The science of batsmanship
CB Fry was an unusual man. He scored over 30,000 first-class runs at the turn of the 20th century including 94 hundreds at an average of over 50 on uncovered pitches, with primitive bats and almost no protective equipment.
His sporting achievements didn't stop there. He played football for England and Southampton. He also equalled the world record for long jump in 1893, and his jump remained a University record for a small matter of 21 years. His batting, we are told, was rooted in the purest technique. Not one to invent shots or bother with entertaining a crowd, Fry is known to have been an almost self-absorbed batsman, putting patience and safety ahead of everything else. He was the yin to Ranji's yang. But the two of them together are said to have put in place the golden rule of batting, from which all the traditional responses to a ball could be derived - when facing a ball, drive or play back. It is almost fitting, then, that Fry should write a monumental meditative monograph grandly, yet simply, titled Batsmanship (1912).
Fry's writing is marked by the power of his analysis and an ultra-scientific approach to batting. If you wanted to find a response to CLR James' claim that batsmanship was an art, you couldn't do much better than to point him to this book. Sir Neville Cardus wrote that Batsmanship "might conceivably have come from the pen of Aristotle, had Aristotle lived nowadays and played cricket". Fry's prose is so sparklingly clean that you could see your reflection in it. His vision is crystal clear, his scholarship almost unequalled. Batsmanship covers every aspect of its subject, from the foundational principles to specific strokes to batting in various conditions to plotting an innings. He even has a section devoted to conserving energy.
Fry writes, in an early chapter, that "mechanism" and "timing" are the two pillars on which all batting stands. Mechanism is the way you make a shot - the position of your feet, your hands, your arms, your elbow, your head, the way you transfer your weight, the force you apply, your backlift, your placement, your follow through. Timing is connecting the middle of the bat to the ball at the optimal time. You might get every aspect of your mechanism right, he writes, but if you don't time it well, it is of no use. On the other hand, he says, your bat might come down all wrong, your feet might be in no position, your balance may be completely off, and you might execute the ugliest of hoicks, but if you time it correctly, it might still sail over the ropes. He scoffs at this. He reminds the reader that while this might occasionally work, more often than not, without the right mechanism, you are going to be found out.
Funnily enough, I read this book when the World T20 was on. Every few pages, I would wonder what Fry would make of T20 batting - the reverse sweeps, the dilscoops, switch-hits, and then less egregious but still unpardonable shots like the pick-up over midwicket, the dab past the keeper, and the paddle-sweep. This book, written in 1912, exactly a century ago, is obviously dated. One can't expect batting to have stagnated for so long - even the classical arts don't. Better pitches, better bats, and better protection allow batsmen to do things unthinkable in Fry's time. Still, the pace at which the science of batting evolves today is surprising - even two decades ago, significantly more of Batsmanship would be relevant. In the early 90s, the reverse sweep was almost unheard of. Today, there is almost no top-order batsman who cannot play it. When the switch-hit was conceived, it was decried as illegal before the bigwigs confirmed that the shot was legitimate. The variety of high-risk shots through fine-leg that batsmen play - the scoops, the shovels, the flicks, the sweeps off fast-bowlers - have all garnered serious attention only post-T20. Ten years ago, when Dougie Marillier shocked Zaheer Khan in an ODI by lifting him over the keeper repeatedly and snatching an unlikely win, people thought of him as a one-off freak.
But the World T20 has also shown us how much of Fry's thesis holds good even today. The best T20 players are not those who blindly throw their bats at the ball, hoping to overcome technical deficiencies with power and timing. They are those who combine power with technique - in other words, those who combine "timing" and "mechanism". The West Indies' best batsmen are Samuels and Gayle, not Pollard and Sammy. Sri Lanka's best are Jayawardene and Sangakkara, Australia's are Watson, Warner and Hussey, India's is Kohli, England's is (I hope, one can never be sure) Pietersen, South Africa's are Kallis and de Villiers, and New Zealand's best are McCullum and Taylor. All these players walk in to their respective Test sides as well. When the first T20 international was played five years ago, the New Zealand team landed up like it was a party, in outrageous hairdos and retro beige outfits. Billy Bowden* showed McGrath a red card for bowling underarm. Amid all this, Ricky Ponting smacked a sublime 98 before declaring he couldn't take this sort of game seriously. In the first two or three years, batsmen approached the game like they were doing something frivolous. The game is a lottery, they said.
Today, a muscle over midwicket might connect and find itself in the stands. Tomorrow, the same shot might just take the top edge and find a fielder on the ropes. But that attitude is being wiped out by the top T20 batsmen, who are discovering the ideal mechanism for this variety of the game. The late cut, Jayawardene has realised, is a more effective shot in a game where there are hardly any slip fielders than the full-bodied cut. Virat Kohli shows with every innings that you can score as fast as the most brutal hitters by minimising the dot balls, pushing singles and finding relatively risk-free boundaries every now and then. Gayle has discovered that it is more fruitful to stay as still as possible at the crease, cut out any trigger movements, watch the ball, make one decisive movement and tonk. The best T20 batsmen have done just what Fry and his peers, Grace and Ranji, and Hobbs after them, did as pioneers of long-form batting - approach batting like a science, understand the risks, know what is effective and what is not, and maximise results. They have changed their mechanism faster than the generation or two before them because they have been confronted with a game so different from its predecessors that it has required them to. If Fry were playing today, I'm sure he wouldn't approve of the mindless slog over midwicket. He would argue that there is a scientific way to do it. He would write, in his book, 50 carefully crafted pages about the exact mechanism of the slog-sweep and remind you to time it perfectly.
*3:06pm, October 27: The piece had initially stated that it was Simon Taufel who had shown Glenn McGrath a red card. This has been corrected.