I look down and absent-mindedly take my guard. "Middle," I shout to the umpire at the bowler's end, a man who seems so much further away than the twenty-two yards I know lie between the two sets of stumps. I'm not even looking at him. I'm looking at the guard-mark of the batsman before me, a deep groove in the popping crease, a grave dug with every bat that graced this dreaded spot before my own. Right now it seems more like a chasm, a void waiting to swallow me up as the toe of my bat falls into it. The umpire makes no sound, merely acknowledges the validity of my guard with a swift nod. A nod that also signals to the bowler behind him that the opening salvo may be launched.
The bowler stares at me. His eyes should be fixed on where he plans to pitch the ball, but they're not. They're penetrating my own gaze, boring down into the depths of my very soul, trying to seek out my weakness, the ball that will find its way between bat and pad and into the stumps, or that will kiss the edge of my bat before nestling comfortably into the hands of a fielder. This is not a sport. This is a war of attrition, a battle of endurance that will not end until one of us irreparably falters.
He is the first to break the locked gaze between us. Whether that's an indicator of things to come I cannot say, cannot even ponder. His left foot springs up from the grass beneath it, the first step of his delivery stride. With ever-quickening, inexorable pace he approaches me, passes his bowling marker, then the umpire, then the stumps. His arms cartwheel over one another in a blurred windmill, a cavalcade of motion from which I know the red orb I need to track will soon emerge.
Sure enough, it appears. From the bowler's hand to my position, it can't take the ball more than a second to cover its ground. I see it, lose it, see it again, my eyes seemingly in control of my body as its yields to the ball's flight path. Every movement is instinctive. I have no idea what my body is doing.
...except, I know exactly what I'm doing. With split-second timing my eyes have read the ball's trajectory, predicted where it will land in a clairvoyant rush. My eyes, mind and body are coercing in unison, each link in the chain dictating the actions of the next. My left foot moves forward with a confident stride, and meets the predicted pitch of the ball. My arms bring the bat forward to meet it, a gliding motion so effortless that I barely feel the meeting of leather and willow. The next time I consciously see the ball, it's racing unimpeded between two fielders towards the cover boundary. My legs begin to run, but my elated mind knows it's unnecessary. The umpire's arm begins to move back and forth across his body, cutting the air in exaggerated sweeping motions.