March 2, 2014

There's something about cricket's artists

Janaka Malwatta
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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Keywords: Nostalgia, Technique

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by Mittaraghava 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.

Posted by TheBangalorean 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").

Posted by   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.

Posted by stormy16 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.

Posted by subbuamdavadi 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.

Posted by billbassoz 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.

Posted by mjstafford 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.

Posted by   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 !

Posted by wapuser 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.

Posted by py0alb on (March 3, 2014, 16:35 GMT)

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

Posted by   on (March 3, 2014, 16:28 GMT)

This is a very nice article. My "Beauty XI" would consist of the following men: -

Anwar, Amla, Abbas, M Waugh, Gower, Laxman, Sangakkara (WK), Akram, Warne, Holding and Donald

Posted by   on (March 3, 2014, 8:02 GMT)

STYLIST XI - ======= 1. Anwar 2. Greenidge 3. Lara 4. Gower 5. Mark Waugh / Jayawardhane / Zaheer Abbas 6. Laxman / Azhar / Gundappa Viswanth 7. Imran Khan 8. Majid Khan 9. Akram 10. Waqar 11. Warne

Posted by Ravisub on (March 3, 2014, 6:42 GMT)

Dont forget VVS Laxman in all this. If G R Vishwanath was Bach with the bat, VVS was poetry in motion. More importantly, some of the best quick bowlers of their time were left gaping as they caressed the ball into the fence.

Posted by billbassoz on (March 3, 2014, 5:10 GMT)

Two great stylists not yet mentioned are West Indians from different areas. I consider Brian Lara the most exciting batsman I have seen (not quite the same as stylish) with his high backlift and dancing feet. The other is Lawrence Rowe who despite making a double hundred and a hundred in his first test plus a triple century against England is regarded as an unfulfilled talent. Rowe's cover drive was a thing of beauty as was the flck off his pads through midwicket. Incidently Imran Khan is mentioned as having a beautiful bowling action but he was also a stylist with the bat with a full array of graceful strokes.

Posted by RuwanFer on (March 2, 2014, 18:50 GMT)

The sub-heading of this section read as "VIEWS FROM OUTSIDE THE PRESS BOX". So you see? It's a blog section of the website where authors have full freedom to express their personal views. There is no point in suggesting who the author should have included/excluded in in his article.

Posted by SPotnis on (March 2, 2014, 17:19 GMT)

Don't forget Gundappa Vishwanath, one of the most elegant right handed batsman to play cricket. He was sheer class, elegance, and timing

Posted by Engle on (March 2, 2014, 17:16 GMT)

Clive Lloyd possessed a natural full flowing arc of the bat that dispatched the ball with consummate ease. Power and poise in perfect proportions.

Zaheer reminded me of the Sistine chapel. When you looked at the ceiling, the captivating artistry of Michaelangelo stood out from the merely impressive walls painted by mortals. Zaheer's batting, similarly stood out from his partners, no matter whom they were - painting the field with elegant strokes of his brush.

For dream pairs, I'd like to see C.Lloyd and G.Pollock, Zaheer Abbas and M.Azharuddin, D.Gower and M.Waugh, B.Richards and G.Chappell.

For humor, let's have Afridi and Viv together - but only if helmets are provided to the crowd.

Posted by   on (March 2, 2014, 16:15 GMT)

If style is the equation, I have seen elegant regal & almost divinely stylistic shots from some of India's best batsmen. Who can match Sachin's straight drive? Or who can match Ganguly's elegant cover drive? Or who can match the divine flick off the pads from the original Little Master Vishwanath? And ofcourse not to forget, the entire array of strokes played by Sachin. His almost every stroke & the bat-&-head position was almost divine. Purist to the core, he was THE book in himself.

Posted by muzika_tchaikovskogo on (March 2, 2014, 12:39 GMT)

The greatest artists among fast bowlers (in my opinion) were Allan Donald and Michael Holding. Donald had the most majestic action I ever saw and Holding had the most beautiful, rhythmic run up of all time. I doubt if any fast bowler in the last half century has ever matched the sheer poetic grace of those two legends.

Posted by   on (March 2, 2014, 12:07 GMT)

There are some players who are not mentioned. Imran arguably had the most beautiful bowling action. Mark Waugh was really stylish, Saeed Anwar is the most stylish batsman I have ever seen. Seeing him bat was like watching picasso who is writing everything in a beautiful manner. His batting was treat to watch. Majid, Zaheer, Azhar, Greenidge were elegant players. Lara is up with them. Amongst bowlers, apart from Imran, Ambrose had a beautiful bowling action.

Posted by Insightful2013 on (March 2, 2014, 10:28 GMT)

I most certainly disagree re Gooch. Until I adopted that specific stance, I had never made a hundred. It absolutely changed everything for me and it is actually so logical. I also think his shots were sublime. Great article however and the cricketers chosen are sublime! I differ from harshthakor's choices, in that, I would have Marshall and Murali. I also think that KP is the most elegant batsman. his infatuation with getting to the pitch of the ball, is more important than the execution of Gower or Zaheer. Love Sachin's block punch and GREENIDGE'S square cut is almost orgasmic! Da Silva was also brilliant. Also, love Miandad's complete comprehension and mastery. Never really saw anyone trouble him. I could be wrong, just never saw him troubled!

Posted by harshthakor on (March 2, 2014, 7:58 GMT)

Of Sri Lankan batsmen I still mantain that Roy Dias was the most stylish and elegant.He reminded one a lot of Rohan Kanhai.He could launch a blsitering attack on the bowling with the fury of a tiger but still possess the touch of a painist.His 290's in India were simply classical in the single test in 1982.After that Aravavina de'silva was the most aesthetic who could superbly blend technical skill with artistry.

Pairs I would love to see batting together are Gavaskar with Vishwanath,Sobers with Kanhai,Zaheer Abbas with Majid Khan,Clive Lloyed with Alvin Kalicharan Sachin Tendulkar with Rahul Dravid and Viv Richards with Barry Richards.These pairs would epitomize every aspect of batting aesthetics superbly blending technique and power with elegance,grace and creativity.

My best pace bowling pairs aesthetically would be Wasim-Waqar,Lindwall -Miller,Roberts-Holding and Ambrose-Walsh.They all superbly blend sheer pace and agression with grace and eline .

Posted by Oxonion on (March 2, 2014, 7:24 GMT)

Comparing batting artists to other batsmen of this world is just like comparing mercedes benz to the other cars of the world; some might have power, some durability and some speed; but mercedes; class! The magical poetry in motion of Greg Chappel, David Gower, Majid Khan, Zaheer Abbass, Vishwanath, Mohsin Khan, Mohammad Yusaf would make one of the most potent anti depressants list. The question is why they are not unearthed anymore. If ODI was not enough, in came the T20 and robbed us all of the mercedeses of batting...alas! The same reasin why we have lost the bowling artists al a Mike holdings, Dennis Lillees and the Imran Khans....ICC needs to ration the limited overs pantomimes if we are to mellow more in the cricket class of mercedeses....

Posted by harshthakor on (March 2, 2014, 6:27 GMT)

Two other great bowling artists were Wasim Akram and Malcolm Marshall.Wasim mastered reverse swing more than any bowler and could bowl 6 different types of deliveries within a single over.Malcolm Marshall 's skidding bouncer was something no bowler could ever bowl and no paceman could swing the ball at such varying speeds.Both Akram and Marshall were magicians who could innovate deliveries of their very own.To witness pure agression Dennis Lillee was the ultimate sight charging in like a Greek God breathing fire.In the spin bowling department Abdul Qadir's wizardry with his googly was the spectator's ultimate delight.

For entertainment in batting Viv Richards had no equal but at times it was a revelation witnessing Gavaskar's immaculate defence and technically correct scoring strokes on the most precarious tracks.

Overall the ultimate batsmen for aesthetic value were Rohan Kanhai and Barry Richards who possessed every component from technique to artistry, to entertaininment value.

Posted by harshthakor on (March 2, 2014, 5:39 GMT)

If we analyzed bowling artistry amongst pacemen then Michael Holding ranks supreme.His bowling was simply poetry in motion like a technician and violinist combined into one.Holding possessed the smoothest of actions and resembled a Roll's Royce car or an antelope running.It is difficult to conceive any bowler bowling at such breathtaking speed but yet bowling with the effortlessness of a shepherd caressing his sheep.

In the spinning department I would choose Subhash Gupte and Bishen Bedi.

Posted by harshthakor on (March 2, 2014, 5:31 GMT)

My 10 best batting stylists in order of merit.

1.Zaheer Abbas 2.Gundpaa Vishwanath 3.David Gower 4.Denis Compton 5.Frank Worrell 6.Majid Khan 7.Frank Worrell 8.Ted Dexter 9.Rohan Kanhai 10.Mark Waugh

Earlier I forgot about Ted Dexter who in his era was a strong contender for the best batsmen with supreme style in the calibre of Knahai or Worrell.

Posted by harshthakor on (March 2, 2014, 5:27 GMT)

The best contrast of stylists with mere technicians were David Gower with Geoff Boycott,Gundapaa Vishwanath with Sunil Gavaskar,Mark Waugh with Steve Waugh,Roy Dias with Duleep Mendis,Ted Dexter with Ken Barrington and lastly Zaheer Abbas with Hanif Mohammad.

Never forget although posessing brute power stalwarts like Viv Richards,Gary Sobers or Everton Weekes or Wally Hammond were supreme entertainers.

Posted by harshthakor on (March 2, 2014, 5:20 GMT)

A most relevant piece which underlines that above everything cricket is an art.Arguably no sport possesses artistry and imagination to the extent of cricket,particularly in the batting department.I agree with the author that above correct technique and power we want to witness artistry and grace.

In that light the best stylists of the game were Gundappa Vishwanath,Zaheer Abbas,David Gower and Denis Compton.They simply resembled poets or musical composers when batting executing strokes totally out of the book.Vishy ,Zaheer and Gower all displayed touch art and would simply caress the best of deliveries over the fence whether driving,cutting or leg-glancing.It looked like a painter making curves on the board.A vishwanath square cut or a Zaheer Abbas cover drive were like the touches of a painter's brush.

In the same league were Frank Worrell,Mohammad Azharuddin,Majid Khan,Mark Waugh and Rohan Kanha iwho were all devastating but still had a pianist's grace and poet's originality.

Posted by k.mithilesh on (March 2, 2014, 2:59 GMT)

It would have been a beautiful piece of writing but the " gallant Rajput defiance" spoiled it all...why would you use such an oriental, casteist smacks of all the prejudices and stereotypes that is being still resisted...

Posted by SalimLangda on (March 2, 2014, 1:34 GMT)

Desperate attempt to talk up Sri Lankan players.

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Janaka Malwatta
Janaka Malwatta was born in Kandy, grew up in London, and now lives in Brisbane. A lifelong cricket lover, his writing is informed by a passion for telling Sri Lankan stories. He writes YA fiction and performs poetry, which has been published in Australia. Occasionally he moonlights as a General Practitioner. @janakamalwatta

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