Man v machine

I am an optimist. I have to be to believe that my middle aged quest for a maiden century is feasible. So when I noticed that it was not dark after coming out of a meeting at 4 30 in late January, I thought the cricket season was nearly upon us and my thoughts drifted to those 20 over evening games which meander late in to those all too rare long balmy summer evenings.

In fact, there was another three months to go, a dozen or more weeks of cycling up Highgate Hill with bat and pads uncertainly hitched on the rack and, rather ridiculously, in cricket whites, to confront Elsie, the bowling machine, and the coaches, Phil and Ian who take turns at exposing my cricketing inadequacies.

Elsie has no soul and was not triumphal when she bowled me first ball. There is something faintly preposterous about batting against a machine. She is not a thing of beauty but she has a certain charm looking rather like a minitiature version of the invaders in Wells’s War of the Worlds, an oval shape standing on spindly legs.

She is deadly accurate and can be set for speeds up to 100MPH but we confine ourselves to just over half that which is rather pathetic given that first class slow bowlers actually deliver the ball at that speed. Moreover, she can swerve the ball either way but, her fatal weakness as a machine is exposed by the fact that she always bowls the same ball unless there has been the human intervention of resetting her. That merely compounds the humiliation of being bowled.

Elsie has two methods of delivery. You can either set her up to bowl 25 balls on the trot automatically, with a warning click and whirr as the ball drops into position, or she can be operated manually by someone standing on a chair over her, showing you the ball until they drop it into her bowels. That allows for subtle alteration of the delivery because a nudge on the machine changes where the ball pitches.

Most of the time, though, Elsie sits forlornly in the back of the SUV belonging to James, my younger partner in this cricket improvement enterprise. Human bowling may be more varied and occasionally easier, but it has that unpredictable quality which makes it a better preparation for the real thing.

The human variety is no less humiliating, though. Ian, the coach with a faster action, managed to hit my stumps five times in one half hour session. All in all, I was bowled eight times that evening, as a group of lively Sri Lankans who practice in the next door net decided that I looked like useful fodder for their zippy actions.

Now eight times is more than I have been bowled in a season but I rationalise this as progress. My classic form of dismissal used to be LBW because playing across the line necessitates getting the leg over, as it were. It has the added advantage of requiring the umpire, who is invariably a team colleague, to make a decision and a powerful glare in his direction, or a somewhat dishonest tap on the bat suggesting there was the faintest of edges, is often enough to deter.

No such mercy now. Phil and Ian coached the across the line hoik out of me within a couple of weeks but that means the wicket is more exposed. Despite the regular sight of plastic stumps flying into the back of the net, there has been progress. Honest.

In fact, the first few weeks were wonderful. A change in the grip, in the stance, in the way I lifted the bat – actually, to cut it short, a complete transformation in how I batted – suddenly led to a series of cover drives, the likes of which my colleagues in the New Statesman side have never seen. Batting seemed easy, the century a mere formality, a couple of dozen quick despatches to the boundary and the prize would be mine.

But that early euphoria has gone. New weaknesses are appearing. Not every ball, it seems, can be driven to the offside boundary, even if now, for the first time, I have learnt to do it. Now shot selection has become more difficult. It is not just a choice between the defensive jab and the hoik across the line (which, in fairness, often went for four). Now there is the off drive, the cover drive, the square drive and even possibly the cut to consider. The bat occasionally stays paralysed above my head as the brain fails to make a decision quickly enough.

And not only is there self-doubt, there is the fear of success. What if, after 35 years of failure at cricket, I do actually manage to achieve my goal. Won’t that mean that all those humiliations were completely unnecessary and that I could have been lording at… well possibly even Lord’s for years. At 20 games a year, 700 games, that is two full years of life wasted. Can I really cope with success? Maybe it might be better to continue to fail. At least I will know that was my destiny.

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