If you are a close enough watcher of the game of cricket, you will know that not only does every cricketing nation or group of nations have its own cricketing culture but also that such cultures have an influence on things as palpable as style. To see a Western Australian brought upon the livewire tracks of the WACA in Perth hook fearlessly; a South African anticipate the ball like Jonty Rhodes did in the nineties; a Sri Lankan right-hander have that almost rounded back lift and neat follow-through during the drives; a West Indian plonking the front-foot bravely to play a Richards-ian short-arm pull; or a Pakistani pace-man run in with momentum is the very sum and substance of inherited style. I would in fact go to the extent of asserting that it is precisely this variety which makes watching the game such an enthralling experience.
In this edition on style (and there may be more to come as we go on!), I would like to focus on a breed of sub-continent batsmen, particularly from India and Pakistan, who took cricketing artistry to the next level. And one thing common to the ilk of artistes to be discussed here irrespective of the country they played for, their cricketing upbringing, the times they played in, the genius they displayed and the number of runs they eventually scored is their wrist work. A century and a while ago the famed Ranjisnhji, who “invented” the leg glance, had opened the on-side as a possible area for scoring and caught the cricketing world’s imagination. The sub-continentals at least have taken the cue to their hearts and have not looked back.
It is often thought that among the the grandmasters on the on-side Azharuddin was among the ugulier what with his prodding rather than fluent style, his mowed rather than hit sixes and a tongue that constantly hanged out when he was in his elements. Yet few can question the sheer wizardry of the man when it came to the role the wrists played in his stroke-play. Hereabouts was a man who could almost turn anything to anywhere between long-leg to mid-wicket with effortless ease; and when he lost the tag of being a on-side bully, he showed us how even his straight drives and square-cuts were “rubbery” wrists over extension of the arms and sheer ingenious skill rather than brute strength.
Across the border two other Moslems, one I had both the privilege and exasperation of watching and another who I have just heard about, used their wrists to take touch-play and on-side play in particular to a different level. Responding respectively to the appellations of Javed Miandad and Zaheer Abbas, the Pakistani right-handers were both masters of footwork, good players of fast bowling, great players of spin and had legendary wrists. To see Miandad in especial play was to watch almost a sleeping batsman get to thirty or forty before you or even he knew it. The gentle glides and late dabs on the off-side, strokes executed with a late uncorking of wrists, are arguably his contribution to the one-day game and his spiritual understudy (arguably!) Mohammad Yousuf did him no harm by emulating the Pakistani master’s game to perfection in addition to playing those gorgeous extra-cover drives which were pure artistry (once again wrists rather than extension).
Fondly called “Vishy, Gundappa Vishwanath was another sub-continental stalwart whose stroke play, it is acclaimed, had a lot of wrist work about it. One of my life’s biggest cricketing regrets is not to have seen this little man from Karnataka play those gritty innings against Pakistan when the chips were down. It is indubitable that if he had played in an era that did not have a certain Sunil Manohar Gavaskar in it Vishy would have been considered a genius in his own right. Be that as it may, the gentleman’s contribution to sub-continental batting is every bit a class in itself.
With the modern game teetering on the fringes of its shortest format where brutal strength, flamboyance and cute innovations match wits with one another, there seems to be little scope to assess let alone appreciate and foster the subtle dexterity displayed by the greats of the yesteryear. It is not as if the ‘softer skills’ required of batsmen that be have been lost, but more often than not they do not come to the forefront. Thankfully though we still have in our midst stars who give us at least glimpses of the rich tradition of orthodoxy which would have been sheer magic to watch for spectators in the past.
Recent performances by guys like Mahela Jeywardena in the IPL or the world T20 is a case in point. The elbow starting forever at the skies, the bat following through on a full-arc following the momentum given by the wrists and the ball scorching the turf or sailing smoothly over the boundary boards still provide the sub-continental purist great joy for this is a brood that seems to be dwindling like Tigers in the Indian forests. And yet we should be privileged to have in our midst guys of the style and class of V.V.S Laxman, a man who could on-drive Shane Warne against the spin on a fourth day pitch at Eden Gardens en route to a majestic 281. And as far as masters of the wrist go, there are not many today who are better than the Hyderabadi stylist who when in full flight simultaneously brings to mind the fluent sights and the rustling sounds of an elegant river.