The agony of a dropped catch in cricket causes “a hollowing out of the spirit.”

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By Creative Media News

The thin, two-meter frame of Marco Jansen is slouched. His limbs are drooping and folded. Something unseen is causing his back to arch and knees to stoop, not his baggy cable-knit sweater. This is the realization of what he just did. Just now, Marco Jansen has dropped a catch.

In front of a packed house at the Oval, off the very first ball of England’s final innings, with the game on the line. He raises one of his hubcap-sized palms to his previously chiseled but now sallow, sunken face. He scratches his forehead and fixes his gaze on the ground, pleading with the turf to consume him, and begs the grass blades to shred him to bits.

The agony of a dropped catch in cricket causes "a hollowing out of the spirit. "
The agony of a dropped catch in cricket causes "a hollowing out of the spirit. "

Kagiso Rabada, Jansen’s teammate and the wronged bowler, pauses after his follow-through and examines the depressing scene in the slips. His face was blank but simultaneously etched with a multitude of emotions. With his very first delivery, Rabada has produced just what was promised.

He has bowled a quick ball that has formed across the left-handed Alex Lees and enticed the England opener to play a defensive stroke. The ball grazes the edge of Lees’s bat and travels at a comfortable height and pace to Jansen at fourth slip, where a split-second miscalculation or slight lapse in focus causes the ball to strike him on the wrists and divert a few yards behind his sliding body.

Earlier in the day, Jansen led his team off the field with the ball in his hands as he timidly hoisted it to the fans. A memento commemorating his greatest bowling figures in a Test, five wickets for 35 runs, which helped bring his team back into the series-deciding third Test.

The agony of a dropped catch in cricket causes "a hollowing out of the spirit. "
The agony of a dropped catch in cricket causes "a hollowing out of the spirit. "

Jansen would give anything to return to that previous hour, or even to the distant realm of 20 seconds ago, to have another chance and make things right. However, he cannot. He must learn to accept it. The fall. The shame and disgust gurgling in the pit of his stomach, the white-hot rising guilt that he has disappointed himself and, more painfully, his teammates. Their initial screams of shock and profanity betray them, even though they have now settled into a terrible leaden stillness, broken only by the jeers of the crowd and, finally, empty, consoling platitudes.

Jansen’s dissatisfaction clings to him like a cloud. Some aspects will remain with him forever. Inscribed in his mind and felt in his bones. The pain of a missed catch can never be completely forgotten.

Cricket and failure are common bedfellows, but a squandered opportunity is accompanied by a specific kind of griping misery. It is the worst feeling a cricket player can experience. As a bowler, forget expensive, wide, no-ball, or boundary-plagued overs. A dropped catch is worse than the disgrace of a golden duck or the anguish of dismissal on 99 for a batter. Do not simply accept my word for it.

Jon Hotten, the cricket writer, is also a (very) avid amateur cricketer. Well, batter. In his most recent book, Bat, Ball, and Field – the Elements of Cricket, Hotten write eloquently about all facets of the sport. Batting, however, is what he enjoys the most. The first half of the book is devoted to all things willow (including an interlude on “bat names,” of which Hotten is an aficionado/tragic student), followed by a somewhat thinner section on the ball and bowling, which is followed by a tellingly thinner portion on the field.

The greatest area to “hide” less capable fielders, according to WG Grace, is in the middle of the field. Hotten has camped there for thousands of overs during his playing career. “For the majority of my playing career, I despised fielding; it was the price I paid for the opportunity to bat,” he admits. “It was typically monotonous and exhausting, but also tinged with horror, a fear and hatred of making a mistake and how it will make you feel.”

He describes dropping a catch as a “spiritual hollowing” It is a flawless description. Beautiful and lonesome.

Anyone who has played the game for any length of time will recognize the sensation. If you aren’t, you are either tremendously fortunate, unfathomably talented, or in denial, blaming the hedgerows, a passing bird, a car honk, cloudy contact lenses, or anything else.

The fact that drops can occur at any time, frequently without rhyme or reason, is what makes them so irritating. They are capable of afflicting both the worst and the best.

Mark Waugh is recognized as one of the greatest catchers the game has ever seen, especially at his preferred position of second slip, where his hands are like Fort Knox made of flesh. To pace or spin, Waugh made catching appear simple, calm, and enjoyable. He was fond of saying, “Let the ball catch you, rather than trying to catch it.” Waugh is ranked fifth on the list of all-time Test catches, with 181 successful catches in much fewer games than the four men ranked above him.

Waugh once missed three simple opportunities on the same day. In 2002, when Australia attempted to win a Test against Pakistan, Waugh’s magnetic fingertips melted to margarine. Each drop eroded his normally unshakeable confidence, and by the time the third had been spilled, Waugh cut a pitiful, bewildered figure. The drops didn’t lose Australia the game – they won nevertheless – but they appeared to take a toll on Waugh, who played in only one more Test after this one.

It is difficult to shake off drops; they stay and ferment. Perhaps this was the final straw for Waugh. The day of drops clanging away in his thoughts, a warning that his eyesight or reflexes are deteriorating? Maybe. Maybe not. But I’m willing to wager that Waugh remembers those three fugitives as well as or better than any of the 181 he captured.

Some dropped catches become part of the game’s legend and are easily remembered with just a few words. Mike Gatting squinting in the Chennai sun in 1993; Herschelle Gibbs’ 1999 World Cup blunder; Shane Warne bowling Kevin Pietersen at the Oval in 2005; Walter Robbins leaking The Don in the 1936-37 Ashes – “Don’t worry about it, Walter. His captain, Gubby Allen, consoled him, “You’ve probably cost us the Ashes.

They swirl and smear, blot and blemish when dropped. Inversely, they adhere. Sometimes forever. Apologies to Marco.

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