Short pitch: Hard ball debut
Hard ball cricket requires a flat track. And so, a first game right in the middle of the ground, whose crowned contours lift the square like a modest stage. Playing here, unlike the soft ball games tucked away in the outfield, means being the centre of attention.
Fielding first and there’s shape and purpose to the team’s positions. The dashing after every ball must stop. Know your position, understand the role.
A hand put in the way of a cleanly hit cut shot brings applause and praise, but leaves a stinging palm that could do without more contact with the ball for a few overs. A few tidy stops and then the ball appears suddenly, high and to the left. Stretch up and the ball bounces off the heel of the left hand. Are those supposed to be caught? What do teammates really think, beneath the shouts of ‘hard luck’? It’s still nagging away when another ball is lofted. Moving forward, stooping to reach, it clatters fingers on its way to the turf. The commiserations are more muted.
The coach makes the bowling change. A first over. The seam is abrasive on fingers. It’s up a slope to the crease and the ball has an unfamiliar density. The first ball just floats towards the batsman, who swats it to the square leg boundary. More momentum to the next and the one after to push it two extra yards. But the predictable swing of the incrediball has gone and the line is legside.
Later, a second over; wickets have fallen and the team is buzzing. Still no swing and balls drift harmlessly to the legside. The penultimate ball comes out well and the batsman carves it up into the covers where an older boy, more accustomed to the slap of ball on flesh, takes a catch for a first wicket in hardball cricket.
The innings ends, untidily, meaning 87 must be chased. Relief – real or pretend – to be number ten; unlikely to have to bat. But wickets fall rapidly and with six down, shooed to the pavilion to get padded up. In there, a man’s space, boisterous talk from teammates already dismissed and about the shortcomings of those out of earshot. It’s exciting, it’s validating. But how do pads fasten? Which on which leg? Told to hurry, the innings is folding – not much to live up to.
The top-scorer is run out trying to keep the strike and keep us in the game. Called in to the middle, shuffling like a mini cowboy. Taking strike for the first time, comfortable stance, eyes peering through the helmet grill. But the proportions are out: stumps reaching as high as the new batsman’s elbows. The first and second balls are repelled. The ball seems heavy and dead, like a stone, on the bat. Hands are jolted and the ball rolls out to the fielder, rather than springing to the boundary, when the opportunity comes to pull. But the over is survived.
Now non-striker, the chance for a run is spotted and a bold call made. A straightforward sprint in a game of football, is an arduous venture in batting gear, but ground is made. Facing again, another chance to pull. The dull toe end of the bat lifts the ball over square leg for a first run.
The fielding team’s bowling rota brings its opening bowlers back on. Deliveries that bounce bail high must be fended off. Another run, another over; the sense of an innings – and with that thought, a swish, a miss and it’s over.