The unparalleled Sir Neville Cardus waxed eloquent over the immortal genius of Victor Trumper thus: “You will no more get an idea of the quality of Trumper’s batsmanship by adding up his runs than you will get an idea of the quality of Shelley’s poetry by adding up the lines written by Shelley.” While it is debatable as to whether in modern day cricket there are batsmen who match up to either the panache of a Trumper or the poetry of a Shelley, there is no semblance of doubt that cricket over the years since Trumper’s untimely demise has abounded with batsmen reeking of class and oozing with caliber. The unfortunate absence of television and technology has had the invidious effect of masking the talents of very many such wielders of the willow. The avid cricket lover is left to either rely on the powers of his imagination on the basis of meticulously recorded chronicles of a particularly orgiastic stroke, or is demanded to make an informed judgment on the basis of carefully preserved news reel footages (which more often than not are more a coalescence of grainy pixels than the capture of an elegant stroke). However with the advent of television and the uninhibited rampage of technology, the fan today is in an enviable position not only to grasp every nuance of the game, but also to obtain an untrammeled and vantage view of his favourite batsman plying his wares or his beloved bowler exhibiting his befuddling variety. While I personally do not consider bowlers to be children of a lesser God, the sight of a batman negotiating the trickeries of bowlers and neutralizing the treacheries of a pitch invariably whets my appetite and leaves me asking for more. A perfectly executed forward defensive stroke by Rahul Dravid gives me the same delight as an exquisitely timed silken cover driven by Kumar Sangakkara. While it is close to impossible and an exercise in utter futility to rank the whole gamut of cricketing shots (as made popular by their classy patrons) in the order of their excellence, it might not be an exercise in audacity to arrive at a personal rating of 10 best cricketing strokes essayed by its 10 best practitioners. The following attempts to do just that!
Robin Smith – The Square Cut
While cricket has generated its fair share of batsmen well known for their prowess in executing shots square of the wicket, very few could lay claim to either matching or overcoming the power or ferocity displayed by this burly English and Hampshire batsman. A formidable foe of pacemen, Robin Smith was accomplished in his stroke play on either side of the wicket. However he will be remembered most for his brilliant and brutal perfection of the square cut.
Playing with a high back lift and a predominantly leg stump stance, Smith is all intensity as he lays in wait for the bowler. He allows the bowler to have an undisguised peek of all three of his stumps until the moment of delivery. However a last second adjustment of the feet ensures that Smith is across the stumps at the point of impact. If the ball is pitched even slightly short on or outside the off stump, Smith rocks back, gets into perfect position and the blade comes down over the ball to send it rocketing between cover and backward point. The sound of the ball hitting the bat, is at once sweet and ominous. Judging the length of the delivery to perfection, Smith plays the square cut more in the vein of a square drive. He is also a photographer’s delight with this particular stroke. With his left knee slightly bent, body arched back to lend the requisite balance, and the Grey Nicolls blade flashing hard and honest, Smith presents an intimidating picture.
Robin Arnold Smith possessed power, had the gift of placement and exuded panache. And boy could he use those three to play a square cut!
Kevin Pietersen- The Switch Hit
Arguably one of the marvels of modern day cricket. No shot has universally and unequivocally evoked such a wide array of emotions as KP’s ‘Switch-Hit’. Label it controversial or term it cavalier, the shot still remains singularly unique both in its conception as well as in its execution. Even though there exists imitations galore and competing variants, the original brooks no comparison. The beauty or rather the bewilderment of the ‘Switch Hit’ lies in its deception and nobody does it better than its pioneering master Kevin Pietersen.
With legs splayed wide apart and his huge frame slightly hunkered over the bat, Pietersen crouches and waits for the slow bowler to deliver the ball. After the unsuspecting spinner has just delivered the ball, KP much to the incredulity of all concerned and to the chagrin of the bowler in question, switches his right handed stance to metamorphose into a left handed batsman. This transformation is done in the twinkling of an eye with a violent movement, nay a jerk of the feet and hands. When the ball makes contact with the bat it is struck, or rather smote with utter disdain and extreme ferocity either along the ground to what would have been a right hander’s cover point boundary or even way over it right into the stands. The switch hit is a stroke of instinct, innovation and above all unconstrained ingenuity and no one executes it better than the now out of favour English Legend – Kevin Peter Pietersen.
Mohammed Azharuddin – The Whip-Flick
The ball is pitched slightly outside the off-stump. The fielders expecting the batsman to play the delivery with a straight bat towards the off side region expectantly wait in their respective fielding positions. Much to their collective vexation and amazement, the batsman with an ubiquitous black amulet dangling from his neck, moves across his stumps, fetches the ball from outside the off-stump and with a delectable use of his wrists, whip-flicks the ball wide of mid on! The front foot is right in line with the middle stump and the back foot is raised to provide the perfect balance and position. As the ball is retrieved from the leg side boundary and the appreciating oohs and aahs of the spectators die down, the batsman unable to comprehend the fuss revolving around him, unassumingly goes down the track, has a few words with his awed non-striker and modestly takes up his stance to face the next delivery. What seemed unique to a majority of batsmen, was merely ordinary for Mohammed Azharuddin. This lanky former India captain from Hyderabad had the gift of timing and an eye for placement. But most importantly, he was blessed with a pair of phenomenal wrists which made him a special batting talent – a talent which when in full flow was a rapturous sight! Batting with a willow, that for its weight (or rather weightlessness has been compared to a cigarette and a feather, amongst various others), Azharuddin’s dazzling wristwork compensated for any lack of power and enabled him to play with wanton grace and place the ball with impetuous ease. Bowling at the legs of Azhar was plainly asking to be murdered. While those wrists could play havoc with the leg side cordon, their ability to irritate the offside ring of fielders was grossly underestimated. Azharuddin who was labeled as an onside genius could execute his drives to great effect. Getting his front foot out of the way, he could get to the pitch of the ball and drive it to perfectly bisect the cover and mid off region. He was also equally competent in playing the drive off his back foot. Sunil Gavaskar once famously exclaimed that Azharuddin had “wrists of steel”. He also quickly went on to add that those steely wrists were “flexible”. A veritable paradox if at all there was any! Yet it was this paradox that endeared Mohammed Azizuddin Azharuddin to fans and opponents alike across the cricketing spectrum. It was also this paradox that made his silky smooth batting such an exhilarating sight! Anyone doubting the last claim would do well to ask Lance Kluesener!
Mahendra Singh Dhoni – The Helicopter Shot
The best way to describe this most peculiar of cricketing shots would be in terms of the bat speed generated in essaying it. For its mere (and unsurpassed), bat speed this shot would go down in history as one of the most innovative of cricketing strokes, if not the most. The patented perfectionist of the Helicopter Shot, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, a World Cup winning captain in all three international formats of the game, never fails to evoke gasps of disbelief whenever he plays this shot. More often than not, success is a guaranteed outcome of this bizarre hit. If the back-lift prior to essaying this stroke is incredible, the follow though post its execution, is downright incredulous. Defying description, challenging elaboration and inconveniencing reason, the Helicopter shot is a magnificent invention of modern day cricket by arguably the greatest ‘finisher’ of the shorter version of the cricketing game. The whip lash effect and an astounding recoil combine to give a deceptive image of the batsman trying to swing himself off his feet while all the time………………………………….Bloody Hell! Just watch it!
Sanath Jayasuriya – The Slash Six
In a television interview, when asked to name two cricketers who served as role models and idols to be emulated in his cricket career, the prolific Sri Lankan wicket keeper batsman Kumar Sangakkara did not hesitate one bit before coming out with the names of Sanath Jayasuriya and Brian Lara. Sanath Jayasuriya, along with the pint sized dynamo Romesh Kaluwitharana will be poignantly remembered for revolutionizing the art of batting in one day cricket – a revolution which won Sri Lanka it’s first and only World Cup (thus far) in 1996.
Sanath Jayasuriya over a glittering and accomplished cricketing career has put to sword many a vaunted bowling attack. With aggression and intent as his allies, Sanath wades into a bowling attack with great gusto. While there are many memorable Jayasuriya shots that send a chill down the spine of his opponents, there is none more intimidating and awe inspiring than the slash which sends the ball soaring over third man for a six. This exceptional shot, has, as its recipe for success, unbelievably strong forearms (upper body strength), a bottom hand that works over time, an open bat face, an uncanny ability to get under the ball (please forget rolling the wrists over and trying to keep the ball on the ground), and perfection of the slash.
If the above formula for success sounds to anyone like an esoteric combination of malarkey and hang over, then that unfortunate soul has committed the travesty of not seeing Sanath Jayasuriya in action. Even if the ball is pitched fractionally short on the off side, Jayasuriya pounces on it mercilessly and quickly gets underneath the ball. The bat face is open and pointing towards the cover region. With a strong bottom handed grip, Jayasuriya generates immense bat speed and proceeds to slash the ball over the third man region. Since there is no roll of the wrists, the ball is deliberately sliced in the air. While most of the times third man is a mere spectator waiting for someone in the crowd to retrieve the ball, the slash hit has on a few occasions landed Jayasuriya in trouble – one of the more important occasions being the infamous World Cup semi-final against India in 1996 when Azhar laid a deftly crafted trap and Jayasuriya succumbed to it. But failure with this shot has been an exception rather than a norm. While it is a scintillating sight to see this marauding left hander from Sri Lanka bat an opposition out of the game, it is an unforgettable sight to see a ball disappearing hard, high and handsome over the head of third man – courtesy a rasping square slash! Sanath Teran Jayasuriya – Master of the Square Slash!
(TO BE CONTINUED)