Beamers, bruises and Malinga’s mind games

At nets on Tuesday night I was clattered by a beamer. It was accidental of course – nobody in their right mind would intentionally endanger a team mate – but it left a sizeable bruise on my shoulder and a considerably larger dent in my confidence.

Cricket is seen by many outsiders as a gentle game, barely even a sport, just a bunch of posh toffs prancing around in cream flannels before taking tea and cakes in the pavilion. Ok, there’s a certain amount of truth in that. But anyone who thinks it is easy is more than welcome to strap on the pads and have a go for themselves.

The professionals make it all look so simple. The best bowlers seem to have the ball on a string, hitting their mark every time at upwards of 85mph, a speed even a top village player cannot comprehend. The batsmen at the other end appear to have all the time in the world to watch the ball, select a shot, aim into a gap and strike with the necessary power. In reality, even against third team medium pacers, all those decisions happen in a fraction of a second.

I’m no batting expert, but I’ve taken enough body blows and wafted loosely at enough fresh air to have learned a thing or two. Thing one: the ball is hard. If it hits you it hurts. You only have to learn this lesson once, and it will be with you for the rest of your days. It underpins the entire psychology of batting. It’s the reason we layer ourselves with so much protective gear, and it’s what makes us look so silly when it all goes wrong. Thing two: if you miss it, you’re out.

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When I got home on Tuesday, bravely rubbing my shoulder and boasting about how I survived the killer beamer from hell, I caught the end of the T20 international at The Oval. Lasith Malinga, arguably the best one-day death bowler in the world, was attempting to restrict England’s lower order. Malinga is famous for his unplayable in-swinging yorkers, delivered with an absurdly low arm and unfailingly targeted at the base of middle stump, often via the pirouetting batsman’s toes.

These deliveries had their desired effect once again in the penultimate over of the match – despite the fact that he didn’t bowl a single one. Instead Malinga got inside the batsmen’s minds, bowling six back-of-a-length slower balls. They knew what was coming, but couldn’t take the chance of waiting in case the next one turned out to be the toe-crusher. One after another they braced, swung hard and slumped as the ball floated gently past unharmed. The over contained four singles and a wicket, and England were done for.

Close-up camera angles often show batsmen nervously murmuring to themselves as the bowler runs in. Watch the ball. Get in line. Move your feet. Get forward. Get to the pitch. Play straight. The Australian opener Michael Slater apparently had a message on the back of his bat which read ‘KISS’ – meaning ‘keep it simple, stupid’. Quite how one is expected to keep anything simple with that lot running through your head and a wild-eyed quickie tearing in at the other end is beyond me.

Anyway, I was a bit shaken up by that lethal beamer which came at me like an exocet missile (in reality it was a loopy full toss which should have been dispatched into a nearby field). Having been playing ok, I lost my rhythm and lapsed back into my old habit of prodding, poking, skewing and spooning. Still, at least I’ve got a good excuse. The great Brian Close used to count the number of bruises he collected during a defiant session against the West Indian pace attack of the 1970s. Maybe there’s hope for me yet.

Sam Blackledge

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