The ‘Conjurer from the East’ look was to give his crafty leg-spinner – with those hypnotic eyes and mesmeric run-up – an extra coat of mystery. By the end of the tour, the English couldn’t stop talking about the sly spinner who had tricks hidden in every joint of his magical wrist.
Till a week back, a bunch of Indian cricketers were touring England. Most wore stubbles. It wasn’t a management decree, they weren’t being characters in the script penned by their captain. This was the team’s signature match-face, they couldn’t have passed off for some exotic illusionist.
Still a couple of them – Rishabh Pant and Surya Kumar Yadav – managed to sweep the locals off their feet, casting a spell over them. The two elicited collective gasps of wonderment in the stands and in TV/podcast studios. Like in Qadir’s case, there was talk about the magical wrists.
The effortlessness and innovation of the un-English batsmanship caught the attention of eyes more used to watching textbook strokes that were primarily about elbows and arms.
When India was getting angry and angsty about Virat Kohli edging the ball behind the stumps, England, in a trance, were processing two soul-stirring centuries – Pant’s 113-ball 125 in the Manchester ODI and Surya’s 55-ball 114 in the Nottingham T20I.
They were heaping on them heavy praise, burdening the two new stars with back-breaking expectations. In the land known for lyrical cricket writers with poetic licence, they were making some fairly audacious comparisons.
The popular podcast The Analyst, presented by top cricket pundit and former first-class player Simon Hughes and BBC’s Simon Mann, made a leap of faith, the kind even Indians can’t dare. Pant, they said, was better than MS Dhoni, with just a wee bit of reluctance.
There was also discussion about Surya’s 360-degree play and his talent to explore the less-patrolled unexplored areas of a cricket ground. His unconventional behind-square play still fresh in mind, Surya was called the ‘Next AB de Villiers’.
Other most-listened-to talk shows around the English shores called Surya’s knock the ‘best T20 innings ever’. All post-match dissections of his stroke-play had the mention of the flexible wrists strengthened on the Mumbai maidans.
Hughes mentions left-hander Pant’s unique way of dealing with James Anderson’s deadly round the wicket incoming balls that are pitched fractionally short of length. It’s the English master pacer’s favourite variation to test the best in business.
Darting in diagonally from the edge of the crease, the ball seams further towards the batsman, threatening to take the edge of his bat or knock over the stumps. It is a tight ball that restricts the movement of the batter’s hands and even cramps their feet. Hughes says most times, the batters get tucked in and tend to inside-edge the ball onto their tight pads.
But Pant is different. He quickly skips on to the backfoot and clears his front leg. “This enables him to work the ball away to the legside with a wristy little flick,” says Hughes. The wrists again.
It’s these late delicate manoeuvres, achieved by some subtle wrist movement, that baffle even the keen observers of the game. A slog-sweep to cow corner, a screaming cover drive hit by a free-flowing bat, or even a straight drive are results of a full contact of the wood and lack mystery. They are beautiful to watch but self-explanatory. You see the forceful action of the bat and anticipate the subsequent reaction of the ball racing to the fence. You see force and expect acceleration – it’s simple science.
Wristy strokes follow a micro-science, their nuances are too intricate, they are unseen to the naked eye. From beyond the boundary line, it is tough to fathom how a mere flick can send the ball to the parking lot outside the stadium. They trigger ‘How did that happen?’ curiosity. It also enhances interest, generates admiration. Anything unexplained and invisible gets wrapped in a cloak of enigma. It’s also jaw-dropping.
These emotions were in abundance when Surya was playing a blinder at Trent Bridge. Despite the awe-inspiring sublime innings, India went on to lose the game but those at the ground were shaking their heads in disbelief. Surya exploited impossible angles by getting in so-far inconceivable positions.
He would stretch his left-foot to the ball pitched way outside the off-stump. He would get inside the line of the delivery and lovingly flick over fine leg for six. For the same ball, he had other options. He would get into shape as if he was about to play a down-on-the-knees cover drive. But then, that would have been a very English shot. Surya, while on his haunches, would carve it over point for six. Again, it was all down to those famous flexible sub-continental wrists.
There are shades of ABD in him but he is still very different. The South African mostly guides the ball to fine leg by changing the angle of the bat. Surya puts in more work on the ball. He has the skills of a hockey drag-flicker. His engagement with the ball is deeper.
The two heroes of this England series were following a long-standing tradition that the great Ranji started while turning up for Sussex. He too bewildered the English with his new range of strokes.
Neville Cardus would be on hand to record the first major tweak to batsmanship. Cricket would get described as if it was the review of the Great Indian rope trick. Cardus would write of Ranji belonging to the land of “Hazlitt’s Indian jugglers, where beauty is subtle and not plain and unambiguous”. Something that Imran had in mind.
He would say how the Indian Prince from Nawanagar’s cut was a “dazzling lance of batsmanship”. His bat was like a “yielding cane making swift movements which circled round those incomparable wrists”. The fascination about that specific part of the anatomy is centuries old and still continues.
For Pant and Surya, this was a coming-of-age tour. The bigger stars – Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma – weren’t quite bringing the roof down at stadiums but their failure wasn’t noticed. No one missed Kohli’s cover drive or Rohit’s pull. There were new stars, newer strokes to celebrate.
If transition had a picture, it was one of Surya walking back to a standing ovation from the jam-packed Nottingham crowd and Vivek Razdan from the commentary box belting out one of his instant couplets.
“Buland iraadon se likhte hain taqdeer apni, hamari kismat haath ki lakiron ki mohtaaj nahi hai,” he would say as if Surya’s thought bubble. It’s loosely translated as ‘fate of those with lofty ambitions isn’t dependent on palm lines’. He was right, in the case of Surya and Pant, it’s the wrist.