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Data hasn't killed sixes, they've still got their magic

We may have come to take the shot for granted, but some of the ones in this World Cup have had astonishing visceral impact

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
Asif Ali: risk, reward, boom  •  ICC via Getty

Asif Ali: risk, reward, boom  •  ICC via Getty

At one point in his life a decade ago, Asif Ali was faced with a stark choice. He'd just hit a 59-ball hundred on his T20 debut, for Faisalabad Wolves. Great feat, but the downer was that he was essentially a part-time cricketer. He had only just broken through; until then, he was a gun on the tape-ball circuit, making some money from it but still needing a full-time job in a steel factory to make ends meet.
He took leave to play in the Super Eight T20, Pakistan's premier T20 tournament at the time, and when he came back, his employers said they couldn't afford for him to be taking so much time off in future. They gave him a couple of days to make his decision: leave the job to risk pursuing a professional cricket career, or stay and keep making some extra money as a tape-ball star. Dream big, in other words, or live modest.
He made his choice and, not without hardships and tragedies and sacrifices along the way, here he is, dreaming big still. Except, it turns out, he's still making these cut-throat choices every day. In fact, he does it for a living.
Such as choosing to forego a single off the last ball of the 18th over against Afghanistan and finishing the game himself with sixes instead. Imagine getting that wrong. Then the four sixes themselves, each the result of a similarly stark micro-choice: swing out or get out. Swing out, become a hero; get out, end up the villain.
Swing out or get out is what Brendon McCullum thought to himself, six balls and zero runs into that innings all those years ago, the one that launched the IPL, the one that underpinned his batting and is increasingly thought to be the platonic ideal for T20 batting. Go hard every single ball; hit a boundary, don't take a single next ball, hit another boundary; don't worry about losing a wicket.
Not that we're there yet. There are only a limited number of batters out there who get to play in environments where getting out in pursuit of swinging out is not considered problematic. For everyone else there is still usually a price to pay for getting out too often. That remains the context that underpins not only the batting of an Asif Ali but also, at a narrower level, the hitting of each six, that there are consequences to failing: if it's not six, the cost is the wicket, which could be the game, which could be a career.
We're still not entirely beyond the moment Adam Gilchrist described with startling clarity after hitting his 100th Test six. "There is a point in time when you and you only know - the rest know it a second later - and it's the best feeling as a batsman. You know you took a risk. If it pays off it usually pays reasonable dividends and is satisfying."
When it does come off, as with Asif, it is more than satisfying. It's a ride comparable to the best of any sport. Those rare, pure moments when sport imitates life in its crudest formulation: win, don't lose; do, don't die; kill, don't be killed.
There are so many of these moments but Novak Djokovic's forehand cross-court return winner two match points down in the 2011 US Open semi against Roger Federer springs to mind. Like Asif's sixes, or David Miller's two last-over sixes the day after to win South Africa a thriller, this was one of those last-gasp convulsions where instinct, shaped by thousands of hours of training, muscle memory and skill, all come together to produce something so powerful, it needs bottling up and injecting straight into the bloodstream.
Not every six carries that force. But there has been something more visceral about some of the six-hitting in this tournament. Some have struck deeper inside, like they used to in the days when there were fewer of them. Think of some Jos Buttler hits, which haven't conveyed the same sense of risk and reward as Asif's but compensate by carrying the distinct sense they are at the forefront of batting's giant leap forward.
Think of the two off Mitchell Starc. The lengths were hittable, sure, though plenty of times in such cases the pace - 89mph both times here - allows a bowler to get away with the error. And if the first ball was wide enough, Starc got much tighter with the second. But at the point of impact both times, Buttler's position was such that he could have hit them anywhere between point and long-off. Instead, hello wrists, and hello Row Z behind long-on. The mastery is in the options he made for himself because it happened in less than half a second.
The ones he hit against Dasun Shanaka and Lahiru Kumara in Sharjah, during his hundred, were even better. Same set-up - deep in the crease, front leg out of the way, back leg and hip primed to power through - except, this time he's contending with a surface on which timing has been difficult all evening. And both times he's adjusting to big drops in pace: Kumara from 88mph the same over to 61mph and late dip; Shanaka from 81mph to 62mph next ball and also late dip. Buttler holds himself an extra millisecond - a skill in itself - and snaps the wrists to lift Kumara straight and high back over him and into the stands, and Shanaka over long-on; subtly different shots, identical strand of genius behind them.
One of the reasons they have registered more emphatically is because it has not been a big six-hitting tournament so far. Until the end of the West Indies-Sri Lanka group game, the tournament has seen a six hit every 26 balls, the second lowest rate since the 2009 T20 World Cup - and that's by a hair: it could well end up the lowest. Which, given it's the UAE, is understandable; in all T20s since the last T20 World Cup, a six has been hit there every 22.3 balls, placing it 16th among all host countries in terms of the frequency of six-hitting.
Another reason why is because of what's just happened in the lines above: resorting to a statistic to capture a sense of the six. This is increasingly how we think about sixes now. It's one of the by-products of the two T20 world titles West Indies won, this metricising of the six, the treating of it as a cold, hard numerical tool of strategy. Hit more sixes than the other side and forget finding gaps or running doubles and being efficient by minimising dot balls.
It has been paralleled to basketball's shift in emphasis to the three-pointer: like the six, the riskier option, but with the greater payoff. Hitting a six, like the three-pointer, is riskier because it requires superior skill. It's more difficult to get right. And the more people have started getting it right, the more that sense of risk has been diluted. Batters practice hitting sixes like never before, working their bodies into the best shape possible to hit more: these days, a six comes across less like a cut-throat choice and more like a data point in big science.
To be clear, it's not. Data hasn't killed the six, it has just led to it becoming normalised. Which is fine, because to no format is data more intrinsic than to T20. Each six that is hit remains every bit a product of all that is wondrous about athletes, in the skills they possess and the risks they are willing to take. It's just that it sometimes needs the circumstances in which Asif and Miller hit their sixes, or the showstopping skill of Buttler, to be reminded of it.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo