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.
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.