The stories beyond the speedgun

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ICC CRICKET WORLD CUP 2019

Usman Khawaja was peppered with short balls during his brief stay against the West Indies.

Usman Khawaja was peppered with short balls during his brief stay against the West Indies. ©Getty

You don’t need the speedgun.

You can see it, feel it.

The Nursery Ground at the Rose Bowl, West Indies v Australia, May 22. A warm-up game so low key it has no official status. A handful of people sit on the bank at one end watching. Oshane Thomas almost rips off David Warner’s glove, a glove that is inches from his face and barely on the bat handle. Warner walks off, shaking his hand. Andre Russell buries one in Usman Khawaja’s helmet. Khawaja gestures to the right side of his face, retires hurt and is taken to hospital for scans on his jaw. This is in a game so non-serious that West Indies field sixteen players and Australia twelve.

You can see it, feel it.

At Trent Bridge, West Indies v Pakistan, May 31, Fakhar Zaman is struck on the head, the ball falling onto his stumps. Haris Sohail is bounced out. Mohammed Hafeez is bounced out. Andre Russell bowls eighteen deliveries, fifteen of which are short.

You can see it, feel it.

At Trent Bridge again, six days later, West Indies v Australia. Usman Khawaja gloves a short ball from Oshane Thomas into the grille of his helmet. He is attended by the team doctor, but he stays on the field and is hit again by Andre Russell. For the next ball, he moves outside leg stump and slashes a catch behind.

You can see it, feel it.

At Cardiff, England v Bangladesh, June 8. Jofra Archer bowls three deliveries in a single over at more than 150kph. When he clean bowls Soumya Sarkar, the ball takes the top of the stump and flies over the boundary on the full. From the press box, someone tweets a grainy photo of Jonny Bairstow: ‘can’t remember seeing an England keeper standing that far back…”

You don’t need the speedgun, even though the speedgun is telling the players and media and the fans that Mark Wood and Jofra Archer are, by fractions, the fastest bowlers in the tournament, and that the arrival of hostile, very fast bowling in 50-over cricket feels like something new and thrilling in a format that has, since 2015, been about flat pitches, two white kookaburras and towering, once unimaginable scores. It is a natural correction, part of the endless game of call and response between bat and ball that has been going on since cricket began.

Fear is the great, unexamined subject in professional cricket, and yet it is there, always, part of the game’s deep hinterland. Especially as young men, fast bowlers can exult in wielding fear. When I worked with Simon Jones on his book ‘The Test’, he told me that it ‘was like having a superpower’. During his first couple of seasons, he heard about professional batsmen being sick in the dressing room before going out to face him, and he liked it.

When he was 18 years old, in May 2013, Jofra Archer tweeted: ‘all batsmen buy two helmets because when we meet, they will be in use’.

It must be heady, intoxicating, to have the gift.

In his new book ‘Original Spin’, Vic Marks recalls a match between Somerset and Surrey, made famous when Steve Waugh, then Somerset’s overseas player, wrote about it in his autobiography. He quotes Waugh’s passage about the will of the Somerset batsmen ‘disintegrating’ days before the game, in which they would face Sylvester Clarke.

That day, Waugh survived what he called, ‘the most awkward and nastiest spell I ever encountered. The moment you weaken and think about what might happen, you’re either out or injured’.

Waugh divided his fear into two halves, ‘good’ and ‘bad’. The ‘good’ sharpened his senses, engaged him in battle. The ‘bad’ brought ‘doubt and sluggishness’. Vic Marks is upfront about the fear he felt in facing Colin Croft with no helmet on a pitch with a ridge in it at South-port, his memory of being dismissed by Croft in the middle of a hat-trick so deeply imprinted that he was amazed to find, when he looked up the scorecard, that no hat-trick happened and Croft took just three wickets in the match.

This is what fast bowling is, this is what it does.

The speedgun lacks meaning, because every batsman’s experience of every bowler is different and unique. There are day-to-day variations of biorhythms and form. There are sighting issues with bowlers slower on the radar but harder to pick up from the action or the hand. There is, over the months and years, the accrual of mental scar tissue, of pain and doubt, of ageing, of losing the fearlessness of youth.

Younger men are fearless because they haven’t seen the world, don’t appreciate what can happen in it, what might be awaiting them, who else is out there. It took many years before Steve Waugh came to really understand what happened in the Somerset dressing room that day.

Cricket is a game in which you must face fear of many kinds. Physically, you can get hurt, you can die. David Warner stood at slip when Phillip Hughes lost his life. He is one of four players, along with Mitchell Starc, Adam Zampa and Nathan Lyon, who played that day and are at this World Cup. This week, five years on, Michael Clarke said: ‘it took me a long, long time to comprehend what happened to Phillip… there’s still a bit of it in me now.’

Batsmen may not yield to fear, but in a changing culture, it’s okay to acknowledge its existence. Even Steve Waugh did.

Usman Khawaja stepped away to leg after being roughed up three times by fast, hostile bowling, and some of the reaction, especially on social media, was mocking. Yet imagine the courage it takes, every day, to walk back out there into the gunfire.

England and West Indies face off, and it will be thrilling, perhaps brutal. We can enjoy the arena, the spectacle.

We won’t need the speedgun, but remember what it means.

© Cricbuzz

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