Serenity is hard to find for me. I spend hours, days chasing racing thoughts with seemingly aimless restlessness. Much of this anxiety is driven by existential questions that I do not have answers to for the moment, and am unlikely still to find in quick time.
In the meantime I chase a tiny bit of meaningless regularity to leave my mind deciphering meaning in the actual problems of life. I trick myself into work life, I eat cake and I listen to the news in the car.
But nothing beats the unflinching flatlining rhythm of my one half-real sporting ability: bowling.
On the cricket field one can be one of two things, a batter or a bowler. Theoretically one can also be a fielder but there is no serenity to be found there if you grew up in Pakistan, because you are a fielder if you are not bowling and not batting. Technically only players on the bowling team will field at any given time, but in the streets and playgrounds of Lahore it doesn’t matter what team you’re on. If you are not batting or bowling you are likely fielding.
Which leaves the soul searching flowchart of a cricket player to end on two possible outcomes: batting and bowling.
A part of me is convinced that I will never be a batter. The first game I ever played with a leather cherry I was out first ball. I think that memory has so ingrained itself in my head that I’ve never been able to recover. The batting collapse around me in that game isn’t a prominent memory, although every team I have subsequently been in has been prone to batting collapses. I have sat through enough never-ending probablity lectures and been on enough cricket teams to find it hard to believe that this is a coincidence.
The horror of this game aside, I think there is more to the batting role that does not gel well with a mind in perpetual existential crisis.
The batter is the person in everyone’s sight on a cricket field. The bowler runs towards him, the fielders stare ready to respond to his shot, the non-striking batter watches ready to call or run. The umpire is casually scanning his peripheral vision but his line of vision is pointed towards the batter. Which leaves really only the wicket-keeper, who should perhaps ideally be looking at the bowler and the delivery, but only with a line of sight that gently grazes the striking batter.
Of course everyone is staring at the batter for a reason: cricket is a batter’s story. A game is won by the team that scores more runs – batters score the runs. And so the poignant narrative of any cricket game is the batter’s play. It is in effect, a batter’s exhibition. Everyone else is really in supporting cast.
A good batter understands his role in the play. Try only to hit the ball straight. If it goes anywhere else it should do so only on instinctive reaction. And so the batter’s narrative is one of loose plan and strong instinct. It is a story of primal survival, a story of gusto. There is no room for fear of self doubt. And hence, I conclude, that a mind as restless as mine was never one to bat.
The last bit of evidence that I am not a batter is the realization that no real batter worth their merit would have bothered to reason to this point. They would rather have been batting.
So that leaves the other option: bowling. This plot I can manage.
Every delivery, the bowling team has many active members. The bowler who delivers the actual ball is of course, crucial. Perhaps equally important is the captain, if the captain is strong-minded and strong-willed. The captain and the bowler together own the plan, which they set up with a field placing and put into motion with the bowler’s run up.
The bowling narrative accrues ball by ball, and perhaps so does the batting narrative. But the bowling plan is much more considered, much more deliberate. There is much more time to think, to assess, to tweak, to repeat.
There is a beautiful rhtyhm to this planning. At the granularity of each individual ball this rhythm is somewhat calculated. The pitch of the ball thought about, the pace and the angle played through to set the field. The goal is to be almost clinical. As a group of six balls, the over becomes about a more careful art of set up, about slowly altering the pace of the game. The rhythm becomes somewhat ruminative. As overs bundle together into a spell the rhythm begins to take a more contemplative form. Each spell a small chunk of the game, slowly defining the role of each passage of play and of each player.
But as a game, as a collection of spells the rhythm of bowling is meditative.
When the ball is given to me I am able to focus.
I hand my cap and other paraphranelia to the umpire. I verify the location of the return crease, because I’m often accused of using the width of the crease with borderline legality. I measure 10 steps from the bowling crease. This method is innacurate, but I’ve learnt to not care with Wasim Akram’s assurance. All that matters is comfort. I walk ten somewhat extended steps backwards from the bowling crease, and mark a line in the turf with my foot.
At the top of my mark I think about where I want to bowl. I pick between one of my two stock deliveries. One is a good length ball pitches just outside off and comes into the batsman after pitching. The other is a yorker length delivery pitches somewhere between the leg stump and a hypothetical fifth stump on the off side. I sometimes move the ball in the air, largely due to wrist position which I have somehow naturally discovered and learnt to stick to.
I assure everyone in the field is ready. They have been made aware of their positions and the moment they are ready, I am ready.
I run it at an angle to accentuate the angle of the delivery. And because someone once told me it worked well for me and now I find it hard to run along the axis of the crease. So I don’t fight it.
I’ve thrown it wide. The umpire strethces his arm, there is some murmuring from my team about the validity of this decision but I have no interest in arguing. I shake my head at my failure to curtail the umpires breadth of doubt. I think to myself, I think again about where I want to pitch it. I walk back to the top of my mark. Someone has thrown the ball to me sometime during this process but that has all been muscle memory. It is in my hand now and I don’t really remember how it got to me.
I start running in with a cursory glance at the batsman. For all the hooplah about the batsman being the center of the show, everyone forgets that I control the pace of the exhibition. The batsman begins to look ready but isn’t really. I don’t wait.
I run in. It pitches outside off, the batsman tries to poke but he hasn’t accounted for the movement. He adjusts last minute and scores a streaky run behind the wicket.
My fielders say something. Some part of the batter’s mind anticipates a fast bowler’s stare, or a sledger’s banter. I’m not interested in what he thinks. I turn around and walk back to my mark.
I have the ball when I am looking at the batsman next.
My major mode of variation is to move the ball the other way. The problem here is that I don’t really know how to control this yet, I have a general idea but I can’t reproduce the movement away from the batsman at will. But I’ve learnt to go with the flow. Some days the ball is moving away from the batsman, sometime consistently, sometimes occasionally. These days I know that a good length outside off is a good place for the ball to move either in our out. And I use the uncertainty of movement to my advantage. If I don’t know which way the ball is going, the batter likely knows even less. The longer it takes for the batsman to identify which way the ball is moving, the less time he has to adjust his shot.
I assess the flow. I go with it. I run again. I assess myself.
I turn around, I walk back, I turn around again, then I run, I jump, I bowl, I assess myself. Then it starts again.
A common approach to meditative practice is to find ways to turn off your mind for a little bit. To learn to prevent the captivating control of the distracting thought. This captivity defines the prison of a racing mind. But when I bowl, I am free.
In the bowler’s rhythm I reason, I deliberate. But the pulse of this deliberation is interrupted by little gaps of going with the flow. Of running in comfort, of feeling the swing, of reverting to a constrained and tested set of challenging stock balls. It is repetitive, calming, and wonderful.
To the outsider it’s the batter’s show. The batter is the frontman to the cricket band, but the band needs a pulse. It may the batter’s words they hum but it is the bowlers’s rhythm they feel.