The ball punches the pitch, and cracks into Graeme Smith who seems to react only as the ball leaves him. It loops up slowly and the crowd make noise accordingly. It is just off the pad. Not out. It is the first ball Smith faces from Mitchell Johnson.
There is not much time to think between the ball leaving Johnson’s hand and the batsman having to deal with it. It is like a camera flash, or a political back-flip.
You can have a plan, you can think it through, but the ball just comes out of his hand and you react. There are some batsmen who revel in that. See ball, hit ball.
Not enough time for clear rational thought. There is not enough time to think about past deliveries, or history, it just happens.
A full ball that that should never have damaged anyone, but spat up and took the left massive hand of Smith. His hand disappeared like he had been zapped by a ray gun. For a second Smith was lost, the pain confused him, he was walking around in a circle towards point. And only then did he eventually find the culprit, which had gone off to fine leg to allow him to get off strike. But the damage was done, and he would only come back into to bat at No. 11, with a broken hand.
There is a bowling machine that players have used to try and learn the mystery and tricks of certain players, the Pro Batter. You can face Morne Morkel, Lasith Malinga or even Mitchell Johnson.
But you can’t program it with superhuman confidence. You can’t give it artificial menace. And you can’t play against it like it is a real force of nature. It is a computer game with real elements. Nothing more. All you can do is try and pick up a few tricks that you hope the next time you play will come in handy.
South Africa have used the Pro Batter, they have also faced Johnson at his old best. They should know how to play him. Smith has faced him more than most. They have survived him at the WACA, after he took 8 for 61, they milked him on their chase beyond 400 to win, they have played him ten times. They know him.
Well, they knew the old him. This new one is relentless and brutal, like a zombie girl group, or a current affairs reporter. This Mitchell is worse and better than anything that can be made with CGI or the old model.
Off the ground, looking at point, one hand off the bat, the right hand protecting his throat and being smashed into the bat handle. That is how Smith found himself as he just tried to survive a delivery. The ball did not take his wicket, he did end up in hospital.
Smith is respected all over the world. He has scored almost 10,000 Test runs. He has done that at almost an average of 50. He has 27 Test centuries. He is the captain and leader of the world’s best Test team.
Smith is South Africa’s top order monolith. Strong, calm and reliable. The young warrior who took over the side and pushed them higher than they had ever been. All with a bottom handed technique that makes even his best shots look like a solid uppercut.
His place in the world of cricket is safe and secure, and he could retire tomorrow and be remembered for decades.
In nine Tests he has been dismissed by Johnson five times and sent to hospital twice. Today Johnson tried to do both in one ball.
The ball leaves the pitch with a mission to break the jaw or eye socket of Smith. There is no time. There is nowhere to hide. There is no way out. Smith can ever be hit in the face, or try and play the ball. His body is doing in one direction, his face another. His bat is jerking upwards not like a cricket shot, but like he is fending off a surprise Pterodactyl attack. The ball hits the bat, more by pure chance than design. The ball flies high, and all of the slips, (there are a few, but it seems like hundreds), arch their necks up at once, and watch it float behind them. Shaun Marsh chases, and chases, while the batsmen easily cross, and at the last minute he reaches the ball to barely take the catch.
Graeme Smith faced two balls from Mitchell Johnson today.