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Turning the tables - Gatting’s ball of the century

(This article was written for CricBuzz by Telford Vice)

Mike Gatting stood at the top of his run last week and delivered what someone in the watching crowd called the ball of the century. They were careful not to mention Shane Warne, nor which century. Perhaps the eighth, when not a lot of cricket would have been played.

Gatting's effort had darted directly down the pitch and past a flailing bat ... bowled him! Just like Warne did to Gatting at Old Trafford on June 4, 1993 with the most celebrated leg break in the annals of the game.

Famously, it flew towards Gatting on the line of middle stump, hooked legside through the air to pitch in the rough 30 or so centimetres outside leg, spat leftward with wicked turn, and nailed the top of off stump. It looked more like the work of an ice-blooded assassin than what it was: Warne's first delivery in an Ashes Test.

All that connected his ball of the century with Gatting's infinitely more modest offering was that both involved a ball. Not if you ask 'Gat'. "Missed a straight one, just like me," he quipped about his victim's fate, to chuckles all around.

Anything resembling a cricket ground was a long way down. We were in Cape Town at the top of Table Mountain, which is not nearly as flat as it looks in scenic views broadcast from Newlands. Good luck finding a space up there big and level enough to serve as an oval and that isn't formed entirely of unforgiving sandstone and haphazardly sprouted with legally protected indigenous flora called fynbos.

But playing what most of us would recognise as cricket wasn't the point of the exercise. Nobody can play cricket on Table Mountain but almost everybody can play table cricket almost anywhere, which was the point of the exercise.

Developed and facilitated by the Lord's Taverners, the cricket charity founded in 1950, table cricket offers the physically and mentally challenged the chance to imbibe some of the spirit of cricket as it is more often played. It's enjoyed by 8,700 children in 500 schools in England, where the finals are at Lord's, and has also been established in Ireland, India and South Africa.

A netless table tennis table fitted with a firm boundary on three sides serves as the ground. The bowler delivers by rolling the miniature ball - which is either weighted to veer sideward, like a lawn bowl, or unweighted - down a ramp toward a batter armed with a small bat.

The boundary is marked with designated scoring zones and bristles with movable shields manipulated by the fielding team. Hit the ball to a part of the boundary marked "4" or "6" and you score four or six. But should one of the fielders - teams comprise six players - slide the middle of their shield in front of the ball to intercept it before it reaches the boundary, you're out caught.

Should your stroke hit a shield toward its sides, you've not added to your score. There are no stumps but, should you miss the ball, you've been bowled.

Gatting, a Lord's Taverners trustee, was in Cape Town to raise awareness and funds for the organisation. Their programme featured two games of conventional cricket and their party included David Gower. It was in that cause that Gatting and Gower went up the mountain and faced each other across the table - though it was commentator Jeremy Fredericks who was done by demon bowler Gatting.

It's easy to accept Gatting as thoroughly human, and not only because he was proved mortal by Warne. As a Test player he was the epitome of grit and gumption with not a lot of thought given to matters of style and elegance. Getting the job done was the thing. Less so how he looked getting the job done.

That wasn't the way Gower played cricket: metaphorically, in a tuxedo with a butler stationed at short leg stoically bearing a tray of G&Ts. He was class, right down to his pink socks. He had style. He had elegance. He didn't always get the job done, but for many that hardly mattered.

Putting Gatting in the same frame as people who know life's larger struggles up close and personal isn't difficult. But Gower, who glided through the game on imported air?

Gower admitted to Cricbuzz that there was a "gulf between people who've been very lucky to be fit, able, talented and enjoy the game at the highest level" and "those who can play, those who think they can play, who definitely can't play, those who have no ability but love watching". Importantly, he had room on his list for "kids who are physically unable to do anything active, so you can rule out cricket, tennis; all those games".

“But sit them round a table like this ... when you see them playing, the competitive urges come through, the smiles, the emotions, the tears. It gives them a very realistic chance of understanding some of the emotion of it all - getting some of the benefit and just enjoying the competition. The finals is an enormous, noisy, clattering day of hundreds of kids playing, wanting to win but building all the other things that we love about the game - a sense of camaraderie and team spirit, playing together, backing each other up. It's an extraordinary thing."

Cricket isn't good at being inclusive, even for those considered able-bodied. The skills required are diabolically ill-suited to how human bodies and minds prefer to do things. Stand side-on to the approaching bowler, squint over your front shoulder, curb your instinct to swing laterally, and poke your inverted elbow upward when driving; land with your foot parallel to the bowling crease but deliver, with a stiff elbow, the ball 90 degrees perpendicular in another direction even as your body hurtles down the pitch; catch a small, hard leather missile using only your bare hands; don't think your time wasted if neither team win; don't dare do any of the above should rain start falling.

Most aficionados' idea of a cricketer is someone male and athletic in the ordinary sense. The amount of time and effort the commentators and even the players devoted to exclaiming how amazed they were that 86,174 people turned out for the women's T20 World Cup final at the MCG on Sunday was evidence enough of that. Nobody went on in that fashion when 93,013 arrived to watch the men's 2015 World Cup final at the same ground.

When men play, mass adulation is taken for granted; even expected. When women play, they should be grateful for any attention they get. That Mitchell Starc returned home early from South Africa to watch his spouse, Alyssa Healy, in action in the final was among the biggest pre-final headlines.

If talented, skilled, able-bodied women have to fight for their share of a spotlight focused sharply on the uber-male, what chance do the differently abled among us stand of being accepted as cricketers? The Lord's Taverners are trying to change the answer to that question, even if they have to resort to some of those uber-males to validate their efforts.

But it can only help if David Gower thinks you're extraordinary.


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