman, Anthony McGowan looks to Italy to explain a cricketing ritual.
No one would argue that the amateur cricketer – however inept – is not playing essentially the same game as the professional. We abide by the same rules; we wear similar clothing, and wield broadly similar equipment (save for we ancients, who refuse the effeminate degeneracy of a helmet).
But this is only to say that a bumbling field vole and a prowling leopard are both mammals, or that a Nando’s half-chicken with free bottomless frozen yogurt, and the 17-course tasting menu at the Fat Duck are both meals. The greater skill, training, strength and fitness of the professional kicks in from the moment they slip lithely into their whites – and believe me, I wish I had a Nando’s half-chicken for every time I’ve seen a teammate fall over trying to pull up his trousers in the cluttered turmoil of the changing-room.
So, yes, of course the professional game is by almost any objective criteria superior. They bowl faster, they hit harder, they field with grace and power. They’re usually better looking. We, on the other hand, waddle and plonk and plunk and stagger and gasp and waft. And if occasionally a ball is timed, it’s in the manner of the stopped clock that twice a day finds itself in harmony with the chronology of the universe.
But one thing I would say about the professional game is that it isn’t any more complex than that played on lumpy council pitches, and molehill-pocked village greens across the country. Partly it’s a technical thing. If you examine a cover drive – whether it’s the almost mechanically efficient Tendulkar punch, the meaty Trescothick clump, or the silken caress of Sangakkara – you find, within the variety, a simplicity. It’s a simplicity born of necessity. Against top-class bowling, a harsh form of Ockham’s razor shaves away what is unnecessary, leaving behind the lean muscle and bone and sinew.
Move now to a typical amateur cover drive. I’ll use my own, as an example. I usually open the innings for my team – a group of writers at various stages of physical and mental decline. Against the earnest trundlers I routinely face, I’m usually quite comfortable on the back foot. If the ball’s short and outside off stump, I can generally manage to slap it away, somewhere between cover and backward point, my bat at the sort of drooping, melancholy angle that in a porn movie would call upon the urgent attentions of the fluffer. Imagine the weatherman pointing in a desultory fashion towards a squall in Kent. If the ball’s short and straight, I’ll muscle it just out of the reach of square leg, and as often as not it’ll trickle away to the boundary, especially if the ground drops away on that side, as they so often do.
But if the ball is pitched up, something very different happens. Initially, my back foot will go back and across – if I’ve decided that the back-and-across trigger movement is the solution to my current woes. But almost before this movement is complete, I’ll have a change of heart and decide that in fact the forward press is the better option on the typical English suet-pudding pitch. So I’ll push off from the back foot, transferring my weight forward. While this is happening, my backswing will have been initiated. Here again there is a conflict. I’ve read about the Bradman rotational method, in which the bat comes down from fourth slip in a sort of arc; but I’ve also been coached by an efficient Australian, who says I should take the bat back closer to first slip. So I now oscillate, mid-stroke, between the two, like a frantic adolescent who can’t decide which of his girlfriend’s breasts to squeeze.
And now the excitement grips me as I realise that the bowler has sent down a full half-volley, just outside off stump. The punch, the clump and the caress all occur to me, as possible approaches to the upcoming drive. And also I see an image of a wondrous follow-through, like Gower or Trumper.
But then doubts begin to crowd in. The need to occupy the crease, to see off the new ball, to make it to drinks. And I remember that I’m supposed to pick up some dog food on the way home. And I relive that rather bitter argument I had with my wife, two days ago, in which she listed all of my failures – financial, emotional, sexual (but not, curiously, sporting). And then, from somewhere in my mouth, I feel a tingle, the odd sense that something is wrong, and I know that it means that a cavity has reached the heart of a tooth, and that root-canal treatment will follow, costing several hundred pounds and endless hours of pain and inconvenience, and that ultimately the canal treatment will fail, and the tooth be extracted, and I’ll have to have some kind of ill-fitting appliance, which will shoot from my mouth at my publisher’s Christmas party while I’m talking to a lovely publicity assistant, and my attempt to retrieve it from the front of her party dress will result in scandal, ostracism, a suspended prison sentence.
And now the ball has arrived, I find that my legs have more or less sorted themselves out, and my left foot has moved to a position quite close to where the ball will pitch. The complex fluttering motion of the bat has continued all the while, and now it begins its slow progress towards the ball. But the ball sticks a little in the pitch, and so my stroke arrives a fraction of a second too early, and I make contact in front of the left foot, rather than next to it. And now, to add another complication, I think that perhaps I can angle the bat so the ball will go a little squarer, into that inviting gap. But this last twist, combined with the prematurity of the shot, simply means that the ball balloons gently into the hands of cover.
And even as the ball is on its way, I have time to reflect that at this level half of all catches go down, and that this particular fellow, despite being in the position generally reserved for the best fielder, has drifted off into some sort of reverie, his hands in his pockets to protect them from the April chill. But I also reflect on the startling and tragic fact that in five years of playing for my club, I’ve never been dropped, and that only the week before a one-eyed keeper who hadn’t played for 12 years, and who had spent the morning getting drunk on Tennent’s Super, had managed to snaffle me. And so, yes, the catch is taken, and I trudge off.
There is a simple and evident reason for this complexity. The ball I drove into the midriff of the daydreaming fielder was propelled towards me at somewhere between 62 and 64 miles an hour. It left my bat at something like the vehicular speed limit in the streets around a junior school. And that leisurely velocity creates time and space for complexity to flourish.
And complexity is not limited to the batting. I have a teammate – let’s call him Will Johnson – who brings a similar psychological and technical complexity to the art of slow bowling. I recently found myself at mid off, rather than my usual position of, well, anywhere else, and was able to watch Johnson at close range. I noticed that before each delivery he tossed the ball up several times, giving it a little flick, imparting some rotation. Watching it I became convinced that there was a ritualistic element to these tosses and flicks, some sort of meaningful numerical pattern. Was it just the sequence of primes? No. Too simple. The Fibonacci sequence (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13)? Still, too rational. Perhaps then, Johnson was using a system based on the two “short” calendars used by the Ancient Meso-Americans, one of 260 days, and another of 365, which could be multiplied to produce a cycle which only repeated once every 18,980 days. And maybe he was using this to predict his own return in the form of the Feathered Serpent god, Quetzalcoatl, initiating his rule of enlightened despotism with some limited blood sacrifice. Yes, perhaps now we’re getting somewhere.
Now, one should not, of course, confuse complexity and quality. Plenty of things are complex and awful. Splashes of late-night kebab-speckled vomit; my attempted cover drive… When Will Johnson finally gets round to delivering the ball there will be neither spin nor dip; it won’t spit out of the rough; it will ask no questions of the batsman other than, “Do you want to hit me for four or six?” And all I have done, so far, is to demonstrate that, though we may be woefully inferior, we amateurs are undoubtedly more complex than our elite-level counterparts.
However (and now we’re getting to the important part, everything up until now being essentially similar to Will Johnson’s pre-delivery tossing), there is one area of cricket in which an increase in complexity does equal an increase in quality, enabling the amateur game to lord it over the professional as a sporting spectacle, indeed, as a work of art. Curiously, it is an area of the game that has received, as far as I am aware, almost no analysis. I refer to the way in which the dead ball is conveyed back to the bowler after it has been delivered. A utilitarian task, you’d have thought. And that is how it works at the elite level. The ball thwacks into the keeper’s gloves. He flicks it out to first slip, from there it makes its way with maximum speed to the designated shiner, who studies, polishes, and gets it back into the hands of the bowler. Nothing to see there. No commentator will dwell on it. We’ll never go to Simon Hughes for a slo-mo and some technical analysis.
But turn to the same procedure in the amateur game and you find not this interregnum, this dead zone, but a subtly evolving spectacle, replete with excitement, tension and fear. It is a drama in which character reveals itself, much more distinctly than it does in the business of batting and bowling, in precisely the same way that the manner in which a person conducts him or herself post-coitally reveals more about character than the grimy act of intimacy itself.
As a necessary first step, it might be useful if we give a name to this part of the game. And how odd it is that in a game with a history going back hundreds of years, a history made as much of words as of deeds, no one has thought to give a name to this part of the drama. And it needs a name. Getting-the-ball-back-to-the-bowler is hideously cumbrous. Hitherto the Italians have contributed relatively little to the lore and language of cricket, so I’m going to propose the Italian word la passeggiata. Anyone who’s ever spent an evening in an Italian town will be familiar with la passeggiata – the evening stroll undertaken by the young men and women, for the purposes of showing off, chatting, cat-calling and ogling in shiny shoes and tight trousers. Although there may be some ostensible excuse for the walk – perhaps buying a packet of cigarettes or a can of WD40 for the Lambretta, the real purpose of la passeggiata is la passeggiata. The beauty is in the process itself, not in what it achieves. And it involves moving something (the beautiful young) from one place to another.
Now we have named it, I should explain my long fascination with the passeggiata. The flicker of interest first came back in 1978, when I was opening the bowling for the big boys of the Third Form, despite being a weedy Second Year. My school played its cricket on the East Leeds ground. There was a slaughterhouse beyond the boundary at one end, and we’d play to the sound of terrified pigs, or the even more distressing gentle, fearless, optimistic bleating of the sheep being driven down the lorry ramps and into the murderous caverns of the abattoir. The kids of the Third Year didn’t like the fact that I was playing, and they kept zinging the ball back to me, trying to hurt my uncalloused Second-Year fingers. Except for one boy, whose name was McLaughlin. He had a kind heart and lobbed the ball in a gentle arc into my hands. I loved him for it and felt guilty a couple of years later when I snogged his sister, Theresa, at a school disco but didn’t ask her out to the pictures, as I think she expected…
So that early experience taught me that character can manifest itself in the act of throwing the ball to a teammate. A correct passeggiata requires a proper consideration of the next link in the chain. It’s fine for pros to hurl the ball at each other. Their hands are made of tungsten sheeting around a core of depleted uranium. The amateur’s hands are as delicate as the skeleton of a hummingbird, as brittle as cinder toffee. And when we catch, our hands are only in approximately the right place and the ball is as likely to land crushingly on the tips of the fingers as sink into the bucket of the palm.
But we’ve rushed ahead of ourselves here. To get it as far as the next man in the dance of the passeggiata will usually involve throwing. Many of us, back in the pomp of our young manhood, could launch a ball roughly as far as was necessary in broadly the right direction. But the arm is the first thing to go in the cricketer’s decline. Now none of us have reliable arms. Faced with getting the ball from, say, square leg to mid-wicket, we have the choice of overhand chuck or underhand lob. The chuck presents various dangers, not least of which is the risk of throwing out a shoulder whilst engaged in a non-decisive action. I have perhaps two reasonable throws in me per game, and the thought of wasting one of them in the passeggiata, rather than in failing to make a run-out, is painful. The underarm lob is safer, and gentler on both the thrower and the receiver, but even here there are risks. Which of us hasn’t miscalculated a lob and sent the ball almost miraculously behind us, much to the merriment of the team, the batsmen, the umpires?
But this is enough about the failures. Let me briefly sketch out the platonic idea of the passeggiata. First, viewed from above, what you want is for the ball to follow a perfect semi-circle as it moves around the field. Ideally there will be two slips and a gully, and the ball will pass neatly to each. Then it swings out to the point or cover point, then to cover, then extra cover (I’d always be inclined to have an extra cover, purely to improve the aesthetics of the passeggiata), then to mid off, and finally into the waiting hands of the bowler. Clearly this perfect semi-circle is an ideal that will never be fully achieved, but at all cost what must be avoided is random spikes and digressions, with the ball deviating anarchically out, or regressing, so that we’d have something resembling a Sputnik or the crazed meanderings of a Kilburn drunk trying to find a pub he hasn’t been barred from.
So that’s our overall shape, but each link in the passeggiata chain also has its proper shape, the ball executing a flight path neither loopingly high nor viciously direct. In contemplating this, I wondered if conic sections might help. For those too young to recall watching late-night Open University programmes presented by lecturers looking like meek extras from Game of Thrones, slicing through a cone at different angles produces a variety of very pleasing curves.
These were useful to Kepler in establishing the movements of the planets around the sun, so surely they could be employed in the analysis of cricket balls? Should the correct curve followed by the ball when thrown from fielder to fielder prove to be one of the conic sections – the sublime simplicity of the (semi-) circle, the elegance of the ellipse, the lambency of the parabola –how satisfying that would be.
Galileo is useful here in his analysis of the trajectories of cannonballs. It had been thought that a cannonball, when fired, would move in a straight line before losing impetus and, after a curved transitional period, falling out of the sky, once more in a straight line. In this sort of manner:
Initially, in his Dialogue Concerning Two World Systems (1632), Galileo proposed that a cannonball trajectory would follow part of the circumference of a circle. But six years of experimentation and cogitation led him to recant, and in his Discourses Concerning Two New Sciences he states decisively that cannonballs curve gently towards the earth from the moment they are fired, tracing a perfect parabola, delighting the mind and the eye, as they brought death to the unfortunates below.
So here we have it: the cricket ball – like its cannon-propelled cousin – follows the exquisite parabolic line. Alas, Galileo had to concede that his theory applied only to a world of theoretical perfection. In reality, wind and air resistance wreak their havoc on the loveliest of conic sections. It is the same with the passeggiata. Our Platonic ideal – the ball tracing a semi-circle from wicket-keeper to bowler, and each segment of that chain being itself a perfect parabola – has to come face to face with the tragic reality of human frailty. However, the secret is not to lament that frailty but to celebrate it. We have, in the amateur passeggiata, a thing of fragile, complex, human beauty. We have not science but art.
So let us examine a typical amateur passeggiata.
Imagine a cold April day, with skies the colour of a beached sperm whale. We’re playing on a municipal ground in a park in Hackney. Around us are families sharing out samosas, tramps necking bottles of lighter fluid, lovers furtively groping on benches, and dogs defecating with the cringing, humiliated posture of an Australian batsman facing spin on the fifth day at Galle. Our opening bowler, Charlie, comes tearing in. With his long hair and Van Dyke beard, all he needs is a floppy hat and some high boots to look like Prince Rupert routing the Roundhead cavalry. With a mighty grunt he propels the ball towards the batsman and follows through, exactly the way Prince Rupert would, pursuing the baggage train and leaving the poor old pikemen at the mercy of Cromwell and his Ironsides. The batsman assumes it’ll drift in, like most of Charlie’s deliveries. But this is Charlie’s leg cutter. It doesn’t, of course, cut, but the slow rotation he’s managed to impart at least forestalls the in-swing, and so the ball maintains its line and beats the outside edge.
Our keeper – now well into his seventh decade – grasps it on the third-bounce half-volley. The blood-thinning drugs he takes for his heart condition mean he has to be careful about injury, so he wears a sort of armour beneath his whites, improvised from thigh pads, abdominal guards and surgical tape. It gives him an almost prehistoric look, like some plated dinosaur. The keeper passes the ball deftly out to first slip – a famous novelist. Over the years he’s developed a sound technique, based on catching the ball not on the way in, but on the way out, as it rebounds from his impressively fleshed torso.
He tosses it on to gully – in this case our old friend Will Johnson. Johnson, like Captain Kirk in unarmed combat, likes to move in a series of dives and rolls. But the ball is coming straight for him, meaning he has no alternative but to stay where he is. His eyes widen in panic, and he emits a stream of curses, which only a connoisseur of these things would identify as originating in Sunderland rather than Newcastle. And then, to his astonishment and that of his teammates, he takes a clean catch. His surprise is such that he cannot stop himself from holding the ball up and bellowing “HOWZAT!” at the umpire. But the finger remains down, and Johnson throws the ball underarm to point, muttering all the while about how the batsman should have walked.
Point shouldn’t really be there. But third man felt such a lonely place to be, and he craved the company of the ring, and so he’d quietly wandered up. He’s happy to be involved. It’s made his day. He’s the fourth-choice spinner, and only ever gets a go when the match is already won or lost and his contribution can do no further harm. He fights the urge to thank Johnson for the ball, but finds it’s been delivered to him at the sort of tricky length that Johnson never actually manages when he’s bowling – too short to go forward, too full to go back. And so our point fielder misses it altogether, and has to scamper 10 yards to retrieve it, hearing the contemptuous moans behind him, and the odd cry of “keep it up” and “let’s try to keep some shine on it” and, from the skipper, “stupid w**ker”.
Conscious of the need to maintain the gentle arc of progress (in case you haven’t worked it out, le point, c’est moi), he jogs back into the circle before underarming it to cover. And it’s a beauty. The perfect weight and trajectory. It approximates the desired parabola. For a tense moment it seems likely to sail over cover’s head, but then the air resistance slows it, and it drops down into the waiting hands.
But hang on, more drama. Who the hell is this at cover? It’s Tom, the worst fielder in the team. Over five seasons he’s managed one catch. Putting him at cover is actually quite a good move. At our level, very few balls are driven through the covers (as my own travails have indicated). And Charlie’s in-swing further negates the risk, and so it’s not a bad place to hide someone. Except it’s now likely to ruin the aesthetic effect of the well-delivered McGowan component of the passeggiata. And the rest of the team know it. They watch, spellbound, as Tom first orientates his rather large hands horizontally, like the gape of a baby vulture awaiting the proffered offal. And then he recalls that it’s better to form a cup, by rotating through 90 degrees. But even then there are decisions. Fingers up, Aussie-style, or down, like a decent, god-fearing Englishman? But it’s too late. In a tangle of fingers, palms, wrists, elbows and, extraordinarily, chin, the ball is snaffled. A chorus of “Well caught, Tom!” and “Fielded!” and “How the hell…?” breaks out. There’s even a ripple of applause from the sparse crowd of WAGs, MADs (mums and dads) and SADs (er, sad people). The lovers on the bench surface, briefly, before resuming their intimate snorkelling.
Tom milks it, holding the ball up as if he’s just taken a five-fer. Now comes an even trickier phase, for Tom. Although a naggingly effective medium-pacer, he has entirely lost the ability to throw. Covering the 10 yards from where he stands to where mid off awaits is at the very outer limits of his range. He makes as if to throw it overarm, miming a couple of chucks without releasing the ball, the way you’d have a couple of light taps at a nail before driving it home with the hammer. Then he changes his mind and thinks an underarm lob will have a better chance of carrying. But he makes the classic error, holding on to the ball a fraction too long. It leaves his hand and sails straight up into the air. He’s under it (where else could he be?), and the drama of the recent catch is repeated. But Tom’s one clean catch of the season can’t be repeated. The ball evades his flapping hands, rolls down his angular body, continues along his leg, all the way to the point of his boot, somehow gaining momentum. Then it shoots forth across the turf, like a pinball flicked from an adroitly tweaked paddle, towards the waiting mid off.
He’s our best player, a fiery fast bowler turned aggressive spinner. He’s seen it all before, and no longer despairs at the ineptitude around him. He stoops, picks up the ball, examines it expertly, spits some of his wine gum-enriched saliva onto the shiny side, and tosses it back to the waiting Charlie.
And so it begins again.
To focus only on the delivery would be like replying “Nice cover,” when someone asks you what you think of War and Peace. And I’ll end with this plea: attend unto the passeggiata. Cricket has the quality of a fractal – the closer you look, the more complexity you see, and in the complexity there is beauty, and sadness, and glory.