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Each month GIDEON HAIGH writes about a favourite photograph of his from cricket’s past. This month - Billings and the making of a catch
Many of cricket’s skills are vaguely counterintuitive. Driving with a straight bat through the line of a delivery does not come naturally; it must be learned, drilled, embedded in technique. One’s instinct on being required to propel the ball is to throw it, not windmill it with a braced arm behind a leading arm.
To the act of catching the ball, little thought is given, because it seems spontaneous and instinctual. Yet it is as complex as any act: scientific research at intervals over the last half-century has not resolved quite how humans make the calculations involved.
The task can be divided into three stages: interception, presentation and possession. One must get to the passage or fall of the ball; one must offer the palms; one must absorb the ball’s impact. In cricket, of course, it is not like the ball is being thrown to you, most of the time; the batsman’s aim is to avoid being caught.
One experiences, too, the pressure of the wicket’s anticipation, to the extent that those catches that come most quickly are sometimes judged simplest (“That was pure reflex”) and those that allow the greatest time for adjustment can be among the most difficult (“He had a long time to think about it”).
England’s Sam Billings has had time to think about this, the first chance offered in a T20 international against New Zealand at Wellington a year ago. In a helter-skelter start, bowler Mark Wood had conceded 17 from his first nine deliveries; the dangerous Colin Munro was establishing himself alongside Martin Guptill; it was one of those T20 ‘moments’ from which other ‘moments’ were set to flow, Choose Your Own Adventure-style.
"To the act of catching the ball, little thought is given, because it seems spontaneous and instinctual. Yet it is as complex as any act"
So Billings is simultaneously performing all three of the aforementioned tasks: he has placed himself in the path of the miscue arcing towards long leg, eyes glued, chin steady; his cupped palms are uppermost, his fingers spread, his arms locked; his torso is sympathetically inclined to cushion the ball’s descent and his feet slightly off the ground in anticipation of the effect of gravity, for an imperceptible fraction of a second suggesting the weightlessness of a surfer or skateboarder.
The poise and proficiency suggest something performed numberless times in games and training dating back to childhood, freeing one to contemplate the image’s other features: the core strength of the athlete, the firm definition of the neck, the steadiness of the posture relative to the blur of the ball. ESPNcricinfo’s ball-by-ball commentator pronounced the catch “comfortably held”. But that was a comfort bedrocked in exhaustive preparation and personal confidence.
Any everyday cricketer who has lined up an outfield catch will know that they do not usually feel that way – that somehow the sun is always in the wrong position, the wind disobliging, the ball spinning, the calling indeterminate, the concentration equivocal. There is not much scope for triumph; the beckoning sensations are of relief or chagrin. To the image, then, is a further dimension: the routine excellence of the elite that obscures difficulty.
This article was published in the April edition of The Cricketer - the home of the best cricket analysis and commentary, covering the international, county, women's and amateur game
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