The long minutes at fine-leg feel like hours. Kicking his heels, tugging at his sleeves, brushing his studs across the clipped grass. Behind him the stands are a riot of colour and song, of bouncing beach balls and idle chatter and the rustle and rumble of punters to and from the bar. Trent Boult sees none of this, hears none of this. He does not walk in with the bowler. The ball is not hit towards him. All he can do is patrol this little parcel of exile, playing the game in his mind, ticking down the seconds until he can bowl again.
There are days when it takes a few overs for Boult to discover his rhythm. Short-form cricket is easier in this regard. The first couple of overs with the white new ball: that’s the game, right there. It swings or it doesn’t, you get the breakthrough or you don’t, and everything else is simply varying degrees of defence. But in a Test match you need to probe and experiment. Find out what this ball is capable of. Locate the right length on this pitch. In these conditions. Against these batters.
Then there are days like Fridayyesterday, when the red new ball is swinging and England are swinging and the blood is pumping and the game simply is, like a song with no intro. If batting is analogous to the cycle of existence and death, then bowling is more akin to the miracle of fertilisation and birth.
The odds of success are infinitesimal, and yet still you keep trying and failing, swimming against the indomitable tide, striving for the prize of life itself. This is why – mentally speaking – batters end their careers drawn and empty, while bowlers get stronger and stronger. Batters are constantly dying. Bowlers are constantly being reborn.
In his first over Boult bowled five balls at Alex Lees. One was left alone. One was edged and dropped at slip. Two were played and missed. The fifth curved away like a falling star, past a groping straight bat, removing the off-bail with all the delicacy of a human hand. That’s your team talk, your electrolyte drink and your warmup, right there. England are coming for Boult, Boult is coming for England, and there is a not a moment to lose.
But first, he waits. He grabs a drink from the icebox and gulps down a few mouthfuls. A member of the crowd hands him a miniature bat and a normal-sized pen and he signs it without thinking. A member of the New Zealand backroom staff appears on the boundary edge and Boult talks to him animatedly, aggressively, pointing and gesticulating. From a distance you would swear they were having an argument. Finally – finally – the over is over. Boult can bowl again.
At which point, the athlete and the architect intersect. Boult runs straight to his mark, handing his cap and sunglasses to Michael Bracewell to avoid wasting valuable yards on a detour to the umpire. The field is arranged with a painter’s precision. Fourth slip, you go to square leg. No, squarer. Mid-wicket will come in five yards. When everything is set, Boult draws in his mind’s eye a straight white line from the ball in his hands, along his run-up, down the pitch, past the batter, and into the gloves of Tom Blundell behind the stumps. It’s a drill he has relied on ever since he was a boy. Think straight. Run straight. Bowl straight.
The one thing you really notice about Boult in the flesh is his speed. Not the speed of the ball, but his speed along the ground. Television doesn’t really capture the way he bursts from a standing start to a full sprint in the time of a blink. The strides are short and to the point. There’s a blur of red as his coloured rubber soles churn the turf. Unlike most fast bowlers, there is almost no vertical leap to speak of. Every fibre in his body is pointing straight ahead: speed, momentum, economy. It may or may not surprise you to learn that Boult’s bowling idol is Wasim Akram.
Nobody is in the mood for hanging around. But then this is exactly how Boult likes it: a capacity crowd, the batters lining him up, a cloud on a string and a ball in his hand. He is equally good in all forms of the game, and this was perhaps the purest synthesis of his art: red-ball magic in a white-ball furnace. Ollie Pope is demolished by another big inswinger. Zak Crawley, who has spent the entire series being taunted by Boult’s wobble-seamer, drives airily and loses his middle stump.
In between balls Boult talks to himself, slaps the side of his head, carves out imaginary angles with his hands, as if the game itself is being generated entirely in his mind.
In a way it is. By the time he finally takes his leave he has bowled eight overs and cleaned up England’s entire top three.
It’s one of the greatest opening spells this ground has ever seen, and it went for 43 runs. And so he collects his cap and sunglasses and returns to fine leg, waiting to be born again.