May 5, 2007

Squashing glory

How a humble little squash ball played its part in one of the great batting efforts of our times

Adam Gilchrist at his show-stopping best © Getty Images

Watching it was like being transported on a magic carpet to other worlds but, once the ride was over, you were left to ponder an innings that was every bit as unusual as it was resplendent. And years from now, we're still likely to be talking about the day a humble little squash ball played its part in one of the great batting efforts of our times, the day Adam Gilchrist scored 149 off 104 balls in the World Cup final.

Dozens of readers have written in to Cricinfo since, questioning the legality of the innings. "If using a squash ball isn't OK as per the laws of the game, is his innings legal and does it count?" asked one. "And if it doesn't count, can Australia claim to have won a hopelessly one-sided and farcical victory?"

Another concentrated on the minutiae of the laws. "The law specifically prohibits a player from using equipment other than that permitted," he wrote. "And nowhere in cricket's 42 laws is there a mention of a squash ball as a permitted item. If you are not allowed to bowl with any tape or plaster on your fingers, I don't think you should be allowed to have a squash ball in your gloves when batting."

And that's precisely where we enter the greyest of cricket's many grey areas. As long ago as the 19th century, a South African gent by the name of Baberton Halliwell used raw steaks inside his wicketkeeping gloves, a method subsequently emulated by the likes of Alan Knott and Rod Marsh. Batsmen with poppadam fingers, as Nasser Hussain came to be known, have also been known to have extra padding and protection inside their gloves.

According to an article in The Daily Express, it's not only gloves that have been messed with in the quest to get ahead. It mentions how John Wright, the former New Zealand opener who coached India, used to glue his top glove to the handle, in order to maintain the alignment of elbow and shoulder. Even more fascinating is Tim Robinson's account of how Clive Rice, the South Africa and Nottinghamshire allrounder, would wrap strips of lead around the top of his handle to balance what was a very heavy bat.

Gilchrist had his own trick, not up his sleeve but inside his glove. It wasn't the first time that the squash ball had come into play either. At the WACA last November, he flayed the Queensland attack for 131 from 95 balls, but the experiment suggested by Bob Meuleman, a former squash player himself, remained just that until he got to the World Cup final.

It had been a frustrating tournament for him, as he admitted later. Half-centuries against the Netherlands and Bangladesh boosted his run tally to 304 runs, but there was no doubt that it was the other half of the opening combo, Matthew Hayden, that had intimidated the life out of opposition teams.

With his relatively light bat and atypical grip, Gilchrist had started to fall to the strokes that had once been his forte. The sliced drive to point was of particular concern and, on the eve of the game, he decided to give the squash ball another go.

What it did when slipped inside the left glove was make him markedly less bottom-handed in his approach. As Meuleman said in a newspaper interview later, "I've worked with him for 10 years and he an unusual grip in which his hand goes too far around the back of the bat. It [the squash ball] is a great big lump in your glove but it means that you can only use your bottom hand in a V."

According to Meuleman, who played a few Sheffield Shield games himself in the 1960s, the effect was dramatic. "He had a few hits before he went off to the World Cup; he didn't have the squash ball in and he hit them like he couldn't even play fourth grade. He put it in and he then hit the ball so good."

At the Kensington Oval, Mahela Jayawardene was well aware of the wonderful twirl of the bat that sent the ball scurrying to the point or cover fence that came to epitomise the Gilchrist way. Having suffered previously at Gilchrist's hands, Jayawardene blockaded the off side, with an isosceles-triangle formation of backward point, a short-square point and an extra-cover. The aim was to starve him of his main scoring outlet, thus inducing a rash stroke or two.

What the squash ball did was change his scoring areas completely. His last one-day century, against Sri Lanka on Valentine's Day in 2006, had highlighted his off-side strengths - 60 of his 122 runs came there - but he started off the World Cup final with a clip behind square leg and a stunning shot over wide long-on.

By the time he departed, with victory almost assured, only five of his runs had come in that favoured arc from backward point to cover. There were lofted shots aplenty, but most were struck with precision straight down the ground. A staggering 65 runs came from strokes in the V, including six fours and five sixes.

The ICC may have cracked down on graphite strips and the like, but when steaks - rare preferred to medium or well done - and cricket have been hand-in-glove, it's unlikely that the squash ball can be proscribed. Having tried it, as many readers no doubt have, we can safely say that batting with it is no picnic. A bunny with squash-ball-in-glove doesn't a Gilchrist make.

Dileep Premachandran is associate editor of Cricinfo