April 2, 2008

Footwork my foot

In the light of Sehwag's latest blitzkrieg, it is worth asking: what value does technical correctness in general, and footwork in particular, hold these days?

Dravid and Sehwag: same generation, different schools © PA Photos

Watching Virender Sehwag and Rahul Dravid bat together in the Chennai Test, it was difficult to shake off the feeling that the old order was yielding to the new, and that cricket was completing a technical revolution that might be as far-reaching as the financial one currently underway. While Sehwag went about busting the myth of footwork, Dravid hinted that he might be the last of the great technicians.

One of cricket's most enduring stories concerns a coach telling his ward who has just played a shot, "That's terrible. Look where your feet are." The immortal reply is, "Yes. But look where the ball is." While coaches deal in processes, players such as Sehwag deal in the product.

The basic tenets of batsmanship involve bringing the bat down straight, getting the foot to the pitch of the ball, playing with bat and pad close together, head over the ball, driving with the elbow high, following through to complete the drive - a whole accordion of dos and don'ts. Batsmen like Sehwag, and before him Sanath Jayasuriya, compressed that accordion to play a kind of music not heard from opening batsmen. Only one thing matters: balance.

There have been batsmen who followed their own rules. Garry Sobers wasn't much of a one for footwork - his 254 for the World XI in Australia, which Don Bradman considered the finest innings played in that country, was remarkable for the scant regard for footwork for the most part. The argument then was that Sobers could get away with it because he was a genius.

Such disregard for footwork is already the norm now. So what has thrown a bridge across the genius and the journeyman in just a couple of generations? The quality of bats, for one. Some of them seem to be one extended "sweet spot", capable of sending the ball screaming to the fence from the merest push. Smaller grounds, better wickets, lighter equipment, superior fitness, and better physical protection as provided by the helmet and body padding, have all made it easier for the batsman.

In the 1980s, Barry Richards observed that batting technique was changing. He was met with howls of protest from the traditionalists, who said that technique could never change; the accordion must remain. Yet if Sehwag can stand still and deliver in the manner he does, thus conserving energy and time, why would his style not replace the coaching manual? The two ways of batting, traditionalists will aver, are the right way and the wrong way. The former is a system written in stone while the latter is anything that breaks those rules.

The modern batsman feels the two ways of batting are the effective (or productive) way and the ineffective (or unproductive) way. For don't forget, fitness levels have improved all round; the perfect cover-drive is often easily stopped. Yet if the fielding captain is uncertain whether the batsman will drive to cover or point, or even midwicket, nothing is easily stopped. In fact, the essence of modern batting has to be its unpredictability. As the South African bowlers showed on a wicket not particularly helpful to them, bowlers can keep a technician quiet for long periods because he is predictable. Similar questions provoke identical responses, and the accordion, far from providing a range of sounds can actually get stuck playing the same notes over and over again.

All batsmanship can be reduced to the moment when the bat actually meets the ball, and then the only rule is: balance is all. Watch the great players - bats may come down from second slip, the ball might be met on the rise or away from the body, the wrong hand might lead the shot. Yet at the moment of contact, there is perfect balance

Thanks to one-day cricket Dravid introduced an element of unpredictability into his batting over a major portion of his career. He still surprises with his ability to move across the stumps and turn the ball past square leg, for example. And when that opens up gaps in the field, he gets his runs in the orthodox, "approved" manner. When he slips from his considered orthodoxy, he does it almost apologetically. The next generation will do the reverse - sacrifice orthodoxy for effectiveness, and apologise only when forced to follow the manual.

Of the six batsmen who have made 10,000 runs, the three Indians are technically superior to the two Australians and the West Indian. This is no coincidence; our players pray at the altar of orthodoxy, and even some of our internationals have shown signs of being over-coached.

If once coaches destroyed our players, that role is now being played by commentators. Perhaps this is the downside of having former internationals on the panel. Obsessed with the manual, they pay little attention to effectiveness. You can hear the cry, "Poor footwork", for example, at regular intervals. Sadagoppan Ramesh, the left-hand opening batsman, had a middling record, and there was promise of better things to come when he nearly scored a century against Wasim Akram and Pakistan. Yet so persistent was the cry of "No footwork" that he paid the price.

There is more than one way to be successful. More than one way to be effective. All batsmanship can be reduced to the moment when the bat actually meets the ball, and then the only rule is: balance is all. Watch the great players - bats may come down from second slip, the ball might be met on the rise or away from the body, the wrong hand might lead the shot. Yet at the moment of contact, there is perfect balance.

Although both Dravid and Sehwag are of the same generation, they belong to different schools of batsmanship. The success of the latter, and the manner of it, might render the textbook of the former obsolete. Let us enjoy the last of the great technicians while we can, and before Twenty20 makes all technical discussions irrelevant.

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Chris on April 4, 2008, 12:30 GMT

    Sehwag's cheap dismissal in the second test match was because of his lack of positive footwork. Had it been the batsman's paradise of Chennai the ball would not have turned into him and taken the edge onto the stumps.

  • Stephen on April 4, 2008, 3:13 GMT

    If I was a youngster I would be reading this and thinking that I might be potentially wasting my time with coaching. As a few people have mentioned, technique becomes vital where anything less than a perfect batting surface is served up. Sehwag is a great eye player and his career record reflects this. However, the current Test is an example of how technique becomes important where the surface is not a road. 99% of cricket is played on less than perfect batting surfaces. Move away from the technical aspects of the game at your on peril.

  • V on April 4, 2008, 2:37 GMT

    I guess India's batting performance in Ahmedabad proves that when the ball starts doing something, without technique you are not going to go anywhere.

  • MONUSAI on April 4, 2008, 2:24 GMT

    I hope everyone got any idea how the India batting line up baffled on the seaming pitch of Ahmedabad. All the top order wickets were fell because of lack of footwork. It is easy to play upon the flat tracks, but yesterday the grassy wicket showed the old story of Indian cricket.

  • Arvind on April 4, 2008, 2:06 GMT

    Seems like you spoke too soon. The value of footwork is realized only when the going is tough not when there are tracks like the one seen in Chennai. A good thing about having proper footwork is, it acts as an insurance during the times when form deserts a batsman. If he starts failing for 10-15 innings, which is quite common, the so called experts in the media box would be quick to pounce on the lack of footwork, which clearly was the case with S Ramesh.

  • AB on April 3, 2008, 21:32 GMT

    No footwork = 76 all out. The basic fundamentals of any game never change. Its ironic that India posted this score right after this article.

  • A on April 3, 2008, 19:34 GMT

    Any comments now, seeing what happened at Motera? Flat wickets don't need footwork as most people would agree, but land on a 'slightly (if only)' green wicket, and that's the most important ingredient, without which you are doomed!

  • Mustafa on April 3, 2008, 18:00 GMT

    I guess the difference is there to see, the value of footwork, though it did not help Dravid survive in the second test, but it needed a special ball to get him out, so stop thinking that the foot work my foot works, it does not, the reason guys can score faster is the standard of bowling and the standard of pitches.

    Sehwag as good as he is, is no where near greatness.

  • Shanthal on April 3, 2008, 16:19 GMT

    There is more than one way to be successful but... success at the highest level, in the toughest conditions... might be more likely by the greatest technicians. And after watching a great first session at Ahmedabad - good footwork on a placid pitch would have still got you a good total, footwork on a green top could have got you more than 76. Batsmen were caught in two minds and ever caught in the middle

  • Douglas on April 3, 2008, 8:44 GMT

    Just to add to my earlier post on the importance of footwork when there is lateral movement (seam or spin) see India's effort today - 76 all out. Sehwag bowled off an inside edge reaching at a wide delivery...need I say more?

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