Ever wondered why it's so difficult to swot a fly with your hand? I'd always thought it had something to do with its angled take-off, how it can throw itself sideways as well as upwards. New research has discovered something else though, something about the way that the fly perceives time itself.
In simple terms, the smaller the creature the more slowly time passes. The fly's compound eyes offer it life in stop-motion, the hand moving towards it a gathering shadow rather than a speeding car. The research opens up the notion that, in this relative, elastic time, the fly feels that its life lasts as long as long as ours. The mayfly lives its endless day, while, for the elephant, or the giant tortoise, the years blur past...
The brilliant Andy Bull wrote at length for the Spin on fast bowling and whether it's actually that fast any more. His piece highlights a great anomoly that exists in many arenas of sport: progress is spiky. Records move in clusters and then seize up for a generation. Quick bowlers were quicker in the 1970s than they are now. In part, this is natural. In the same way, the world records of Bob Beamon and Sebastian Coe stood for decades in athletics; heavyweight boxing exists in the shadow of Ali and Tyson; there wasn't a footballer as good as Maradona until Ronaldo and Messi. There will be someone as quick as Thomson or Holding along someday.
But it's also a question of perception. Part of the legend of fast bowling comes from the man playing it. In the wild west of cricket in the 1970s, batsmen had no helmets, pads and gloves were by comparison rudimentary and the way in which fast bowlers could bowl at them was unregulated. Not only was it fast, it was genuinely dangerous (and everyone should read Christian Ryan's wonderful, impressionistic essay on the quickest spell Jeff Thomson ever bowled for an idea of how it must have felt to bat in that era).
In the same way that time moves differently for the fly, so fast bowling feels different depending on who's facing it and when. In his majesterial The Art And Science Of Cricket, Bob Woolmer highlights some experiments conducted in the early 1980s by Tim Noakes, a South African researcher, in which an old-style static bowling machine was set at 130kph. Peter Kirsten faced up to it, and was unable to hit the ball without the complex series of visual clues a batsman picks up from the bowler's run-up and delivery stride (during his long career Kirsten faced all of the world's quickest bowlers out in the middle, playing deliveries at speeds of 150kph). Yet spat without notice from the cold eye of the machine, the ball came towards him too quickly for him to accurately plot its course.
From this, Noakes observed that the best players did not necessarily have better eyesight, but were somehow better at interpreting the bowler's approach and angle of delivery. He conducted another experiment in which the bowling machine was wired to the lights at an indoor net. Less than 200 milliseconds after the ball was fired, the lights were shut off. Kirsten was still able to anticipate the trajectory of the ball and hit 70 per cent of the deliveries he faced. Some provincial players brought in to bat in the same circumstances were so unnerved they ran out of the way of the ball.
It was clear that international batsmen had a kind of visual early warning system that enabled them to play the very fastest bowling. And so all 'fast' bowling is relative, in that the experience of facing a ball delivered uncomfortably quickly is available to any player. The only variable is the speed. A good club bat might be on the edge of their capability at 80mph, while a Test match player can handle 95mph. Both experience the same sensations and emotions while doing so.
Every batsman, though, is human and subject to the quotidian variations of biorhythms and mood that affect us all. Fast bowling that is survivable, even hittable, when the brain is sharp and the feet quick and everything in its place may not be when the body is injured, the mind jaded, the ego assaulted by doubt and fear.
These are the variables that make the game what it is. The fastest bowling will always have a mystique about it that has nothing to do with the speed gun or the stats. It's about that moment when bowler and batsman are both stretched to the limit of their ability, locked in a visceral, physically dangerous duel that might end in any way at any moment.
It's a glinting, alluring knife-edge that doesn't happen often, but when it does it sticks in the imagination, it gets written about and talked about and passed down into the annals. It's magical, and necessarily rare.
On Talking and Writing about Cricket
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