All for one
A nudge here, a push there, and they were off, homing in on the other end. Chandrahas Choudhury rounds up the best single-takers in the business.
"Fancy doing that," the Don is reported to have said when he returned to the pavilion after being bowled by Eric Hollies for a duck in his last Test innings. He might as well have said it after being run out by Jack Hobbs at Adelaide in 1929, the only time he was ever run out in his Test career.
A devastating striker of boundaries, Bradman always remained alert nonetheless to the value of the humble single. Indeed, one of the clues to his greatness as a batsman was his understanding of the intimate relationship between the two most basic categories of scoring strokes. As he noted in his book The Art of Cricket, "Judicious short running may pull [fielders] in and provide major scoring opportunities." A sure judge of a run, and possessed - as anyone who saw his silverquick footwork could tell - of great speed between the wickets, Bradman was run out only four times in his first-class career.
Bradman notes in The Art of Cricket: "If both batsmen run immediately the ball is struck, it is amazing what they can achieve and how difficult it becomes to run them out." He would have been pleased to observe the truth of this one afternoon in 1978 at Karachi, when, with Pakistan needing 168 to win in the day's final session, kindred spirits Iqbal and Javed Miandad ran India ragged with a match-winning partnership.
For many years Iqbal had enjoyed a reputation as one of the cleverest No. 6 batsmen and swiftest runners in world cricket, and it said something for his gifts that at 35 he could match the ambition and frenetic pace of his 21-year-old partner. It was a late heyday that sealed his reputation.
Simpson formed, with the left-hander Bill Lawry, one of the great opening pairs. Their shared penchant for turning the strike over disruptively with quick singles really brought out the meaning of the word 'partnership', and every time they crossed over they made the entire field change sides and the bowlers change lines.
But Simpson was not just an outstanding practitioner of the single - he also became its most influential theoretician. As coach of Australia in the second half of the eighties, he brought to their notice the fact that, in one-day cricket, the team that scored more singles than the other ended up winning 85 per cent of the time. It was a lesson Australia brought decisively into play in their brilliant World Cup-winning campaign in 1987.
Australia's dynamic No. 3 of the late eighties and early nineties, Jones must be credited for a revolution of sorts in batting: that of raising a batsman's work between the wickets to an importance matching his skill in front of them.
Attention to quick running and to turning the strike over were always features of the Australian batting tradition, but they acquired greater importance as one-day cricket began to boom across the world, and Jones was a true pioneer at adapting batting to the shorter game. Blessed with electric pace, he could go at almost a run a ball by tipping and running and working the ball into gaps, and he worked intensively on the arts of stopping and turning, sliding the bat into the crease, and backing up. Indeed, Jones was often at his breathtaking best after he had played a stroke, and sometimes it seemed that all the fielders could do was stand and stare.
One of a trio of outstanding middle-order manipulators from Asia over the eighties and nineties, Ranatunga was perhaps closer in spirit to Miandad than to Azhar - he didn't care too much about the means as long as he achieved his ends. His signature stroke was a sweep or glide just behind square on the leg side, often without regard to the line of the ball, with his front leg extended well outside off stump to rule out the lbw - in fact, if he missed, the ball usually dribbled off his pad for one in any case. But what annoyed the opposition even more was the Ranatunga doctrine of energy conservation. Although as quick between the wickets as the best of them, he preferred to saunter languidly to the other end, bat held in both hands, as if strolling in some cool grove. Dean Jones would have been aghast.
Where other batsmen would have gone for the big shot, Bevan merely took another single. "My theory is that you always have to do less than you think," professed the best finisher in the history of one-day cricket. Bevan was never intimidated by a spiralling asking-rate: "If you lose your wicket, that can disrupt an innings more than your not scoring quickly enough for an over or two."
For Bevan the single was the percentage stroke that got his team ever so slightly closer to the finishing line - over and over again, with a dab here and a nudge there, till the target came within striking distance, his eye was well and truly in, and all the odds were on his side.
It is rare that a prodigious scorer of singles is also an unexceptional runner between wickets, but Manjrekar was one such player and none the worse off for it.
His great skill in his mature years was his ability to precisely control the weight he put on the stroke, and the angle at which he directed it so as to make it yield him a run before the fielder got to the ball. Often, when well entrenched on a good pitch, he would use this skill to farm the bowling, working the fifth or sixth ball of the over for one.
Ted Dexter thought highly of Manjrekar, saying that he had taught him the role of placement in batting, but reported that others, like Manjrekar's often-time partner in the middle order, Polly Umrigar, were less impressed, sometimes turning down singles to get a little batting themselves.
Miandad thrived on the disruptive power of singles: he only truly felt settled when he had the fielding team unsettled. He chatted incessantly with fielders, taunted bowlers between deliveries, and delighted in upsetting well-laid plans with runs poached through tip-and-run tactics and daring improvisations.
From the time he arrived on the scene as a teenager in the 1975 World Cup, all the way to his final game as a grizzled veteran attempting to bail his team out in the 1996 World Cup quarter-final, Miandad's exceptional cricketing acumen always found its most compelling expression in his manipulation of his 11 opponents with singles.
As one-day cricket settled into regular rhythms and patterns, the middle overs of an innings became a period of quiet accumulation and almost exclusively a game of singles: the batting side attempting to score as many as possible, and the fielding team trying to ensure that there were a couple of dot balls every over.
Azhar revelled in the role of middle-overs accumulator, finishing with 58 ODI half-centuries. Never was single-taking such a pleasure to watch: three balls on off stump could be successively driven to long-off, back-cut to third man, and flicked to deep square leg - no drama in the scorebook, but artistry of the purest kind, and an incessant flow that few bowlers in the world could stop.
Langer turns the strike over outstandingly in the company of his long-time opening partner Matthew Hayden, and unlike Hayden, who lopes from one end to the other with five or six massive strides, the pint-sized Langer really does convey the impression of haring between the wickets.
One of the hardest workers among contemporary batsmen, Langer runs a hundred runs in the nets before every Test to build up his stamina for a long innings. And he can really think on his feet while batting, as he showed in the Perth Test against Pakistan last year. Wanting to protect the tailender Jason Gillespie from the pace of Shoaib Akhtar, Langer suddenly charged down the pitch as Gillespie evaded a bouncer, and had pinched a bye before the wicketkeeper could react. Among those most surprised by the audacity of this heist was the batsman himself.
Dravid's development from a very good batsman in the first half of his career to a great one in the second has a lot to do with his learning how to solve the problem of the single. In his early days he played the bowling so strictly on merit that he sometimes got bogged down for long periods against good bowling, and was even dropped from the one-day team. Since then he has evolved into a masterly No. 5 in one-day cricket, able to work the ball around at will, and a much more attractive Test batsman who no longer takes upon himself the burden of 20 minutes without a run. To see him now, as between beautiful drives and flicks he gently drops the ball at his feet and hurries through for one, is to see a batsman who has found his entire range, and can make sweet music regardless of where the fielders are or what is thrown at him.
This article was first published in the April issue of Wisden Asia Cricket.
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Chandrahas Choudhury is assistant editor Wisden Asia Cricket