When the best shot is no shot
What's the most difficult shot in cricket?
Probably the on drive, where you need to hit straight but slightly off your natural line. Close, but no cigar. The hardest shot is not even a shot; it's the leave.
I realised this many years too late to save a dwindling career in Claremont's lower thirds. In those days every ball had to be hit, and blocked only when you'd run out of breath after two successive quick singles. Leaving was left to wides that were out of reach.
Against an attack as disciplined as England's (aside from that first session at the Wanderers last Thursday), the leave is an essential part of a batsman's armoury. Stuart Broad & Co are like cricket's enchanting Sirens, luring the other side's batsmen onto the rocks with late swing and seam, and bounce. Odysseus might have had a plan to counter them; whoever the Proteas' batting coach is didn't.
It was the leave that undid some of our best batsmen in the first three Tests against England. Not that it would have saved Hashim Amla (an elegant leaver) at the Wanderers on Saturday, but poor Temba Bavuma did pick the right line to leave, then got his pads in the way and deflected the ball onto his stumps. The leave can be a bugger.
Mostly the leave is confined to first-class and Test cricket - and to players who can really bat, unlike those in the lower thirds.
The first thing about the leave, according to the experts, is "knowing where your off stump is". My teammates and I knew only that it was somewhere behind us.
Once you have a good idea of where the off stump is planted, you can focus on the moving part of the game: the ball.
Jacques Kallis once told me how Desmond Haynes, a former Western Province teammate, had taught him and other laaities in the team how to "watch the seam". As someone who struggled to merely see the ball, "watching the seam" was in the realm of the arcane. Somewhere on YouTube is an 11-minute compilation of Kallis's leaves. Perhaps the Proteas can find it and watch it; he was one of the best leavers in Test cricket.
There's also an irony to the leave. It's hardest to play early in an innings when you need it the most. It gets easier the more your confidence grows and the longer you stay at the crease. Not that I would know.
It's the frontline batsman's foxhole; it might not win battles, but will save his life while waiting for the barrage to lift and the bad balls to come (as they surely must).
Coaches will tell you that an ability to leave demonstrates a batsman's awareness and confidence that the ball will not threaten his stumps. It also requires an iron will to resist your natural instinct, which briefly deserted Dean Elgar as he perished on Saturday.
The trouble with the leave is that no batsman has ever scored off it, so it will test patience while waiting for the balls that can be hit for runs. That's why patience is the batting partner of the leave. The Proteas lacked it on Saturday, and so did their fans. Both now require that virtue - in very different ways.
Just a world of caution on the leave: beware the ball that cuts back!