It’s not as if they required an additional arrow in the quiver to make life hell for bowlers. They already possessed the whole gamut of shots. One executed them with the most classical flow and exquisite finesse you can imagine. The other did so with singular flair that left the cricket world transfixed in awe.
But as they watch the present generation turn batting into a form of daredevilry, playing shots as if they were trapeze artists, both Jacques Kallis and Carl Hooper admit to being enamoured with one stroke in particular — the lap sweep off an express fast bowler. Not to forget wishing they owned it themselves back in their day.
It is the shot that according to Kallis, has changed the dynamics of the contest between bat and ball. And one that he’s seen his former South African teammate, AB de Villiers, pull off with unmistakable precision, and to devastating effect.
“It changes the dynamics of how the guy’s bowling at you and also the field. They will probably bring mid-off up and push fine-leg back which opens up another scoring area. That shot epitomises how batting has moved forward. The lap or ramp shot is fantastic for the game. Cricket has grown as a result,” Kallis, who’s the batting consultant with Kolkata Knight Riders, says.
For Hooper, the former West Indies captain who coaches the Guyana Amazon Warriors in the CPL, it is a shot that gives him goose-bumps.
“I would have loved to sweep a fast bowler over short fine-leg. It needs so much nerve because so many things can go wrong. You can get a top-edge on to your helmet or it could go through the grill. You could completely miss it and it can hit any part of your body. But still, Maxwell and de Villiers play it without any fear,” says Hooper.
Last week at the Wankhede Stadium, de Villiers made an unbeaten 133 against Mumbai. There was hardly a portion of the ground that he didn’t target. And while he destroyed Jasprit Bumrah’s figures with a spate of lap-sweeps, it was the manner in which he nullified the threat of Lasith Malinga with the same shot that stood out.
It’s a shot that requires some amount of premeditation at least. But where AB is better than anyone else at it is because he never loses shape in his stance, which means his head and torso remain still and body is in immaculate balance at the crease.
He also doesn’t go for the jugular till the time the bowler has let go of the ball. His tendency to squat in his stance a little also helps him keep the bowler guessing on where he’s set his targets on. It also ensures that he can wriggle out of the lap-shot and employ any other alternative — be it a cover-drive or a wallop down the ground — from the same spot, which is what makes him the first real 360-degree batsman.
So cunningly does he camouflage it that even Hooper, that past-master of the step-out shot against spin, would be impressed. After all, even Shane Warne couldn’t figure out when the Guyanese right-hander was planning to charge at him till the twilight of their enthralling battle over their careers.
To play the lap-sweep off a bowler coming at you at over 140 kph calls for extreme hand-eye co-ordination. Not only to play it successfully, but also escape unhurt in case you have erred on picking the length. The length after all, Hooper insists, is the crucial factor that could be the deciding factor. AB only goes for it when the ball is full or on yorker-length.
“It is also about choosing the right length. It needs perfect timing too. Ideally, you need to pick a ball that isn’t too full, but in your half and just short enough to get under. The likes of AB though kill the yorker by playing the shot. The name of the game is being a step ahead of the bowler. He’s plenty of steps ahead,” explains Hooper.
The added headache that AB merrily provides for his nemeses is the fact that he stays back in his crease, and also possesses a pair of lightning-quick feet. They allow him to move sideways and up-and-down at rapid pace. Like he showed against Malinga, forcing him to bowl a wide at the Wankhede, he can also shuffle one foot in and out of the ball’s line in a split of a second. His inimitable mobility ensures that the block-hole length itself is completely thrown out of the picture, as the bowler has no clue to locate it with even half a tinge of exactness. No wonder AB is at the receiving end of a number of full-tosses, which he dispatches to the fence.
It’s the success that de Villiers has achieved in Test cricket that Kallis believes is why his compatriot incites such fear in the opposition camps across all formats.
“The reason AB is the best batsman in the world is he can adapt to the different formats in the blink of an eye. The coaching manual might have been thrown out of the window in limited-overs cricket these days. But still babies crawl before they walk. Batting’s just the same. You still need basics even to execute a lap-sweep against a fast bowler,” says the Protea all-rounder.
“That he can hit the same ball to cover as well as fine-leg that makes the bowlers’ life a nightmare these days,” adds Hooper.
The bowling community as a whole though can only be grateful that Hooper and Kallis were simply content with walking out of their crease whenever they felt adventurous. And not even tempted to push the envelope, unlike AB & Co, who have no qualms whatsoever about going down on one knee with a proposal for the outright audacious.