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by Luke Ginnell Tuesday 5 August 2014
Coming off a run-up that wouldn’t look out of place at a Jamaican sprinter’s convention, Shoaib Akhtar’s approach to the crease was equally as terrifying as the deliveries that followed it.
As he lobs the ball casually to the bowler, it seems almost as if the mid-off fielder is unaware of both the emotional carnage currently paralysing the batsman’s brain or the impending physical threat that promises to wreak an equally devastating, yet more external, havoc on the thin layer of bone that protects it.
Cursing the callousness of a player who would willingly put a varnished leather rock masquerading as an instrument of sporting contest into the hands of a man planning to hurl it at a be-padded bundle of nerves such as himself, the batsman pretends to count the men behind square-leg for the 40th time.
Anything for a stay of execution.
Though he knew this moment would come, and ought to have been prepared for it, the batsman nevertheless experiences a moment of spatiotemporal uncertainty. His is a dead-brain-walking, an entity trapped inside a skull trapped inside a piece of titanium soon to be crushed by a covered piece of cork.
Shoaib Akhtar - 100mph man
Aptly nicknamed the 'Rawalpindi Express', Shoaib Akhtar played 46 Tests, 163 One-Day Internationals and 15 Twenty20 Internationals for Pakistan.
Between 1997 and 2011, he provided batsmen all around the world with a stern examination of their technique, reflexes and ability to stand up to deliveries of 100 miles per hour or more.
His fastest recorded delivery was registered at 161.3 kph (100.22 mph).
For an instant he equates his lid with the infernal box belonging to that strange Austrian doctor who kept on talking about killing cats, before he realises that fear is pushing his mind towards the abyss of mental instability and a future largely comprised of the frenzied scribbling of Urdu script on cold, white, padded walls.
The batsman casts such thoughts out of his mind and tries to focus on the task at hand, namely, surviving that most utterly sadistic of cricketing occurrences: a Shoaib Akhtar delivery.
Watching Shoaib scratch at his marker, the vast chasm of grass separating the two men serves only to further unnerve the batsman. Dimly cognisant of the fact that at this distance he can hardly make out the colour of the bowler’s jersey, he wonders to himself if hand-luggage would suffice for a journey of such length, or whether there’d be a need for Shoaib to check something into the hold as well?
Have you packed your bags yourself, sir? Drinks will be served half-way through the run-up.
In a nearby universe, the umpire mutters an incomprehensible few words about something or other, which the batsman ignores until he recognises the traditional preamble to an Akhtar execution: ‘right arm over the wicket, six balls to come.’
Bat-tapping the ground with the air of a man who has already eaten his final meal, the batsman nods to indicate that he is ready to face his maker with the Maker’s Name as his only defence against a reddish-golden death.
Blissfully aware of the chaotic state of his victim’s thought processes, Shoaib begins to trundle forward. The grin that drifts across his face reveals his serene understanding that several kilometres of run-up remain before he must think seriously about getting into a proper rhythm.
To the man with the bat, that assured expression resembles the maniacal glare of a sociopathic haulier bearing down on a listless rabbit unfortunate enough to be insatiably besotted with powerful lights.
At least, it would be if the batsman could see that far, or was capable of being allegorical while in such a state of emotional turmoil.
Luke Ginnell - not a 100mph man
Luke Ginnell writes about cricket and football and tweets @HeavyFirstTouch
Read another piece by him on his love of Test cricket in a country where it isn't even played by clicking here.
Relentlessly, the bowler draws closer, his thrashing straight black locks hypnotising the batsman. Shoaib has found his stride. The trundle becomes a jog, smoothing swiftly into an all-out Akhtar-sprint; a balanced, rhythmic motion that seems to combine a sprinter’s grace with the madcap pace of a 24-frame Keystone Cop.
Though it is but a matter of minutes until he is due to arrive at the crease, the bowler seems to have somehow, imperceptibly, accelerated time, his pounding spikes effortlessly redressing the space-time continuum.
A frantic note pervades the atmosphere as he thunders onwards, arms angled downwards like rocket-thrusters, upper body bent back like a malevolent tailfin cutting through a dense sea of adjectives and mixed metaphors.
Ever nearer he dashes, chest looming as broad as Stuart Broad’s definition of sportsmanship. Then, all of a sudden he’s at the crease, the symmetrical sprint transformed in the blink of an eye into a dervish-like leap and a cartwheel of stabbing arms and whipping hair.
The batsman, whose nervous tapping of the bat has lent him the appearance of a sand-sculptor desperately patting one last buttress into place against the backdrop of an onrushing tide, remembers that he has entirely neglected to even consider checking the bowler’s grip.
May as well perish without knowing which way it’s going to swing.
For the tiniest fraction of a second, the batsman is at peace, at one with whatever force of nature put himself and Shoaib Akhtar in close proximity. He allows himself a tiny smile, resolves to confront his end with dignity, initiates his backlift and closes his eyes to more easily slip into the inexorable oblivion that will arrive with the ball’s release.
There’s a grunt, a scuff and another fleeting moment of existential distortion.
"No ball," calls the umpire.
© Cricket World 2014