The strange things real fast bowlers make you do
(an extract from Who Wants to be a Batsman, recounting a reality check against two of the most feared fast bowlers who ever lived.)
Aged 29 I did eventually get to raise my bat to the assembled masses, having compiled a first-class fifty. Wisden even com- mented on it: ‘Either side of tea, Hughes flayed a tiring attack.’ You won’t have heard of many of the bowlers. There was N.C.W. Fenton and A.M.G. Scott and R.A. ‘Pumper’ Pyman – hardly household names – though you might know the (occa- sional) leg-spinner M.A. Atherton. The ‘assembled masses’ was a handful of students skiving off lectures and the odd whiskery professor lamenting the days when counties took their trips to Fenner’s seriously. It was a fifty against Cambridge University. Not one to be jumping up ecstatically punching the air about. The next time I went to the wicket I was clanged twice on the head in successive balls by Imran Khan as a sober reminder of what being a batsman was really all about.
An incident in a one-day match at Lord’s put my (lack of) batting prowess into better perspective. It was Middlesex against Hampshire. There are two overs to go and we need ten to win. I have just come in and am on strike. Malcolm Marshall is brought on for the penultimate over. ‘Finish this off, Macco!’ they call from behind the wicket. ‘Two balls will do it!’ He probably can’t hear as he’s at least 70 yards away at the end of his curving run.
The field is set – two slips and a gully, third man, long leg and four saving one in the ring. He comes galloping in to bowl, this small but athletic figure, arms pumping, eyes fixed on the target. I am thinking watch the ball, back and across, low backlift, look to glide a single to third man. Paul Downton, a decent batsman, despite what Kevin Pietersen believes from Googling him, is at the other end.
The ball is shortish and around off stump. I am in a perfect position to glide it wide of the slips. But it flies off the surface rib high, past the edge and soars into the keeper’s gloves head high. Smack. ‘Bowled Macco, get him next ball!’ they call out. I’m thinking it’s OK, still 11 balls to go, ten to win, two wick- ets in hand. ‘Keep going, Yoz!’ Downton calls out supportively. (Back in the day we didn’t meet in the middle every ball for glove punches.)
‘Cappy, Cappy gimme Dougal finer, Judgey behind square.’ Marshall moves his offside fielders a fraction. I know it is going to be another short one and it is. Again I try and deflect it to third man. Again it flashes past the edge and through to the keeper 20 yards back. ‘Ahhhhhhhhh!!!’ Marshall shrieks with a mixture of disappointment and annoyance. ‘It’s coming, lads,’ Dougal in the gully says. ‘They’re bottling it!’
Ten to win, ten balls to go. I really need to get a single this time. I’m confident that I can. I’ve got the measure of him now. It’s just the Lord’s slope that’s making me play and miss. The third ball is a shade fuller, but still shortish. I get across a bit further to counter the movement, and fence hard at the ball slightly away from my body. It lifts and jags away off the surface, a brilliant ball, completely unplayable. It flies past my flailing bat. But there is a faint but audible click as it passes the edge and slaps into keeper Bobby Parks’s gloves.
‘Yessssssssss!’ cries Marshall continuing his follow-through up the pitch towards the close fielders who are chorusing ‘Howzzzayyyyyy!!!’ in acknowledgement of the wicket. But the umpire is unmoved and I don’t think I’ve touched it. I didn’t feel anything. (Isn’t that what all batsmen say?)
Marshall stops in his tracks, a yard from me. He is breath- ing hard and sweat is running down his brow. He wheels round to face the umpire. ‘How’s that, ump?!’ he demands, his tone agitated and insistent. The umpire shakes his head. He turns back to me. He purses his lips and sucks air through his teeth – a Caribbean sound known as ‘Steupse’ indicating serious irritation. ‘Well, fuck me!’ he says incredulous.
I am standing there still convinced I haven’t got a touch. Ten runs to win, nine balls to go, I say to myself. Still easily gettable. And then I stare at the panting, perspiring individ- ual in front of me, eyes blazing, nostrils flaring, veins protruding from his temples, and I hear the Hampshire field- ers, some of whom I had a beer with last night, exclaim, ‘What a fucking cheat!’ and ‘He must be deaf as well as blind!’ And I think: ‘Three of those nine balls are going to be bowled by Malcolm Marshall.’
And I walk off.
I just felt my feet heading towards the pavilion and I couldn’t stop them.
‘Well – did you hit it?’ Gatting asked when I got back to the Middlesex dressing room.
‘I . . .er . . .I’m not sure,’ I stammered.
There was a stunned silence as the players considered this appalling dereliction of duty. Then the 12th man Jamie Sykes said: ‘I fink his arsehole fell out.’
He was sort of right. But it wasn’t so much a lack of bravery as a lack of self-belief. I didn’t really feel I belonged out there, attempting to make runs against a man who had 350 Test wickets at one of the lowest averages (20.94) of modern times. He deserved to get me out, given who he and I were. I didn’t have the courage of my convictions to stick it out, and risk alienating my ‘mates’ in the Hampshire team. So I gave myself up.
Who Wants to be a Batsman”