That's a Doosra

Cricket bowling evolves an alarming new varietal.
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Photo by raeallen, used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

So you say you’ve got stuff. Heat—“I can bring it.” A deceptive change-up. Wicked slider. A curve “that really curves. I think.”

That’s all well and good, of course. But do you have a leg break? Off spin? Reverse swing? Yorker? Googly? If you really want to impress us, show us your doosra.

Brushing aside the claims of rearguard Doubledayites, let’s admit once and for all that baseball is a derivative of rounders, the English playground game with four bases and billy-club bat invented to speed up the otherwise geological tempo of cricket (The greatest cricket score ever achieved in one at-bat, 628 runs [not out] by A.E.J. Collins, was no greater because Collins was threatened with physical violence by fellow schoolboys waiting their turn). Rounders is a jolly enough pastime, but it relinquished one critical aspect of cricket that makes its bowling so much more challenging—and interesting—than mere pitching: the license to bounce the ball on its way to the batter.

This makes a huge difference. Let’s say you are at the plate about to face (as many of us do in the minutes before sleep) the pitching of C.C. Sabathia. But dream logic suddenly dictates that the familiar portly figure should be replaced by Novak Djokovic, who starts peppering you, head to toe, with his trademark smart-bomb serves. Before you can bleat, “Hey! No fair!” Djokovic, now inexplicably wearing white flannels, decides to boost his service speed by taking a loping run-up from out in center field. Millions are watching; you feel an icy trickle in the pit of your stomach. This is what it is like to play cricket.

The bounce amplifies all the deceptive movements imparted to the ball by the bowler’s canny fingers. Here, hold it in your hand: a heavy, glossy, cherry-red sphere, like an Acme Industries hand grenade. A broad equatorial seam runs round it; hours of selective polishing on the pants of the fielding side have given one hemisphere a slightly brighter shine than the other. This is a machine made for fooling batsmen.

Each aspect of this ball provides opportunities to intimidate and bamboozle. Fast bowlers (“quicks”—those who disappear into the distance between every delivery and return in a cloud of dust, fire spurting from their nostrils and the ground trembling beneath their hooves) use that wide seam as a tire-tread to grip the soil. Their goal is to keep it perfectly vertical and parallel to the ball’s flight; its slight bulge generates an unpredictable side-to-side kick on landing, while different amounts of backspin vary the bounce from a deceptive skitter along the ground to a nasty cobra-strike up into the batsman’s vitals. Meanwhile, vagaries of microclimate over the trajectory’s twenty-two airborne yards interact with the unequal shine on the two halves of the ball to produce swing—a chaotic drift, beyond the ken of batsman and bowler alike. All this happens at ninety miles per hour, and therefore in less than half a second.

Spin bowlers do not breathe fire: they shamble up to their posts like kindly uncles. They use no run up, but instead perform on the spot a kind of slow-motion Irish jig, arms and legs wafting here and there, from which the actual delivery emerges in a casual, courteous loop that invites the batsman to do his worst… and that is usually exactly what he does. For the ball that seems so clobberable is actually spinning like a bullet. That seam, now cross-ways to the line of flight, will ensure that it whips back as it touches ground, slightly beyond or within where the impotent bat waves, catching its edge and providing a straightforward catch or snaking in to tumble the wicket. Baseball fans often titter at the cricket bat, claiming that it can’t be too hard to get a hit using something the size of a barrel stave. Well, when you face a good, devious spin bowler, it will feel as if you’re batting with a drumstick.

For the mystery continues to deepen: there is spin—and spin. Spin away, spin towards—and spin towards that looks like away. And in case you think that cricket is a sport frozen in time and performed by professional re-enactors, consider the doosra.

The word is Urdu and it means “the second one.” A mere decade ago, the Pakistani bowler Saqlain Mushtaq, practitioner of the unglamorous art of off-spin (in which the ball usually kicks in towards right-handed batsmen) suddenly started taking wickets by the bagful when the ball, though apparently leaving his hand in the usual way, miraculously jinked away, snicking the bat and leaving an easy pouch. The trick involves twisting the wrist just before release, so that the hand’s back momentarily faces the batsman and the finger-spin is thus reversed. The commentator Tony Greig noticed that this happened every time the Pakistan wicket-keeper had called out “doosra.”

A name was born—and a controversy. Australian authorities claimed, with bad grace, that only sub-continental arms are flexible enough to bowl the doosra legally (that is, with a straight elbow). The Sri Lankan magician of spin, Muttiah Muralitharan, threatened to leave the game when his doosra was regularly ruled irregular by umpires. And England, currently the #1 team in Test cricket, crumbled ignominiously just this month before the baffling doosra of a smiling young man from Lahore, Saeed Ajmal. The great names of the sport sent down, one by one—not by some phenom’s golden arm, but by the impenetrable subtleties of the bouncing game.


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