Here’s an interesting fact. In the recent Test match in Sydney, no fewer than 13 sixes were struck. Go back 60 years to the equivalent Ashes Test in Sydney during England’s tour of 1962-63 and you will see that not a single six was hit during the entire match. It is not as if there were no players on either side capable of hitting a six. For England, Ken Barrington made a habit of bringing up his hundred with a six, Ted Dexter was the finest attacking batsman of his era and Tom Graveneywas more than capable of hooking the ball (off his front foot) into the stands. For Australia, Neil Harvey’s blade flashed brighter than anyone’s and Norman O’Neill and Peter Burge, burly fellows both, had no trouble clearing the ropes. Yet for some reason, none of them felt inclined to have a go. Neither did any of the tailenders who, in those days, were not expected to hang around for long before having a slog. So, what has changed in the intervening 60 years or so?
First – and foremost in the minds of cricketers of my generation – the introduction of helmets has had a revolutionary effect on the business of batting. They first made an appearance during World Series Cricket, otherwise known as the Kerry Packer Circus, in the late 1970s. David Hookes, the pin-up boy of the Packer marketing operation, was hit a sickening blow in the face by Andy Roberts (he hit more batsmen than any other bowler I know), having his jaw broken and putting him out of action for the rest of the summer. He never fully recovered his confidence and his international career slowly petered out. Packer wanted protection of his assets, to wit, his players, and demanded a type of crash helmet be developed in short order. Pretty soon, everybody (apart from Viv Richards) was wearing one. Well, who wouldn’t? It makes utter sense. With the head now protected (though not completely, as the tragic death of Phillip Hughes testifies), batsmen are now much more prepared to have a go at the short ball. Before, a batsman would take time to ‘get his eye’ in, assess the pace and bounce of the pitch, and then, perhaps, decide to take on a fast bowler. Some were braver than others, some foolhardy, but it was always a case of weighing up the risk, assessing the cost-benefit, before attempting the big hit. Now, batsmen see the short ball as an opportunity to score runs rather than ducking out of the way.
“Give us the tools and we’ll finish the job,” implored Winston Churchill of the US President Roosevelt in 1941, on behalf of a nation on its knees in the Second World War. Advances in technology have certainly given the modern-day batsman a significant upgrade in his tool. In the same way that muskets supplanted the bow and arrow and the machine-gun did for the mounted cavalry, so has the new bat consigned the old bat to the museum. Take a look at the picture of Barry Richards, above. In his right hand, he holds up the bat he used when playing arguably the greatest innings of his career. He scored 325 (not out!) in a single day for South Australia against Western Australia in Perth in 1970, only one of five players to do so in first-class cricket. The Western Australia bowlers included Dennis Lillee, Graham McKenzie and Tony Lock, so it was no second-string attack he was, well….attacking. In his left hand, he is holding up a modern bat and the startling difference in thickness is evident. Barry’s expression says it all. On the face of it – literally so – there is no change to the size and the width of the bat; these dimensions are laid down in the laws of the game. But there is no mention of thickness of bats in the laws. Hitherto, a bat’s weight was circumscribed by its thickness. Too thick and it would be too heavy to pick up. But the new technology in bat-making - which frankly escapes me - means that these beasts ‘pick up’ as easily and as comfortably as their predecessors but now have much more power. “Look, buddie,” says Barry, “Even top edges are flying over the boundary. Just think how many more runs I would have scored with one of these beauties.” Former bowlers from around the world dread to think.
There is a third reason why strapping young men are more prepared to heave the ball into Row Z, even in Test matches. T20. Not everything about the shortest format at the game should have traditionalists like me shaking their heads in disapproval. It has given birth to a whole range of new shots, with batsmen intent only on attack. This has inevitably filtered down to the Test arena, surely a good thing and making for a more exciting spectacle. Hitherto, a total of 220-odd in a day’s play was considered par for the course. Now we feel short-changed if the batting side does not score 300 plus. More aggressive batting, more runs (including sixes), more risk…..and more wickets. What’s not to enjoy about that? A point worth stressing is that rarely these days do we have to endure DBDs (dull boring draws).
Of course, as in all things, a balance must be struck. Defence has to be judiciously married to attack. Winning totals in Test cricket are not made up of sprightly 40s and 50s. A good Test batsman instinctively knows when the right time has arrived to move from defence to attack.Joe Root has learned this: Jos Buttler evidently has not. Ben Stokes? Well, he’s an all-rounder and, as we know, all the best all-rounders – think Keith Miller, Mike Procter, Imran Khan, Kapil Dev, Ian Botham, Andrew Flintoff – are gamblers. They can afford to be; if they fail in one discipline, they can excel in another. And tailenders are chancing their arm these days. With that mighty weapon in their hands, even the miscues will sail into the stands.
13 sixes in a Test match! Who would have believed it?
Incidentally, before 1910, you had to hit the ball out of the ground to register a six. If you cleared the rope, or whatever it was in those days that marked the boundary, you only scored five runs. I suppose we can only conclude that cricket grounds are much bigger now than when WG was playing, therefore sixes were even harder to hit than they were in the 1960s. The Bearded One, so far as records attest, only hit one six in his whole Test career. The number of fives he hit is not recorded. Quite right. Nobody would want to admit to hitting a five. It doesn’t quite resonate the same, does it?