FINEST CRICKET STROKES
Updated: Apr 9, 2021
Some strokes, when executed correctly, are inherently more aesthetic and pleasing on the eye than others. Quite why this should be so has always fascinated me and for the life of me I am at a loss to explain why. Surely any stroke that is played with technical perfection ought to get the purists purring; after all anything that is perfect ought to be pleasing on the eye. Then of course, we bump up against the old adage, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” That is to say that one man’s perception of what constitutes an ideal can differ remarkably from that of another. Take paintings of beautiful women. What would be your number 1? The Rokeby Venus by Velazquez? Botticelli’s Rise of Venus? Leonardo’s Mona Lisa? Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring? Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe? Immediately, dispassionate debate goes out of the window. Different images appeal to different people. To say nothing of changing styles and tastes and techniques down the centuries.
And yet there is something about an elegant stroke that elicits what I can no better describe than a purr of appreciation from watching spectators. Those who have witnessed it readily acknowledge that such a stroke from a master of his craft is worth the price of the entrance fee – even in the batsman is dismissed next ball. It’s the same in any sport, I guess. A single piece of skill, a moment of magic, an outrageous show of pure genius can make all the dross that has gone before, and is likely to go after, worth the wait. Take a sublime touch by Lionel Messi or a rolled backhand down the line by Roger Federer or a dummy and a pass by Finn Russell – they all make grown men go weak at the knees.
Part of the allure is the timing. In fact, it could be argued that all of the allure is the timing. A beautiful stroke must look effortless, as if the batsman has merely leaned on the ball to send it scurrying to the boundary. The best players seem to have time, more than those less gifted. It has been calculated that a batsman has 0.4 of a second to react to a ball delivered at 90 mph. In truth, most batsmen do not react at all; speaking from personal experience, I can guarantee that most of us just guessed what to do, and that guess usually incorporated another age-old adage – get back and across, staying sideways on (smaller target) and play it from there. Not pretty, not particularly effective, but if you watched the ball - really watched it - you had a good chance of surviving and not getting hit.
However, I am not talking about survival at the crease but dominance, in the form of fine strokeplay. If I shut my eyes, I can picture a particular batsman unfurling a shot for which he is celebrated: a Graveney cover drive; a Boycott on drive; a Bell late cut; a Greenidge square cut. Yet there are other strokes, not all of them run-scoring, the defensive shots, that are of equal importance. They are just as aesthetically pleasing because they are perfectly executed, a piece of technical excellence in their own right. What I have done is select the best exemplar of each stroke – some of them well-known – in order to break down the mechanics of the action and to explore how human motion and skill, when combined, can produce a snapshot of natural grace and beauty.
THE COVER DRIVE
Wally Hammond Sydney, 1928
The cover drive is traditionally held up as the most elegant of all strokes. There is something about the front foot movement towards the ball, in itself an aggressive action, and the free flow of the bat, head poised and eyes following the direction of the ball, that encapsulates all that is beautiful about the art of batsmanship. Spectators, even team-mates and opponents, used to wax lyrical about Tom Graveney’s cover drive. I never witnessed one in the flesh but I saw plenty of them on television. He was essentially a front-foot player – unusual in Test cricket – and used to enjoy using his long reach to get to the pitch of the ball. How did he cope with the short ball fired in at the body to force him back into his crease? That did not seem to worry him or restrict him. He was quite capable – and often did – of hooking off the front foot. Like all the great batsmen, he was able to adapt. Because he preferred to play off the front foot did not mean that he could not play off the back foot.
However, I have resisted choosing a Graveney cover drive for examination and gone for instead this famous photo of Wally Hammond batting in Sydney in 1928. It was Hammond’s misfortune to be a contemporary of Donald Bradman. It was most English cricketers’ misfortune to be a contemporary of Donald Bradman. For Hammond was undoubtedly one of England’s greatest players. He scored 22 Test hundreds (including seven doubles), a feat only recently surpassed by Alistair Cook in 2012. If we exclude Bradman’s Test average of 99.94 (which you always have to do when making comparisons), the next highest in the averages (excluding those currently playing) is Graeme Pollock, with 60.97. Hammond comes in slightly lower, with a Test average of 58.75. He also took 87 wickets with his quick seamers, and would undoubtedly have taken more had he not been, a little like Jacques Kallis, a less than enthusiastic bowler. In addition, he was a peerless slip fielder.
Enough of detail. By all accounts, he was particularly strong on the offside, his cover driving being a thing of grace and grandeur. This photo says it all. The powerful frame is delicately balanced on the toes of both feet. The folds of the shirt cannot hide the broad shoulders and the powerful forearms. The head is perfectly positioned over the front foot, the eyes follow the direction of the ball and the follow through of the bat ends up in the classical position, alongside the left ear. It is difficult to imagine a more perfect stroke, technically correct in all respects. What separates it from other similar shots is the power caught by the camera in that split second. You can almost hear the crack of the ball off the middle of the bat. You just know that it has gone for four. Yet the effort expended is minimal. The force of the shot lies in its timing. He won’t overbalance; his back foot – or rather his toes – will remain behind the crease. You can imagine him holding the pose for a second or two. No need to run. Just remain still and urge the bowler to look…..and marvel.
It is said that the great Australian left-hander of a more recent vintage, Neil Harvey, pinned this photo onto his bedroom wall. There were those who contended that Harvey’s cover driving lost nothing in comparison to that of Hammond’s.
It was said of Hammond, a notorious ladies man, that he had an appetite for runs and an eye for beauty. One of his team-mates wittily turned this round to read, ‘an eye for runs and appetite for beauty’. Whatever he got up to off the field of play, he was greatly admired for the grace and elegance at the wicket. “Of lovely, athletic build, light as a ballet dancer on his feet, always beautifully balanced, he was the outstanding batsman between the Wars. His game was based on driving and nobody was his peer when it came to the cover drive.” When such praise drops from the lips of your fiercest opponent – in this case Donald Bradman – you must be something.
THE FORWARD DEFENSIVE
Steve Waugh during his innings of 152* at Lord’s in 1989
When I was playing professionally, the club used to organise Easter coaching for schoolchildren. All the counties did the same so I doubt that the format of these coaching sessions differed greatly, one to the other. I remember distinctly three things about these courses: it was always bitterly cold; the overseas players always contrived to pitch up after Easter; the days in the nets followed the same rigid model year after year. On Day 1, you would see 15 pros teaching the forward defensive to more or less attentive pupils right the way along 15 nets. On Day 2, it would be the backward defensive. It was not until well into the week that anything like an attacking stroke would be sighted.
I am sure that coaching methods have been improved and refined over the years. I certainly hope so. The ball is there to be hit and youngsters should be encouraged to do so. You’re not going to score many runs if your instinct, honed after Easter coaching from the pros, is first and foremost defence.
For all that, a correct defensive technique is central to any innings. Not every ball can be dispatched to the boundary. (I’m ignoring T20 here. Great fun though it might be, that’s not proper cricket. I was chatting to Barry Richards – one who incidentally, never turned up for Easter coaching – and he was passing comment in T20: “Jeez, all you’ve got to do today,” he said, “is coach boys to clear their front foot out of the way and slog!) Back to the forward defensive, a stroke never seen in T20. In the longer forms of the game, where crease occupation is of the essence, a watertight technique when playing defensively is crucial. Even more so when playing on the sub-continent, the ball is spinning and fielders are lurking nearby, like birds of prey, ready to pounce.
The exemplar I have selected is taken during Steve Waugh’s innings of 152* at Lord’s in 1989. The wicket-keeper is Jack Russell and as he is standing up to the stumps, the bowler can only be John Emburey. (Incidentally, in that match, which England lost heavily, Emburey was batting at No. 7. A mighty long tail!). The whole point of the stroke is to get far enough forward to smother the spin. I think we can take it that Waugh is stretching as far as he possibly can. However, he has not overbalanced. His head is perfectly poised, right over his front foot. His hands, and therefore his bat, are a little bit in advance of his eyes; I can only guess, as there is no sight of the ball, that the shutter clicked on the camera a fraction of a second after the impact – a vey soft impact, needless to say – of the ball on the bat. Waugh has gently eased the ball a yard or two down the pitch.
Two points to note. The bottom hand remains behind the line of eye and top hand. In other words, he has not pushed at the ball; he has let the ball come onto him. Also, he has not let his back foot drag. Not that he has any intention of letting the ball penetrate his defence but, just in case……
This was the series in which the young Steve Waugh announced himself on the world stage. He scored 506 runs at an extraordinary average of 126.50. Clearly he had more shots in his locker than the forward defensive.
And just look at Dickie Bird at square leg! Nowadays, umpires don’t even bother to look out for stumpings. The decision always goes upstairs for DRS to get in on the act
THE BACKWARD DEFENSIVE
Ted Dexter at Sabina Park, Kingston, Jamaica, 1960
Day 2 of Easter nets at Southampton. It was time to teach the backward defensive. Back and across, sideways on, head, bat, ball and back foot all in a perpendicular line. Nothing could be easier. Except it never was. Young boys would square up or topple over to the off side. When the stroke was finally executed to the coach’s satisfaction, it always seemed to me to be a forced movement, clumsy and awkward. In the end, I – and a few others – would simply encourage him to give the ball a whack and enjoy himself. This never met with the coach’s approval. “No slogging!” he would shout irritably.
Nevertheless, we all have been forced onto the back foot to defend our wicket, to say nothing of our person, when confronted by the short ball aimed at the body sometime during an innings. It might seem incongruous that I have chosen a shot of Ted Dexter playing this stroke, a defensive stroke, when he was regarded as the most destructive attacking batsmen of his era. It just goes to show that even Lord Ted on occasions was forced to defend his lordly personage with all the technical excellence at his disposal. The scene is the third Test between West Indies and England at Kingston, Jamaica, in 1960. What a team England had: Cowdrey, May, Barrington, Dexter and MJK Smith to bat and Trueman and Statham to open the bowling. Mind you, West Indies had a few stars of their own: Hunte, Kanhai, Sobers and Nurse to bat and Hall, Watson, Sobers and Ramadhin to bowl.
Dexter had need of his defensive technique in this innings. Wes Hall was bowling at a ferocious pace on a Sabina Park pitch baked hard by a hot sun. Hall had his tail up too. He took 7-69 that day and only a century from Colin Cowdrey saved England from collapse. Dexter was caught behind for 25. Yet an unimpressive innings produced an iconic image of his backward defensive. The moment the camera clicked caught the ball as if it were glued to the bat face. In every respect, Dexter is following the orthodox precepts of the shot, as if it were straight out of the MCC coaching manual. Or used as an example on Day 2 of Easter nets. As always with a perfectly executed stroke, balance is key. Dexter is up on the toes of his back foot, neither overbalancing to the off side nor shying away to leg. Head, hands and ball once more form a perpendicular line. There is beauty in the symmetry of bat, body and ball, almost statuesque in its clean lines.
There is something else to be admired. These were the days before helmets when West Indian pitches were the fastest in the world. It takes courage to face up to a fast bowler of Hall’s pace and aggression. Dexter has trusted his technique to keep himself from harm. ‘Get behind the line of the ball!’ has been the cry of coaches down the ages in the face of fast bowling. Easily said, not so easily done. Lord Ted never shirked the challenge of taking on the quicks.
THE FORCING SHOT OFF THE BACK FOOT
Barry Richards at Southampton
Enough of defensive strokes! I could have used Barry Richards as my model for every shot in the book (and some that are not) for he was the most classically correct of any batsman I have ever seen. Who was the greatest batsman of our generation? The answer was unequivocally Richards, Barry that is, not Viv. This is not simply favouritism, because he played for Hampshire. Thus was the verdict of everybody who either played with or against him. That is not to beliitle the record of the West Indian Richards, whose Test match average of 50.1 speaks for itself. The fact that Barry played only four Tests before South Africa was banned and thereby consigned to ply his trade in relative obscurity around provincial theatres far away from the bright lights of the West End, should not be allowed to obscure his genius.
As in any artistic pursuit – and in these little essays, I am endeavouring to uncover the artistry of batting – you have to know the rules before you break them. Picasso learnt at an early age the rudimentary lessons of composition, balance, unity and perspective before he began to experiment with form, giving rise to his better-known works of cubism and surrealism. Barry Richards had learnt through hours upon hours of practice when he was a boy how to perfect his technique. Analyse any shot, then leaf through the MCC coaching manual and there you will see it, given life in the middle. Secure in his technique, he then felt confident to extemporise, which he often did, to the exasperation of the bowler (and sometimes his team-mates). Often he would do it for fun, for the sheer joy of it. Not for him the tedious business of grinding out a hundred in the manner of a Geoff Boycott. He saw himself as an entertainer; he liked to show off his skills.
Nobody ever saw Barry Richards play an ugly shot. Sometimes, when he was bored – and let’s face it, he had a short attention span – he would amuse himself by attempting the impossible and would pay the price. Succeed or fail, it was always a thing of extravagant beauty. Professional cricketers rarely watch each other play. Sitting on the balcony studying the action would usually be no more than a couple of the team, probably the next two men in. But whenever Barry was batting, the balcony or the viewing area would be full. None of us wanted to miss a genius at work.
Of the full range of shots he played, I have selected this one, for two reasons. First, the forcing shot off the back foot (sometimes called the drive off the back foot) is technically perfect. Secondly, it is such a poised, elegant, graceful even, movement. The pose could be sculpted and mounted on a plinth in a museum and people, not necessarily cricketers, could look and admire.
Richards is balanced on the toes of his right foot. His back foot is barely touching the ground. Yet he is perfectly balanced. Imagine a plumb line running down vertically from his eyes, through his torso to his foot, the one on which his weight is balanced. The bat has been allowed a full swing but it remains very much part of the body, man and weapon working in sublime harmony. Two things to notice about his grip on the bat handle. The bottom hand is holding the handle loosely. Once again, the top hand is in control; the bottom hand has given assistance without taking over. There is also rubber visible below the bottom hand, not often seen even with the best of players. I asked him once why he held the bat at the top of the handle. “Longer levers,” he grinned, “Of course, if I had been using these railway sleepers they bat with these days, I wouldn’t have needed extra power in my shots.”
‘You don’t know what you’ve lost until it’s gone,’ sang Joni Mitchell. Staring at this photo makes me realise how lucky I was to be able to study Barry at close quarters.
THE LATE CUT
In an era of bigger bats and muscular hitting, the late cut could easily be said to live up to its name, except that I would therefore call it the late, great cut. However, there is one player of recent vintage, Ian Bell, who reminded us that the stroke still holds validity, both for its effectiveness and aesthetic appeal. It took a while for Bell’s Test career to become fully established, in the eyes of his critics, at least, and even then, there was a feeling in some quarters that he never achieved the level of greatness that his talent first hinted at. This always seemed a bit churlish to me; he ended up scoring over 7,000 Test runs, at an average of 45.00, which by any standards is nothing less than a pretty decent international career.
What nobody could deny was that he possessed the most correct technique of any modern day batsman. Any shot he unfurled could be held up to scrutiny and not found wanting. The late cut, a stroke so much out of favour these days as to be almost extinct, he employed to great effect, so delicate in touch and so poised in its execution that you almost sensed the grudging admiration in the fielding side. A meaty blow over the top or into the stands is a statement of defiance, intended to intimidate the bowler, just as a bouncer is intended to intimidate a batsman. The late cut, however, delivers defiance by stealth. The bowler stands there, hands on hips, his bemusement as apparent as his annoyance. He has just had his pocket picked and he is not very happy about it. In that split second before the stroke is played, the bowler is convinced the ball is about to hit the stumps and then suddenly, usually accompanied by a stifled howl of disbelief, the ball is trundling along to the third man boundary.
Compact and strong in physique, no more than 5 feet 10 inches in height, but nimble on his feet, Bell was better equipped to play the late cut than taller batsmen. The stroke is usually played to the spinners when the bounce of the ball is not above waist height. The late cut is rarely used against fast bowlers; the risk is disproportionate. It is not so easy to get on top of the ball – vital when playing this shot – and in any case, there is usually a clutch of slip fielders in the target area.
As ever, balance is crucial. Here, Bell has got his head over the ball and is not leaning back to give himself room, a frequent miscalculation in playing the shot. At the moment of impact, he has rolled his wrists so that the face of the bat is turning downwards, thus keeping the ball on the ground. If you do not do this, you run the risk of hitting it aerially in the direction of the fielder lurking just behind square on the off-side, where all spinners ought to post a sentinel. No need to put any power into the shot; the trick is to let the pace of the ball do all the hard work. You are merely re-directing it at an oblique angle to an unoccupied area of the field.
“Merely re-directing” makes it sound easy but it is not. The late cut requires nimble footwork, a keen eye, fine judgement, perfect timing and a certain insouciance, courage even, for if you miss it, the consequences are dire and the loss of face complete. However, successfully performed, no other stroke elicits such a contented ‘aagh!’ from the crowd. “Did you see that? The sheer cheek of it! That boy can bat, you know.” Funny how Bell was still thought of as a boy, even in the twilight of his career.
THE SQUARE CUT
The square cut, by contrast, is everything that the late cut isn’t. There is no more brutal stroke, savage in intention and ruthless in its execution, than the square cut. One can imagine it illustrated on Page 3 of the Legionary’s Handbook detailing the skill and practice of hand-to-hand fighting (which the Romans were rather good at) with the gladius, that short sword perfect for cutting, stabbing and slashing. A Roman foot soldier would recognise that familiar action and nod in approval. There is no coming back from that shot.
I should know. Cover point was my usual sentry position and the square cut was aimed at me. Nothing personal, I’m sure, but I seemed to have permanently bruised hands as a result. You might wonder why I have not chosen Gordon Greenidge, a former team-mate of mine, to model the shot, for there was none who hit the ball harder in that area. The reason is that Gordon hit every shot hard; the square cut was not necessarily a signature stroke of his. Instead, I have chosen another man of Hampshire, Robin Smith, whose square cutting was recognisably his.
The cut is played to a short ball outside off stump. Any stray delivery in line and length must be punished; failure to do so results in a small moral victory for the bowler. Immediately, pressure is relieved. The imperatives of line and length are no longer quite so imperative. He can relax, in the knowledge that the odd, loose delivery will not get the treatment it deserves. The batsman on the other hand really cannot look a gift horse in the mouth. If he can’t score off this loose delivery, where are his runs going to come from?
The square cut is usually – but not always – played off the back foot but paradoxically, in playing the shot, the weight is transferred at the moment of impact from the back foot onto the front foot, in order to give it impetus, to add power, to hit through the ball, rather than merely redirecting it. Of course timing comes into it but extra power is generated by this weight shift. This can clearly be seen in this photo of Smith. He has gone onto the back foot but is leaning forward. In the next split second, his whole weight will end up on his front foot, as if ready to run – though I doubt there will be much need. If the batsman is leaning back at the moment of impact, the ball will go in the air. From the direction his eyes are looking, I imagine the ball has been smashed into the ground five or ten yards in front of him and is already bouncing like a Barnes Wallis bomb through the covers. And just look at those powerful shoulders. Strength and technique in perfect synergy.
THE OFF DRIVE
The scene was the Sydney Cricket Ground on the first day of the Fourth Test between Australia and India on 6th January 2004. My son William was on his gap year acting as a Pommie at Geelong Grammar School. My wife and I were visiting him, taking in a day at the Test whilst holidaying in Sydney. The series was locked at 1-1 and this first day of the final Test was pivotal. In the event, the match was drawn and the series finished all square. That did not matter. That was in the future. This was a tense and keenly contested opening skirmish of a fascinating encounter. Some draws are every bit as nerve-shredding as any close victory.
India won the toss and batted. The opening stand was worth 123 runs. Then they lost two quick wickets. Sachin Tendulkar waddled to the wicket. Perhaps ‘waddled’ is an unkind epithet for India’s finest but those big pads he wore always looked a size or two too big. For once the Little Master had not had it all his own way in this series. In short, he was out of nick and uncharacteristically lacking in confidence. What followed was one of the most riveting passages of play I have witnessed in a Test match. Or, if you were an increasingly bored and steadily more intoxicated Aussie fan – in other words, most of the crowd – you entertained yourself by chucking pints of lager over the poor sods in the lower tiers. I shut myself off from these drunken antics and immersed myself in the titanic struggle that was taking place out there in the middle.
The Australian attack, comprising Brett Lee, Jason Gillespie, Nathan Bracken and Stuart MacGill, threw everything they had, including the kitchen sink, at the out-of-form Tendulkar. The Aussies knew that if they got Tendulkar, they, in all probability, had got the entire Indian innings and the match and the series. The stakes were that high.
The reason that the Sydney crowd were bored and restless was, well, nothing was happening. Oh, but there was, if only they had eyes to see. Tendulkar was playing his way back to form. He eschewed every single cross-bat shot. He either left the ball alone if it was not on the stumps or, if it was straight, he hit it straight to mid-on or mid-off. He was ‘playing in the V’, he was ‘showing the maker’s name, he was ‘hitting the ball back in the direction from where it had come’. All these well-worn clichés lose nothing by their constant repetition. He was eliminating risk. He was playing the long game. He was wearing the bowlers down. He was ‘booking in for bed and breakfast’ (Boycott’s favourite phrase). He was going to be batting tomorrow, come hell or high water.
He played the off drive…… well, I wasn’t counting but it seemed to be two or three times an over. Straight to mid-off. No run. “Why doesn’t he hit it a bit squarer and find the gap?” complained an irate spectator behind me. The reason for that was obvious. Tendulkar, at this stage of his innings, out of touch and short of runs, did not want to open the face of the bat, even by just a fraction, thereby increasing the risk of edging it to an expectant ring of slip fielders. No. He was not going to be the first to blink. He had all day (and all tomorrow) to bat. India expected.
Perhaps it is because I saw the shot repeated so many times and thus it is fixed in my memory that I have chosen Sachin Tendulkar to illustrate how it should be played. In this photo you can clearly see those pads of his. I never liked them. They always looked cumbersome (they did not bend) even if they were light. One felt that the protection they offered (they were called Morrant Ultralite Leg Guards, by the way) was minimal and that bits of them could easily snap off, as if made of polystyrene. Evidently not, otherwise he wouldn’t have worn them. No doubt he had a hefty sponsorship deal in place.
He has taken a reasonable step forward to the pitch of the ball and met it with the full face of the bat. Once again, balance is key. His head is in line with the ball, perfectly poised, neither overbalancing nor falling away on the off side. The eyes are following the direction of the ball (you can just spot it above the capital ‘C’ of the advertising board, bouncing up off the pitch). Leading with the top hand, as you should, with the bottom hand gently pushing through the line of the ball, his defence is impregnable. You can see what I mean by showing the maker’s name. The image is too small to read the maker’s logo but you can be sure the Australian bowlers saw enough of it that day, so much so that they must have been heartily sick of the sight. All in all, a perfect shot.
Tendulkar walked off the pitch that evening on 73 not out. Job done. He had located his mojo. The next day, confidence and touch restored, he played all the shots and scored 241 – and the Australians still didn’t get him out.
THE ON DRIVE
Geoff Boycott scores his hundredth 100 at Headingley v Australia on 11th August 1977
All right, the stroke that brought Geoff Boycott’s landmark hundredth 100 was only off the gentle medium-pace of Greg Chappell but it was still beautifully executed, a model of its kind. Boycott was in a bubble of concentration that day in which he seemed destined to achieve that special milestone on his home ground, and against the Australians too. He was never going to get out and with typical Boycott patience and firmness of intent, he was not going to be denied.
For all the emotion surrounding the moment and how long he had waited for this half-volley, nothing can take away from the textbook correctness of this on drive. Many lesser players, even up to reasonable club standard, find the on drive the most difficult to play. For the pros, it is meat and drink. Once the ball strays onto middle and leg and is pitched up, it is simply a case of leaning on the ball and easing it wide of mid-on. The trick, as always, is balance. The lesser player will plonk his foot towards the ball and then find himself playing at it around his front pad, thus overbalancing towards the off. If he does get a bat on it, more than likely he will scoop it in the air.
In this shot, Boycott has avoided all those pitfalls. He has not planted his front foot at the ball; he has waited for the ball to come onto him. The front foot is alongside the pitch of the ball, not in line. Thus his pad does not get in the way. He has actually opened his shoulders, shifted his balance and is basically playing a straight drive, but wide of mid-on. His head is perfectly balanced. The left elbow is up, according to orthodoxy, so the top hand is leading the stroke, with the bottom hand coming through at the last second to add a bit of oomph. Not much, but enough for mid-on to give up the chase.
Cue pandemonium. The official gate that day at Headingley was 22,000 but observers reckoned there were more. Boycott was engulfed by his ecstatic supporters. Somebody nicked his cap. He refused to resume his innings until it had been returned. It took a full ten minutes before order was restored and the cap returned. What did Boycott the do? He took guard again.
THE PICK UP OFF THE HIP
There is no accepted name for this shot, hence the rather unwieldy description. I am not at all sure why this should be so. After all, there have been several strokes invented in recent years and they have all been given a name. The best player of this shot I have ever seen was a chap by the name of David Ottley. As a schoolboy, I played in the same club team as him, for Beddington CC in the Surrey League. He was the golden boy at the club, with a First-Class career surely beckoning him. Quite why this never happened has always been a mystery to me. He played eight times for Middlesex and then disappeared off the radar. But in club cricket, he was supreme. Tall and languid, his signature shot was to pick the ball off his hip and deposit it into the adjoining church graveyard. Elegance, timing, insouciance – they were all there in that one shot.
Greg Chappell played it a few times when he visited Southampton with the touring Australians in 1975. At cover point, I had an excellent view of his footwork. Just a little shuffle to position himself outside the line, then an effortless swivel of the hips as he picked up the ball to send it sailing over the square leg boundary into the car park. I forget who was bowling: I was thankful it wasn’t me.
Whilst writing my biography of Barry Richards, I contacted Greg Chappell for his opinions of Barry and his discourse was lengthy and generous. Early on in his career, he played two seasons for Somerset, in 1968 and 1969, in order to gain experience of batting in English conditions. He met with only moderate success, it has to be admitted, but the lessons he learned had a profound effect on his career. “When we played Hampshire,” he said, “I watched Barry very closely when he was batting. ‘Mate,’ I said to myself, ‘I’m going to have to learn how to play on the off-side like that bloke.’ You see, I was predominantly a leg-side player but you can’t get away with it in Test cricket only playing on one side.” True to his word, he adapted and thrived, as a Test average of 53.86 eloquently attests.
Some batsmen grind out their hundreds and crucial they can be to any team. Greg Chappell – so unlike his brother, Ian, in many ways – scored his runs with a grace and beauty that was hard to match. Nothing illustrates more the tall figure and languid arc of the bat than the shot pictured above – elegance personified.
Gordon Greenidge plays the hook off Norman Cowans during his innings of 223 for West Indies v England in the 4th Test at Old Trafford in 1984.
The hook is not about elegance. It is a statement of defiance, a stroke of dismissive brutality. The bowler has thrown down the gauntlet by delivering a short ball or a bouncer, intended to test the batsman’s courage and to introduce an element of doubt in his mind. The best way to avoid the bouncer – and to avoid getting more of the same medicine – is to smash it to the boundary. It takes a lot of effort to bowl fast. It takes more of an effort to bowl a bouncer. And if the immediate result is four runs, or even six, he might be less inclined thereafter to put in so much wasted effort.
All well and good, provided the batsman trusts his eye and his judgement, because if he misjudges the speed of the ball or the angle of bounce, he can suffer serious injury. In the days before helmets, every batsman had to ask himself this simple question before he had even strapped on his pads: to hook or not to hook? If he is unclear in his mind whether he should go for it or not, his indecisiveness will be picked up by the bowler and his mettle sorely tested.
Gordon Greenidge will never die wondering. Early on in his career, he was criticised for a certain hot-headedness in his batting but quickly he learned that the only way to catch the attention of the West Indies selectors was to post big scores, very big scores, in the following day’s papers. Thereafter, he became a little more judicious in his shot selection. Notwithstanding, the short ball was always deserving of the full treatment and the crack of bat on ball would reverberate around the ground. In some ways, this was extraordinary, for he was essentially a front-foot player, but his speed of movement meant that he was able to shift his weight onto his back foot and balance himself in time to be in control of the shot.
Correct strokeplay is always executed on the balls of the feet. Here, Greenidge is on tiptoe, in perfect balance, with head and foot forming a perpendicular line. The power in those shoulders and forearms is plain to see. Gordon spent a lot of time on the physio’s bench whilst he was at Hampshire. There was not a muscle he hadn’t pulled at some point. We always believed that was because he had more muscles than anybody else, so obviously there were more muscles to pull. He was an extraordinarily strongly built man. Nobody hit the ball harder, in my experience.
He had a habit – God knows why – of raising his left knee high when he played the pull or the hook. I am not sure that it added anything to the shot but it made for dramatic images. Note, he is not wearing a helmet, even though, by 1984, they were in full use, and Norman Cowans was no slouch as a fast bowler. I have no idea what inner demons afflicted Gordon, for he was, I always thought, a troubled soul, but he gave no hint of any self-doubt with a bat in his hand. Nobody can hit me, the wearing of the West Indies cap seems to be proclaiming, and nobody ever did. On the head at least.
Joe Root batting at the MCG in December 2017 against Australia.
The sweep shot, when played correctly and judiciously, is an effective tool to employ against the spinner. As soon as the bowler strays leg-side, the stroke is an effective and relatively safe means of gathering runs and getting rid of those pesky short-legs hovering for a bat-pad catch. Or that used to be the theory anyway. Nowadays, fielders at short-leg wear so much body armour, to say nothing of the helmets, that they can remain in situ come what may. Time was when the batsman played a few hoicks on the leg-side, the close fielders in attendance would be withdrawn for their own safety but today, like so many things about the game since the introduction of the helmet, it is very different.
Of the modern players, Joe Root plays the shot as well as anyone. He is very possibly the finest player of spin bowling in the world, quite something when you consider he is a Yorkshireman, born in Sheffield, a world away from the turning pitches of the sub-continent. But there, Root is a special talent with an all-round game that may well in the course of time accord him the accolade of England’s greatest post-War batsman.
He maintains the he employs the sweep depending on the line of the ball. There are those who maintain (Roger Tolchard springs to mind) that the stroke should be played on length rather than direction. In other words, the sweep comes into play even if the ball is outside the line of off stump, provided it is pitched short. That is a matter of preference and depends where there are gaps in the field. Ordinarily, the sweep is played to a ball just outside the line of leg stump, thus taking LBW out of the equation. The crucial detail is balance. Here, Root has remained perfectly balanced, his head is still and is not falling away onto the off-side. In such a way, he has control of the shot; he can keep the ball safely on the ground. In addition, he has rolled the wrists at the point of contact, so the face of the bat is facing downwards, another way of keeping the ball on the ground. If you look closely, you can see the ball just above Tim Paine’s left foot; if it has not already hit the ground and has bounced, it very soon will. The perpendicular line beloved of theorists is once again in evidence, head and front foot in perfect alignment.
One imagines that the bowler is Nathan Lyon, for there was no other spinner in the Australian ranks for this match, that is, if you discount the occasional leg breaks of Steve Smith. The position of the wicket-keeper indicates that the ball was not wide but had probably strayed onto leg stump, for that is where Paine’s gloves are positioned. As Lyon bowls off-spin and the ball is pitching near enough on leg stump, it is unlikely that Root could be out LBW, unless it is Lyon’s arm ball. In any case, that does not matter. Root has not missed the ball and, let’s face it, he doesn’t miss many.
THE LEG GLANCE
Rranji batting (for the camera) at Hove.
Well, why not? After all, he invented the stroke. And if he did not actually invent it, he certainly popularised it. Prince Ranjitsinhji, Jamsaheb of Nawanagar, to give him his full name, played cricket for Cambridge University, Sussex and England from 1893 – 1920. His earlier career, before the First World War, spanned what came to be known as the Golden Age and his star burned as bright of any of those great players of that era, with the large figure of WG Grace central to proceedings. The names trip off the tongue: CB Fry; FS Jackson; AC MacLaren; LCH Palairet: GL Jessop; RE Foster; JB Hobbs, TW Haywood; FE Woolley. Ranji was unmistakeably of that time and of that ilk.
As a member of Indian royalty, Ranji was an exotic plant in an already lush English garden, even before we take into consideration his lavish gifts as a cricketer. His great friend and Sussex captain, CB Fry commented on Ranji’s “distinctive combination of perfect poise and quickness peculiar to the athletic Hindu.” Neville Cardus, the doyen of cricket writers, wrote that when Ranji batted “a strange light from the East flickered in the English sunshine”.
Having been brought up on Indian wickets, Ranji favoured playing off the back foot, as opposed to the English style of the time, which was predominantly front foot. He possessed those steely wrists, which so many batsmen from the sub-continent seem to have, allowing him to wield the bat more like a rapier than a broadsword. Think of Gundappa Vishwanath, Mohammed Azharrudin, VVS Laxman, Virat Kohli, Mushtaq Mohammed, Asif Iqbal, Zaheer Abbas, Javed Miandad and you get an idea of what I mean. The sound of the ball on the bat resembled a whiplash rather than the thwack of the more muscular hitters. It is no surprise that the two strokes most associated with Ranji (whether he actually ‘invented’ them is another matter) were the late cut and the leg glance, both owing more to touch and timing than the more orthodox conventions of batsmanship, which decreed that the ball should be hit whence it came.
Given the primitive technology of photography at the time and that all ‘action’ shots had to be posed, this is actually not a bad example of the leg glance. You might say that his feet haven’t moved much but he isn’t, as was the fashion of the time, on the front foot, looking to drive. His front foot has turned nicely, facing towards mid-on, thus opening the body, squaring the shoulders and allowing the bat a free swing, playing the ball alongside, rather than in front of, his front pad. He has turned the wrists, thus guiding the ball down to fine-leg. The bottom hand is down at the base of the handle, a sure sign of a back-foot player. All in all, it is an elegantly executed stroke and gives us some hint of why crowds flocked to watch him bat, for Sussex and for England.
In many ways, Ranji was an innovator. In the same way that T20, the IPL and other short forms of the game have given rise to inventive strokes (the reverse sweep, the ramp, the Dilscoop, the helicopter shot were unheard of a generation ago), so Ranji opened up a large area of the field which had hitherto never been explored for run-getting opportunities. The orthodox style of batting was largely on the front foot, with the drive to the fore. Attack was almost exclusively directed at the off stump, so much of contemporary strokeplay was on the off-side. Leg-side bowling was considered infra dig; any ball that strayed onto the leg stump was a mistake, about as unwelcome as a full toss or a long hop. Very often a captain would guard the leg side with minimal forces, usually one man, sometimes two. It may seem oddly circumscribed to us but the game has always evolved. Underarm bowling to round arm (WG was still bowling round arm in Ranji’s time) to overarm. Two stumps to three. Caps to helmets. It is a continuous process.
Ranji was a talented Rackets and Lawn Tennis player so the cross-bat stroke was no stranger to him. He spied the open country behind square on the on-side and discovered that if he turned or flicked the ball behind his legs, there were easy runs to be made. He was encouraged in this tactic by the short boundaries square to the wicket at his home ground in Hove. Neville Cardus again: “The honest length ball was not met with an honest straight bat but with a flick of the wrist charmed its way to the boundary.”
In this photo, Ranji cuts a rather dashing figure too. Crisp white shirt buttoned at the wrist and the neck, bare headed, immaculate white boots and clothing, all of which sets off the dark skin and black hair, not a common sight on the playing fields of England. The pads are flimsy and there is no sign of any other protective equipment. He isn’t even wearing any gloves. Obviously he wore a pair in a proper match but from other photographs of the era, they would have given scant protection. It could be said that the bowling was not as fast as it is today but I am not so sure. Clearly we have no means of judging but from the first-hand evidence we have of those who faced Tom Richardson, Bill Lockwood and the Australian, Fred Spofforth, they were fast enough. All of which makes you think that, for all their amateur ethos and Edwardian flamboyance, those men who went out to bat on pitches that were variable to say the least with the minimum of personal protection, had some courage. All of a piece, I guess, of the ideal of muscular Christianity so beloved of the public schools, which churned out sons of Empire, born and bred to rule, whatever the personal discomforts and hardships that had to be endured. Ranji, in spite of his Indian heritage, wanted very much to be considered a member of the upper classes, an English gentleman as well as an Indian prince.
Ranji’s nephew, Kumar Duleepsinhji, followed his uncle in his cricket career. Educated at Cheltenham College, he went to Cambridge where he got his Blue and played for Sussex and England. The first-class domestic competition in India, the Ranji Trophy, is named after the ‘prince of batsmen’. I leave the last words to an admirer and a considerable figure who was a contemporary of Ranji’s, Gilbert Jessop: “He was indisputably the greatest genius cricket has ever produced.”