Running-Out the Bicentenery


Roger Harper was unusual for a West Indies Test Bowler in the Eighties: despite being 6’5″ and athletic with it, he was a spin bowler. And a decent one too, if statistics are your measure. Though he only took 46 wickets in his Test career, his average was greater than the legendary West Indian spinner, Lance Gibbs, and he would surely have taken more if he’d not been playing in the era of four quicks, when his was primarily used to bottle up an end whilst one of the pacemen took a breather.

Harper did not bowl in any classical style, running in from an angle and, as he hit the crease, leaping in the air as he brought his bowling arm over in a massive, wheeling arc, from behind the small of his back, his hand at delivery near enough eight feet off the ground and landing the ball on impossible lengths.

But, like such legendary names as Colin Bland and Jonty Rhodes, Roger Harper was best known for his fielding. For such a tall man, he was incredibly fast and limber, and his reactions were fast beyond belief. In one Test against England, when he was fielding at a widish gulley to a left-handed batsman, the ball was hit, fast and uppish, over his head. I say over his head: it was way over the head of any normal fielder and four all the way from leaving the bat. But Harper, from a standing position, leapt straight up, like an Apollo space mission launching from Florida only faster, and caught the ball one-handed, his arm stretched ramrod straight above his head.

Having only ever been out once through no fault of my own, I know the sickening feeling of hitting the ball clean, sweet and unstoppable, only to see it caught, and have an innings of promise ended abruptly. Roger Harper did that to a lot of people.

The one we all remember took place in the MCC Bi-Centenery match, at Lords in 1987, between the MCC and the Rest of the World. I was not there to see this, so this is not an I Was There in the usual manner. But I’m reminded of it because of today’s Guardian feature in their ‘Joy of Six’ series, which offers up six moments of stunning fielding, and which doesn’t include this.

MCC, batting first, were rolling along nicely at 254-3, the current England captain, Graham Gooch, having already scored a century and looking booked in at 117 not out. Harper bowled: Gooch came a couple of paces down the wicket and drove the ball, flat and hard and very straight. It might have hit the non-striker’s wicket, it might have missed it and shot through for another four, for this was one of those classical straight drives that would have run to the boundary in a matter of seconds.

And Gooch was already relaxing and slowing his forward momentum, reckoning in absolute confidence that he would not need to run. And he would have been right with any other bowler in the World, let alone the Rest of it.

But because of Harper’s unusual action, he did not fall as far away to the left as an off-spinner would normally have done, and because of the speed of his reactions he had assessed the shot Gooch was shaping to play and had stopped himself on the popping crease. And when Gooch played the shot, Harper moved, back and across, bending his 6’5″ body to drop his right hand into the path of the ball, a speeding ball with tremendous impetus, to grasp it in his hand brushing the turf and in one fluid, unchecked movement, straighten up with the hand rising above shoulder height, turning the momentum of the ball into an instant response and hurling the ball back down the wicket, spearing towards Gooch’s stumps.

Gooch was well-set. He had 117 runs already and looked good for another hundred on top. He was in his pomp. He’d hit a four, no two ways about it, until in an instant of shock he saw Harper reaching for the ball, and a shitload of panic dropped into his head out of a cloudless sky, because he was two yards out of his grounds and was suddenly as vulnerable as Smaug the dragon after Bilbo spotted the chink in his armour. The pace of the ball was such that he had no earthly chance of regaining those two yards. All he could do in the time he had to save himself was to turn back towards the wicket, and even then Harper was too fast and Gooch could only go sideways and start to fall.

Maybe it was a primitive urge for safety, perhaps if he fell across the path of the ball and blocked its path he would be safe (except from the inevitable appeal for obstructing the wicket that would have immediately followed). No doubt it came from the safe place as the instinctive move, six years later, at Old Trafford, that made Gooch swing at a delivery falling onto his stumps and swat it away with his hand, incurring dismissal for handling the ball.

Whatever it was, it didn’t work. Harper was just too fast. The ball flew under Gooch’s frame, smashing the wickets, leaving him kneeling in submission.

As I said, I wasn’t there to see it. Instead, I saw it on the News: an on-field moment in an essentially friendly game of Cricket, picked out and given its own spot on the nightly national News. These were the old days, the BBC days, where one fixed camera was used, from one end, and every other over the batsman’s stance saw his facing away and the bowler running towards the viewer, and anything that happened in front of the wicket was invisible: thankfully, we had at least progressed to a second camera point, at the other end, if only for replays from a startlingly different angle.

It was unbelievable to see. If I’d been there at Lords, as I would be six years later, at Old Trafford when Shane Warne bowled the Ball of the Century, I doubt I would have truly understood what it was I would have seen until I saw it on TV. It was fast, too fast for instant comprehension. Sometimes it’s like that.

I’ve seen that run-out many times since, studied each component of it. We don’t get to see that in real life, can’t replay time to let us truly see what we have seen. And it didn’t make the list: inconceivable.

So, for once I wasn’t there. But if I had been…

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