March 2, 2014

There's something about cricket's artists

In the heat of battle, with the outcome in the balance, many fans will clap an opponent's shot if it is sufficiently beauteous

It's hard not to be entranced by Hashim Amla's elegance © AFP

Cricket is an aesthete's game. The delicate dab of a Jayawardene late cut, the elegance of an Amla drive, the crisp crack of a Greenidge cut; these are things of beauty. Cricket prizes style as much as substance. An outswinger nibbling at the edge of an outstretched bat will elicit a round of applause, even though there is no tangible result. In the cut and thrust of battle, with the outcome in the balance, the cricket fan will clap an opponent's shot if it is sufficiently beauteous. The efficient run machines may win matches; it is the artists who capture our hearts.

Consider Graham Gooch, a run-accumulator par excellence. There was something awkward in his rigidly upright stance, a touch of the gawky adolescent at the school disco. Even during his greatest innings, a startling 333 against India in 1990, it could not be argued that his batting was easy on the eye. (Nor was his running. Famously described by Ian Botham as having "the worst legs for a body I have ever seen", Gooch was a clockwork toy in ataxic motion when he gambolled between the wickets. The exception was when he was doing Bob Willis impersonations, mimicking Willis' arcing run-up and exaggerated arm swings during Test matches. That truly was worth watching.)

His compatriot and contemporary, DI Gower, in sharp contradistinction, was the embodiment of style. At the age of 21, he announced himself in his debut Test by hitting his first delivery for four through midwicket. It's the way James Bond would have made his debut. To this day, the Gower cover drive rivals those of Graeme Pollock and Kumar Sangakkara as the final word in elegance. Gooch is rightly revered for his undisputed technical prowess, but it is Gower's strokeplay that sticks in the mind.

The efficient run-machines may win matches; it is the artists who capture our hearts

Nor is this phenomenon restricted to Englishmen, inherently drawn to romantic failure. You might want Steve Waugh to bat for your house, but you'd rather watch Mark. Jacques Kallis might be the most remarkable cricketer since Garry Sobers, but most of us would rather be entranced by the artistry of Hashim Amla.

Such artistry is not limited to batsmen. During a workplace argument some years ago, my boss took the position that he would exchange the metronomic efficacy of Glenn McGrath for Waqar Younis' toe-crushing yorkers or Wasim Akram's inswinger. My abiding memory of watching Pakistan during those heady days is of Waqar pounding in, muscle and sweat and striving sinew. Out of nothing, he would produce his signature delivery. The way the ball dipped and swung viciously late was a work of art. As if to prove it was no fluke, Waqar repeated his yorkers time and again, accurate as an Exocet. Only Lasith Malinga has consistently reproduced Waqar's accuracy, but Malinga lacks Waqar's beetle-browed menace.

Wasim achieved his success differently, less huff and puff, more effortless class. Generating impressive pace off his shortened run, he fooled batsman after batsman with his inswingers. There was an air of inevitability as the ball curved in the air, as if its path was predestined, before pinning hapless right-handers plumb in front. McGrath might have more wickets, but Wasim and Waqar are adored for the sheer joy their bowling gave us.

It is, of course, possible to win affection despite lacking style. Steven Smith, a street fighter of a cricketer if ever there was one, has an ungainly, almost uncoordinated style. But, by finding a way to score runs in the direst of situations, he has become a favoured son. Monty Panesar, who sometimes resembles a startled rabbit on ice, became an unlikely hero for the Barmy Army because of his frailties, not despite them. And I have to admit to a soft spot for the crab-like Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who, by sheer cussedness, has made a career of being the last man standing.

But my favourite memories are of the artists. Of Mohammad Azharuddin. In the same match that Gooch scored his triple-hundred, Azharuddin scored a hundred from 88 deliveries to save the follow-on, an innings full of wristy artistry. He scored so quickly, he failed to take any time out of the game, and England won the match comfortably, but that innings, redolent of gallant Rajput defiance, lives in the memory 24 years later.

Or of Aravinda de Silva, who roused the men of Kent with masterful hundred in a losing cause, in the Benson & Hedges Cup final in 1995. I can still recall de Silva hooking sixes as he walked in, almost as a warm-up. He proceeded to play a succession of inside-out lofted cover drives, making men twice his size look like schoolboys. Artistry of this quality transcends the banalities of the result. Cricket truly is a thing of beauty.

Janaka Malwatta is a poet, doctor and cricket lover who lives in Brisbane. He tweets here

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