A tale of two catches

ROHIT BRIJNATH

AUSTRALIA is relentless, England has relented. Two Tests have taken place and it is easy to close your eyes, sleep through a session and awake secure in the knowledge that England will be 6/56, or Australia 1/186. But even in this series of utter predictability, to doze off is to miss the fantastic.

1) Australia vs England, Adelaide, Day Four. Glenn McGrath catches Michael Vaughan off Shane Warne.

It was a hard one to classify, for when it happened, out of nowhere as these moments do, the heart gave a Beamonish leap and the mind paused in disbelief. Once, after a Greg Louganis dive, a similar question posed itself: did I really see that?

A day later, a TV channel abandoned objectivity and virtually claimed it as the Best Catch Ever Taken.

Overstatement, however, must not give way to understatement. To merely say that Glenn McGrath had run 30 metres and caught Michael Vaughan and leave it at that is to do the catcher and his act a disservice. Not so much to belittle him but fail to define him. A bit like saying Van Gogh woke up one day and painted some nice yellow flowers.

Before we get to the theatre, it is important to examine the actor for this was a well-cast catch. To have picked Ricky Ponting, for instance, to play the lead role would have substantially decreased the level of astonishment. Ponting has a job waiting at the Bolshoi Ballet, such moments of imaginative, athletic beauty are not foreign to him.

But McGrath? McGrath has been built from Lego pieces, he is a triumph of basic mechanics. You can almost see him being assembled before a day's play, bolting himself together, oiling his joints, aligning his sights. When he runs he is as poetic as a piston, as graceful as a stilt walker chasing a thief.

Meanwhile, the scene is set. England has momentarily ceased its collective hara-kiri, though for them death through a fallen wicket never comes fast enough to prevent dishonour. Australia is simmering, edgy, impatient for a wicket as the rain clouds hover in amusement, and McGrath, like most fast bowlers, is dozing at the boundary with his eyes open.

Then a violent swipe from Vaughan balloons the ball and he is running.

Warne is watching, Waugh is watching, Australia is watching, a nation open-mouthed and still, no one daring to exhale as if it would upset the fine balance of this moment, yet everyone unanimous in their thought process: bloody McGrath will never catch this.

Ten metres from the ball, bloody McGrath knows himself he is not going to catch this. He's not going to run and get under it. The ball has descended too sharply, arrived too fast, and he is not there. Prayer is one option but to dive is better.

Tall men rarely dive as much as they collapse, as if their limbs have suddenly been disassembled, but McGrath launches himself rather stylishly, a bit like those old swimming racing dives where we were taught, wrongly, to hit the water flat.

Parallel to the ground this is a flight of hope, an airborne prostration in search of a miracle. And it comes. The ball hits him, on the left hand, and it gently arcs into his right. As simple and as impossible as that. McGrath says his thanks in the air, he lands incredulous, and rises in exultation.

This is just a catch and it is not.

It is a message that will leave England and India and Pakistan and every watching cricketing nation flattened. Is there anything these Australians cannot do? They know more ways than professional interrogators to break the spirit.

It was a fluke and it wasn't. It was miracle that it dropped in his hand but it was desire that drove McGrath to get there in time. In effect it was a powerful, evocative statement of commitment, to his cap, to his captain, to a fellow bowler and to himself.

Australia is playing a game the rest of the world does not understand.

2) Adelaide. Day one. Justin Langer catches Michael Vaughan off Andy Bichel. Catch is disallowed.

Funny thing about catches. Just the simple act of grasping a ball in flight (or not) can result in a debate on trust, a chest-beating treatise on cricket's depleted spirit, a discussion on the impotency of technology, and a condemnation of umpires.

On 19, Michael Vaughan sliced a ball, Justin Langer leapt forward to scoop it up, the Australians celebrated but Vaughan was as convinced as a mother told that her only son is a crook.

Vaughan did not budge. This did not please Langer or the Australians who were certain that the catch was clean. That a building crane would not have moved them in similar circumstances is an entirely different matter, of course. The matter was referred to the third umpire who took longer than a babu signing a tax file to confirm that he could not confirm Vaughan was out.

That day, and for the next two, Langer insisted Vaughan should have taken his word for it and walked. The Australian is a decent, earnest fellow, who once wrote in his column that he would run through a brick wall for Steve Waugh. This might partially explain why he had momentarily lost his mind.

Players are always claiming catches off the pad, thigh guard, forearm and flapping shirt sleeve, not to mention appealing for lbws from square leg, and it is about 50 years too late to talk about trust in sport. Cricket's script is written not by Hans Christian Andersen these days but by James Ellroy. A few overs later Bichel appealed for a caught and bowled chance that had patently bounced a foot or so in front of him.

Vaughan anyway was being pragmatic. Batsmen don't walk because of a simple truth: technology lies almost as often as politicians. Umpires, whose flaws are constantly highlighted, see no virtue in trusting their eye and opt for the safety of technology. But cameras have their limitations as Tony Greig proved last year.

In Sri Lanka, the morning after a similarly disputed incident in a Test versus England, he replicated the catch. But though he put his fingers under the ball, from some angles it was still inconclusive. Furthermore, if four camera angles are clear, but the fifth is not, the third umpire tends to err on the side of excessive caution. In short, rarely is the batsman out.

Waugh, never short of an idea, suggested batsmen should take the fielder's word and walk, but that if technology confirmed the dismissal he should be allowed to return at the fall of the next wicket. Others simply want catches to return to the umpire's domain.

The ICC, if awake, would do well to take note. Either restrict the influence of technology or make sure it's fool-proof. You'd think, of course, in a time when probes are sent to Mars, surely man can invent a technology that proves whether cricketers are honest or not.

Vaughan went on to make 177. Next innings he was caught brilliantly by McGrath. Men make history in strange ways.