He was fielding at short mid-wicket. Twenty metres from the bat at most.
The opposition’s best batsman – by a country mile – was nearly three-quarters of the way to a double-century. And if the young batsman could not win this match he would certainly make sure his team – for he was now the captain too – would not collapse as it had done so many times before on foreign soil.
The ageing fielder crouched, ready. He had come to the elite level late in his career. An unfashionable thing to do. Waiting, hoping there at short mid-wicket, he would be depending on instinct, reflexes, balance and eyesight. Experience too, of course. The oldest player out there on that big green field in Sydney.
He would not watch the fast bowler running in. That would be a distraction. A challenge to his balance and concentration. No, he would have eyes only for the batsman – one of the best in the world. He would have eyes only for the batsman’s feet, the batsman’s bat and – if he could catch sight of it in a flash – the ball, of course.
For it was the ball that his hands keened for. It was the ball that he wanted to hold, cupped in his palms, either through skill or happenstance. Or both. But the ball is hard, even if a batsman has hit it many times. Even if a bowler has hurled it into the pitch many times. The ball can bruise flesh. It can break bones.
The batsman had been at the crease for 315 minutes. One hundred and forty seven runs. Twenty boundaries. His team had made 352 runs but was still 220 behind. He could not settle for anything less than a double-century.
The bat is a sword, maybe even a baton, but it is not a wand. And every batsman is human. In the blink an eye (maybe his own eyes blinked behind the grill of his helmet just as the bowler let go of the ball), the batsman erred.
The ball travelled low and fast and just above the grass. Directly to the fielder. He did not have to move far, if at all, from his crouched position. It was not a difficult transaction. One of the world’s best batsmen was out, three short of 150. On the fourth day of the fourth and final Test of the summer.
Then, two strange occurrences. The fielder did not fling the ball up and away in jubilation, did not send it wayward and skyward for some poor soul to retrieve. No, the fielder held onto the ball in one hand, and clenched the other in satisfaction. He may have allowed himself a triumphant shaking of the forearms. No histrionics. No excessive exuberance. But joy, yes. Enjoyment.
But this was only the first half of the two-act play. The rules of the game say that upon a batsman being dismissed the ball must be returned to one of the two umpires. At some point, among the usual celebrations – the hugs, the back-slapping, the backside-tapping, the cap-tousling, the grinning and – maybe, just maybe – the gloating, the ball must be retrieved and returned to an umpire.
The fielder happened to be close to an umpire. And the fielder still had the ball in his hand – the ball his palms and fingers had been keening for over after over.
So, before joining, or being engulfed by, his overtly expressive team-mates, the fielder made the slightest of detours – away from the coming throng and towards the umpire.
Did he toss the ball to the man in the white hat, white shirt and black trousers?
Throw it to him?
Lob it to him?
Roll it to him?
No, the fielder, having just caught one of the best batsmen in the world on the fourth day of the final Test of the Australian summer, placed the ball in the upturned hand of the square-leg umpire. There may have even been a fleeting touch of flesh. The tips of the men’s fingers may have brushed. Maybe. Maybe not.
He gave him the ball. And to give is ‘to deliver freely, bestow, hand over’. To give is, also, to be grateful.
The fielder had caught the ball without fanfare and now returned it without fuss.
If only the game was always thus.
Virat Kohli, caught Chris Rogers, bowled Ryan Harris 147 (Sydney Cricket Ground, January 2015)
This story also published at australianrules.com.au and footyalmanac.com.au