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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • jaya on March 6, 2014, 18:34 GMT

    I too have the opinion that D. Gower was one of the most graceful batsman.It looked as if he was batting with a magic wand.The other graceful batsmen who made batting look easy have been Vishwanath,Azaruddin,Laxman,Arvinda d'silva,S.Anwar,Zaheer Abbas,R.Kanhai,J.Miadad,Allan Border,Shaun Marsh,Shoeib Mallik ,Cook.Among the graceful bowlers are R.Hadlee,D.Lilee,W.Akram,Holding,B.willis,Magrath,Cris Cairns.They were all deadly bowlers with deceptively smooth and simple action. I may have missed many more batsman and bowlers ,this list i recollect randomly.

  • Prasad on March 4, 2014, 13:30 GMT

    Dr. Malwatta, how could you forget Gundappa Vishwanath? :-) :-) This comes close to blasphemy :-) :-) He is universally considered to have been among the most pleasing batsmen to watch, and I have seen accounts of commentators referring to "little Vishy's cameo of an innings" (and this when he had scored only 15 or so). To top his artistry, he was among the most loved cricketers (as exemplified by Ravi Shastri's statement that he "loves Gavaskar but worships Vishwanath").

  • Dummy4 on March 4, 2014, 8:20 GMT

    How could they miss Majid Khan? He was the embodiment of artistry and beauty, very rarely cricketers we see like Majid.

  • Dru on March 4, 2014, 7:58 GMT

    Enjoyed the read and unfortunatley for me due to the lack of television coverage I didnt really get to see the best of Gower and others. From the guys I have seen, there can be no batter shot of pure pleasure than the Sangakara cover drive. Amla is up there for me as well, his timming is simply awesome especially off the back foot where its hard to get any power on the off side drives.

  • Subhasish on March 4, 2014, 7:30 GMT

    In the same breath as David Gower (and others mentioned for their cover drives) we could also mention Ganguly...just for his cover drives, and not for the way he played the short ball though!! Also, it was always a pleasure watching Akram...I found his simplicity of action more riveting than Waqar's. Wasim Akram actually could bowl six different deliveries in an over....something which possibly only Sir Gary could otherwise claim to do! But Holding was a class apart when it came to style.

  • Bill on March 4, 2014, 1:46 GMT

    What about spin bowlers and wicket keepers? Derek Underwood, Bishen Bedi and Daniel Vettori slow left armers with lovely actions but my all time favourite spinners action is John Emburey before he was required to bowl darts. He had a lovely high action that included a momentary pause behind his back. As for keepers the most stylish (and the best IMO) is Allan Knott.

  • Matthew on March 4, 2014, 0:27 GMT

    I have been fortunate to watch some excellent cricketers over the last few years, from the swashbuckling KP dominating and bullying the South African bowling at Headingley, a patient Cook painfully just falling short of a triple century at Edgbaston and a sublime captains innings of Michael Clarke at the real Old Trafford last year. Each one had beauty in its own way. Its not so much about the shot itself its about the stage, the tension and drama. I haven't mentioned the bowling yet, watching Warne and Murali tease and torment, or being destroyed by Mitchell Johnson. Then there is fielding it is more than athletic it is dance a Ballet almost, like a great save by a goalkeeper. Sporting drama is art of a form that only a theatre can dream of, and because of the many mediums in which it is displayed cricket is high in the upper echelons of this.

  • Dummy4 on March 3, 2014, 20:35 GMT

    Good writing Janaka, this is one of the most intelligent and stimulating cricket pieces I've read, and I've read a few ! In *recent* memory we remember both the artistic stylists and the winning technicians and rightly so. But which memories survive for ever ? I saw Sobers bat, bowl and field in UK in 1963 and will never forget his cat-like grace. And alhough Wasim, Waqar etc are rightly lauded here ... Malcolm Marshall. I've forgotten his wickets but will always remember his run-up, it encapsulated the word "elegance". And Sir Viv ... I'd remember the dismissively arrogant way he strolled to the wicket even if he'd never scored a run !

  • Dummy on March 3, 2014, 17:18 GMT

    Shoaib akhtar running in at full steam in his prime. His triple wicket maiden against SA is unforgettable. But of course nothing beats the two yorkers to dismiss Dravid and Tendulkar.

  • Adam on March 3, 2014, 16:35 GMT

    Its not beauty per se, its precision, control, imagination, execution, that people appreciate.

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