September 1, 2013

What is it about a six?

There's something primal and thrilling about the shot - one that connects player and audience in more ways than one

A sight that enthralls all except the victim © Getty Images

Whatever the stroke, whether it be a crafted drive or a cross-batted hoick, a cricket ball hit, biffed, whacked, cracked, struck, tonked, flayed or spanked over the boundary rope is a moment to be savoured.

Australian Joe Darling was officially the first to hit a six in Test cricket, lifting the ball clean out of the ground - before 1910 only shots exiting the park counted as a six - and with the current T20 hitting frenzy catching on in all forms of the game, one could argue he started a trend that has never since been out of fashion.

Chris Gayle admits he pumps weights to hit the ball as hard and far as he can. And he does: record holder for the fastest century, and the only player to bludgeon the opening ball of a Test match into the crowd. A titan with a bat, he's a hero not because he plays the perfect forward defensive but because he hammers a ball that connects the fan with the player, when the field can't contain the game and it spills into our own, mortal hands.

Purists may disagree that a six is the pinnacle of batting. Don Bradman rarely hit over the rope, and when the circumspect Alastair Cook hit a six against Canterbury in 2008, he wrote "the players were laughing on the balcony, more in shock than anything else".

Regardless of the run count, a six is special because it zooms in on the moment. Nothing but the ball exists. In the cleanest hit, when the batsman knows his smite won't be troubled on its journey out of the ground, he may stand and follow its trajectory off the wicket and over the fence, where the sudden danger of five and a half ounces of stitched leather demands the spectator's focus: an evocative photo in the Arundel Castle pavilion shows the Duke of Norfolk presenting a plumber's apprentice with a match ball after the young man had caught "a mighty six".

Of course, it is not only batsmen and fans who recall sixes with absolute clarity. The bowlers may well want to forget, but the mightiest blows leave wounds that scar.

"I felt a bit of prat," admitted England spinner Eddie Hemmings after Kapil Dev panned the portly bowler for four consecutive sixes to avoid following on in the 1990 Test when India were nine wickets down. And what sadist couldn't feel something for poor Malcolm Nash, the Glamorgan bowler who unwisely chose August 31, 1968 to try out his slow left-armers, the day Sir Garfield Sobers became the first batsman to plant six sixes in a single over.

Although Sobers' inaugural achievement can never be bettered, the 36 has been equalled. In 1985, Ravi Shastri launched half a dozen of the best out of the Bombay ground, and in 2007, Herschelle Gibbs taught the Netherlands minnows something about the game when he put an over of legspin into the stands.

However, for sheer fluidity of hitting, one must put Yuvraj Singh's schooling of a young Stuart Broad at the top of the 36ers. First ball is a cow-corner swipe, second a dreamy pick-up off leg stump, third ball he goes down on one knee to drive over extra cover, and with the poor fourth delivery - a panicked full toss - tapped over point, and the fifth a plane-endangering flight over midwicket, the six sixes are on and regally completed with another one knee launch, this time high over wide mid-on into the ecstatic crowd.

Poor bowler? Yuvraj admitted it had been "horrible" when England allrounder Dimitri Mascarenhas had hit him for five sixes in an over earlier that season, and had the sporting sympathies to confess he "felt sorry" for Broad - although he also, and rightly so, said, "It was a great feeling to hit six sixes." Admirably, Broad has fought back from a painful sixing.

Beyond the numbers of a maximum, the act of six is a primal assertion of batsman over bowler. And who commanded the wicket with more authority than Sir Vivian Richards? An after-dinner story goes that he was facing Glamorgan - What is it about Wales and sixes? - paceman Greg Thomas, and swishing and missing. Thomas came down the track and sledged, "It's red and it's round and it's made of leather."

Richards plopped the next delivery into the River Taff. "You know what it looks like, you go and fetch it."

Perhaps it was watching King Viv at Somerset that Sir Ian Botham learned the tricks of the six trade. Few can forget Richie Benaud's commentary of his lofted drive off Terry Alderman at Headingley in 1981, the ball that "went into the confectionery stall and out again" or his blind hook shots off Lillee that sailed over backward square leg. These were strikes that changed a game, a series.

A sweetly struck ball has medicinal powers too. Writing in the Authors Cricket Club: A Season of Cricket from Hackney to Hambledon, historian Tom Holland is on the verge of giving up the game when he ambles to the crease, "on what I am now resolved will be my last ever innings." Then, for the first time in his life, he hits a six. In a moment of rapture it's a phrase from James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that leaps into his mind: "An instant of wild flight had delivered him."

Tom's six may not have travelled as far as Shahid "Boom Boom" Afridi's record 158m launch out of the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg, or sailed over the Lord's pavilion as Albert Trott's lusty blow did in 1899, but it was a shot momentous enough for him to "decide, there and then, that I will not be retiring. I will not be going gentle into that good night".

Long live the six.

Nicholas Hogg is a co-founder of the Authors Cricket Club. His first novel, Show Me the Sky was nominated for the IMPAC literary award