Having faced Murali [see post below] I knew that Henry had been touched by a kind of mad genius when he came up with Merlyn. He'd built it in his barn, essentially alone, from bits of old things he had lying around, and here was a miracle from a kids' comic book- a machine that could replicate any bowler.
'In fact,' he said, 'it can do more than a bowler can. If you wanted to set it up to bowl a ball that turned twenty feet, you could'. It could also deliver extreme swing at extreme pace - upwards of 100mph. Matthew programmed it, just to show me. The ball came out like a laser, a red blur that screamed into the bottom of the stumps and scattered them yards back into the net. No man could have hit it. Henry had named Merlyn after the Welsh magician of Arturian legend. It was a fitting one.
The exact experience of facing Murali or Warne or any bowler was of course only possible in person. There were some parts of that experience that no machine could overcome. In his book The Art And Science Of Cricket, Bob Woolmer writes about the heavy amounts of information that a batsman gains before the bowler delivers, key indicators of length, line and pace that come from the run-up and action. The great players read these better than the rest. Facing Merlyn, they are denied you. He has no run-up [how cool would it be if he had...] , just the traffic light and the dead man's glare. Matthew estimated that you had to allow 10mph for the lack of a run and a bowling action - for example, to replicate pace of 90mph in terms of reaction time, Merlyn would have to be set at 80. All of these clues were programmed in.
And yet facing a machine had ghostly hints of playing Warne. As Merlyn's washing machine head was lowered to the right height, I was already facing a man who wasn't even in the same hemisphere as us. Because any version of Warne comes with his own meaning, his own heft. You're not thinking the one simple, pure thought any batsman should think - 'watch the ball'. You're thinking, 'right, well, the first one will be his stock ball, the huge, drifting leg break, so don't close yourself off, get your pad out of your way, play it with the bat, don't go hard at it, and whatever else you do, for f**k's sake don't chase it when it turns... But then what if it's not the leggie first because that's too obvious, what if it's the slider, or the zooter, or...'
The traffic lights changed. Out sailed the ball in a perfect arc, high and clear. The drift came much later than it looked like it did on TV, and it was more extreme too, crossing the width of the stumps from off to leg, burrowing down through the air with late dip. It pitched somewhere around leg and screwed itself into the mat with a pop, spinning back out hard across the stumps, against the direction in which it had come. I'd lunged forward at it, guessing really, and it zipped right across the face of the bat, missing everything. The keeper would have taken it about a stump outside of off, at almost waist height.
Martin Amis once wrote that real ball-players had 'a natural severity' about everything they did. He was right. This was a different world, with different physics, and not many people could enter it. 'Warnie's leg break, which came down again and again, was subtly different each time, turning a little more, a little less, and each time with that natural severity, spiky and hard. I got a bat on a few. The thought of an attacking shot was almost laughable. The flipper stayed low and zipped into the bat. The googly was pickable only on line. Two overs of it was enough. Two overs of it was exhausting.
Merlyn showed another gap in experience, too, another world to cross. This was a net in a village in Wales with no-one watching. What would this be like in a Test match, maybe your first, with the physical presence of Warne, the aura and the history he brought with him? How do you overcome that?
'Who played it best?' I asked Matthew when he was talking about how the England team had used the machine. 'Ian Bell,' he replied. 'He was like a wall'. Ian Bell, who'd melted at the sight of Warne with a ball in his hand.
Driving home, I thought of Kevin Pietersen, who at Lord's on his debut had hit Warne into the Pavilion balcony. Later that summer, he would reverse sweep Murali for six, and usher in the new age of batting. I understood even more how rare his talent was, the distance apart he stood from the rest of us.
When I shook Henry's hand I told him that if I was rich, I'd commission him to build me a Merlyn. I'd set it up in a barn somewhere and play the world's greatest bowlers whenever I liked.
'Yes,' he said. 'Lots of people say that...'
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