I have not faced Muttiah Muralitharan. But I've faced the nearest thing to him on god's mighty earth - and I'm not talking about Robert Croft here. In 2006, through a combination of strange and fortuitous circumstances, I drove up into the green hills of South Wales to a sports centre in the middle of a pretty little town to bat against Merlyn, the world's greatest bowling machine.
Merlyn was widely attributed to have helped England win the Ashes the previous year due to its ability to replicate any bowler alive, and in England's case Shane Warne. It had been built out of an old washing machine by a terrifically entertaining eccentric called Henry Pryor, and it was quite miraculous. It went everywhere in an old horse box, and required two men to push it. It had a kind of traffic light system on the front to indicate when the ball was coming, and a large, blank, unblinking eye in the middle, an eye that stared down the wicket like a dead man's before the ball spat from it. On top was a kind of perspex shield that Henry called 'Flintoff's Foil', put there to protect the operator from Fred's ferocious return hits. 'He really slaughtered it,' Henry deadpanned '...when he connected'.
The plan was that I would face two overs of Murali, two overs of Warne and then, to demonstrate the ability of Merlyn to bowl swing, two overs of Matthew Hoggard. A few days beforehand, I'd spoken to someone who had faced the real Murilitharan. 'What's it like?' I'd asked.
'Well,' came the reply, 'you can probably tell which way the ball is spinning sixty per cent of the time. So that leaves forty per cent, which is hard. But the really hard thing is his eyes. You see these huge white eyes staring down the pitch at you. Hypnotic. Then you have ten Sri Lankans standing round the bat, yapping...' He made a 'yap yap' gesture with his hand and sighed sadly.
Merlyn's dead eye stared at me. He was being operated by Henry's son, Matthew. Henry sat in a plastic chair outside of the net, smiling. Matthew punched the computer pad. The machine began to vibrate deeply, its motors whirring. The traffic light went from red to green.
Forget about seeing the ball spin. You could hear the ball spin, such was the torque on it. In the air it was whipping around viciously, swirling in a thermal of its own creation. It flew high above the dead eye of Merlyn, high above my eyeline, as if something underneath it was pushing it upwards. Then it drifted a little in line away from off stump, and then, as it got nearer [and louder], in the last couple of feet of flight, it dipped, landing a good two feet before it looked like it would. Then it bounced as if it had been thrown into the pitch, lept upwards again and smacked into my bottom hand before dropping to the floor.
After a few balls, it got slightly easier to pick how far it was going to spin [yards] and how high it was going to bounce [higher than you thought possible for an off spinner to bounce]. You could get on the back foot, deep in the crease, and knock it away. You could get right forward and hope it hit bat or pad cleanly. You could, with a horrible fear-sweat creeping down your neck and a feeling that the entire universe was now implacably against you, stay in, on a ball-by-ball basis, if your mindset was switched to pure survival.
But you're only going to have an experience like this one once. So why would you do that? Merlyn was programmed to be 'human', in that he would bowl the occasional bad ball. One looked like a full toss. Late in the flight, I realised it was a full toss, and got enough bat on it to get it through mid on, if there hadn't been one. I got semi-cocky. The fear-sweat diminished a degree or two. I waited for the next one from Merlyn's implacable dead eye.
Here it came again - another full toss! I was out to meet it this time, 'Murali' was getting belted. Then it whirred, then it dipped, and then pitched just in front of me and took off - there's no other description for it - took off from leg to off, past the bat, past everything, me stranded halfway down the wicket.
There was laughter. Matthew shouted one word from the far end. 'Doosra'. Then they started laughing again.
It was absolutely unpickable. It looked like a bad ball till it turned out good. I had faced 'Murali'. And I had been done. I had the smallest inkling of what the real thing might be like. Those open eyes. Those men around the bat. That sound that the ball made. That sound...
NB: Will blog tomorrow on facing Warnie. Or rather 'Warnie'.
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