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Leaving the Front Door Open: celebrating the strange beauty of shouldering arms

This piece was originally published in The Nightwatchman, Wisden's quarterly cricket journal

What makes cricket unique from other sports? Any fan could reel off an extensive list of distinctive traits: the number of formats, the variety of roles in a team, the fact you can play for five days and not get a result, and so on. The thing is, most of these have been written about and discussed during on-air rain breaks so often that it’s a wonder poor Aggers hasn’t snapped, and metamorphosed from an avuncular radio host into a demented nutter re-enacting Michael Douglas’s role from Falling Down, rampaging through the Lord’s media centre. But buried under all the well-trodden tropes, clichés and corridors of uncertainty are a few facets that never seem to get the attention they deserve, and one of them just happens to be my favourite sight in cricket, if not the whole of sport.

I’m talking about those delicious rare occasions when a batsman willingly chooses to leave a ball and thrusts his bat ostentatiously in the air away from a delivery, as he elects not to offer a shot. He’s proclaiming to the bowler – and to the thousands of fans at the ground and to the millions watching and listening across the world – that he knows his wicket is so safe he can leave it totally undefended. And then he hears it behind him: the death rattle. It’s all over so quickly, and the batsman is fooled so utterly, that he’s invariably left frozen in his ill-judged stance, looking simultaneously elegant and ludicrous, long after his wicket has been clattered and splattered across the pitch. There is no action more joyous for spectators (if you’re supporting the bowling side, that is), and so here is a heartfelt and overdue paean to being clean bowled shouldering arms.

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And it’s the “shouldering arms” that’s the crucial ingredient here, the spice that makes these moments zing. True, it’s always satisfying when the ball hits the stumps, but for our purposes here we can discount all those dismissals when a batsman is just “done for pace” or plays down the wrong line. Instead, there should be a special place reserved in statistical heaven for all the times when a bowler has conned his opponent into taking his bat out of harm’s way, and taking himself out of the equation for that innings. And this is because it’s all about deception. At the highest level, cricket is a game of subtleties, nuances and millimetres played by consummate professionals, so it’s astonishing that such intricacies should provoke occasions when a player is duped into committing such a spectacular act of cricket suicide. These instances are too delicious not to record: someone should invent a new symbol for it in scorebooks. (There’s probably an emoji combination that would do the trick nicely: over to you, MCC.)

People who don’t get cricket – for the sake of argument, let’s call them Americans – might happily try to understand the game, but in my experience even when they do learn the rules they’re almost always swiftly befuddled by how boring it all seems. Especially five-day Test matches, which can involve the batsman just letting the ball go past him time after stultifying time. “Where’s the fun in that?” they’ll cry. I’m not saying that my nameless American friend doesn’t have the inklings of a point. As you’re reading this, you’re presumably a cricket devotee. Yet, even so, you’ll admit that sometimes a Test session can be so dull it gnaws at your very soul and has you distractedly googling “T20 Blast fixtures” to see some actual action.

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But after watching cricket for 27 years, I’ve come to realise how much I actually enjoy these calms before the storms – when a bowler is probing away at fourth or fifth stump and the batsman is judging the line of each delivery, tactically allowing certain balls to whistle past him with bat brandished high like an executioner waiting to bring down his axe. For the fan it’s all about the wait – for that precious split-second when the batsman gets it wrong. With such a mix of anticipation and an end-product, it’s a wonder these dismissals aren’t sponsored by Guinness. It can take hours of dot balls or even whole matches before we get the pleasure of seeing a player flamboyantly, fatally fooled into giving his wicket away in this most thrilling fashion. But that’s all part of the secret. To quote those great philosophers Beavis and Butthead, you need the bits that suck to make the bits that rock rock harder.

Do any other sports have anything even nearly comparable to offer fans who want to see professional players look so comprehensively outwitted, and indeed plain silly? Well, perhaps a few come close. In tennis there’s the magic of a lob: when Andy Murray’s defending his baseline against a giant like John Isner prowling at the net, he can send the ball up into the sky over and beyond his opponent, who may calculate that the shot is heading out and opt not to chase back, only to turn around and watch the ball plop artfully inside the court. These are tasty moments but – unless it happens on match-point – this won’t be a fatal blow like for our poor miscalculating batsmen.

What about boxing? The noble art of pugilism allows fighters to drop their guard, somewhat akin to a batsman’s decision to shoulder arms. This can certainly backfire with cataclysmic effect if they’re not careful. But while a cricketer makes the decision primarily for defence, a boxer’s intent (if it’s not just the result of exhaustion) is usually to goad his adversary into making an attack. However, like tennis lobs, these moments usually turn out to be fleeting and relatively inconsequential ones in the fight, and so lack the significance and the sheer drama that we’re looking for.

Football has a couple of contenders for ultra-satisfying deception. Just this summer there was Hal Robson-Kanu scoring for Wales by sending the whole Belgian defence the wrong way with a Cruyff turn. In fact, soccer has plenty of juicy lobs just like in tennis, which make poor goalkeepers look like complete idiots. Some players have been able to torture goalies even more harshly by executing a “Panenka” penalty kick, named after the Czech Antonin Panenka who trademarked the idea in the 1976 Euros. (You might have seen Andrea Pirlo do this to Joe Hart for Italy against England: it’s when a penalty-taker strikes the ball unexpectedly gently, sending it calmly into the middle of the goal once the keeper has already dived excruciatingly out of the way.) The closest relative to this in cricket isn’t shouldering arms, though, but the “slower ball” – as famed victims like Chris Read would (perhaps reluctantly) attest.

But enough eulogising about the theory of all this. What about the practice? Are there any particularly fine purveyors of this uncommon cricketing delicacy? And has anyone been made to look more silly than most? Perhaps you’re wracking your brains already as you read this. While an exhaustive list might not actually exist for these golden moments, here are a few suggestions for inaugural inductees to a very special Hall of Fame/Shame (delete as applicable).

Ben Hilfenhaus never had the fear factor of McGrath or Anderson, but in the right conditions he could be quietly lethal and in the 2009 Ashes Test at Lord’s he sent down a beauty to do for Andrew Strauss. The England captain had a century to his name at the end of day one but, with just the next morning’s second delivery, his imperiousness evaporated as Hilfenhaus produced a ball that hooped around Strauss’s front leg and careered onto his off stump. To conjure magic like this having barely stepped onto the field is rare, and for the travelling fans it was sumptuous. Similarly, South Africa’s spinner Paul Harris – never famed for turning the ball sideways – in the December 2009 Test at Centurion still somehow managed to bewitch Ian Bell so utterly that the middle-order stalwart opted to leave a straight one, his eyes watching the ball not so much clip the off bail as smack calamitously into the heart of middle stump: another batsman’s brain mesmerised, his wicket marmalised.

So far that’s two England heroes embarrassed. Can anyone redress the balance for the Three Lions? Well, for starters there’s Andrew Flintoff, who was a transformed man when he had an Aussie in pads standing 22 yards away in the heat of an Ashes battle. Freddie has given us not one but three cast-iron classics of the genre: in 2005 he knocked over Simon Katich at Old Trafford, firing in one of those “heavy-ball” round-the-wicket bombs laced with reverse swing that so often took Adam Gilchrist’s edge that summer. By lifting his arms, Katich’s instincts will have been telling him not to take the fast bowler’s bait. Instead, a blink and a horizontal off stump later, he was taking an early bath. Four years later, in a famous Ashes victory at Lord’s, Flintoff created similar havoc twice as he scented blood. Of the two, the Nathan Hauritz dismissal is the more aesthetically pleasing, as Freddie used the slope to arc the ball into the wicket before Hauritz used the momentum from his front-foot movement to start his walk off the pitch. In contrast, the removal of “Mr Cricket” Mike Hussey was plain brutal: the speed gun registered 95.1mph; the bat seemed frightened to go near the ball; the stumps had no such luxury. To rub salt into the Aussie’s wounds, Graham Onions produced a similar 90mph snorter in the next match at Edgbaston, sending Hussey back to the pavilion for the most nightmarish of golden ducks.

Still, you can keep all of these. For if there’s such a thing as the perfect shouldering arms dismissal, at least captured on camera, it belongs to Simon Jones. Dealt such a cruel hand by the injury gods, in his sadly curtailed career the Glamorgan paceman still produced the most satisfying moment of cricket I’ve ever seen, when he outwitted Michael Clarke in the same Old Trafford 2005 match that saw Flintoff account for Katich. Watch it back on DVD and you’ll see Jones not just run up to the wicket but prowl, effusing the pugnacity of a middleweight boxer. At the time England were hunting down Australian wickets to take an unlikely 2-1 lead in the series, while Ricky Ponting was performing heroics at the other end in a 156 that helped save the day for the Baggy Greens. Jones had a knack of getting directly in line with the stumps as he bowled, but his release propelled the ball at 90mph from a starting-point a good foot further away to the off side. For any batsman to face this must have been hell. In the replay you can see that, while Jones wheels round to celebrate and as the off stump is rolling smoothly towards leg slip, Clarke is still standing there frozen, stock still, maintaining his textbook “leave” pose to the soundtrack of a full-throated Manchester roar in the midst of the most epic of all Test series. It’s poetry.

There is one person who might not agree – Clarke himself – and the decorated ex-Aussie skipper would have good reason not to see the funny side. Because the Jones dismissal wasn’t a one-off. Clarke did it again against James Franklin (v New Zealand) in the 2007 World Cup. And again to Danish Kaneria, playing Pakistan in Hobart (2010). And again facing Umar Gul (in a return match at Lord’s also in 2010). In these few tiny moments his wonderfully natural grace as a batsman is turned completely against him, leaving him not just castled but comical too. With this unfortunate record, Michael Clarke surely receives the dubious plaudit as cricket’s king of being bowled shouldering arms.

If all this panegyric has whetted your appetite for more shouldering-arms bliss, all we can do is wait. Unlike other landmarks in the game such as hat-tricks and double-centuries, it’s the fact that these occasions are less celebrated that makes me hanker after them all the more. It’s taken almost three decades to realise it but it turns out that, for me, the sweetest moments in cricket are when someone does nothing at all.

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