Deconstructing cricket April 27, 2018

How batsmen began to go boom all the time

The demands of T20 have made sustained big hitting in cricket commonplace

Carlos Brathwaite's sixes in the World T20 final against England are perhaps the most striking example of big hitting on the big stage © Associated Press

It is the last over of the 2016 World T20 final. West Indies need an absurd, improbable, 19 runs to win. Carlos Brathwaite is on strike. In his entire T20 international career, he has only scored 25 runs before this innings. 

"I was numb," he recalled later. "It was a state that I've only reached a couple times since. I had a clear mindset, I just watched the ball, and allowed my instincts to react." Four times he watched the ball; four times it thundered over the boundary at Eden Gardens. 

The audacity, brilliance and wondrous skills of Brathwaite makes that last over perhaps the purest distillation of T20 and what it represents. 

Six-hitting: everyone does it
Trying to hit a six in cricket was once almost viewed as a sign of self-indulgence, desperation, or both. Now it is a pragmatic, percentage option. T20 - a format in which the currency of runs is worth more, and the currency of wickets is worth less - has driven the shift. 

In 2012, a six was hit every 27 balls in T20 matches. They have become more common in every year since: so far in 2018, a six is hit every 18 balls. In ODIs the growth of the six has been even starker: a six is now hit every 58 balls, compared to one every 119 balls in 2003, the year T20 was created. In both T20s and Tests, the rate of six-hitting is still rising with alacrity, suggesting the revolution remains incomplete. Only Tests have remained relatively immune to the proliferation of the six. 

In the 1999 World Cup, Lance Klusener was the only cricketer to do specific, targeted six-hitting training. Now everyone in T20 does this. There are even specialist hitting coaches, like in baseball.

The science of hitting the ball hard
"To understand power-hitting, you need body awareness and an understanding of how your body is moving," explains the hitting coach Julian Wood. He focuses on how to declutter footwork - to free the batsman up to hit and open up new angles - and how batsmen transfer their weight into attacking the ball. Batsmen use differently weighted bats and balls in training with Wood, to improve their swing and hand speed - thereby increasing the speed at which a ball leaves the bat, and the chances of making optimal contact. 

Six-hitting is also honed through drills in the nets - including scenarios that practise attacking from the very first ball. "When I first get in the nets, I like to just smack the ball - and I can," Chris Lynn, one of the leading T20 batsmen in the world, explained to the Cricket Monthly recently

Everyone's a hitter: however low a batsman might bat in the longer formats, in T20 they're all smashers © BCCI

Range-hitting - essentially, practising six-hitting from a wicket in the middle, rather than in the nets - is also used by many as the final facet of training. The value of range-hitting is two-fold. Not only does it hone a batsman's ability to clear the ropes, they can see the ball soaring over the boundary too. As such, batsmen gain a new awareness of their powers - and a new confidence that they don't need to worry about a fielder on the ropes. If the man is there, and the shot is middled, he will be cleared. 

Sports science is helping too. England, whose six-hitting has gone from mocked to world-leading in three years, use bods at the facility at Loughborough University to collect data on the speed off the bat, launch angles, and final distance that balls are hit in training - thereby enabling batsmen to become more aware of their games, and what they need to get right to hit the ball 90 metres or more.  

Improvements in run-saving methods - like better fielding, and fielders being placed in areas where they can better save runs - have also encouraged more batsmen to focus on hitting over, rather than through, the field, Wood believes. "Batters are now using advanced statistics to maximise their ability to go deep. Their approach has changed - their whole goal is to hit the ball hard." 

Stronger batsmen, better bats, shorter boundaries
All the while, broader modern shifts in the sport have also facilitated more sixes being hit. Cricketers are stronger and more athletic than ever before - reflecting not just how T20 rewards power-hitting, but also how the influx of money into the sport has turbocharged the growth of professionalism and sophisticated sports science, so that players take better care of themselves. 

Specialist T20 cricketers are also developing physiques that, even if they might be less durable for Tests, are ideally suited to hitting. "For the power game, everything I do in the gym, again it's explosive," Lynn explained. Doing such work enables him to hit sixes, especially against spin, even with mishits. "If you do get beaten in flight, or if you need to hit the ball, it's a lot of wrist and forearm strength."

Modern cricket bats are also unrecognisable from those of a generation ago; the average size of the edge has increased from 18mm in 1980 to 40mm today,  according to the MCC. Yet Chris King, master bat-maker at Gray-Nicolls, says that bigger bats have had no meaningful impact on making balls middled travel further, and nor have they made edges more likely to clear the ropes. More crucially, as bat sizes - which have been regulated since 2017, with the edges restricted to 40mm - have mushroomed, it has made the bat more physically imposing. The modern cricket bat is not just a piece of equipment; it is a psychological weapon too, acting to simultaneously empower batsmen and emasculate bowlers. 

The effect of big bats might be more psychological than anything else © Getty Images

To accommodate TV cameras, and because many administrators try and encourage six-hitting, boundary ropes may well be a little shorter in the modern game too. Often the boundary sizes can be uneven, making one easier side to target. 

With breathtaking chutzpah, T20 batsmen now second-guess where the bowlers will bowl. As Brathwaite said of that final over against England in 2016: "I knew the long boundary was to the leg side, and if he did bowl a yorker, it would be straight, or the plan would be into the wicket." Three of his four sixes in the last over came over the leg-side boundary, the longer boundary, which Brathwaite deliberately targeted: it showed how batsmen are better-equipped - in both their minds and skills - to hit sixes than ever before. 

Brathwaite's four strikes were crisp and pure, but a combination of stronger batsmen, better bats and shorter boundaries also mean there are almost certainly more mishit sixes than ever before. Many sixes are as perfect as Brathwaite's; many others are not, but sail over the ropes just the same. 

A different stroke for every ball
Batsmen no longer rely on a specific ball being bowled to hit a six, or a specific shot to clear the ropes. Rather, they know they can get there through ballast or subtlety - sometimes, indeed, by either hitting the ball normally or switch-hitting it. 

The impunity with which the modern batsman moves around is even shattering one of the fundamental orthodoxies of cricket: that a bowler knows what the target is. Against speed or spin, batsmen jump forward or hang back, jump to the right or jump to the left. Last month, Dinesh Karthik walked out to bat in the 19th over against Bangladesh, and hit 22 off his first six balls against Rubel Hossain, including two sixes and two fours. They were hit over long-on, midwicket, square leg and fine leg. "Four almost identical deliveries, addressed in four different ways, and despatched to four different areas of the ground," Jonathan Liew observed in Wisden Cricket Monthly. Karthik faced eight balls out of the 240 in the game, yet was still Man of the Match. 

Everyone goes bang all the time
As a new generation of batsmen, reared on T20, emerge, they are also destroying the notion that batsmen should play themselves in. The very first over of a T20 innings was traditionally the format's phoney war - with both the fewest average runs and average wickets of any over; in the last year, sides have targeted it too.  

Overall scores, in both the men's and women's game, are slowly rising. They are likely to continue to do so, as teams recognise they are rarely bowled out, and it makes no sense to leave batting resources unused. Teams are also becoming more adept at teaching lower-order batsmen, even those with virtually non-existent defensive technique, how to clout the ball - accepting that they will have a very high failure rate, but that this matters little as long as they do not fail slowly. The standard-bearer of this approach is Sunil Narine. There may never have been an opening batsman in T20 cricket who fails as often as Narine; but no one else has scored two IPL half-centuries in 17 balls or fewer. 

In this year's IPL, Andre Russell arrived at the crease for Kolkata Knight Riders against Delhi Daredevils. He nudged his first ball for a single and then exploded. In his next ten balls he thundered six sixes: an upper-cut over third man; a booming straight drive over long-off; a pull over midwicket; a square drive over point; a front-foot pull; and then a mistimed six over long-off, more baseball shot than normal cricket stroke. It was another advert for the radical new approach to batting - one that eschews old wisdom about batsmen playing themselves in, and mocks the notion that running ones and twos with alacrity is the template to win matches. It is the new normal: go-go-go. 

In Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot proposes an improbable theory: maybe they all did it. Perhaps the same is true of the rise of six-hitting. T20 unleashed the beast - and then better training, sports science, data, and the sheer audacity of modern batsmen all combined to create the explosion in six-hitting. The question is how far this journey still has left to go. 

With stats inputs from Gaurav Sundararaman

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts