One of the finest shots I saw on a cricket field came off the bat of Sunil Gavaskar. The bowler was Imran Khan who was fast and had been troubling Indian batsmen series after series. The venue was Chennai where that India-Pakistan Test was played.
Imran’s delivery rose sharply, and so too in a sense did the batsman who moved beautifully into line back and across, stood tiptoe, met the ball in the top half of the bat and dropped it at his feet. I can’t remember if Imran applauded, but from outside the boundary, a handful of spectators did.
I was in the media box where we didn’t do such things, but in my mind I saluted Gavaskar. That backfoot defence was comparable to anything the attacking player of the day, Viv Richards had hit. Both defence and attack can be sexy, and speak of the batter’s control.
A decade and more earlier, as a schoolboy cricketer, I watched fascinated as Alvin Kallicharan of the West Indies played the Indian spinners Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkatraghavan dead in defence on a soft wicket in Bengaluru.
Eknath Solkar, with his prehensile grasp was waiting at short leg for a mistake, for the one ball the batsman could not keep down, but it never came. Kallicharan made a classic century, the best of three in a match where Gordon Greenidge and Clive Lloyd too hit hundreds. Lloyd’s was all power and vigour.
A shot of the past?
Watching batsmen in the IPL strike the ball with startling power and hit sixes while off balance and with such confidence, one wonders if the day of the defensive player is past. Cheteshwar Pujara might be the last in a line India has produced, a line stretching back to Vijay Merchant through Rahul Dravid and Gavaskar. And not just that. The day of the great defensive shot might also be past, batters deciding that defence is merely the last resort of a technique based on attack.
In the last year or so, it has been wonderful watching the so-called ‘Baz-ball’ style of cricket played by England, full of batters who create strokes and runs out of deliveries that might have been defended a generation back. Perhaps the mentality owes something to T20 cricket which is a sport of the possible; perhaps it owes much to the temperament of the captain Ben Stokes and coach Brendon McCullum. It has seen more matches ending in victories and defeats. The draw has been virtually eliminated from the team’s vocabulary.
Will England be able to bat through five sessions to draw a Test match? We will know when the Ashes series begins in June. Man to man, England have the better team, and in home conditions and given their recent record must begin favourites. Yet should Australia push them into a corner and batting for survival is the need of the hour, how will England cope? They have the batsmen, certainly, with Joe Root among the finest there has been. But it’s a question of mentality. Somehow, defensive batters find it easier to attack than attacking batters to defend.
When the West Indies carried a truckload of fast bowlers who were a danger to life and limb in the 70s and 80s, defending was not really an option. Everybody has a plan till they are punched in the mouth, said the heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. Something similar could be said about plans against Malcolm Marshall. Andy Roberts, Mike Holding, Patrick Patterson and others. The best response, many batters felt, was to attack and score as many runs as quickly as possible before that inevitable ball on the stumps or body. It was a technique even the great Don Bradman used against Bodyline — counter-attack was the best defence.
To defend or attack is a question that has sometimes been given a moral tinge. This is nonsense. It depends on the circumstances and needs of the team, apart from the batsman’s own temperament. But you cannot play any format of the game for long without a healthy mixture of the two in your arsenal.
It is rarely that spectators remember a defensive stroke, while the ones that send the ball sailing over the boundary are easily recalled. But when the latter is the more common, it is sometimes fun to think back to the one that didn’t get away into the stands.