September 26, 2013

The hook: cricket's bravest shot

Other strokes may be more elegant, but there's nothing to quite match the elemental thrill of the hook

The hook isn't boring even when it doesn't come off © AFP

A dozen or so years ago, when with great enthusiasm I built the first incarnation of my academic homepage, I put up a "Leisure" section as well and inserted the following lines to indicate my cricket fandom:

Cricket: quite simply, the world's greatest game, bar none. I'm a fanatical fan that worships batsmen that play the hook well.

I still stand by those lines.

The cover drive is sometimes reckoned the most elegant cricket shot of all: its exponents the most graceful, the most accomplished batsmen of all. But the cover drive cannot compete, I think, with the hook for drama, for the frisson it provides the fan in the stands and the couch potato back home, for its expert marriage of the two most thrilling sights in cricket, a fast bowler and a fearless, aggressive batsman, for its blend of foolhardiness and skill.

When it comes off, there's nothing quite like it: the bowler runs in at full tilt and sends his missile hurtling, off the deck; the batsman swivels, turning the bat over and down, fiercely hooks, and the ball soars away, perhaps on a downward trajectory, perhaps upwards and over the fence. And even when the hook doesn't come off, there is action aplenty: perhaps a dramatic catch far away at fine leg, the fielder precariously close to the fence, perhaps a knock on the noggin' that leaves the batsman groggy - crumpled on the ground like an especially unstable house of cards - and the fielders sympathetic (sometimes).

I don't think there's two ways about it: there is nothing quite like a reflexive hook off the eyebrows played by an attacking batsman off a genuinely quick bowler. It all happens quickly; no other shot quite makes us catch our breath like a hook. No other shot speaks so much of bravado, of boldness. If you are a youngster, and want to be described as "courageous", play a hook in your debut innings against the opposition's leading fast bowler. Conversely, even if you are a great batsman with an excellent record against the quicks, but don't play the hook, you run the risk of being described as not quite "complete" in your armoury, as being not quite up to the task of facing the fast men. Playing the hook well guarantees a certain standing in the fan's and journalist's memory.

Why does the hook thrill us so? Most centrally because it is difficult and it is dangerous; it is defiant and dismissive. That's an awful alliteration but its central message should be clear. The hook is a bold, brave response to the fast bowler's most dreaded weapon, the bouncer directed at the head. It is a flirtation with danger, directed toward not just the scoring of runs but also to resisting the fast bowler's attempt to impose his will on the batsman. It speaks of resistance and arrogance alike.

Small wonder then that the batsmen who have played the hook well thrill us so: Viv Richards, Kim Hughes, Alvin Kallicharran, Richie Richardson, Ian Chappell, David Hookes, Gordon Greenidge and Mohinder Amarnath are just some of my personal favourites. Each of these batsmen had a distinctive style; each made himself memorable, in part because of his execution of the hook in particular. Indeed, even Graeme Wood, though a catastrophically bad runner between the wickets, still evokes fond memories in those who have seen him bat - whether live or on video - because he played the hook so well.

It is no coincidence that just about every batsman on my list above is West Indian or Australian. The cricketing environment in those climes: the pitches, the fast bowlers, the presence of batting role models for whom the hook was an integral part of the batting armoury, these have all ensured a steady supply of happy hookers. (The Don himself was an accomplished player of the shot.)

Modern batsmen do not seem to play the hook as frequently or as well. Pitches, of course, are slower. And batsmen today wear helmets, which diminishes the thrill of the hook somewhat; it becomes a safer shot. All of this is a pity, for we have been fortunate enough to witness many fast bowling greats in action in recent times; the perfect complement to their aggression would be that of the batsman.

In these, as in many other ways, the game of cricket, despite much technical advancement, has been ever so slightly impoverished.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here