May 30, 2016

Welcome to the era of the total batsman

T20 has produced a breed of player who with his imagination, athleticism and technical mastery proves that scoring prodigiously and fast does not have to involve massive risk-taking
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In the IPL final, David Warner scored 69 at a strike rate of 181, but there was nothing reckless about the way he played © BCCI

Though pure power had its influential say - Ben Cutting's brutal blows, Chris Gayle's clean strikes - the 2016 IPL, all taken together, pointed towards the supremacy of total batsmanship. The most valuable run scorers in T20 are also masters of all forms of the game.

Batsmanship is evolving, almost with every game. The technical and strategic potential of T20, present from the beginning, has turned into reality. Anyone who wants to see where batsmanship is going should study every innings played this season by David Warner, Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers.

There is good news and there is better news. The good news, for cricket's purists, is that all three players use a classical stance, grip, pick-up and address to the ball. They start sideways-on, eyes level; shoulders, hips, knees all forming straight lines back to the bowler. When they are forced to defend (though rare) it looks natural and easy. That is because their intent is to attack, but they have sufficient control to avoid over-commitment - just as it should be, in every form of the game.

The better news, for thrill seekers, is that they have used this technically sound platform as a starting point rather than the destination. Having mastered the essentials, they have elevated expectations.

There have been a handful of turning points in the history of batsmanship. WG Grace, it is said, was the first batsman to blur the coaching manual distinction between defence and attack. "When you block," WG advised cricketers, "infuse a little power into what you do, and do not be content to stop the ball by simply putting the bat in its way - anyone can do that - but try and score off it too."

Bradman accepted the premise but advanced the idea in practice. He brought a scientific rigour to the art of batsmanship, dominating an amateurish era with the relentlessness of the ultimate professional.

It is another sport, however, that provides an even better analogy with what is happening in cricket: football. In the 1970s, Johan Cruyff, combining exceptional technique with an irreverent mindset, reconsidered how football should be played. He wanted a game of rapid one-touch passing, with players endlessly exchanging positions in search of space. In English, it became known as "total football".

Instead of seeking a different balance among existing compromises - attack v defence, agility v robustness, speed v strength - total football redrafted the whole equation. Everyone in the team should be able to "play" (with skill, confidence, imagination and attacking intent); Cruyff's Ajax team pursued and achieved victory by staying close to that philosophy. It was, in a phrase that often is misapplied, a genuine paradigm shift - and the beginning of football as we now know it.

Kohli, de Villiers and Warner have not accepted the old compromises. They have valued their wicket dearly while simultaneously proving almost impossible to contain. They have stayed close to the basics, while stretching the game's potential

During this IPL, Kohli, de Villiers and Warner have done something similar to batsmanship. They have not accepted the old compromises. They have valued their wicket dearly while simultaneously proving almost impossible to contain. They have stayed close to the basics, while stretching the game's potential. Cruyff's advice, incidentally, was to remember the simple things, especially if you were having a bad game - after a few neat but unflashy passes, confidence floods back. In the same way, Kohli, in particular, always likes to get himself in playing "normally." First get set, then take the game away from bowlers. In the final, Warner scored 69 at a strike rate of 181, but there was nothing reckless about the way he played.

Kohli, de Villiers and Warner have not accepted the old assumption that scoring at a very high run rate relies on equivalent devil-may-care risk-taking. In 2016, they all scored at between 150 and 200 runs per hundred balls, averaging between 50 and 100 runs per dismissal. How can that be done?

If the technical foundations are strong enough, and the match awareness is clear enough, then even shots once considered wildly risky can be played with measured precision. Kohli's go-to shot under pressure has often been the six over extra, executed with the purest classical bat swing. The demands on his skill, judgement and self-belief are admittedly enormous. But risk? If a player keeps doing something without failing, then the risk has obviously been tamed.

T20 has not become a slogfest exclusively dominated by giants. All three total batsmen are closer in shape and athleticism to elite tennis players than to baseball sluggers or muscle-bound rugby players. Pure power still has its role to play, of course it does. But the most valued batsmen in T20 are also among the most prolific performers in Tests and ODIs.

Kohli's go-to shot under pressure has often been the six over extra cover © AFP

T20 has not splintered into two separate camps - "technicians" versus "white-ball players" - but enabled the emergence of a more complete player: the total batsman. Joe Root, Kane Williamson and Steven Smith are part of that elite group.

Various theories have been proposed to underplay the revolution in batting: big bats, small grounds, average bowlers. Each should be warranted some, but not disproportionate, weight. The bats I picked up at this year's IPL weren't much different from the ones I used in my last season in 2008. Some grounds are too small, but this may disproportionately benefit power-hitters' mishits; bigger grounds would probably help the "total batsmen". The bowling? When leading batsmen apply so much 360-degree pressure on bowlers, no wonder bowlers make mistakes.

The theories that counter the brilliance of today's batsmen miss a deeper truth. For decades, conventional wisdom - steady on, you can't do that; don't take on a boundary fielder; having three shots in the locker is enough - suppressed batting's potential.

The imagination, athleticism and technical mastery of today's total batsmen have pushed back the outer wall of cricket's potential.

Ed Smith is the Course Director of an MA in the History of Sport 1800-2000. @edsmithwriter

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • sam on June 1, 2016, 15:40 GMT

    @Nutcutlet You are both right and wrong. Right that test cricket is the tougher version of cricket and wrong that test cricket is the only version that matters. It all matters what majority of people enjoy. We can't force anybody to watch what they don't enjoy. If someone doesn't enjoy a Cook's or Dravid's slow scoring we can't force them can we? It's a matter of personal liberty. Whoever likes whatever watches that. And personally though I prefer test cricket (because it is the sport that resembles human life the most) I enjoy ODIs and T20s as well of all teams. And finally playing spin on a rank turner is at least as difficult (and as enthralling to watch) as playing seam and swing bowling on a green seamer with cloud cover. Both tasks need a lot of skill and even more application and temperament.

  • Naresh on June 1, 2016, 7:15 GMT

    I used to think Kevin Pieterson was a hard hitter. Now we got the likes of McCullam, Warner - who really slug it. Boundaries are scored through hard hitting the only way to get these batsman out is to really slow it down so that they mistime. They like it fast so that they can use the pace of the ball.

  • ian on May 31, 2016, 18:43 GMT

    Ed always sees things from a batting perspective - and that is but half the story. Carting mediocre bowling over the foreshortened boundary that the t20 format requires may be marvellous within its context, but it suggests that the bowling is no more than fodder for these batting exploits. In the t20 format with its Indo- centric emphasis on astronomic rpo rates, it is an absolute betrayal of the essence of cricket: a fine balance between bat and ball. Now put a red ball in the hands of Anderson and Broad with 70 metre boundaries and no restriction on fielding positions (beyond the historic requirement of no more than two behind square leg) and provide a cloud cover, at Leeds, let's say. Then we'll see who's boss! Now rewind to England, set 332 to win on a 'genuine, demon-haunted Melbourne"sticky"' (Denzil Batchelor: Book of Cricket) in January 1929... The locals thought 80 would be good! 105 opening partnership: Eng win by 3wks! What was that about complete batsmanship? Perspective!

  • Narsing on May 31, 2016, 15:10 GMT

    Enjoying this! Interesting article and followed by pithy observations - right or wrong, agree or disagree, I like that many comments have made me look at "the way things are" or "...were..." in different ways. Thank you.

    The one distinction missed by Mr. Smith and the commenters is that most of the older generation batsmen were cricketers. Stat. Whereas the current crop of successful batsmen are simply marvelous athletes that have good instincts supplemented by rigorous training, discipline, focus on building specific muscle groups and movements....Sure, Viv was a great athlete but I wonder if the growth of modern sports medicine and training has helped the marginally good athlete become an excellent athlete. Don't know - that's a question for Mr. Smith.

    To be continued...

  •   Pravin Limaye on May 31, 2016, 12:58 GMT

    It would be interesting to see if Kohli and AB bat with the same success, when using bats of old (I'm not quite sure). I think Warner would be successful at that. Kohli depends almost entirely on his wrists. And for one thing, there is surely no glory in hitting sixes at Bangalore for crying out loud.

    Plus, I think somebody needs to calm Kohli down, or else his temper (and in a larger sense, temperament) is going to hurt him bad one of these days. When you are the captain of the team, you still do not own your fielders. All the hand-brandishing and the hyper-activity (renamed as 'passion for the game' by some) can never be justified. Playing with sutures in your webbing is also not passion for the game, it is sheer recklessness. One misjudged catch or a bad bounce while fielding the ball could have aggravated the injury and affected India during the International season.

  • Manika on May 31, 2016, 3:15 GMT

    People may have their favorites but one needs to accept that Kohli has taken batsman ship to another level , we can not even put Steven Smith ( good on flat pitches though ) at par with him. Root is yet to do well in ODI at consistent level. People do bring one series of 5 meaningless matches back and back. That has gone by. Since then Kohli has played in highly swinging conditions and done superbly well against probably worlds best bower currently. Lets be big hearted nad say that was one fluke poor performance , just like Ponting failed miserably in India in 2001 , though Kohli was not that bad in that series. Be open hearted and accept that Kohli is in different league. There is no one who we can even think of being compared to Kohli in shorter formats and his batting under pressure. Then comes tests in which he bats on turners or swinging pitches away. He does not get luxury of flat pitches like Root , Smith gets at regular basis. Lets appreciate this beautiful article .

  • Kiran on May 31, 2016, 1:16 GMT

    What a magnificent write-up, Ed Smith!!!!!!! It's delightful to read your analysis, you are absolutely spot on. Like you mentioned about how W.G. Grace and Donald Bradman redefined how to bat, I would like to recall an innings played by the elegant wizard Azharuddin in the 1996 Pepsi Cup in Sharjah. Azhar slammed an unbeaten 29 off just 10 balls, never looked he was going to get out, and made mincemeat of Ata-ur-Rehman, hitting him for 4,2,2,6,4,4 in the 50th over of the match. In hindsight we can say that this was one of those innings that was played ahead of its time, though at that time we had no idea about it. Also, who can ever forget Ajay Jadeja taking on Waqar Younis and others in the 1996 World Cup quarterfinal in Bangalore, bludgeoning 45 off a mere 24 balls and paving the way for a handsome, famous Indian victory, that is part of folklore ? It's true that Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers and David Warner have taken the game to a new level, something perhaps unprecedented.

  • Jason on May 30, 2016, 18:06 GMT

    One of the batsmen I most admired in recent times was the Australian Chris Rogers. Had terrific temperament and technique at test level. Wish we had more like him.

  • Prakash on May 30, 2016, 15:38 GMT

    Provoking article Ed. I beg to disagree that total cricketers have arrived only now. As has been pointed out by several others there have been great players in the past as well for whom format of the game has not mattered one bit. They have used their technical superiority and discipline to adapt to the conditions and then master the conditions. The new set of blokes that you refer to are doing it very well in the current formats that are played around the world, but that does not make them the first set of total batsmen. Batting (like bowling) continues to evolve with time and conditions and these guys have certainly evolved it one or few level(s) higher, but they are not the first to do so.

  • Brijesh on May 30, 2016, 14:59 GMT

    @NAIDOOMERIT - Like HadesLogic has pointed out, you're seeking for something that's almost Badmanesque. That's an unfair approach, considering the unprofessional nature of cricket in those days (as mentioned in the article and no disrespect to the Don himself). Think about it like this - If you were to pick a batting line up for Test cricket to represent you, among contemporaries, would AB be in those 5? He's there on mine, and I'm fairly certain he'll be there on a majority of such lists. That in itself ascertains his position as a great. Now his relative position among all time greats is questionable due to differential circumstances. But as Ed has pointed out, this is batsmanship that has not been witnessed in the history of cricket. Its taken more than a century to unleash WG's methods to the fullest. Its fair to say that's historic and it's made batsmanship richer. That places these guys among the giants. Not above them or below them, but among them.

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