A few years ago, and it was a few because he was still playing, I found myself in a net with Phil Tufnell. He bowled for a while, and then we had a chat. The conversation went onto the hardest batsmen to go up against, and the most difficult places to play.
'Ah you know,' he said in that estuary drawl, 'Mark Waugh... Mark Waugh doesn't believe spinners can get him out. You get to Brisbane, first Test. It's about I dunno 120 degrees or something. Maximum humidity. You're dripping with sweat. The crowd's calling you all sorts. The pitch is like a road. It's not even brown, it's gray. They're quite a few for two and he comes in. And then he's just walking down the wicket at you... ping, ping... Nightmare...'
Mark Waugh was like that of course, a laughing cavalier for whom the game seemed as easy as it was consuming and obsessive for his twin [nature versus nurture theorists could flounder forever over those two]. But Tufnell's words have always stayed with me: 'Mark Waugh doesn't believe spinners can get him out...'
Here was an articulation of the great divide in batting. There wasn't a batsman on earth who would think 'no pace bowler can get me out', because they usually did. Sometimes there was just nothing you could do about it either, however good you were. Facing spin lacked one compelling mental pressure: it was never going to physically harm you. It was not going to take your reflexes to the edge of their capacity, it wouldn't assault your person or your ego in quite the same way. Pace was there to be overcome, but spin could be subjugated.
Yet the genius of the game lies not in its physicality but in its apparently infinite psychological variety. Spin somehow cleaves open mental inequality. Kevin Pietersen offers an example of the subtleties at play. His first Test saw him take on, and take apart, Shane Warne with breathtaking audacity. A couple of years later in Adelaide, he reduced the king to monotonous defensiveness, bowling around the wicket for over upon over, trying to make Pietersen tire of kicking him away. Pietersen also switch-hit the other great spinner of the age, Murali, an act of mastery that somehow exposed the sweet vulnerability beneath the great Sri Lankan's toughness. In Australia last winter, Xavier Doherty was visibly cowed by him.
That is the same man who has spent the last two Tests pecking like a chicken in the dust, not knowing, in my father's memorable phrase, if he's Arthur or Martha. His failure has nothing to do with his physical ability. Any technical flaw has been provoked by indecision and doubt, by humiliation and fear. These are the powerful levers of the batter's psyche.
A couple more examples: Warne, with all of his fearsome resources, never conquered India. And in 2005, when the Merlyn spin machine was first available, Matthew Pryor, the son of its inventor Henry and the machine's main operator, was asked which of the England players handled it best: 'Ian Bell,' he replied immediately. 'He's like a wall'.
Well he's not much of a wall at the moment. There is one mitigating factor: England will rarely have seen spinners bowling with a new ball on a skidding pitch. It's a little like batting against Ajantha Mendis before he was sussed out. The solution to Mendis turned out to be a mental one; imagine that he was bowling slow-medium cutters. That shift in the visual picture went some way to nullifying his mystery.
Mark Waugh liked batting against England, averaging 50 against a career mark of 41, but his contests with the Cat weren't entirely unequal. Foremost in Tufnell's mind, perhaps, was Waugh's dominant 140 at Brisbane in 1994, but he did pick him up in the second innings of that game, bowled for 15. He also got him out in Adelaide, and in England dismissed him five times.
That's not quite the point though. Waugh might have got out to Tufnell, but he didn't face him believing that he would, and disposition can be everything. Doubt accrues in a batsman's mind like unwanted freight, heavy and hard to stop. Its impact can be even greater in those who rarely know failure, because they're unfamiliar with its challenge.
But we can only glory in a game that can do this to the mind, that can cause more trepidation with a ball lobbed down at a speed a child could hit than one a club player would barely see. In that, greatness lies.
On Talking and Writing about Cricket
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