January 14, 2016

Are modern cricketers more open to experimentation?

In the past, trying new deliveries and strokes in matches used to be frowned on. Not anymore

Risk? What risk? © AFP

It was a cool December evening in the early 1980s. Flute maestro Hariprasad Chourasia was about to enter the iconic Kalakshetra auditorium in Chennai to perform in a concert when a young enthusiast asked him, "Will you please play the raga Hemant for me?" His reply was quick - and surprising, coming as it did from a leading classical musician of several years' standing. He said, "Sorry, I haven't learnt the raga yet." Some years later, I had a similar conversation with TV Vasan, a percussionist who played the mridangam, a south Indian drum. He spoke about a conversation he once had with the doyen of Carnatic music, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. Vasan, who had watched Iyengar practise a particular song some 500 times during the month, was eager to hear it in concert on the morrow. That was not to be. "I haven't mastered it," said the singer.

More recently I read about another old master's advice to young musicians. Semmangudi Srinivasier, grand old patriarch of Carnatic music, said to his disciples: "Practise every song at least a thousand times before you take it to the concert platform." MS Subbulakshmi, perhaps the best known south Indian voice, was famous for doing just that. She knew every lyric of every song backwards, regardless of language or complexity, and still had butterflies in her stomach before every concert. The rigour extended even to studio recordings, where she could well have resorted to external aids with nobody the wiser for it.

The situation is different today. Without criticising or condemning modern musicians, it can be said truthfully of most that they do not match the older generation in their preparation for performances. Many look into their iPads or cell phones while performing on stage, possibly because their song repertoires are far larger than those of their gurus were. It is not unusual for a song learnt in the morning to debut in the evening.

What has all this to do with cricket? It is that I find some parallels between the two. For instance, I remember watching Erapalli Prasanna, during his last Ranji Trophy match, I think, bowl in the nets a delivery that looked similar to the doosra of a later era. Bowling in an adjacent net, and fascinated by the new variation, I asked him how come I never saw the delivery in a match. "Haven't mastered it," was his reply.

In my experience, experiments were frowned upon in matches. You were sure to get a tongue-lashing from your seniors if you tried something novel in a game. Mumtaz Hussain, a successful left-arm spinner in first-class cricket, might have been even more successful if he had continued to bowl the chinaman and the googly as he had done in his university days, instead of turning into an orthodox spinner and serving his side in a risk-free manner. Though Bhagwath Chandrasekhar and Anil Kumble were unorthodox wrist spinners, much quicker than the norm, neither added variations - like a slower ball - to his armoury before he was well into his career. Similarly, most international bowlers were reluctant to try reverse swing until long after the Pakistanis unfurled it.

The second decade of this century has been a watershed in this regard, with both bowlers and batsmen increasingly ready to take risks. To the reverse sweep has been added the switch hit, and the likes of offspinner R Ashwin (among those whose actions have not been questioned) have been attempting numerous variations, including the legbreak, whose destructive potential is as yet unknown.

I shudder to think what choice French my captain might have resorted to had I resorted to such experimentation in my day. As a result of such a mindset - which most of my contemporaries shared - I was so cautious that once, after hitting Tamil Nadu batsman P Mukund's off stump in a Ranji Trophy match (by sheer fluke) with a delivery I bowled from round the wicket, gripping the ball with my palm, I never tried the variation in all 15 years of cricket that followed. However, lest I be misunderstood to be an advocate of the current trend of launching untested or insufficiently tested products, let me stress that I am indeed an admirer of the perfectionism of the old guard.

V Ramnarayan bowled offspin for Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s. His latest book is Third Man, Recollections from a Life in Cricket

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