Free Hit

How many sixes need to be hit before they lose their magic?

Almost unthinkably, the spectacle of batters hitting the ball into the stands has become routine and predictable

Sambit Bal
Sambit Bal
Jake Fraser-McGurk led the way as Capitals got to 50 in 2.4 overs, Delhi Capitals vs Mumbai Indians, IPL 2024, Delhi, April 27, 2024

Jake Fraser-McGurk has only played five games this IPL, but his six count is up there with the best of them  •  AFP/Getty Images

Can something feel incredible and inevitable at the same time?
Can you immerse yourself in the thrill of a first-of-a-kind sporting experience and also find emptiness creeping in?
Can you at once exult at an odds-defying shower of six-hitting and also feel benumbed by it?
Can an event really feel both epoch-making and apocalyptic?
Too dramatic? You see, I grew up watching cricket when 250 won you a 50-over game on most occasions. That's fewer runs than were scored in just sixes as batters from Kolkata Knight Riders and Punjab Kings indulged themselves in stratospheric delights at Eden Gardens last night.
I grew up in an age when the six was somewhat a magical thing, an occasion, an act of daring - or desperation - and ultimate intent. Sixes left memories, and sometimes lasting scars.
Javed Miandad, just how did he conjure that? Just who hits the last ball for a six when three are needed to win ? Hours, days, months and years were lost replaying and reflecting on that moment in Sharjah, and Chetan Sharma, the deliverer of that mishappen yorker, a catastrophic ball in the collective memory of hundreds of millions of his fellow Indians, has spent a lifetime being haunted by it.
Sometimes sixes can be a salve. Kapil Dev lofting Eddie Hemmings for four successive sixes, high and handsome over the straight field, with the insouciance and nonchalance only he could summon. Did it matter even that India went on to lose the Test by almost 250 runs? Who hits four sixes to save a follow-on?
We were there too when South Africa chased down Australia's 434 in a 50-over game, Johannesburg's thin air propelling the ball high and far. But we believed in our hearts that that was a once-in-a-lifetime deal, and despite the mayhem England launched in ODIs in 2015 and after, it remains so: 400 has always felt unbreachable in an ODI chase, though Sri Lanka came to within a blow - a boundary, to be precise - of chasing down 415.
But what Punjab Kings did at Eden Gardens last night, sensational as it felt when it was unfolding, was always coming in this riot of an IPL. Mumbai Indians' chase of 278 against Sunrisers was screamingly alive till the 15th over. A few days later, Mumbai hunted down 197 against RCB in the 16th over. RCB themselves ended up with 262 chasing 287. In comparison, Gujarat Titans falling four short of 224 the other day felt like an underachievement. Who doesn't hit a six off the last ball these days?
As I write this, 22-year-old Jake Fraser-McGurk has fallen three balls short of breaking Chris Gayle's record for the fastest IPL hundred, failing in his attempt to hit his seventh six of the innings. The season's tally of sixes has now galloped past the 800 mark and is certain to go past the all-time IPL record, set last year. Karn Sharma, whose career strike rate in the IPL had hovered a little over a run a ball until then, carved Mitchell Starc for three sixes to nearly pull off a 21-run heist in the final over. Two international bowlers even faster than Starc - Anrich Nortje and Lockie Ferguson - have been smashed to smithereens too.
The fear isn't about T20 becoming a sport where batters start treating every ball as a free hit, or one where bowlers run for dear life. It can be argued that to a set of emerging fans, the contest between bat and bat will be as enthralling as that between bat and ball, though many of us may consider it a terminal upending of the game's core appeal.
But I do wonder about this: what if six-hitting becomes so routine that it ceases being a spectacle? It used to be that sixes were scored through a few shots: the loft down the ground, the hook and pull, the sweep, and then the hoick over midwicket. These days sixes, in addition to the earlier methods, are also carved, cut, slashed, sliced, scooped, shovelled, paddled, switch-hit, reverse-swept, and routinely mis-hit.
What happens when the possibilities of big hitting have been pushed to such limits that nothing feels amazing anymore? What will be a thing of wonder then? The dot ball? What delicious revenge that would be.

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo @sambitbal