Thursday, July 7, 2011


The thick vein pulsed and strained against the muscled neck as it glistened with summer’s sweat. Heat and dust and expectation hung around the arena like flies around a meat shop. It was a pregnant pause in the drama of this evening. As the shadows lengthened around the stadium, the muscles twitched and flexed as that powerful cocktail of sinews and bone mixed with incomparable vigour, and a passion for destruction began to roll into motion. Like an orchestra reaching a crescendo, the gale force contained within that… body built of flesh and bone whipped up speed and charged; it’s a word used too often, but you wouldn’t know what it was meant to describe until this moment.

At the other end of the arena stood the target of that uncontained force and fury. A man, standing still – expectant, awaiting, almost eagerly, to receive and respond to the tornado bearing down on him at the other end. The man is a picture of studied calmness on the surface and the crowd’s heart goes out to him. What dauntless courage, they think... But if you were him you would know of that spider called fear crawling up his spine and breaking into a cold sweat on his brow with each passing moment that brought his nemesis closer.

At the other end, a fierce gaze, flared nostrils, and those hulking shoulders contorted and concerted into a coiled moment for the final assault… The crowd holds its breath and it is here that I hold my story, if only for just a moment...

Who are these two characters that are facing off against each other? Well, that depends on your place in time. If you are from a day long before Christ, it could be the diminutive David holding firm against the colossal Goliath. If the Old Testament doesn’t seem yellow enough then we go further back in time to find our way into a labyrinth in Crete. And there you see them, the gigantic man-beast Minotaur battling the handsome, yet human Theseus. Each time and place has its own version of this timeless battle where man with all his fragile courage and spirited wit overcomes a force of nature far more powerful than him to emerge a glorious hero. Odysseus and the one-eyed Cyclops, and Fereydun and the dragon, each land has its own legend that compels a little child to believe that it is possible to overcome that which is stronger, that which is bigger, that which is greater if only one has courage and wit, and a sprinkling of moral fortitude doesn’t hurt either.

And this battle with a fairy tale ending is replayed in forms both old and new in the pages of best sellers and comic books and in frozen frames of box office ringers. It’s the theme of all themes, the motif that defines the human experience, the essence of our race – this desire to see the merely mortal triumph over the divine or the demonic.

But even today, if you want to see this tale play itself out in torn flesh and split blood, you could. You just have to look for the right arena. Of all the sporting spectacles that time has conjured, there are two that still stick to that time honoured script, the eternal battle between man and monster.

To find the first of these arenas, look for a map of Western Europe, find Spain and then close your eyes and point at a random corner on the map. Lift your finger and look at that spot for a while. Concentrate... And then you’ll hear the sounds first…Of people cheering and clapping... Then you’ll smell the dust blowing with the wind... Perhaps, if you’re careful, you will also catch whiff of flecks of dried blood blowing with it. And then you’ll see it...the stands swathed in red and yellow, the ladies with their bright handkerchiefs and the men, looking grave one minute and cheerful the next, mirroring the action in the sands in the theatre below where a little man in bright tight pants and a short jacket emblazoned with sequins and the like, is standing still, a bright cape in hand, while a large black bull, muscles taut against his shiny skin is pawing the ground as he prepares for a charge. Snorting through a froth caked muzzle, the beast, outweighing the matador by hundreds of pounds with horns sharpened to dagger points starts his final charge.

The hump of muscle that runs along the nape of the bull’s neck and down to his shoulder throbs with each hoof-beat as do the hearts of all who are watching... And that man in the line of ire still standing still.... But if you take a close look at him you will recognise that now familiar feeling breaking into a drop of cold sweat on his brow... But here we must leave this battle and go off in search of the other promised battle. And this battle, on the surface, is nothing like the drama of a bull fight.

It began as a leisurely afternoon’s indulgence for gentlemen in white flannels on the English greens. Cricket, ever since His Grace first took guard, has always been about the aristocratic elegance of the cover drive. Bowlers and fielders were the porters of the game, carrying it along for the moment when the master, the batsman, would deign to unravel his magic wand, his bat, and play the strokes that scorched the grass and soared to the skies. But along came a tall lean chap from Balmain, Down Under, who his friends called Fred, who sent the ball whizzing through Dr Grace’s beard and the game had changed forever.

By the 1930s, cricket fields had begun to take on the flavour of the Spanish bull-ring, thanks to a man called Harold Larwood. He was not particularly tall or big but he hurled thunderbolts of hard leather at the batsman’s head that in the pre-helmet days often put them in mortal danger. Oh yes, the game had changed forever.

From an elegant garden exchange between lunch and tea during the long English days of summer, the game had become a gladiatorial contest between wood and leather. It was still the batsman’s game, but the Don of this new era emerged only after Bradman survived and scored while Larwood pelted lethal missiles in a fearsome display of Bodyline bowling that put the fear of death in all who watched. It wasn’t just a mere game of skills and technique. It had now become a battle that could bring death or glory.

Like the Spanish bull fight, cricket, even today, is still about the little guy triumphing over the giant-like bull or the bowler, but every now and then comes along a bull or a bowler that hasn’t read the script. And then blood is shed, bones splinter, things are smashed and sometimes, even death follows. Remember when Mike Gatting was felled by a Malcolm Marshall bouncer that smashed into his face and then bits of bone had to be picked out of the ball? Or that county cricketer who died after being hit over the heart by a short one? No, I’m not celebrating these tragedies by holding them up, but make no mistake it is the fast bowler who has elevated the game to a level where it simulates the David and Goliath scenario, thus taking the game to a plane so sublime that it is in the same breath both primal and heroic.

That is why people would put down their champagne goblets in the members pavilions to see an Ian Botham or a Sachin Tendulkar spit out teeth and blood and then swat the fast bowlers off their noses for screaming sixes. They are the dragon slayers of the day but then what’s a dragon slayer without a dragon or a bull fight without a bull?

Cricket without fast bowlers is just a game, but when one has a Shoaib Akhtar roaring in like he once did, it becomes an epic saga and a stage for heroes... real heroes. So when you see the Indian openers break into a cold sweat as Fidel Edwards storms in, that thick vein on his neck pulsing, nostrils flared as he prepares to hurl another snorter, be grateful… And that’s why I had said in the previous column that fast bowlers are greater than the game, for they make the game greater.


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