One end was cricket, the other was Steve Smith

There’s a complete lack of anxiety. No pre-cocking of the wrist, the robotic front arm is gone and the follow-through happens because of…

There’s a complete lack of anxiety. No pre-cocking of the wrist, the robotic front arm is gone and the follow-through happens because of momentum, not a reminder. Because of all this, the ball drifts in, and there’s turn, not much, nor vicious, there’s no fizz or savagery, but enough on a friendly surface to make me look like a spinner. These are the days I was actually not a bad bowler.

And they’re rare. Often I focused on every single movement of my body so much that the actual skill of spin bowling, the speed, angle and delivery of the ball is an afterthought. My best way to get into this zone was to run through the crease faster than usual and hope to forget about all the other stuff.

But when it worked, I bowled like a proper spinner, like they do on the TV. Thinking my way through spells, keeping a step ahead, looking for technical or behavioural deficiencies and putting together a decent spell.

There’s no data on my mental state, and probably not much on my actual career, but my guess is I got into this leg spinning dream state once every 15 spells.

One day playing cricket for Barnes I was in this kind of zone. I only have two good plans as a legspinner, the two sharply spun leg breaks followed by the straight one that still drifts in and the wrong’ un that gently turns back in after several leggies outside off. This day I took wickets with both plans, meaning the fear and loathing of my wrist isn’t stopping me from bowling well.

With two for few, an exposed lower middle order, I would generally have felt comfortable. But one batsman is familiar to me.

My first game in the UK I bowled two overs to him, he’s so memorable, floppy hat, incredible posture, gentle disposition and endless grace. My overs were nothing like that, they were close to the worst two of my life. So he chipped it around an 80 without too many problems. He had this ability to hit every ball the exact amount of force he needed to.

The next time we played it was on a big turning quick pitch in Wembley. I need the quickness of the wicket, because I’m slow, so this was a near-perfect wicket for me. Against most of their batsmen, there was beating the bat rather than taking wickets, but they couldn’t get me away. I wasn’t at my best, but the ball is coming out. But then there’s this guy again, in organic light-emitting diodes of loveliness compared to my bourbon soaked napkin drawn scribble.

He’s an older West Indian, I think Bajan, who had played a proper level of cricket a long time ago and now enjoying himself in the lower middle regions of the Middlesex league. He was probably in his 50s, but he’d seen real leg spinners, and even though he’d slowed down, he was steps ahead of me. If I tried to plan something, he was reading the blueprints. He knew more about what I was doing than I did. He only made 60 odd to win the game that day.

But when I got him at Wembley, on a pitch that suited me with my bowling ghouls locked in the cellar, this was my time. I tried three legspinners, two from close to the stumps and one from out wide. And found the middle of the bat. I mixed up fields, he liked to flick to leg, so I tried two catching mid wickets, he split the difference. I bowled everything at off stump, with a very straight field making him across me, and he did, whenever he wanted to get off strike. I tried all three of my wrong’ uns, the very obvious one that bounces a lot, the less obvious one that spins a bit and the finger wrong’ un that Abdul Qadir bowled and I learnt from watching super-slow motion of Anil Kumble. The first one hit him on the glove, but there were no close fielders because he had already moved them. The second he read off the pitch and turned for one like he knew like he’d seen a simulation of the ball before me bowling it. The last one thoroughly beat him, he looked confused and had to jam down. This was my moment, I’d done him, and all he would do was use the inside of his bat to square leg and get off strike.

When he got a good ball, he’d give a compliment, nut more often he’s coaching me. And it wasn’t psychological stuff to get in my head, the first two times I bowled to him he was trying to guide me technically. This last game it’s all about tactics. He was giving information on his own technical limitations and how to get him. And the more I listened, the closer I got. Eventually I had him dropped at slip when he bowled from consistently wide of the crease on a middle stump line. But even then he used soft hands, the ball went low, and he’d made it hard enough that it’s barely a chance. I wasn’t good enough to dismiss him when he was on my side.

He was so much better than me, he’s better than me 20 years past his best and near mine, he must be over 60 now, and I doubt I could get him out if I was anywhere near my prime. Bowling to him was like trying to catch a teacher that’s now a ghost. He was full of praise and good ideas, but I didn’t have the ghostbuster tools you need.

And it’s ok, I understand I am not that good, I’ve had enough experience in many sports. In basketball, I once had to play on a six-foot seven small forward who was off to play college ball because my teammates said I was the only one who could keep up with him. I could keep up with him, just not up near him. When I moved clubs in Melbourne, I had to bowl to my captain-coach in a practice match to see what team I’d end up in. He hit me for five consecutive sixes and then a four (I think to make me feel better). In tennis, I played one guy who served at around 190kph and his second served kicked like a hugely athletic mule. There was no way to return him, you just waited for the four points to have another go at serving and hoped he mishit four of his seven returns.

Though perhaps my first and most brutal example was playing school Australian Rules when I was 11. My position was full-forward, and with a huge wind blowing the ball straight down at me. In the first five minutes, I kicked two goals. They were possibly the best five minutes of footy I ever played. The opposition moved their best player on me, he’s this fat ginger kid, roughly my height, but nowhere near as athletic. But I wasn’t fooled, because everyone knew who this bloke was.

But even though it’s clear he’s better at footy than me, I was faster, and I used that against him. A ball’s kicked out to the flank, and I ran as fast as I could straight to the ball, and just as I was about to grab it, this freckled arm knocked the ball away. I hesitated for a moment, almost in shock, he collected the ball, so I began to chase as he ran off. I caught up. But he just changed his angle, shrugged me off, and then as I launched for my tackle he wasn’t there, and I ended up on the ground. He kicked the ball down the field, then ran down with it, got on the end of it, and kicked the goal. I don’t know how many goals Lance Whitnall (an All Australian by the age of 21) kicked that day, it was more than six, and less than 12. I kicked two, the two I had before I saw him.

There is something weird about sharing the field with someone this much better than you. That feeling of there is nothing you can do, there is complete hopelessness to it, you’re not even going through the numbers, you’re just there, like a crash test dummy. Sure, you try new tactics; you be the best you can be, work harder, but they just are better, there is a point where that wears down everyone. The mega-talented, the hard workers, the guys who never give up, they can do all they can, because it’s like bouncing a rubber ball against the wall. The wall always wins. The wall will always win.

Anyway, at one stage today, instead of taking the new ball, England used the old ball and bowl off-spin from both ends. Because Matthew Wade — who was already well set — has a bit of a weakness against it. Australia had lost four wickets, and England were targeting Wade like he’s a number ten, almost entirely uninterested in getting the wicket at the other end. Or maybe they weren’t but it just looked that way because it wasn’t real cricket at the other end, it wasn’t a contest between bat and ball.

One end was cricket, the other was Steve Smith.