Marco Jansen’s narrow, two-metre frame is slumped. His lissom limbs hang abject, crumpled. It’s not his baggy cable-knit sweater forcing his back to arch and his knees to bow, but something unseen. It’s the realisation of what he has just done. Marco Jansen has just dropped a catch.
In a Test match, in front of a full 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 hands up to his once chiselled but now somehow sallow, sunken features. He rubs his brow and fixes his eyes to the ground, imploring the turf to swallow him up, begging the blades of grass to scythe him into tiny pieces.
Kagiso Rabada, Jansen’s teammate and the wronged bowler, stands at the end of his follow through and surveys the sorry scene in the slips. His face blank but also written with a thousand simultaneous emotions. Rabada has delivered exactly what was expected of him with his very first delivery.
He has bowled a fast ball that has shaped across the left-handed Alex Lees and tempted the England opener into fencing his bat in non-committal fashion. The ball has kissed the edge of Lees’s blade and travelled at a comfortable height and speed to Jansen at fourth slip, where a split-second misjudgment or tiny loss of concentration sees the ball hit him on the wrists and deflect to the floor a few yards behind his tumbling frame.
Hours earlier Jansen had led his team from the field, the ball firmly in his clutches as he raised it, shyly, to the stands. A souvenir of his Test-best bowling figures, five wickets for 35 runs, that had helped haul his side back into contention in the series-deciding third Test.
What Jansen would give to go back to that earlier hour, or even back to the distant land of 20 seconds ago, to get another chance, put it all right. But he can’t. He has to live with it. The drop. The shame and the embarrassment gurgling in the pit of his stomach, the white-hot surging guilt that he has let himself and more painfully his teammates down. Their initial gasps of shock and cursing betray them even if now they’ve settled into torturous leaden silence, broken only by the jeers of the crowd and eventually hollow, consolatory platitudes.
The disappointment clings to Jansen like a shroud. Some element of it will stay with him forever. Etched in his psyche, felt in his bones. The agony of a dropped catch can never fully be forgotten.
Cricket and failure are familiar bedfellows but there’s a particular kind of griping wretchedness that accompanies a spilled chance. It’s the worst feeling to endure on a cricket field. Forget embarrassingly expensive, wide, no-ball or boundary-blighted overs as a bowler. The ignominy of a golden duck or the heartbreak of a dismissal on 99 for a batter, a dropped catch is the worst. Don’t just take my word for it.
The cricket writer Jon Hotten is also a (very) keen amateur cricketer. Well, batter. In his latest book, Bat, Ball and Field – the Elements of
Cricket, Hotten holds court beautifully on all aspects of the game. Batting is the thing that does it for him though. You only need look at the split of the book with the meatier first half dedicated to all things willow (including an interlude on “bat names”, of which Hotten is an aficionado/tragic student ) before a slightly slimmer section on the ball and bowling leads into a tellingly slim section on the field.
“The best place to put a duffer is mid-on,” was WG Grace’s take on “hiding” less able fielders. Hotten has spent thousands of overs in his playing career camped just there. “For most of the years I have played I have hated fielding, it was simply the trade off with the chance to bat” he confesses. “It was usually boring and tiring, but with an edge of terror too, a fear and loathing of a mistake and how it will make you feel.”
He describes dropping a catch as a “hollowing out of the spirit”. It’s a perfect, description. Beautiful and desolate.
Anyone that has ever played the game for any length of time will be familiar with the feeling. If you aren’t then you are either incredibly lucky, unfathomably good or still in denial, blaming the hedgerows, a passing bird, an ill-timed car horn, foggy contact lenses … anything.
The thing is, a drop can happen at any time, often without rhyme or reason, that’s what makes them so galling. They might plague the worst but they can also afflict the best.
Mark Waugh is regarded as one of the finest catchers the game has ever seen, his hands a Fort Knox made flesh, especially at his favoured position of second slip. To pace or spin, Waugh made catching look easy, relaxing, fun. “Don’t try and catch the ball, let the ball catch you,” he was fond of saying. Waugh is fifth on the list for the number of all-time Test catches – his 181 successful grabs coming in considerably fewer games than the four men placed above him.
Waugh once dropped three straightforward chances on the same day. As Australia tried to press for victory in a Test against Pakistan in 2002, Waugh’s magnetic fingers turned to margarine. Each drop chipped away at his usually granite confidence, and by the time the third had been spilt, Waugh cut a forlorn, confused figure. The drops didn’t cost Australia the game – they won regardless – but they seemingly took their toll on Waugh, who played only two more Tests.
Drops are hard to shake off; they linger, ferment. Maybe that’s what did for Waugh. The day of drops clanging away in his mind, a sign that the eyes or reflexes are finally on the wane? Maybe. Maybe not. But I bet Waugh remembers those three that got away as well or better than any of the 181 he took.
Some dropped catches sound down generations and become part of the game’s folklore, recalled easily with just a few words. Mike Gatting squinting at the Chennai sun in 1993; Herschelle Gibbs’ 1999 World Cup clanger; Shane Warne shelling Kevin Pietersen at the Oval in 2005; Walter Robbins’ spilling of The Don in the 1936-37 Ashes – “Don’t give it a thought, Walter. You’ve probably cost us the Ashes,” his captain, Gubby Allen, comforted afterwards.
Dropped catches swirl and stain, they blot and blemish. Perversely, they stick. Sometimes forever. Sorry Marco.