Dhananjaya de Silva
by Danyal Rasool, sub editor
It was day five of the 2019-20 Rawalpindi Test match between Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and I was hanging about pointlessly in the press box with our Sri Lanka correspondent, Andrew Fidel Fernando. Inclement weather meant there was no hope of an actual result. de Silva, who had come out to bat on the first day, was still out there, approaching a hundred. Andrew made an absurd suggestion. He said we should conduct a poll on ESPNcricinfo's live report asking readers if they preferred Babar Azam's cover drive or de Silva's. I had never really believed Azam to have many serious rivals when it came to the elegance of cricket's most celebrated shot - the full face of the bat, the connection with the middle, and the peacocking pose right after. I smiled politely, until I saw de Silva put Shaheen Afridi through cover.
de Silva barely moved. The step forward was so short you could have missed it, with his whole body - arms aside - statuesque. There was no preening, no elaborate show of arrogance. It was as if he had played a beautiful shot simply because it was the efficient thing to do. I realised why I had never noticed it before, but now I was unlikely to forget it again.
That was also one of the last times we were at a cricket venue with no apprehensions, people mixing in the press box, a full Rawalpindi crowd enjoying a day out. Weeks later, the world would change, international correspondents travelling to overseas games becoming all but impossible, and appreciative crowds locked out. But it wasn't before I learned about a player who could execute the most venerated shot in the most unassuming way. Azam won that poll handsomely, but de Silva had earned an unlikely vote from me.
James Vince
by Andrew Miller, UK editor
Great art is essentially pointless. That most puritanical of English run-makers, Graham Gooch, used to declare, "It's not how, it's how many", and it was a mantra that his acolyte Alastair Cook took to heart throughout his pomp. If ever you caught Cook unfurling his clunky levers in a Test match, you could be sure he already had 150 on the board. Likewise, when Sachin Tendulkar was struggling with an elbow injury in Sydney in 2003-04, he shelved the cover drive entirely and cashed in on his reticence with a then-Test-best 241 not out.
But great art also makes the soul sing. If life was meant to be a diet of clips and nudges off the pads, then James Vince's Test average of 24.90 in 13 matches would be a signed-and-sealed statement of inadequacy. Instead, he possesses an off-side repertoire as creamy as a Persian cat's whiskers in a vat of Belgian chocolate, and therefore remains the sultry bit on the side that the selectors can never dare to look fully in the eye, for fear that they will be seduced by his wiles all over again.
Vince plays his cover drive like a cheat code in an old-school platform game - nail the shot once, and in an instant, time slows down and his lives stack up, and suddenly he is putting the Vince into invincible. Never was this better exemplified than on the opening day of the 2017-18 Ashes in Brisbane, when Vince - in at No. 3 in the third over of the series - strode to the pitch of his fourth ball, from Mitchell Starc, and crushed him imperiously to the rope. From that moment on, he was in… he was gone. Nothing could catch him, Aussies and team-mates alike, until a direct-hit run-out on 83 transformed the innings, the match… the series.
It was a dream, of course. Vince, like David Gower before him, is rarely more than a dreamy waft of willow away from another snick into the cordon, and another "what if" to add to the annals. But few players dare to presume such mastery of such a capricious stroke. His career to date has been a thing of malfunctioning wonder.
Babar Azam
by Andrew Fidel Fernando, Sri Lanka correspondent
I'll pick a favourite cover drive in a bit, but first I'm going to be that jerk who complains about the parameters of the exercise. Because, man, is there a more basic cricketing exercise than slavering over cover drives? Whenever a batter plays even a half-decent shot through the covers, press boxes break out in soft moans, living rooms across the world ring with cries of "shot", commentators swoon, and angels drop out of the sky. I don't get it. I mean, it's a pretty enough shot. But if you like languid minimalism you'd prefer a straight- or on-drive, right? If it's impetuosity you're after, the pull and the hook are there. Wrists? Try the flick. The late cut is more delicate, the scoop is more audacious, and the reverse sweep has a better name. And yet, so many players are judged on their cover drives, to the point where otherwise ordinary-looking batters are elevated to stylist status based solely on this shot. Why, though? We deserve better than a cover drive.
If I absolutely have to pick a cover driver from among today's purveyors, there is no looking beyond Babar Azam. Here's a man who plays the shot like he was born into it; like it was preordained that he would shame this poor bowler through the covers with that utter disdain and remorselessness that flavours so much of his batting. And like many great players, Azam can hit the same ball through cover point one over, then wide of mid-on the next. He can blast it past extra cover on the up, or send an almost yorker whistling past the same fielder. In his best form, the details of the shot seem more dependent on his own mood than the physics of the ball delivered to him.
Pretty much all his other shots are still more fun to watch, though.
Meg Lanning
by Shamya Dasgupta, senior assistant editor
There are the beautiful cover drives and there are the utilitarian ones. Sometimes beauty and functionality coexist. In the world of Lanning, however, there's only a passing nod to beauty; the focus is almost entirely on getting the ball where she needs it to be. And that holds a strange appeal.
Most great cover drivers will move the front foot towards the ball and bring the bat down in the arc they want to follow to the end. The contrast between the controlled, minimal movement of the body and the legs, with the extravagance of bat flowing through a parabola and the ball racing along the turf is where the shot's allure lies. But Lanning does not bother with all that.
Oh no, she doesn't do it ugly, but there is no real beauty about it, the sort that might make one go, "Shot, ma'am." Her front leg goes kind of down the pitch, leaving her with a lot of space outside off to bring the bat down and manufacture her arc. The bat face often opens up at the last moment to give the ball direction, which means she can usually play that ball anywhere between mid-off and cover. Even if it is pitching outside off, she can as easily close the face of the bat and drive it down the ground. The contact is sweet most of the time, but the follow-through, again, is not on her list of priorities. It's more like the crack of a whip.
In the women's game, I have heard a couple of women cricketers say, a lot more balls are pitched up near driving length than in men's cricket. Whether that's correct or not, the drive, down the ground or through the off side, has to be one of the go-to shots for all top batters, and it is. Mithali Raj plays a particularly gorgeous cover drive, and 10,000-plus runs suggests she finds the gap pretty often too. But it's just another cover drive. With Lanning, it's a little bit more. More Australian. More get-the-job-done. More… non-cover-drive-y, maybe? And, therefore, that much more remarkable.