Sixes to begin with
MS Dhoni walked in to bat after the loss of the third wicket on the first ball of the 15th over in a Champions League Twenty20 match between his team, Chennai Super Kings, and Sun Risers Hyderabad. Suresh Raina at the other end was set and going berserk. Thirty-five balls were remaining, so one expected Dhoni to start his innings in his trademark style - which is to rotate strike initially and then own it towards the end, if he lasted.
Cricketing wisdom dictates that a new batsman must take some time to get used to the pace and bounce of the pitch before cutting loose. But Dhoni stunned everyone by hitting the second ball he faced into the stands over the bowler's head. JP Duminy bowled rather flat and from around the stumps to prevent him from stepping down the track or freeing the arms, but Dhoni cleared his front leg a bit to create room and then used his brute strength to hit a six without stepping out.
This sort of attacking play has more or less become synonymous with modern cricketers, who defy the age-old belief that one must buy time before unleashing the big shots. Not too long ago, even batsmen who came in during the slog overs of ODIs took a few balls to get their feet moving before hitting the long ball. But players today don't shy away from revealing their intent from ball one. T20 cricket has forced them to stretch the conventional envelope; the lack of time at one's disposal calls for immediate action.
Most batsmen have devised ways to hit the ground running. Some shadow practise by using two bats, doubled up, just before they walk in, so that when they use only the one they are supposed to, it feels a lot lighter and easier to manoeuvre. Also, batsmen generally identify their go-to areas and when the ball is in the slot for those, they don't mind taking the aerial route.
Dhoni's second-ball six stood out also for the spectacular show of its brute strength, which too has become an integral part of modern batting. Duminy didn't give Dhoni enough flight, but it mattered little, for Dhoni didn't need to come down the track to clear the ropes.
While we talk about Dhoni's solid base, heavy bat and great down-swing, they would not amount to much if he didn't have the power he does. T20 cricket has forced spinners to lower their trajectory, so as to not allow batsmen to use their feet and gain momentum. But players like Dhoni aren't bothered too much, because they have the strength to hit 100-metre sixes - occasionally getting under yorkers to do so - without coming down the track at all.
Dhoni went on to hit seven more sixes in his 19-ball knock, five of them in one Thisara Perera over, and most of them illustrated the importance of strength in today's game.
Changing times have also changed the way batsmen approach training. In my formative years, the gym was completely out of bounds for us, for our old-school coaches valued nimbleness and feared working out would make us stiff. The focus, at least in India, was always on flexibility, and that helps explain our batsmen's supple wrists, and perhaps their affinity for on-side play.
But these days, training methods have changed radically. A lot of focus is on first acquiring strength and then using it at the point of impact. That's why we see fewer modern batsmen rely on using their feet to gain momentum. The belief now is that arms and torso provide the necessary power needed to hit a six.
In tennis parlance, cricket has moved from being a serve-and-volley game to one dominated by players who station themselves on the baseline and hit powerful ground strokes.