There is a certain type of cricket fan, perhaps you are one such, who spends a lot of time in front of mirrors. Life-size mirrors to be precise – that hang in your bedroom or in trial rooms of clothes shops or in washrooms in upscale restaurants. Some people adjust their hair in front of these. Or touch up their face. Or re-loop their belts. Or unzip their trousers to freely tuck in their shirts.
Your priorities are different.
Your first instinct is to face the mirror side-on, fold your fingers into the grip of an imaginary bat, and gaze into the mirror’s deep interior. You wiggle your shoulders, find the perfect distance from the glass – for you need the space to take a long stride after all – and study your stance. Fully side-on? Or slightly open? Feet facing point or extra cover? Questions, so many questions.
Next you must settle on important matters like the venue and the occasion. Obviously, you are facing a formidable opponent in a gigantic stadium and needless to say you are chasing a tricky target – for what is the use of your fertile imagination if you can’t put yourself in a hopeless situation, against a tearaway on a bouncy pitch, with your team’s chances rapidly diminishing… their hopes pinned on you… what is even the need to play this fictional game if you are not in a dicey position yourself, battling age and seeking the liquid ease that you once possessed when the runs flowed and flowed and flowed…
Of course you slam the ball from the middle of the bat, whizzing the fastest ball of the match to the furthest part of the stands. Once, twice, three times. Of course you win the match and walk off with a hundred thousand spectators saluting your brilliance. For what is the use in creating this scenario if you were to fall short? What is the point in facing a life-size mirror in a trial room of a clothing store without being able to pull off this minor miracle? Isn’t this the great gift of the mirror? To help you paint vivid dreams and turn you into a mythical hero in a few minutes? Now try the shirts and leave. There are people waiting outside. Your family is searching for you.
Have you – the champion mirror cricketer – ever considered that cricketers don’t observe themselves when the ball is in play. Batters don’t see themselves crouching in wait, bowlers don’t get a glimpse of their own delivery strides. They see replays of course – sometimes in a matter of a few seconds on the giant screen – but their actions are largely driven by feel. Commentators talk of head position and feet movement, of stillness and balance, of the arc of the bat and the wrist position during release. But the players themselves: they feel all of this. Years and years of playing the game equips them with problem-solving expertise: the angle at which the bat meets the ball, the vibrations in the hands during the point of contact, the ease with which the fingers graze against the seam, the momentum generated during the follow-through… The super slo-mo camera shows the revs on the ball but precisely one person knows how the fingers and palm and hips and shoulders felt – and the sync they are all in – at the point of release. Cricketers experience the game unlike how we see it. And while they understand what we are talking about, the reverse can’t be true: we don’t feel what they do. We simply can’t.
A worthy pastime on YouTube while watching a cricket video (or any ball game, really): freeze the frame just after the ball is delivered and guess where it ends up. Ideally pause when the ball pitches – turn the playback speed down to 0.25 if you wish – for that is when many batters start on their downswings. Watch Sehwag and Lara and Laxman and Tendulkar and Smith – and marvel at how different each of their styles are but also make a note of how wrong you sometimes were with your predictions. A ball that seems to be fit for a cut is sometimes driven; a seemingly inevitable drive turns into a flick. So much of the game happens in that last millisecond: when the batter is wholly at the mercy of instinct, when his mind draws on all those games that have gone before, all those sessions of practice, and directs the body to reach the ball through specific spatial coordinates. One millimeter this way and it’s an edge to the keeper; a millimeter that way and the ball is rushing to the fence.
A team needs 28 runs off 8 balls. A fast bowler delivers a short ball. When it lands, the bat is still on the upswing, to the right of the wicketkeeper’s head. The ball rises and angles into the batter – but even as the ball gets close, the toe end of the bat is still facing up, this time to the left of the wicketkeeper’s head. Pause the video at 0.13 seconds and the only three shots that seem likely at that point are the square cut, the square drive, or the late cut.
A fraction of a second on… the ball is within touching distance and the bat is lower now – but it is now facing fine leg and is set up perfectly for an eye-pleasing square drive with the ball burning the grass on its way to the extra cover fence. But this batter wants a six. He needs a six. (And hopefully straight or square on the leg side where the boundaries are relatively shorter in this massive arena).
Another fraction passes. Now the bat has arrived in a horizontal position but the body is so close to the ball that there is a space problem. How does one find elevation with this space shortage? Pause at 0.14, the most beautiful bit: for how easily he transforms from an ungainly state to a beautiful one. One moment: the limbs are struggling for room, next moment he is standing tall, bat facing the sky, front foot grounded, back foot slightly bent – a cricketing Vitruvian Man who has somehow attained this pose after solving this problem of limited space and almost no time. (This is the moment to point out that this was the slow bouncer – which allowed that little extra time for that all these movements to be completed – but again note that to hit a straight six off a 135 kph ball at that challenging length is perhaps harder than to do the same off a 145kph ball pitched fuller.)
Continue to the next frame. For this is where you see the effort it has taken: his body lunging to the side on its follow-through, like a spring that has been unwound. The wonder is in the geometry: the ball soars over the straight boundary, the batter ejects himself to the left, and in that teensy bit of time, something special has been created. An inch this way and a top edge soars. An inch that way, and the ball finds the inside edge and clatters the stumps. Now it is a six. And the batter too finds it hard to believe what has just happened.
There is something beautiful about imperfection in sport. The images of great cricket, and our vocabulary around the great players , are filled with perfect shots and beautiful drives and inch-perfect yorkers and the perfect ball hitting the top of off. Cricket is too often likened to a performance art – which it is at times but also isn’t at all because where a dancer seeks perfection a cricketer is aiming to win a game and a pendulum-smooth straight-drive and an ungainly top-edge can both bring the same amount of runs. There is something to be said about “freak shots” like this – even as 28 were needed off 8 and the game was nearly gone, a game that had so much riding on it because of who was playing and what that rivalry meant and the baggage that it all came with – for a batter to be able to disbelieve one moment and believe the next, to be utterly confused for what happened and to then realize that it didn’t matter a jot because the ball had actually gone for six… there is beauty in that too.
It is not the kind of shot that you would play in mirror-cricket – why would you when you can middle the ball as you wish, to whatever part of the ground you choose – but that is the best part. To imagine it beforehand would be to diminish its magic.