September 10, 2013

Does size matter?

Not all sports have been able to withstand the forward march of human advancement, but cricket continues to accommodate players of all sizes

Is Will Jefferson too tall to benefit from the scale of the game? © Getty Images

As England flapped listlessly on Australia's hook during the death throes of the second ODI at Old Trafford, Steven Finn came to the crease, a giant beanpole in England's comedy red garb (is there another kit design in all of cricket that makes its wearers look more like they're on their way to work in a fast-food outlet?). He had some sport, too, clearing the ropes before perishing from another skier. Finn is six feet eight inches in height, and the bat looks strangely diminished in his hands. There is an incongruity to seeing a lofty man at the crease.

Kevin Pietersen, at six feet four, is taller than every player ahead of him on the all-time list of Test run scorers: he has incorporated the advantages of his height into his technique like no one before. As the human race continues its generational increases in size it's natural that there will be more players of Pietersen's height moving up the list. But will there be an upper limit?

One of the geniuses of cricket is its scale. For some reason, the distance of 22 yards works perfectly with the size of the bat and the ball and the players. Through the game's history it has allowed bowlers of all sizes and speeds to compete with batsmen of all heights and girths on an equal basis. No one has yet bowled so quickly or advanced from the crease so far as to challenge the dimensions of the arena.

Not all sports have been able to withstand the forward march of human advancement. The world's greatest golf courses have routinely been extended by hundreds of yards to incorporate better equipment, training and conditioning. Although the tennis court remains the same size, a glance at the US Open last week showed that many of the players, at least in the men's tournament, played most of the game from about eight feet behind the baseline to allow for the increased speed of the ball - which has already been altered to slow it down. (Cricket will be spared that for as long as bats and balls are made from organic material.)

At six feet ten, Will Jefferson was perhaps the tallest specialist batsman to have played professional cricket. With his helmet on, he was all of seven feet. There are some famous pictures of him at the crease with James Taylor, who, at somewhere around five feet four, had to crane his neck just to see as high as Jefferson's armpit.

You'd think that his size would have made Jefferson a nightmare to bowl to - after all, what's a good length to a man whose pads just about cover his knees and whose bat appears as a toy in his hands? However, it might also mean he's actually too big to benefit from the scale of the game. Just the distance between his eyes and the ball must hurt to an extent, as must the relative size of the bat. He must bend low to defend the stumps but work out what to do with the short ball that would fly over the head of a smaller player. Only Pietersen has really reconciled these technical issues, obscuring the stumps with his trigger movement, and playing his hook and pull shots from the front foot.

It's natural to imagine that as people get larger, they become more powerful. A look at heavyweight boxing, for example, reveals that its current generation are bigger, heavier and stronger than any who have come before. But are they better? It seems as though at some point above six and a half feet, the rules begin to change and athletic ratios do not continue exponentially upwards.

Instead, the giant sportsman encounters his own set of problems. It's a measure of the greatness of cricket that it can incorporate them into its physics.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here

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