Cricket and the Loneliness of the Expensive Opening Bowler

Gareth PughCorrespondent IMay 14, 2009

NEW ZEALAND - DECEMBER 06:  New Zealand 'A's fast bowler Andrew Penn shows his desperation after being hit to the boundary by West Indies Ricardo Powell on the second day of the three day match at Owen Delaney Park, Taupo, Monday.  (Photo by Ross Setford/Getty Images)

On Sunday May 10, 2009, I had what is commonly known as a shocker. I was awful. In fact, I was beyond awful.

This was something so unspeakably ugly that I have no doubt it will be talked about by those present on both sides for a long time to come.

The scene for this monstrous debacle was my first cricket match of the season. The venue was a nice little municipal field in picturesque Walton-On-Thames.

Cricket is the most individual of team sports, if that is not an oxymoron. You take the field as one of 11, but ultimately every key scenario is between two solitary people, fighting their battles alone. And on this Sunday at about 1730 hrs I felt very, very alone.

Having not been needed to make a contribution to my team’s very healthy total of 206 off our allocated 40 overs, it was in the field that I sought reassurance that I was spending my Sunday away from the Formula 1 and football for a reason other than simply to make up numbers. We took the field optimistic of defending a thoroughly decent score.

I had been told that I would be opening the bowling, and was already somewhat anxious about fulfilling such a pivotal role. Apply some early pressure and you are away. Get it wrong and momentum swings to the opposition.

There was a relatively short window in my life c1987-94 when I would have relished the opportunity, taking the shiny, red ball with glee. Treating it as my weapon with which to wreak some destructive havoc in the opposition’s line-up.

Now, being asked to bowl is akin to being asked to sing for your grandparents: I am sure I used to be able to do it; probably used to enjoy doing it; but now I would much rather see someone else do it because it is, quite frankly, embarrassing for all involved.

My run-up measured, I took my mark and waited for the batsman. A added complication that I could have done without.

Not possessing the confidence to try and slant the ball across him, I chose to come around the wicket in attempt to squeeze him for space.

My stock ball is an in-swinger to right-handers, so bowling a straight line with late deviation could be a tasty prospect.

All good in theory; but then theoretically I am the greatest multi-sports athlete in the history of the world. In practice, I fall someway short of those lofty ambitions.

The umpire says “play,” and in I trot; entrusted with spearheading our attack. Reasonable rhythm on my journey to the crease, left arm up, eyes on the target and let muscle memory and gravity do the rest.

The ball left my grasp at no great speed, and not quite in the direction I had desired. The perpetual fantasy of seeing three stumps splayed by my ruby projectile evaporated in an instant as the ball bounced two thirds of the way down the track at a pace so docile that the batsman had time to walk up to me, put his arm around my shoulder, point to an area some 60 yards away and say, “that’s where I’m gonna put this ball.”

And he did.

Oh well. That is what is known in the sport as “a loosener”. It has been nine months since I played. Bound to be a little rusty. A carbon copy for the next delivery did nothing to improve either my confidence or that of my team-mates. Four balls later I skulked off to my fielding position having given up 20 runs and each one of them was a gift.

I know what it is like when you are fielding and this happens to someone else. First you have a little bit of sympathy because nobody likes seeing a team-mate suffer. Secondly you feel a little frustrated from a sporting point of view; as such a thing can rapidly send a game away from you. This feeling is exaggerated if it is your batting performance being undermined.

Thirdly, you just kick the dust, eye the ground and think: “jeez, I’m glad that’s not me”. This feeling is exaggerated if you are a bowler too. The over-riding theme is that anything you do now will be considered a triumph.

As my bowling partner finished his over in which he had conceded no runs; I sheepishly made my way back to the action, and the chirpy encouragement of my skipper. Ok, let’s give this another go then.

The ball still felt like an alien object in my hand. An object which I could not wait to rid myself of. The trouble was I had little or no idea where it would end up once it was released.

All things considered, my second over represented an improvement. It only cost 12 runs. I walked back to my position on the boundary, beginning to think that a corner had been turned.

By the end of my third over, I had reason to feel that the cobwebs had been blown away. My performance was still far from pretty but I had only conceded another 6 runs, so undoubtedly heading in the right direction.

However, my zenith and nadir in this match were yet to be reached, and both were only moments away. Before the low, came the high.

The belligerent lefthander who had so ravenously feasted on my shoddy bowling attempted to give the same treatment to my partner and lofted the ball high towards the area between deep square and deep fine leg.

My mind made a few instant calculations, and I found myself sprinting towards the place where my brain had estimated the ball would return to earth. Eyes glued to the distant sphere as it continued its parabolic journey, and hands open to welcome it; we collided in the most satisfying manner.

The ball was safely pouched in my hands, and then returned to the air in euphoric celebration. Oh yes, you may have tonked me about mate, but now who’s laughing? Enjoy that walk back to the pavilion. Sweet retribution.

I have watched enough sport to recognise a turning point when I see one, and this was definitely one.

Maligned competitor changes fortune in one moment of genius, and resurrects team-mate’s confidence in him at the same time. Give me that ball; there is bowling to be done.

What happened next will be burned into my psyche for the rest of my life.

Instead of riding a wave of adrenalin and returning to action fired up, my body decided that it had forgotten completely how to perform the action I have repeated thousands of times over the last two decades.

On two occasions, my hand, now operating completely independently from my brain, failed to release the ball until my arm had completed its revolution. The result was two divots at my feet as the ball thudded into the turf some twenty yards away from where it ideally should.

After two more aborted attempts to deliver legal deliveries I resorted to simply looping the ball into the air, just to get the nightmare over. The batsman, a new right-handed nemesis, gleefully gorged himself on cheap runs.

Needless to say, that was my last bowling contribution. In my gruesome cameo I had managed to concede 26 percent of the opposition’s target, in only 10 percent of their allocated overs. The game was effectively lost before we had even started to defend it, and it rested solely on my shoulders.

There was however, a final twist. We won. With four balls and five runs to spare. I would like to say that I contributed to this and that I basked in the glory of victory.

The truth is, I was lucky that cricket is a team game after all, and that now my ghastly performance will be recalled with humour by those who had to bear its burden.


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