May 18, 2016

Before you can hit it, you have to think it

The scoop, the sweep and all of the other shots that are now becoming standard in cricket began as acts of imagination, driven by necessity

The scoop has become an equal-opportunity shot, with not just the specialist batsmen playing it © BCCI

In the golden years of single-wicket competition, around the mid 1800s and before the spread of the railways made it easier to transport teams of players around the country, concessions were made to allow for the lack of fielders. There were no standard rules regarding the number a player may have; sometimes it may be a couple of "given" men, one on each side of the wicket, sometimes more, occasionally - and exhaustingly - it could be none at all. In 1827 a farmer called Francis Trumper and his sheepdog beat a Two of Middlesex, the dog retrieving the ball "with such a wonderful quickness it was difficult to get a run even from a long hit". To even things up, a line known as a bounds would be drawn, usually level with the batsman's popping crease, and no hit going behind the bounds could be scored from. The skill of the game on these uneven, often dangerous wickets against erratic roundarm bowling was to strike the ball powerfully in front of the wicket.

When WG Grace came along, he strove to turn batting from a defensive occupation into something new: "There was a prevailing idea… that as long as a bowler was straight, a batsman could do nothing against him… That idea I determined to test," the great man wrote. He began hitting the ball in the air over fielders with his lofted drives, cuts and pulls.

Grace saw the draw shot, played by raising the front leg and hitting the ball underneath it, and the Chinese cut, but it was not until Ranji was credited with the creation of the leg glance that the speed produced by the bowler was deliberately used to send the ball into the wide-open spaces behind the wicket.

For the next century or so, cricket, like all bat and racket sports, was based around hitting the ball forwards. Cricket, and maybe baseball, had the widest arc to hit into. Cricket had the greatest range of shot, and the late cut and back cut joined the glance and the hook and pull in directing the ball into what would have once been the bounds - along with the unintended edges, of course. In 1977 I saw Barry Richards uppercut the ball over the wicketkeeper in a benefit match, a trick shot that Sachin Tendulkar started playing for real, lifting very quick bowling safely over the slips in a little miracle of hand-eye coordination.

In 2005, with T20 cricket in its infancy, I remember having a conversation with the inventors of the miraculous Merlyn bowling machine about how the next great advance in batting would be to find a way of hitting behind the keeper. Dougie Marillier almost won an ODI for Zimbabwe against Australia by flicking a couple of deliveries from Glenn McGrath over his shoulder to the fine-leg boundary. By 2009, Tillakaratne Dilshan was Dilscooping madly, the need and intent of his batsmanship overcoming the madness of hitting very fast bowling towards his own teeth.

The ability to sweep on both sides - left- and right-handed - is long established, yet the technique is now somehow wristier, the ball hit harder than ever, and it has been fascinating to see that same wristiness come into shots like Kohli's flat drive

That batting - along with the bat itself - has been through a revolutionary decade is indisputable. The IPL is a tremendous annual measuring point, the concentration of players and matches offering the chance to see new trends emerge, new techniques underlined. While the 2016 iteration will always be remembered as the year of Virat and AB and their utter mastery of destructive batting at a heightened tempo, it is noticeable that the new genre of shots to direct the ball behind the wicket has now become routine, especially for younger players who have been able to absorb the advance of these strokes as they have developed.

Here I'd separate shots built around ramping from shots built around sweeping, although the advance in both has been dizzying. The ability to sweep on both sides - left- and right-handed - is long established, yet the technique is now somehow wristier, the ball hit harder than ever, and it has been fascinating to see that same wristiness come into shots like Kohli's flat drive, hit almost like a cross-court forehand - a stroke that Glenn Maxwell, Sam Billings and Jos Buttler are pushing further along.

The ramp has arguably expanded even further from the initial scoop devised by Marillier and Dilshan. Buttler was perhaps the first to hit it regularly for six, and he has also been in the forefront of broadening its range by moving his position in the crease. As he shifted himself further and further to the off side and bowlers naturally followed him, Buttler has responded with a late change of angle to deflect the ball to off rather than leg, opening up both sides of the wicket to the same shot.

De Villiers spoke in his recent Sky Masterclass on the importance to his batting of a multi-sport background. Buttler and Billings both have one, Billings' intriguingly with rackets, an arcane, posh take on squash, played with a much harder ball, and he seems to have brought some of it into his game, bending low to the cricket ball as he strikes it.

I had a brief, gentle argument the other day about imagination and creativity in cricket. I'd contend that all of the shots that are now becoming standard began as acts of imagination, driven by necessity. Before you can hit it, you have to think it, and then believe it can be done, and in the imagination there are no boundaries and no bounds.

Jon Hotten blogs here. @theoldbatsman