August 5, 2009

Faster, stronger, uglier

Why has cricket deteriorated aesthetically even as it has improved as a spectacle?
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Every blue sky has a cloudy lining. From where I'm sitting, cricket, despite the indecently manful efforts of its administrators, is as thrilling and watchable as it has ever been during my lifetime. The variety of formats and spread of global talent (who'd have guessed that the best allrounder in 2009 would hail from Bangladesh, or that the most promising young seam attack would be Sri Lankan?), allied to a greater awareness of what it means to be in the entertainment business, have seen to that. Yet as the game has improved as a spectacle, it has deteriorated in aesthetic terms. What was once opera is now rock. For Verdi, Sacchini and Rossini read Presley, Holly and Tom Petty. Roll over Beethoven and tell George Headley the news.

This is not to decry rock music. Far from it. Give me rousing lead guitars, rumbling basses and pounding drums any day over overweight, overwrought tenors prattling on about jealousy and homicide in Italian. The best rock music, though, possesses subtleties and nuances, and all too often contemporary cricket reminds me of its most monotonous offshoot, heavy metal, or in its more inventive days, substandard prog.

How can we not rejoice that batsmen have shed those ancient shackles? How can we not cheer those broader palettes and minds? How can we not rejoice in the freedom and enterprise that has seen risk embraced, orthodoxy shunned and scoring-rates climb to un-glimpsed, unimagined heights? We can't, or shouldn't. There is, however, a small, arguably unaffordable price to pay for such enrichment. Aside from a precious few - Mahela Jayawardene, VVS Laxman, Mohammad Yousuf, Michael Clarke, Ian Bell, Brett Lee, Danish Kaneria, Sachin Tendulkar - the current game is virtually a style-free zone. Where are the bowling actions that inspire schoolboys? Where are the forward-defensives worthy of being sculpted by Henry Moore? The nearest most Tests get to elegance is when Jeremy Coney is spouting his lyrical wisdoms from the commentary box: Chris Martin the "android steam train", Daniel Vettori the "home-baked batsman", Australia "slowly moving from that chrysalis of caution".

Spurred on by the sometimes manic requirements of the 50- and, especially, 20-over formats, batsmen have been even further emboldened by something rather less desirable, namely brick-thick blades. But these bludgeons and biffing machines are not exclusively to blame for this gradual erosion of finery. As new strokes have been conceived and alternative scoring avenues explored, so risk has been greeted with flair rather than fear, switching the emphasis from ground to air, from fours to sixes. The aim of every shot should be to repel the ball and, ideally, beat the field, but the most pleasingly executed tend to be those that succeed while minimising that risk - by ensuring they cannot be caught.

Think of the exquisiteness of a cover-drive painted by Michael Vaughan or an on-drive signed by Tendulkar. In hands such as these, every joint seems synchronised and harmonised, bat serving as an extra limb, an extension of self. In Vaughan's case, the crowning glory was a flamboyant flourish of a follow-through that wouldn't have looked out of place in the hands of a symphony conductor or prima ballerina. Gems such as these, though, are rarer than steak on Zimbabwean dinner tables.

Effortlessness should not be confused with elegance. Virender Sehwag sends the ball colossal distances without exerting himself. Likewise Chris Gayle, who embodies languor and never does anything quite so uncool as break sweat. Yet neither is what I would call elegant. Both, crucially, disdain footwork. Both, therefore, get high marks for productivity and low ones for artistic impression. Such is the new industry standard.

In fact, it takes a great deal of effort to look effortless. David Gower spent his teens in the nets. It may be more apparent in left-handers (if only because most of us are not), but elegance, by and large, is only possible if the basics are obeyed; Gower's footwork may have been lacking but he found ample compensation in impeccable timing. What we loved about him was the fluidity of movement, the beauty. Zaheer Abbas had it too, so too Jeff Dujon, Carl Hooper, Brian Lara, Dilip Vengsarkar and Mark Waugh. Yes, they made it look impossibly easy, but that serene, often feline felicity was all grounded in crucial if often barely perceptible movements. In some cases there was a touch of vanity about it all, but so what? We're talking showmen here, not laboratory assistants.

It's not unlike those fighters v boxers debates that have divided readers of The Ring for decades. This is the era of the batsman as streetfighter, as personified by Sehwag and MS Dhoni. The stakes dictate it. Garry Sobers was Muhammad Ali and Viv Richards was Sugar Ray Leonard: violence as dance. In the blue corner of late we have had Matty Hayden as George Foreman and Graeme Smith as Sonny Liston, all bully-boy power and lumbering gait; in the red corner bobs Shivnarine Chanderpaul as Roberto Duran, all awkward angles and ungainly effectiveness.

Demanding that players try to bat more elegantly or come up with more pleasing bowling actions is a bit like asking Grand Prix drivers to take bends with greater panache. It's not exactly a key aspect of the job description

The same, if not more so, goes for bowlers. Who, right now, has an action that ravishes the eyes and hoists the spirits in the manner of a Michael Holding, a Graham McKenzie or a Jeff Thomson, much less a Bishan Bedi, a Phil Edmonds or a Hedley Howarth? Brett Lee is as fluent and compelling a sight as any, a monument to coordination and smoothly uncoiling menace; Danish Kaneria's curls and curves suggest a chap auditioning for the Dance of the Seven Veils; Amit Mishra has all the makings of the first topless model to grace an MCC textbook. But who else feeds the senses and seduces the soul? Beyond lies the crab-like, the jerky and the neanderthal. For every Lee there's a dozen Morkels, Nels and Martins pouring out of academies, all chest, knees and flailing arms; for every Kaneria there's an endless queue of Clarkes, Shoaibs, De Merwes and Samits, all low arms and non-existent arcs.

The growth of the mixed action, to counter strain and protect the spine, is undoubtedly a factor for fast bowlers, who seem to have more freedom to bowl as they see fit, as comes naturally, rather than contort themselves into some sort of idealised norm. How else, pray, was Andre Nel able to rise through the ranks without submitting his action to the sort of reconstruction usually seen on Nip/Tuck? So be it. Their health is more important than our gratification. Besides, beyond trips to the barber (sorry, hairstylist), how many players have time for mirrors these days?

"THE SPEED OF LIGHT does not merely transform the world. It becomes the world. Globalisation is the speed of light." So reckoned Paul Virilio, the cultural theorist responsible for coining the expression "accelerated culture". Soccer and rugby, the other two main transcontinental team sports, are no different to cricket in the way professionalism has brought about acceleration. With heightened fitness has come a repellent breathlessness. There is less space and even less time for the ball-jugglers and body-swervers, less inclination to take chances. With the two codes now distinguishable almost exclusively by union's potty persistence with lineouts, I now find rugby virtually unwatchable. Cricket is still by far the most leisurely of these trivial pursuits, but the acceleration in the emergence of new skills has been accompanied by an erosion of one of the game's chief marks of distinction and distinctiveness.

Robin Daniels knew what he was doing when he entitled his wonderful new memoir of Neville Cardus "Celebrant of Beauty". For that, indubitably, was the Guardian laureate's function: to celebrate what he experienced, whether music or cricket. And whereas today's correspondents celebrate the art and heart of competition, Cardus' priority was to celebrate beauty. He admired Don Bradman's genius but had more time for Jack Hobbs' grace. After seeing Wally Hammond bat at Lord's, Cardus attended an opera at Covent Garden and felt "a distinct lowering of the aesthetic temperature". He was, however, prone to the fanciful and the exaggerated. "I didn't invent Emmott Robinson; I enlarged him," he admitted unapologetically of the Yorkshire spinner he turned into a folk hero. "Guilty to fiction, m'lud, if it serves a higher Truth."

He couldn't get away with it now, of course. Television, websites and newspaper sports sections have made expert, undeceivable, mostly unromantic witnesses of us all. No longer are we obliged to believe what we read (I'll never forget how deflated and swindled I felt the first time I saw footage of Frank Woolley). The price of that evidence and enhanced understanding has been a lessening of expectation. To bemoan a lack of beauty is thus somewhat petty. Of course substance is preferable to style. Of course unorthodoxy is more important than orthodoxy. How can a game move forward unless it rejects elements of the past? And yes, it's not as if there is a solution on its knees somewhere out there, hands clasped together, begging to be discovered. Demanding that players try to bat more elegantly or come up with more pleasing bowling actions is a bit like asking Grand Prix drivers to take bends with greater panache. It's not exactly a key aspect of the job description.

All the more reason, then, to celebrate when beauty does avail itself. And lo and behold, on that final afternoon at Edgbaston, it was firmly present and resolutely, absolutely correct. Their cause may have been safety yet Michael Clarke and Marcus North carried out their job with style and grace, techniques embedded in purest orthodoxy.

North's defensive play was both object lesson and joy - full stride, head over the ball, bat and pad locked together, nose sniffing out danger as a bloodhound might scent a fox's trail. He also penetrated the covers with precision and ease, the ball gliding across the turf as if drawn to the boundary by a magnet. Overcoming a growing tendency to half-leave harmless balls and offer slip catches off the full face of his eloquent blade, Clarke was his right-handed, prettier doppelganger, building his innings brick-by-immaculately-laid-brick, the footwork worthy of Fonteyn, Baryshnikov or Ali, encouraging all Australians to believe that here is Ricky Ponting's successor as both captain and technical maestro. Bar that cocky pull at Ravi Bopara's second ball, aerial shots were about as visible as burkas at a British National Party rally, yet this scarcely left us bereft.

As the afternoon wore on, as England's victory prospects thinned along with the crowd, there was still much to relish. Cardus would have loved it. "What we want art to do for us is to stay what is fleeting," he reasoned, "and to enlighten what is incomprehensible, to incarnate things that have no measure, and immortalise what has no duration." By turning the quest for survival into an exposition of batting's most essential arts, Clarke and North made time stop, immortalised the effectiveness of their centuries-old methodology and reincarnated the game's innate beauty.

And to think that there are those who would send the honourable draw the way of the dodo and the woolly mammoth. Philistines.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ramrajani on August 7, 2009, 5:31 GMT

    Just like the formats of every game changes to it's new heights for more entertainment, same way the test matches has to change it's format as well. And as you know in the past there has been lot of changes in test cricket so according to the time and the demand of spectators, the ICC and BCCI need to change the format by having a restricted 75 overs an Inning, for each team to be played 2 Innings. this way much more Fun and enthusiasm will be in the Game and the spectators cuz every match played will have the result and much more shots will be played, without wasting time and overs.

  • probalc on August 6, 2009, 15:50 GMT

    For fataquie:It took me a while to register, get a password and post a comment. Should give you an idea how strongly I feel. My dad took me to watch "Vishy" bat at the nets I was probably 10 yrs. Dad said, "You will realize its worth when you grow up, what you saw today!". Its etched in my memory. I have not seen Bishan bowl in his hay days, but Maninder, wasn't that pure joy? Holding running up to bowl, no wonder he was nick named "Rolls Royce". If only scoring runs, taking wickets is the criteria might as well watch baseball.

  • obaidulmasum on August 6, 2009, 15:47 GMT

    I think Steen is a one eyed man. I don't think that the past players are more stylish and graceful than the presents. Didn't you watch playing Mark Waugh and Damien Martin's batting. Was realy Gower more stylish and graceful than them. I don't think so. I have seen lot's of matches where Gower played and watch youtube's so called video of Mr.Gower but I dont find anything impressive in him. Though arguably he was the best stylist batsman of that time but Brian Lara seems more stylish and Mark Waugh and Damien Martin was better than Brian. Though Brian was more classical than both of them beacause of his ability. Similarly we can say that Ricky Ponting's pull and hook shots are more enjoyable than Grag Chappel. In recent time we have seen some players who are also very stylish( Gautam Gamvir,Youvraj, Rahit Sharma, Salman Butt[incredible power of playing cover drive with wrist], Younis Khan, Samaraweera, Chamara Silva, De Villierse, Dumini, Bravo[wristy powerfull], Tamim Ikbal.

  • MartinAmber on August 6, 2009, 12:04 GMT

    For fataquie:

    Cricket of the 70s and 80s "boring"? I'm sure Holding's over to Boycott at Bridgetown in 1981 is on youtube somewhere. That's a perfect example of something that scores very highly on aesthetics and sheer thrills. Of course, if that doesn't convince you, then Botham's 1981 innings at Headingley (thrills) and Old Trafford (aesthetics) might. Or Viv Richards' 189 not out in an ODI at Old Trafford (both, again) in 1984. And, more generally, there were four of the best all-rounders ever to play the game, all winning matches with bat and ball throughout the period.

    In response to the piece in general, I don't particularly want to separate thrills from aesthetics. Can I not just say I delight as much in one of Gilchrist's "violent" innings as I do in, say, the "beauty" of Michael Clarke's 136 at Lord's?

    PS Mr Steen, earlier this year you said you'd prefer World T20 final tickets to tickets for the Ashes. Now that really is a celebration of ugliness.

  • left_arm_unorthodox on August 6, 2009, 5:30 GMT

    Michael Slater was not an artist of the kind you celebrate, yet his batting possessed vitality and joyousness. Gower, though more elegant, was too insouciant to be as joyous. Sehwag has something of the magic. Ganguly as well. Inzamam comes to mind too. In his case it was localised in the bat and those hands. These players had a sense of vulnerability, like they were forever just a razor-blade-thickness from disaster. Michael Clarke used to have it - before he matured and became so reliable. Amongst bowlers Lee comes to mind, and Shoaib - speed at all costs. These players do not remodel their games for more reliable productivity. They are what they are and in playing they express themselves. You hold your breath, knowing that something, good or bad, will happen. Donald gave off a sense that he wanted to do nothing but sprint into the crease and bowl as fast as he could. He did not need an audience or perhaps even a batsman. 1000 characters is not enough.

  • mac9ue on August 6, 2009, 3:03 GMT

    The arguments in this article seem somewhat manufactured. The author seems to disparage the free-spirited batting styles of Sehwag or Gayle in favor of the textbook elegance of Tendulkar or Bell (I suspect the only instance the latter two have been considered comparable pliers of their trade). Yet, he strives to create an exception for achievers like Viv Richards or Hayden, who were as guilty of using the coaching manual for nothing besides campfires. Watching grainy footage of Bradman's batting, it is evident he did not have the most classical of styles, yet Bradman is the premium subscription to Vaughan's youtube. The elegance of Brett Lee is mesmerizing, as are the ungainly contortions of Malinga. In short, aesthetics for a cricket viewer are as often a byproduct of effectiveness as the other way round.

  • tbc1 on August 5, 2009, 23:37 GMT

    Excellent article, truly excellent. I would add, in qualification, that any number of past bowling actions were as heterodox, and controversial, as those now seen; Griffiths, Tyson etc.. The purity with which the likes of Trueman, Thommo and others bowled should not obscure a diverse and idiosyncratic rnage of bowling styles throughout the history of the game. I would also offer a glimmer of hope for the preservation of "proper" orthodoxy in its full elegence; the continued function of English public schools as cricketing academies. Stuart Broad is an excellent example of this, given the warranted comparisons to the style of Sobers, and the obvious technical rectitude with which he bats.

  • fataquie on August 5, 2009, 22:43 GMT

    Quite honestly, if you watch the cricket highlights of the '70s or '80s on youtube versus the highlights of the 2000's, you would find the former to be boring. Cricket is at its best at present. Where once in the '70s, bowling at close to 90 mph was an achievement only few could do, now we have bowlers who are fitter and can regularly do that. Today, batsmen are not used to leaving the ball even in test match. What is missing is really sporting pitches to give the right balance between bat and ball. Other than that, I would not trade the cricket of the '90s and '00s to boring cricket of '60s, '70s, and '80s. I would definitely prefer watching Afridis taking on Lees, Sehwags destroying bowling attacks in test matches, Symonds deamonizing opposition, Flintoffs rocking the ground, Gayles single handedly knocking out the World Champions, and McCullums doing their thing. No sir. Thank you. I would like to live in the present and have the conditions being made more sporty.

  • pakistanicricketlover on August 5, 2009, 21:55 GMT

    Well written article. Cricket is a respectable game i don't understand why do you need cheerleaders in a cricket match. Nowadays the fans don't know much about the game or players but they make more noise. You got to have the passion for the game. People think test matches are boring and should be scrapped but let me tell you without test match cricket cricket would be lifeless. I have seen and will see test matches, I have seen test matches for all five days, all series. Its called TEST for a reason it tests your true abilty as a player and a team. In a one day or T20 you could get lucky if if's your day. Cricket is beautiful game, but I am worried about the future of it.

  • Cooch on August 5, 2009, 20:37 GMT

    I have to agree with those who speak of rose-tinted glasses. Hadlee was poetry in motion, but Chatfield and BL Cairns were agricultural. For every Gower there was a Border. I think if there is an aesthetic difference these days, it stems from the fact that they play tests on flat decks more often. More opportunities for flat track bullies who don't need to rely on footwork, and less of the long, studied centuries that must be crafted when the ball is seaming about or turning square. In saying that, there was no-one better at long, studied centuries than Border!

  • Ramrajani on August 7, 2009, 5:31 GMT

    Just like the formats of every game changes to it's new heights for more entertainment, same way the test matches has to change it's format as well. And as you know in the past there has been lot of changes in test cricket so according to the time and the demand of spectators, the ICC and BCCI need to change the format by having a restricted 75 overs an Inning, for each team to be played 2 Innings. this way much more Fun and enthusiasm will be in the Game and the spectators cuz every match played will have the result and much more shots will be played, without wasting time and overs.

  • probalc on August 6, 2009, 15:50 GMT

    For fataquie:It took me a while to register, get a password and post a comment. Should give you an idea how strongly I feel. My dad took me to watch "Vishy" bat at the nets I was probably 10 yrs. Dad said, "You will realize its worth when you grow up, what you saw today!". Its etched in my memory. I have not seen Bishan bowl in his hay days, but Maninder, wasn't that pure joy? Holding running up to bowl, no wonder he was nick named "Rolls Royce". If only scoring runs, taking wickets is the criteria might as well watch baseball.

  • obaidulmasum on August 6, 2009, 15:47 GMT

    I think Steen is a one eyed man. I don't think that the past players are more stylish and graceful than the presents. Didn't you watch playing Mark Waugh and Damien Martin's batting. Was realy Gower more stylish and graceful than them. I don't think so. I have seen lot's of matches where Gower played and watch youtube's so called video of Mr.Gower but I dont find anything impressive in him. Though arguably he was the best stylist batsman of that time but Brian Lara seems more stylish and Mark Waugh and Damien Martin was better than Brian. Though Brian was more classical than both of them beacause of his ability. Similarly we can say that Ricky Ponting's pull and hook shots are more enjoyable than Grag Chappel. In recent time we have seen some players who are also very stylish( Gautam Gamvir,Youvraj, Rahit Sharma, Salman Butt[incredible power of playing cover drive with wrist], Younis Khan, Samaraweera, Chamara Silva, De Villierse, Dumini, Bravo[wristy powerfull], Tamim Ikbal.

  • MartinAmber on August 6, 2009, 12:04 GMT

    For fataquie:

    Cricket of the 70s and 80s "boring"? I'm sure Holding's over to Boycott at Bridgetown in 1981 is on youtube somewhere. That's a perfect example of something that scores very highly on aesthetics and sheer thrills. Of course, if that doesn't convince you, then Botham's 1981 innings at Headingley (thrills) and Old Trafford (aesthetics) might. Or Viv Richards' 189 not out in an ODI at Old Trafford (both, again) in 1984. And, more generally, there were four of the best all-rounders ever to play the game, all winning matches with bat and ball throughout the period.

    In response to the piece in general, I don't particularly want to separate thrills from aesthetics. Can I not just say I delight as much in one of Gilchrist's "violent" innings as I do in, say, the "beauty" of Michael Clarke's 136 at Lord's?

    PS Mr Steen, earlier this year you said you'd prefer World T20 final tickets to tickets for the Ashes. Now that really is a celebration of ugliness.

  • left_arm_unorthodox on August 6, 2009, 5:30 GMT

    Michael Slater was not an artist of the kind you celebrate, yet his batting possessed vitality and joyousness. Gower, though more elegant, was too insouciant to be as joyous. Sehwag has something of the magic. Ganguly as well. Inzamam comes to mind too. In his case it was localised in the bat and those hands. These players had a sense of vulnerability, like they were forever just a razor-blade-thickness from disaster. Michael Clarke used to have it - before he matured and became so reliable. Amongst bowlers Lee comes to mind, and Shoaib - speed at all costs. These players do not remodel their games for more reliable productivity. They are what they are and in playing they express themselves. You hold your breath, knowing that something, good or bad, will happen. Donald gave off a sense that he wanted to do nothing but sprint into the crease and bowl as fast as he could. He did not need an audience or perhaps even a batsman. 1000 characters is not enough.

  • mac9ue on August 6, 2009, 3:03 GMT

    The arguments in this article seem somewhat manufactured. The author seems to disparage the free-spirited batting styles of Sehwag or Gayle in favor of the textbook elegance of Tendulkar or Bell (I suspect the only instance the latter two have been considered comparable pliers of their trade). Yet, he strives to create an exception for achievers like Viv Richards or Hayden, who were as guilty of using the coaching manual for nothing besides campfires. Watching grainy footage of Bradman's batting, it is evident he did not have the most classical of styles, yet Bradman is the premium subscription to Vaughan's youtube. The elegance of Brett Lee is mesmerizing, as are the ungainly contortions of Malinga. In short, aesthetics for a cricket viewer are as often a byproduct of effectiveness as the other way round.

  • tbc1 on August 5, 2009, 23:37 GMT

    Excellent article, truly excellent. I would add, in qualification, that any number of past bowling actions were as heterodox, and controversial, as those now seen; Griffiths, Tyson etc.. The purity with which the likes of Trueman, Thommo and others bowled should not obscure a diverse and idiosyncratic rnage of bowling styles throughout the history of the game. I would also offer a glimmer of hope for the preservation of "proper" orthodoxy in its full elegence; the continued function of English public schools as cricketing academies. Stuart Broad is an excellent example of this, given the warranted comparisons to the style of Sobers, and the obvious technical rectitude with which he bats.

  • fataquie on August 5, 2009, 22:43 GMT

    Quite honestly, if you watch the cricket highlights of the '70s or '80s on youtube versus the highlights of the 2000's, you would find the former to be boring. Cricket is at its best at present. Where once in the '70s, bowling at close to 90 mph was an achievement only few could do, now we have bowlers who are fitter and can regularly do that. Today, batsmen are not used to leaving the ball even in test match. What is missing is really sporting pitches to give the right balance between bat and ball. Other than that, I would not trade the cricket of the '90s and '00s to boring cricket of '60s, '70s, and '80s. I would definitely prefer watching Afridis taking on Lees, Sehwags destroying bowling attacks in test matches, Symonds deamonizing opposition, Flintoffs rocking the ground, Gayles single handedly knocking out the World Champions, and McCullums doing their thing. No sir. Thank you. I would like to live in the present and have the conditions being made more sporty.

  • pakistanicricketlover on August 5, 2009, 21:55 GMT

    Well written article. Cricket is a respectable game i don't understand why do you need cheerleaders in a cricket match. Nowadays the fans don't know much about the game or players but they make more noise. You got to have the passion for the game. People think test matches are boring and should be scrapped but let me tell you without test match cricket cricket would be lifeless. I have seen and will see test matches, I have seen test matches for all five days, all series. Its called TEST for a reason it tests your true abilty as a player and a team. In a one day or T20 you could get lucky if if's your day. Cricket is beautiful game, but I am worried about the future of it.

  • Cooch on August 5, 2009, 20:37 GMT

    I have to agree with those who speak of rose-tinted glasses. Hadlee was poetry in motion, but Chatfield and BL Cairns were agricultural. For every Gower there was a Border. I think if there is an aesthetic difference these days, it stems from the fact that they play tests on flat decks more often. More opportunities for flat track bullies who don't need to rely on footwork, and less of the long, studied centuries that must be crafted when the ball is seaming about or turning square. In saying that, there was no-one better at long, studied centuries than Border!

  • Subra on August 5, 2009, 20:17 GMT

    Rob, the oldies amongst us will also cherish the Walter Hammond cover drive. Was there a more elegant batsman? Siva from Singapore

  • Mina_Anand on August 5, 2009, 18:57 GMT

    A thing of beauty is a joy forever….

    Beautifully and delightfully written. As a die-hard, long-time cricket fan, wish I could paint a 'cricket picture' as well as this.

    Alas, I am no artist. Luckily though, I can appreciate class, when I see it.

    Talking about artistry, and timing - a certain ' Prince of Kolkata' comes to mind as well.

  • Leg_Spinner on August 5, 2009, 17:58 GMT

    How true! But can one wonder that cricket is aesthetically poorer when we who watch it have lost all elegance? Where before we had calm, dignified spectators, enraptured by a love of the game and the desire to see beauty and subtlety, now we have wild, demonstrative crowds, desperate to catch the attention of the TV cameras and to fill the day with drink and comic turns; where before an elegant drive was wisely appreciated by gentle ripples of applause, now an ungainly edge is met by screams or abuse; where before a ring of sober clothes around the ground was a backdrop to the white-flannelled players in the middle, now gaudy, cliche fancy-dress become the spectacle; where before the peaceful and respectful scene was in awe at the subte music of leather on willow or of willow on leather, now such sounds are lost within the deafening cacophony of the formless crowd; where before a day at the test was an inspiration, now it is a roller-coaster ride at the fun-fair, or a football match.

  • Stollie on August 5, 2009, 17:05 GMT

    This article brought tears to my eyes. Growing up in the Windies in the 70's, the images of strokeplay were subjective ... you interpreted what each shot looked like from radio commentary. I lived in the US for about 15 years, and in that time, saw no cricket at all. Then moved to Australia (who I now support) and lived in the UK briefly. These days, I will take any form of cricket I can watch.

    The appreciation of the grace (or lack thereof) in cricket is purely subjective. So while Rob's article may have rubbed a few the wrong way, for me it gave me pause ... to think of the pure beauty of this game that everyone here so clearly loves. I get chills watching Ponting in full flight, the grace of Vaughn's cover drive, or the body language of the great Shane Warne, or old videos of Michael Holding sliding up to the wicket. Pure joy. Thanks Rob ... great piece.

  • the-anti-mule on August 5, 2009, 16:54 GMT

    I don't agree with this article. Your sense of aesthetics or music is totally different than mine. What you find so ugly i can find it beautiful. I enjoy the way sehwag cuts across the line or how hayden bulldozes bowlers. I also enjoy dravid's silken on drives. people can have a singular or multiple tastes in music,art, batting or bowling styles. Just because you were used to listening old music or watching great cricket players of old doesn't mean there is beauty in only their style.

    "beauty is in the eye of the beholder"

  • Charindra on August 5, 2009, 16:19 GMT

    Well this article is both right and wrong. Even I miss those classical stylists, but cricket is witnessing the most varied crop of players in its long history. Malinga, Sehwag, Mendis, Sohail Tanvir, Chanderpaul, Jayasuriya, Dhoni etc. And of course there's Muralitharan, the greatest spinner the world has ever seen. Isn't it lovely to watch these guys do their thing?

  • jsg10 on August 5, 2009, 16:01 GMT

    I grew up watching cricket in the 90's and I can certainly say that the quality and individualism of players have diminished over the years. Bowlers has their own individual aura...the donalds, the pollocks, the ambroses, the walhs, the waqars and wasims, the warnes and saqlains. Bowlers now a days possess, vaguely speaking, a monotonic action, whether it be fast, spin or medium paced. The creativity and art of individualism has been affected by over-coaching the players. The hope of seeing beautiful bowling actions like alan donald's, alan mullaly, lance klusener seems getting less by the day.

  • CricketPissek on August 5, 2009, 15:57 GMT

    instead of adding to the string of comments listing players who rob hasn't mentioned, i think i'd rather focus on the very pertinent point he's made here. but i think he should relax a bit. there will always be a place for a stylist in the team. as long as he produces the goods. the audience is the world, and the world is too diverse to conform to a single type of sportsman. but maybe i'm spoilt as I am Sri Lankan and we've been fortunate to see a team that has produced artistes such as Roy Dias, Aravinda de Silva, Hashan Tilekeratne, Marvan Atapattu et al, and continue to send in chaps such as Sanga, Mahela, and now Kapugedara (who combines power with style quite effectively, i feel). it's upto players like them to inspire the next generation to make batting beautiful again. i, for one, am hopeful :)

  • historyman40 on August 5, 2009, 14:49 GMT

    Dylddog-NZ asks does it matter ? Well it doesn't matter to the rock and roll brigade or to the administrators but it does matter to the purists like me. We are saddened to see the game defaced but instead of going to cricket I, and I suspect others, have found other pastimes where grace and art and beauty still pervade at prices a lot less than those charged now for Test Matches.

  • nafzak on August 5, 2009, 14:32 GMT

    Lawrence Rowe, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Abdul Qadir and Safraz Nawaz comes to mind.

  • bonaku on August 5, 2009, 13:57 GMT

    nice one rob. Never thought of these think, but surely my mind felt (i fail to recognize them and its importance). Keep it coming.

  • Celticknife on August 5, 2009, 13:30 GMT

    Good article, although the ill-advised and clearly misinformed jab at the genre of metal music was a bit uncalled for. Like with any other form of art the most popular exponents are those that trade artistic integrity to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

  • PrinzPaulEugen on August 5, 2009, 13:01 GMT

    The song "Sex on Fire" by the Kings of Leon could have been written to describe the bowling of the greats Dennis Lillee and Michael Holding. The fluid nature of their bowling actions are still the best I have seen.

  • Otto123 on August 5, 2009, 12:58 GMT

    Great article - I am sure all those watching saw the difference in Australia's wicketkeepers in the last two tests. Manou is a keeper, his footwork made his glovework simple, and made a mockery of the tv commentators ongoing comments regarding the difficulty of taking the swinging ball in England. Compare that to the lead footed Haddin. I know what I would rather watch. My bet is that over a season and a career, the catches made by Manou would more than make up for the extra runs scored by Haddin.

  • Bytheway on August 5, 2009, 12:56 GMT

    Money and television can glamorize and destroy anything.

  • slowbouncer on August 5, 2009, 12:25 GMT

    A very timely piece. Just the other day, I was watching an old clipping of John McEnroe and Miloslav Mecir - two magicians at work. One displayed temper as easily as flair, while the other often appeared as the disinterested artist. And then came the Beckers, and Ivanisevics. They created slugger clones by the hundreds - people who wouldn't drag me to my neighborhood club courts if they ever played there. And then, magically, came Federer. He never seems to 'hit' a ball ever - very much like VVS Laxman. You watch him bat in a stadium with Yuvraj Singh, and the difference in the sound of their bats is so telling. Laxman's straight drive sounds like a nudge, while Yuvraj's square cut is as loud as a heave.

    Yet the point i want to make is that every hero gives birth to a thousand dreams. Imran created Akram and Waqar. Bedi spawned a Maninder. As long as the Federers, the Laxmans,the Imrans, and the Bedis keep happening to this great game, the touch artist will live on.

  • Sugz on August 5, 2009, 11:32 GMT

    Well written Rob, although I believe that the idea of aesthetic pleasure is one that died with the ameture cricketer. Gower was as good to the eye as they come, but was he as dependable as the stodgy Barrington? Had Bradman decided to incorporate a hammond-esq grace to his inexplicably flawless technique, would he have averaged 99.94 in tests? Only the truly blessed can find the balance between prolificy and simplicity, and even then, they are bound to sacrifice dependability and consistency (Hammond had at least two series where he batted with nothing like the all-conquering regal splendour we've come to read about).

    With regards to Cardus and his work, and other writers of his time, I'd much rather read their view of the exploits of the likes of Wooley, Trumper, Jackson, Hammond, Headley, Hobbs and Kippax, than watch a video of them batting now. Pre-war romanticism has been replaced by televised factualism. We have lost the imagination that Cardus, Fingleton and co. brought.

  • abysport on August 5, 2009, 11:30 GMT

    just an outstanding article!!! super! i've been an avid reader of cricinfo articles for a few years now and not many have surprassed the quality of this one.

  • scritty on August 5, 2009, 11:25 GMT

    I agree with many of the commentors here. The time you are alluding to never existed. A look at Youtube, and the myriad of clips there will show you what I mean.Going back say 30 years Holdings bowling sublime, Gowers batting a work of elegant artistry, But Willis' bowling "Choo Choo...chugga chugga", Likewise Marshall's action - a great bowler, but an action that would leave many in traction. But wherever you go, Trumper, Hobbs, Engineer..you may have grown to like the actions and methods used, but they were certainly not immediately aesthetically pleasing to a none cricket lover. John Lever's run up, Hobb's foot shuffle to leg (horrible), Gooch's lego stiff movements, Thommo looking like a high jumper about to fosbury flop..all massive players, legends..all horrible from a purists view point. Rob, your rose-tinted spectacles have probably concertinad all the lovely looking players into one "mythical era". I love it, it means there is hope for us all !

  • bigboss24 on August 5, 2009, 10:59 GMT

    Cricket is losing its charm.Inspite of so much money invested we are not seeing quality cricket been played.The game has lost sportmenship and aoura.I hope we get good quality players who show a class.I hope for better future of cricket.

  • thenoostar on August 5, 2009, 10:59 GMT

    Its true, the games becoming about power and athleticism rather than touch. I am a NZ supporter but after that i support Sri Lanka. They pick players who are unique and bring interest to the game.

    Teams like South Africa, Australia and New Zealand to a lesser extent pick players who have every last ounce of flair coached out of them. I find Jaques Kallis, as talented as he is, boring to watch because he plays like a robot and more resembles a top of the line solid reliable Japanese car rather than a flamboyant European car like a Kumar Sangakara.

    With T20 you dont really get time to get sick of a batsman, I dont recall a seeing a batsman face more than 80 balls in an innings. Batting becomes Optimized, so you end up with a ideal body type so cricket stops being the game for all body shapes. Bye Inzimams, Kaluwitharanas.

    Bowling becomes about being able to fire in yorkers, spinners can only last so long before they keep getting smashed out shrinking grounds....

    Townball Mark 2

  • historyman40 on August 5, 2009, 10:58 GMT

    My sentiments entirely. Unfortunately cricket has gone for the popularity route where most people would rather see an ugly heave over mid-wicket for six rather than a sublime stoke along the ground past cover point. I grew up watching Hutton, May, Graveney, Cowdrey, Frank Worrell and later Berry Richards and Greg Chappell and appreciated the grace and art and beauty of their style. I didn't expect or want them to slog ugly sixes. If you want to get rock and roll crowds in I suppose you've got to give them rock and roll cricket and all that goes with it. That's the route the administrators and hence players seem to have taken. Personally I hate it, which is why I don't go to matches anymore. But it has been nice to watch TV these last few weeks and see Michael Clarke's graceful orthodox technique - with the sound turned off of course !

  • maverick_ind on August 5, 2009, 10:48 GMT

    super article, loved reading it...

  • youfoundme on August 5, 2009, 10:34 GMT

    The real question is - Does it matter? No, not really. Runs and Wickets are what matter, and in this day in age you'll take them in any way. It doesn't require an elegant drive, or a nice and smooth bowling action to acquire their respective scalps. In the end, people watch and pay for big shots and the sound of the wickets tumbling...

  • sachkaan on August 5, 2009, 9:46 GMT

    outstanding article..i am a regular reader of cricket articles for years. never saw such piece of article about the art of cricket. everybody is shouting to save test cricket. but, nobody is giving priority to the style with which cricket is being played these days

  • Harrows on August 5, 2009, 9:40 GMT

    And what of wicketkkeepers? I grew up watching Jack Russell and Ian Healy's impeccable glovework - the importance of which has diminished with everyone wanting an Adam Gilchrist. The job gets done, but watching Haddin let through 20 byes and innings is painful. Dhoni, Sangakara, McCullum, Prior, Haddin are quality batsmen for what is required of a keeper, but they too are all muscle and little grace. And are scores any bigger with a better batsman at no 7? Gilchrist may be the Seinfeld of cricket - everyone thinks they can do what he did - it looked so easy, but look at the number of rubbish programs on TV trying to a show about nothing. And don't get me started on how hard it is too watch rugby today compared with 20 years ago.

  • magic_torch_jamie on August 5, 2009, 9:36 GMT

    Too much training, too much normalising (except Sri Lanka). It's a shame that we no longer give players licence: you know what, play at your own pace, tonk or caress as you like. Coaches see a graceful player and think they lack aggression or dour doggedness. Look at Pietersen, what an odd case. Very much in his own image but really ugly. Problem is then kids copy the dour accumulators. I applaud the subcontinent in general. People there are much more attuned to what is beautiful...

  • bustermove on August 5, 2009, 9:28 GMT

    Enjoyed this article Rob but I think you are pining for a time that never really existed. There have ever been a great number of bowlers who are truly wonderful to behold at least so far as their actions were concerned. Holding was exceptional, like a well-oiled machine gliding to the crease. Hadlee was a close second. Unfortunately, orthodoxy of bowling technique and success aren't necessarily bedfellows. I prefer to judge a bowler by what happens after the ball leaves his hand and find far more joy in oddities like the flailing arms of the stunning Colin Croft, the murderous reverse of the slinging Waqar Younis or the wicked fizz of the brilliant Chandrasekhar. The classical batsmen you choose are very predictably great players of straight bat shots: Gower's gorgeous off drive, Laxman's peerless cover drive and Mark Waugh's effortless flick through midwicket. But are Ian Chappell's wicked hook,Allan Border's crunching cut or for that matter, Shiv's legside nurdle any less admirable

  • second_innings on August 5, 2009, 9:09 GMT

    Cricket is rich in history and so let's excuse Rob if he has forgotten a few names. Let me throw in a few from my memory: Batsmen - Martin Crowe (Rob, did you really forget him, or didn't you consider him elegant?) and the truly classical Marvan Atapattu; Bowlers - Warne (how could anyone forget this guy), John Traicos (remember the Zimbabwean?) and Malcolm Marshall. Now, Marshall's action might not have been copybook but his angled run-up and the uncoil at the delivery had a mesmerising rhythm of its own. I beg to differ with those who pitch for Rahul Dravid. Dravid was elegant only when playing a few strokes. He is a gutsy batsman who overcame many flaws in his batting, some of which are still there - like his weakness against spin bowling!

  • vswami on August 5, 2009, 8:49 GMT

    In a elegant batsmen list since the 90's, I would add Ganguly for his pristine offside play and gracefully depositing spinners out of the ground, Azharuddin for his incredible wristwork on both sides ( he was once compared to a revolving door by a journalist ), Lara for that signature flourish after every stroke. While Gower has rightly been held up as a standard to measure against, I am surprised there is no mention of Greg Chappell, possibly one of the most elegant right handers in the television era.

  • FallsDown on August 5, 2009, 8:36 GMT

    As a working musician, I'm offended by the writer's labeling of Heavy Metal and especially Prog as monotonous music. Maybe the writer has never heard of a modern genre called Progressive-metal, which has some of the most inventive and exciting bands across the entire current rock spectrum. Fine.

    But as far as the classic '70s Prog-rock scene goes, you could say that the music is overly self-indulgent and sacrifices coherence at the altar of exploratory songwriting (which I wouldn't really agree with, but would understand where you're coming from and not argue with you about)...but only someone who's either heard a couple of Prog songs here and there in passing, or has a mediocre sense and understanding of music, can say it lacks subtlety and nuance. Which is okay, because Rob is a sportswriter, and not expected to be knowledegeable about music...but then, he should stick to what he knows and not crap on things he evidently knows nothing about.

  • Bogie55 on August 5, 2009, 8:34 GMT

    Rob, your music analogies are very uninformed, reductive and cliched: heavy metal as a genre is no more monotonous than opera is limited to fat people singing in Italian. Your opinion on cricketing style is equally staid, but at the same time contradictory - every era has had journeymen lacking the grace of their superiors: there are as many "stylists" now as there have ever been, surely. Your argument stinks of nostalgic hyperbole, harking back to a completely imagined past.

    I found the second part to be rather more convincing though - Clarke and North played splendidly and highlighted why orthodox technique is still something to aspire to.

  • Decorum on August 5, 2009, 8:20 GMT

    Brilliant piece! I'm sure there's a word for this technique, but this piece really advocates style over substance (despite the obligatory tipping of the hat to the reverse in a nod to our practical times) and is wonderfully stylish whilst having no sensible content! I enjoyed it tremendously and look for more. You cite Cardus as your muse but William F. Buckley Jr. might be more appropriate to your mission, to, "stand athwart history, yelling Stop!" Keep it coming!

  • mikeindex on August 5, 2009, 7:41 GMT

    Outstanding article - stands out from the rest of the thoroughly competent writing on cricinfo rather like the players you mention.

    Agree with those correspondents who've put forward Sangakkara and Dravid - and there's still some stylists in county cricket, like the other Mark Wagh.

    But - Thomson? Are you sure? (Lillee I could have understood).

  • sharadindia on August 5, 2009, 7:33 GMT

    as far as technique is concerned i wld rate sachin as d best...followed by kallis, dravid,vvs..

  • KumaranV on August 5, 2009, 7:33 GMT

    How could you miss Rahul dravid in the whole article? wherever we talk about class, dravid will be there. He is one among the few who makes us watch test cricket yet.

  • boltfromheaven on August 5, 2009, 7:28 GMT

    The most elegant bowler in the last 30 years, in my opinion, is Imran Khan. And i agree with many others that Gower was easily the most elegant batsman from a similar period. My dad used to rave on about Tom Graveney.

  • CustomKid on August 5, 2009, 6:54 GMT

    Great article and there is nothing better than watching class batsman or bowler applying their craft. Over the last 20 years there is one series which still stands out for me. It was the 89 ashes and I was 11 years old at the time. I have a VHS highlights video which I watch maybe once a year. Although Gower had an average series his 106 at the second test at lords was a ripper. When he reached triple figures he gracefully removed his helmet and tipped it to the crowd like a true gentleman.

    The other was S.Waugh. Only D Martyn has come close to class of that ilk since. His defence was stunning to quick and slow bowlers alike. One defensive push in the first test (his first test 100) rocketed through mid off and he just held a graceful pose and watched the ball to the fence. His back foot drives were mythical - but into the 90's his style change to fix some shortcomings. I was sold on him after 89, and to this day I cannot find a replacement as my all time favourite player.

  • Shuaib_A on August 5, 2009, 6:26 GMT

    im going to have to agree with this article. an excellent point raised. I would also like to share a few names that to me should have been added to the above list of "f0ew good men left" Jacques Kallis, i think he is in the same league as VVS and Mohamed Yusuf. Another bowler with a fluent action would be Dale Steyn. Reminiscent of the Great Allan Donald, now that action was shear poetry, don't you guys agree?

  • vaidyar on August 5, 2009, 5:50 GMT

    How could you miss the most orthodox of the current crop of batsme, with total perfection in defense...Rahul Dravid! I could sit hours watching him play any day on a pitch like in Jamaica in 2006, all pure technique, taming the pitch and the bowlers...

  • jughead1 on August 5, 2009, 5:38 GMT

    great article rob and yes sanga definitely deserves a mention. his great liquid whips and serene motion is a joy to behold.

  • R.Sankar on August 5, 2009, 5:37 GMT

    The best bowling actions I have seen are those of Keith Boyce and Venkataraghavan. I have seen a few TV images of Fred Trueman and was struck by his action too. Am not sure Breet Lee's and Jeff Thomson's can be said to be graceful or elegant. How about Ray Lindwall? Of batsmen, Gavaskar's forward defensive and straight drive would qualify

  • SillyPoint2009 on August 5, 2009, 5:21 GMT

    Remember Butch Cassidy asking about a beautiful bank that had been renovated, and responding when he was told that it was renovated because it was repeatedly robbed : small price to pay for beauty. Good article.

    I see something balletic is Haddin's batting too, the bat seeming like a baton at times. Apart from that, I cant think of anyone graceful that Mr Steen has missed.

  • Kheruvim on August 5, 2009, 4:53 GMT

    Reduce the bat width and weight in First Class and Test Cricket, let them keep the current ones for Limited Overs. Make the batsmen rely more on their technique. The pitches do not help - surely it is not the case that many subcontinental batsmen are that much better than their counterparts elsewhere (thinking of the generally higher averages amongst the Sri Lankan and Indian batsmen here).

    As for bowlers, well there's little to be done about that I believe - that is more to do with comfort, confidence and attempting to alleviate the effects of bowling leading to injury - although the latter is hit and miss, some are prone because of their unorthodox actions.

  • KBCA on August 5, 2009, 3:57 GMT

    Class Piece Rob. Although i woulda included Sangakarra in with the precious few..

  • ar1786 on August 5, 2009, 3:26 GMT

    Awesome article. I agree, I think less and less batsmen focus on elegance these days. Not making a judgement as to whether that's good or bad, but I agree with your observation.

    Just to add, out of the current crop of international bowlers, I think one bowler with a beautiful action is Iftikhar Rao, the pakistani medium-pacer. Very nice and fluid, natural action. If others can point out some other batsmen and bowlers? :)

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  • ar1786 on August 5, 2009, 3:26 GMT

    Awesome article. I agree, I think less and less batsmen focus on elegance these days. Not making a judgement as to whether that's good or bad, but I agree with your observation.

    Just to add, out of the current crop of international bowlers, I think one bowler with a beautiful action is Iftikhar Rao, the pakistani medium-pacer. Very nice and fluid, natural action. If others can point out some other batsmen and bowlers? :)

  • KBCA on August 5, 2009, 3:57 GMT

    Class Piece Rob. Although i woulda included Sangakarra in with the precious few..

  • Kheruvim on August 5, 2009, 4:53 GMT

    Reduce the bat width and weight in First Class and Test Cricket, let them keep the current ones for Limited Overs. Make the batsmen rely more on their technique. The pitches do not help - surely it is not the case that many subcontinental batsmen are that much better than their counterparts elsewhere (thinking of the generally higher averages amongst the Sri Lankan and Indian batsmen here).

    As for bowlers, well there's little to be done about that I believe - that is more to do with comfort, confidence and attempting to alleviate the effects of bowling leading to injury - although the latter is hit and miss, some are prone because of their unorthodox actions.

  • SillyPoint2009 on August 5, 2009, 5:21 GMT

    Remember Butch Cassidy asking about a beautiful bank that had been renovated, and responding when he was told that it was renovated because it was repeatedly robbed : small price to pay for beauty. Good article.

    I see something balletic is Haddin's batting too, the bat seeming like a baton at times. Apart from that, I cant think of anyone graceful that Mr Steen has missed.

  • R.Sankar on August 5, 2009, 5:37 GMT

    The best bowling actions I have seen are those of Keith Boyce and Venkataraghavan. I have seen a few TV images of Fred Trueman and was struck by his action too. Am not sure Breet Lee's and Jeff Thomson's can be said to be graceful or elegant. How about Ray Lindwall? Of batsmen, Gavaskar's forward defensive and straight drive would qualify

  • jughead1 on August 5, 2009, 5:38 GMT

    great article rob and yes sanga definitely deserves a mention. his great liquid whips and serene motion is a joy to behold.

  • vaidyar on August 5, 2009, 5:50 GMT

    How could you miss the most orthodox of the current crop of batsme, with total perfection in defense...Rahul Dravid! I could sit hours watching him play any day on a pitch like in Jamaica in 2006, all pure technique, taming the pitch and the bowlers...

  • Shuaib_A on August 5, 2009, 6:26 GMT

    im going to have to agree with this article. an excellent point raised. I would also like to share a few names that to me should have been added to the above list of "f0ew good men left" Jacques Kallis, i think he is in the same league as VVS and Mohamed Yusuf. Another bowler with a fluent action would be Dale Steyn. Reminiscent of the Great Allan Donald, now that action was shear poetry, don't you guys agree?

  • CustomKid on August 5, 2009, 6:54 GMT

    Great article and there is nothing better than watching class batsman or bowler applying their craft. Over the last 20 years there is one series which still stands out for me. It was the 89 ashes and I was 11 years old at the time. I have a VHS highlights video which I watch maybe once a year. Although Gower had an average series his 106 at the second test at lords was a ripper. When he reached triple figures he gracefully removed his helmet and tipped it to the crowd like a true gentleman.

    The other was S.Waugh. Only D Martyn has come close to class of that ilk since. His defence was stunning to quick and slow bowlers alike. One defensive push in the first test (his first test 100) rocketed through mid off and he just held a graceful pose and watched the ball to the fence. His back foot drives were mythical - but into the 90's his style change to fix some shortcomings. I was sold on him after 89, and to this day I cannot find a replacement as my all time favourite player.

  • boltfromheaven on August 5, 2009, 7:28 GMT

    The most elegant bowler in the last 30 years, in my opinion, is Imran Khan. And i agree with many others that Gower was easily the most elegant batsman from a similar period. My dad used to rave on about Tom Graveney.