Why a wide stance can be a problem
Cricket is an evolving game and it's always interesting to see new methods, theories and styles develop, both with regard to individuals and teams. Lately we have seen a number of English batsmen hold their bats aloft while standing in their stance. There must be something in the way kids are coached in England that has led to this sweeping change. Partly it could be to do with the legacy left behind by Graham Gooch, who was an icon when it came to holding the bat high in the stance. Or perhaps it is to do with batting against bowling machines a lot.
Many South Africans, on the other hand, from Jacques Kallis to Hashim Amla, have developed the habit of getting into a second stance just before the bowler is ready to deliver the ball.
Most Indian batsmen have widened their stances in the last three or four years. India's great batsmen, from Gavaskar to Tendulkar, traditionally had reasonably narrow stances, but of late something has changed in this regard. This new batting stance has been at the centre of many discussions around India's successful tour to Sri Lanka. What are the merits and demerits involved?
The feet should be comfortably apart (the width of your shoulders can be used as a marker) with the weight on the balls of the feet.
This is what the traditional coaching manuals say about how the batsman should stand in his stance while getting ready to face the ball. "Comfortably apart" is an important part of that sentence. Cricket coaching can never be one size fits all. Every individual is uniquely built, and to suggest that the distance between the feet should be x or y inches can be futile in practice. You need freedom to decide what works for you.
The distance between the feet has a lot to do with your height: diminutive batsmen will want to keep them closer together than taller ones do. The idea is to find a position that keeps you well balanced without compromising on mobility.
Now you can't leave the decision on the width of the stance to a seven- or eight-year-old kid because he tends to follow his idols. When Kevin Pietersen was scoring tons of runs, lots of young kids copied his wide stance. It's okay for a person who's well over six feet tall to have a really wide stance but not for someone who is 5ft 5in or shorter.
Most coaches will tell you not to keep your feet too close together or too wide apart. The first will make you unbalanced, and too wide would restrict your mobility. Also, if the feet are too close you'll be going backwards a lot more than if they weren't; and if the feet are too far apart, you'll go in the opposite direction.
That brings me back to current Indian players, who seem to be fascinated with wide stances. None of the Indian batsmen are as tall as Pietersen to be able to make this sort of stance work, but still most of them have adopted it. Also, is it wise to change something that has worked well for you over years of playing the game? Some say the wide stance is straight from the Duncan Fletcher school of coaching. Let's try and figure out why he might have endorsed it.
There have been radical changes in batting over the last few years. We now see batsmen lunge onto the front foot more than ever before, and that's not restricted to Indian batsmen. In fact, barring players from England, almost everyone else is on the front foot more often than not, and at times even to balls that are dug in short. It isn't surprising that most English batsmen have narrow stances, for that makes the backward movement that characterises their play easier.
A wide stance means your movement is towards the bowler. Also, once the feet are already so far apart, it takes only a small step forward to have a stride that is fully stretched forward. Perhaps that was why Fletcher preferred this approach: if you have to take a forward stride eventually, why not get into that position even before the ball is bowled, or at the very least, reduce the distance to cover?
While it appears that the forward stride is taken care of with the wide stance, that's not quite the case. The reason to take a forward stride is two-fold: one, to get closer to the ball; and two, to take the body weight forward, towards the ball, so that you can lean into the shot. Now the short forward press from a wide stance isn't going to be effective in taking you closer to the ball, for bowlers account for where the batsman's leading foot is planted while deciding on their length. Also, a really short step forward doesn't allow the body weight to go through effectively either.
Another downside to the use of the wide stance is the lack of back-foot play in general. While the world now is all about front-foot play and weight is occasionally transferred to play shots off the back foot, there's still some merit in using the crease once in a while, especially while playing defensive shots. Also, the short forward stride is counterproductive while stepping out against spinners, for stepping out properly requires the first stride to be a fairly long one, followed by a short stride.
Traditionally the greatest strength of Indian batsmen has been their nimble foot movement, coupled with supple wrists, and anything that interferes with those strengths needs to be looked at. MS Dhoni has gone back to the narrow stance of old and it wouldn't be a bad idea if the some of the other Indian batsmen followed suit.