Since the cricket ball is a shade harder than a baseball, if it hits you—even at far slower speeds than the fast men pitch—it hurts. The batter therefore wears hardened shoes or boots and strapped-on protective pads from ankle to above the knee. Above that he often wears thigh pads beneath the white pants. Also beneath the pants he will wear a "box"—a metal shell over the genitals supported on a G-string. Above the waist the only protection is on his hands—gloves with rubber spikes or pads over the fingers. This still doesn't prevent broken phalanges from being a commonplace accident every season.
So, armored a little like a medieval knight, he stands at the batting line and looks down toward the pitching end. He sees three men there. One is the umpire behind the far stumps. The second is his temporarily-out-of-play fellow batter. The third is the bowler, standing some way behind the other two—sometimes 40 yards or twice the pitching distance—and waiting to make his run-in for the delivery.
The cricket bowler's arms must be straight from shoulder to wrist as he delivers. The ball doesn't have to bounce before it reaches the bat: even a baseball trajectory is perfectly legal, but the flat face of the cricket bat makes such pitches easy meat. Bowlers come in three main kinds; fast, medium and slow, but the offensive is almost invariably begun by the fast men. True fast bowlers of international caliber are rare, since the top speed requires a very special combination of strength and pitching action—having one without the other is no good. The best of the century was Harold Larwood. His run-up to the pitching line had the violent and yet smooth acceleration of a champion long jumper. To describe the tremendous speed of pitch he could achieve in terms of bullets or cannonballs is somehow misleading—the arrow leaving the full-drawn six-foot bow gives a better impression. Watching such bowlers on their great days is a little like watching a hungry leopard attacking a series of tethered goats: very near indeed to sadism.
I hope I have by now corrected any namby-pamby impression the word "bowling" may give Americans. Facing a fast bowler is not a job for fainthearts. The cricket batter may have some of the armor of a knight, but he is, so to speak, on a stuffed horse. Some technically excellent players have never been able to face this unfair form of joust, and to most fast bowlers the faintest hint of a yellow streak is like a gold vein to a prospector—it won't go unexploited.
One mistake many Americans make is to suppose bowlers always aim at the stumps. This isn't so at all, and perhaps especially with the fast men. Their tactics are given away by the special fielder-placements they use. Most of the fielders are clustered behind the batter and alongside the catcher. They are there to catch snicks off the edge of the bat, and to get these snicks the bowler will frequently aim wide of the stumps. Other fielders will often be stationed at what may seem suicidally close proximity to the batter—down to six or seven feet on occasion—to pick up easy flies from another kind of fast pitch, the "bumper." The bumper is bowled at maximum speed but deliberately "short" of a good length—good length being the normal optimum point of bounce from the bowler's point of view. The result with fast men is a pitch that rises viciously chest or head high. The intention is naked: to scare the batter physically.
There is not much the batter can do against a good bumper except put his faith in his reflexes and the lightning dodge away. If he tries to block the ball with his bat, he risks popping up a fly to the greedy hands a few feet away waiting for just such an offer. However, there is one offensive move against this cricketing beanball—a hit that is nearest to a baseball baiter's pull to left field. We call it the hook. Hooking requires a first-class eye and a lot of courage; if you miss, you may end up with a broken nose or a mouthful of loose teeth.
One of the unwritten rules concerns this kind of pitch. The bumper is not used against inexpert batters (the other side's specialist pitchers) who form the tail of the inning. Occasionally one is let fly against such a lamb, and the unforgivable occurs: he is laid out flat. But the most unforgivable of all is when a fast bowler "bumps" a batting fast bowler from the other team. The ensuing situation is about as genteel as a Mafia fall-out.
The next category of bowlers, the medium pacers, are experts with the curve-ball. The ability to "swing" pitches with the cricket ball is something of a mystery. In its fresh state the ball has polished leather sides, which produce the most curve—so much so that the use of a new ball is strictly regulated. The pitching team gets one at inning commencement, but then no replacement until at least another 480 pitches have been made. The curve is also very dependent on air humidity—the damper the better—and on wind direction and force. But the real key is how the equatorial stitched seam of the cricket ball is held. A very ancient—illegal and universal, like the spitball—trick of the swingbowler is to lift up the seam with his nails so that it offers more air resistance and bite when it hits the turf. The second part of the bowler's art lies here: what happens when the curveball strikes the grass. Experts cannot only curve the ball either way in flight but can make it angle either way on the bounce. The batter is faced with two very fast decisions—which way the ball will move in the air and which way again when it bounces in front of him. It may curve right and then break or cut farther right, or angle back left, and the same with a left curve.
In general this type of bowling is the hardest to score runs off. Many of our curveball bowlers are monuments of monotonous accuracy—fine for teams who want to steal their way up the standings, but hardly conducive to entertainment.
It is the third type of cricket bowler, the slowball expert, who has far and away the subtlest skills. He has to depend entirely on cunning, the mind of the fox. His two weapons are spin and flight. For spin the ball is flipped with the fingers, and often by a wrist flick as well, as it leaves the hand. When it hits the turf the imparted spin on the ball makes it move left or right of the flight line just like the English the cue can give a billiard ball. On a certain kind of turf, either softened by rain (a "sticky wicket") or turned to dust by too much sun (a "crumbling wicket"), this movement can be bewilderingly sharp. "Flight" is the ability—one of the hardest techniques to learn—to trick the batter over exactly where the ball will bounce. The effect of a well-flighted pitch is this: the batter thinks he knows precisely where the ball will land in front of him and starts out on an apparently easy half-volley drive along the ground. At the last split second he realizes he's been fooled—the ball is going to bounce short. But it is too late to stop his swing.