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Technique, training and tracks: Graham Gooch explains what makes a good sweep

Centurions in the India-England series — Joe Root, Rohit Sharma and Ravichandran Ashwin — have all kneeled down to dispose of spin. But how does one go about playing the sweep?

Written by Sriram Veera | Mumbai |
Updated: February 20, 2021 8:38:45 am
graham goochGraham Gooch sweeps against India in the 1987 World Cup semifinal (File Photo/EnglandCricket)

Drooping thick moustache. Beard when the mood seized him. Slightly hunched shoulders. A very heavy SS bat. The ’80s generation was familiar with the image of Graham Gooch standing at the crease after dismissing a ball to the boundary — hands locked behind his waist, bat cradled behind him, as he nonchalantly surveyed the damage. Indians of that vintage primarily associate him with three imperious knocks: a triple hundred at Lord’s, a cracking match-winning ton in the second innings of the same game, and above all, for sweeping India out of the 1987 World Cup semifinal. Much before Matthew Hayden, it was Gooch who swept the daylights out of India and made the shot a primary weapon for any overseas batsman touring the country.

Gooch laughs gently when asked if he developed the shot for that game in particular. “If only a shot as productive and as risky as that can be pulled out in a hurry, like that!” he says. He did maniacally train for it in the week leading up to the game as England called on local left-arm spinners in the nets. “There were a few matches played at that Wankhede Stadium in that World Cup. So, we knew they were worn-down pitches, ideal for India’s strength. All week, we trained, sweeping away for hours. I knew exactly what I wanted to do against Maninder Singh, who at that time was as good a left-arm spinner as I had seen with his lovely drift and fizz off the track, and the well-respected professional Ravi Shastri. I had to sweep.”

Gooch remembers studying the Indian field positions from previous games. “They had two covers, a short extra-cover and a man prowling in the deep. A few on the legside. But essentially, it was a field set for two left-arm spinners around which their game plan revolved. I remember that deep cover fielder probably fielded one ball from me all game.” That gentle laugh again.

Kapil Dev’s India didn’t alter the field much that day. “That did surprise me. I kept sweeping, they kept hoping I would top-edge, perhaps.” Gooch did once off Shastri but Kris Srikkanth, running back from short fine-leg, couldn’t hold on. That was that. Game over. “Some days, your plan comes off, other days they don’t.”

The sweep has been the main shot for the centurions in the ongoing India-England series as well. Joe Root in the first Test, Rohit Sharma and R Ashwin in the second have all kneeled down to dispose of spin. It also claimed both Root and Sharma, but that’s the risk that comes with the highly-productive shot, says Gooch. Even he, in that ’87 game, was eventually out to a sweep, caught by the same man who had dropped him.

Talking technique

Is the shot entirely pre-meditated? “Semi-premeditated, I would say,” Gooch explains that prefix, “You are thinking about it before the ball and play it only when the ball meets the right criteria – the right length and line, depending on the field. So, the shot is in my mind as I set up in the crease and as soon as the bowler delivers, I make up my mind to sweep or not. For that, you have to be able to pick the length quickly, the type of turn from the hand – in that semifinal, for example, I had to see if it was the arm-ball or the conventional turner.”

Depending on the line and the turn, the front leg should move. “If it’s outside off and on a length, I would go across, towards the ball. If, as Shastri did a few times, bowl from over the wicket and around leg-stump in the rough, I would place my front leg outside the line, outside leg-stump and sweep it from there.”

However, Gooch believes the sweep shot should be used in unison with a compact defensive technique. “Else, it’s a shot of desperation and ceases to be a percentage shot. The most important thing is to have confidence in your defensive technique. Sweep then becomes the tool to disrupt length, rotate strike, hit boundaries, and frustrate a spin attack. It’s then you see spinners lose it a bit: the pace starts to get erratic, the lengths and lines change frequently, and they tend to lose their dip and loop. But for that, the defence needs to be compact.”

READ | World Cup Flashback: The arrival of ‘Sixer Sidhu’ in 1987

Learning from legends

He learned it from another England legend Geoffrey Boycott. “I soaked up a lot playing four years with Boycs. Not just my batting against swing bowling, but also spinners. The most important element is to have the ability to play spin off the backfoot. All good players do that. You come forward when you need to. Like how Virat Kohli played in his wonderful second-innings knock. Did you see how he tackled Moeen Ali from an off-stump guard and combined it with his backfoot play? To Jack Leach, too, he pressed back often.

When spinners started to get it fuller, he stretched forward to defend. The reason for a solid defence is to be tight technically but it’s mainly for the mind. Mentally, if you have a good defence, with men catching around the bat, you can think of scoring opportunities with the sweep and using your feet. But if you don’t have a solid defence, you worry about survival and then you have only one option – to attack – and that’s trouble,” Gooch says.

Different types of conventional sweeps

Then there are differences within the sweep shot. The bat-parallel-to-the-ground sweep, as played often by Root who sweeps the entire arc from wide mid-on to backward square-leg after crouching really low with the bat coming from the side of the ball, almost.

The bat-smashing-the-top-of-the-ball sweep that Gooch and Hayden would often play. “You can handle the extra bounce with this movement – swooping down from the top. It helps keep the ball down somewhat and this top-to-bottom sweep also allows a batsman to rotate strike. You can access the areas safely,” Gooch says.

It’s what Root didn’t do when he top-edged Axar Patel in the first innings of the second Test. He had gone for his parallel-to-ground sweep which couldn’t counter the extra bounce from the sandpit.

“If you want to hit the ball for a six, then you go from low to high with the bat flow,” Gooch says. “The bat also comes out differently for a lap or when you want to keep it along the ground and where do you want to hit it – behind square or front of square. So, all these decisions you have to take in the semi-premeditative shot and based on what comes out of the hand. You can’t be lazy with this shot.”

Aussie rules

The Australian Hayden used to smash the ball on its head and like Gooch, he also reckons it’s important to have a tight defence first. “I had a solid defensive strategy but what I came prepared to was to have an attacking strategy with that sweep. I prepared hard for that and sweeping was a strategy. It has been copied around the world now really. Most left-handers now look to play that sweep as a go-to shot to scoring,” Hayden had once told this correspondent.

Just like Gooch, it wasn’t just a pre-series prep for Hayden. “The seed was planted in 1993 when I was working with Allan Border and Bob Simpson. Border was a very good sweeper as well and I got the foundation of it from him: understanding when and how, what lines to play, and picked his mind on that,” Hayden said. Then there was an Indian hand that further helped him polish the shot.

In 1999, Hayden had come to a spin camp in Chennai where Bishan Singh Bedi and Erapalli Prasanna were the coaches. “It [the spin camp] was a very important camp. Based on that experience, I was able to formulate a game plan and batting strategy,” Hayden said. “Importantly, I came to understand the mindset of a spinner. I practised a variety of shots, tried out lots of options and developed my game against spin.”

READ | How Joe Root honed his most productive shot, the sweep

Prasanna remembers a young Hayden, pushing for the ball and not allowing it to come to him. “We told him, ‘either you take the ball on the full or wait’. And we also talked about his sweep shot,” Prasanna once said. “Some batsmen usually take the left leg out and expose the middle stump. We asked Hayden to get in line a bit more before he plays that shot forcefully. He was obviously a very keen student.”

Just before he came to India in 2001, Hayden would ask Ross Harris, then the curator at the Allan Border Field in Queensland, to replicate Indian conditions for his sweep-shot practice.

Starting early

Gooch’s sweep started in the 1970s in First-Class cricket. “We played on uncovered tracks. When rain comes, they would turn into stickies – where the ball would grip and turn very sharply. Every county had a couple of decent spinners then to exploit these conditions.”

He ran into some of the very best. “Derek Underwood, Ray Illingworth – all high-quality spinners. Underwood was a seamer who turned into a spinner. He had a long run-up and would spin it at some pace. He was a seriously good bowler.” Gooch says. Sunil Gavaskar would agree, having been dismissed by Underwood 12 times – the most any bowler has taken him out in Tests.

The young Gooch had to find a way against such spinners. “I picked the sweep from my county captain Keith Fletcher. Then one of my heroes Allan Knott, the best wicketkeeper- batsman I have ever seen, was a good sweeper too. I picked up a lot of cues from him. I learned the skills of the sweep and lap shot – when it was outside off, they used the lap to the legside. I wouldn’t advise going down the track when the ball is turning too much, especially if it isn’t natural to you. You had to develop the sweep and the lap; else it was quite difficult to score or put pressure on the bowlers. Especially, when the ball is turning away from you,” Gooch says.

READ | A sweeping statement from Rohit Sharma

“We saw that with Rohit Sharma, didn’t we? He kept sweeping Leach. A superb knock; he even made the sweep shot look so easy, so beautiful! It’s a hard sweaty shot, really, as you have to get really down and focus on hitting the ball cleanly but he made it look simple. A high-quality knock,” Gooch says. “I had to stop sweeping near the end of my career as I had got older and couldn’t get far down and quickly at that.”

Gooch has a length in mind to pull out the sweep shot. “My principle was that the ball I tried to sweep is the same I would play a forward defensive to. The kind of ball that can potentially hit the splice of the bat, too, you would want to lap or sweep them. Also, important to mix things up. Not be unidimensional with the sweep. In my career, I have tried to play a mixed game to the turning ball – sweep, occasional use of the feet, backfoot nudges, laps. I didn’t look to attack all the time – barring that ’87 semi-final game.”

The intent was to keep the bowler guessing. “Better the spinner, slightly more risks you have to take,” Gooch says. Like he did with Shane Warne. “I remember a 1993 game at Old Trafford. I read two of his googlies and managed to send them over long-on. He never bowled a googly again to me. He didn’t need to as he had some other outstanding deliveries – the best spinner and competitor I have played against.”

Passing on the knowledge

Once he retired and took up coaching, Gooch remembers the drill he had the likes of Alastair Cook try out. “I would make the batsmen play off the backfoot, irrespective of the length of the ball. So that they learn to use the feet and soft hands. When you go back to even full deliveries – in training – you have to have soft hands, else trouble! I remember we took a young Alastair and others to a camp in Mumbai where the late Hanumant Singh, a lovely man, was there. We had Prasanna too and they would help the batsmen try to find a way out against spin. When I came to India first in 1981, I was in awe of Gavaskar – his composure, his style, his technique, how he remained unflustered; so much time he had. I took some elements from watching him.”

India’s bugbear

It’s with another India story that we end. Not that famous 333 but the furious hundred that followed in the second innings. “Well, I remember during Kapil Dev’s whirlwind knock to save the follow-on, I had caught him at second slip. It was very low to the ground and Kaps stood his ground, as he was well within his rights to do, and the umpires turned down the catch. Let me put it this way, I wasn’t a happy person as I ran to the changeroom after the Indian innings. And I took that emotion into my batting.”

Did the Indians ever bring up those thunderous sweeps in the World Cup? “Nah! I don’t think they wanted to be reminded of that.” That gentle laughter descends again.

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