When your shoulder is sore, your shin protests, you feel like death, and you play cricket – hoping to produce the devastating dipper you long for
Your tour of Sri Lanka was chastening. You come back early to try to protect a job that you end up losing anyway. You are beset by an irritating background illness that you fear may be serious. You keep going to the gym but you know you’re not performing as well as you ought to be. You wonder, again, about retirement.
The first fixture of the season creeps up on you, first slowly and then in a rush. Suddenly there are only two weeks left. You get up at dawn and drag yourself to the nets so there’ll be nobody else there. You bowl 200 balls at your rucksack. A lone Labrador goes mad watching you, hurling itself with apparent glee into the outside of the net every time you bowl. It comes out OK.
The change you made to your run-up last season seems to have reduced the tendency to drift down leg. You proudly map your progress in footmarks on the dewy astro.
The next day your right shoulder and left ribs are tender and stiff. The fourth finger on your right hand throbs. Your left shin is sore and you wonder if the anterior compartment syndrome that ended your university cross-country career might have returned.
You force yourself to two more dawn sessions. A man with a heavy Indian accent practising with his son in the net next to yours is mystified by your “doosra”. “But there is no change in action whatsoever,” he says in awe. You don’t tell him there is a ridge in the astro just outside off stump.
You arrange a net with a batsman but are forced to cancel when the hospital calls you in for tests. They mess up taking the cannula out, something you only notice when you hear a dripping on the pavement as you wait at the bus stop and realise your arm feels damp. By the time you get back to the hospital, your left arm is drenched in blood and your shirt is ruined.
You rearrange the net for the following day. Your first two balls are short and wide and cut vigorously by a batsman who has seen a sports psychologist over the winter and has been unexpectedly transformed into a swaggering Matthew Hayden. Your third ball drifts down leg.
The game comes around. The other team bats first. You wait. You wait. You wait. It’s cold. You’re wearing a T-shirt and a sweatshirt under your cricket shirt. You wait some more. Finally, in the 27th over of 35, you’re unleashed. An opener is still in and on his way to a century. The other batsman is just beginning to get set. They are about 120 for 3. Your first ball is a wide. You keep dragging it outside off. You’ve never done this before. Finally you get one right. It feels good off the fingers, your foot pivots, it’s drifting in, going to bite. Your eyes widen expectantly, arms begin to raise. The opener takes a pace towards you and goes inside out to loft it for six, 20 yards to the right of your long-off. You get wided again, ridiculously. You give the umpire a glare, then realise you’re wearing mirrored sunglasses. Your first over is dismal and goes for 12.
A man with a heavy Indian accent practising with his son in the net next to yours is mystified by your “doosra”. You don’t tell him there is a ridge in the astro just outside off stump
You’re grumpy already, your brain keeping up a background chunter of grievance. You’re not sure if the words you’re thinking are coming out of your mouth. You don’t care. The opener is on strike. You push it through and he gets a thick inside edge to mid-on. There’s no run, although the scorebook will mystifyingly record one.
You suspect he’ll be frustrated, that he’ll try and clout the next ball. You bowl it slower, tempting him. It almost works, but he adjusts at the final moment and punches the ball between midwicket and mid-on for one.
You have a sense the other batsman is feeling tied down, that he’ll charge you. You feel him coming before he comes, and shove it through, flat and quick and a couple of feet outside off stump. He is manifestly stumped. You somehow still feel irritated. Getting a wicket like that feels like cheating.
The new batsman leaves your first ball, which you’ve pushed inadvertently outside off again. The non-striker reminds him they are into the last five overs. You suspect he’ll slash, so you bowl it quicker and shorter outside off. The bounce beats his cut but doesn’t take the edge. And then it happens.
In the net against the batsman you’d bowled one ball that had lodged in your mind. You can’t explain it. You don’t know why what happened happened. It looped teasingly, dipped sharply and then fizzed, turning just enough to beat the inside edge. It’s the ball you’re always trying to bowl, the ball you somehow bowled twice in an over at the Brabourne. If you could harness that, you think, but you can’t.
But here it is again. The batsman knows the flight has done him. He half checks his shot but too late, the ball is on him and through him, and bounces off the artificial pitch over the stumps and into the wicketkeeper’s shoulder. On a grass pitch it would have demolished middle and leg. You know you won’t see that ball again all summer.
Your third over is a mixed bag. You nearly get the new batsman twice, with an offbreak that he inside-edges into the flap of his pad in front of middle and off and a slower ball he chips about ten yards to the right of midwicket. But there is also a long hop that’s cut for four and you end with figures of 3-0-24-1. It felt better than that (it was better than that – at least one run didn’t happen). You score five not out off four balls but run out of partners in a 15-run defeat.
You return to the dawn nets with a renewed sense of, well, what? Something between purpose and obligation. You find the repetitions soothing. Forty balls at a putative right-hander, ten at a left. Every eighth ball a quicker ball. You’re still pushing it down off, but that is better than the leg-side drift of last season. That ball, the devastating dipper, remains elusive.
The news from the hospital is positive. You are not dying any quicker than you were before. Your shoulder and ribs ache. There is a bump of hardened skin on the fourth finger of your right hand. Your left shin protests at every step.
You are going on a tour of Wiltshire. You doubt you can cope with three games in three days. You feel tired. Work is a mess of book proofs and proposals, end-of-season wraps and Euro previews. You wonder if you really have time or energy. You contemplate retirement.
2015 Kashmir Despatch