Updated: March 24, 2019 9:03:13 am
There was a time when six-hitting was raved as it was romanticised. It even made people generous, like the bartender of the Adelaide Oval who offered free drinks and chips for all the spectators when Donald Bradman struck his first Test six (he struck just five more in his whole career). Or the hotel manager of a five-star hotel in Thiruvananthapuram, who decided not to fix the window pane shattered by Krishnamachari Srikkanth’s thunderous six off West Indian fast bowler Patrick Patterson in an ODI match.
But sixes, in this age of gluttonous six-hitting, have lost its gift to surprise. The average sixes struck in an IPL game last edition shot to 14.5 from 11.96 in 2017 and 8.62 as recent as 2011. From 2015, the average sixes hit across all tournaments have shot from 8.2 per match to 12.
Inevitably, the teams and franchises that struck the highest number of sixes clinched the IPL in six out of 11 instances. Inversely, the most deficient six-hitting teams have finished last on seven occasions. Likewise, in the last instalment of the World T20 , the West Indies out-hit other teams to the trophy, with four monstrous strokes from Carlos Brathwaite’s blade. In their semifinal heist, the West Indies’ batsmen played out 50 dot balls, 23 more than India, but hit 11 sixes to India’s four. And therein lies the fundamental T20 mantra of our times—an unshakeable belief in the persuasive powers of a six. The unfluctuating currency of the game’s shortest format.
The domino effect is being felt as far and wide as the ODIs and to a lesser extent, the five-day version. In 50-over cricket, the number of sixes have shot from 4.75 in 2006 to 10, from one six being hit off every 112th ball to one in 56 balls, a margin literally halved. The 50-overs-cricket’s first 500, thus, looks only a matter of time.
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In that vein, the six has become an equivalent of basketball’s three-pointers. Like the T20s, when three pointers were introduced in NBA in 1979, it was promptly classified gimmicky. Forty years later, the success of NBA teams directly hinge on three-point percentage and the marquee three-point purveyors in the team. From a percentage of 2.8 in 1979, it has spiraled to 31.3 this season, directly resulting in the inflation of team totals. Not surprisingly, the most successful team in the last five years—Golden State Warriors, who have clinched three of the last four NBA titles—possesses the most three-point specialists of this era, Stephen Curry.
Much of the three-point numbers don’t surprise the NBA faithful, just as sixes don’t startle the T20 tragic. And like Curry—43.5 percent of his points accrue from three pointers—or Joe Harris and Davis Bertans, we are living in an era of colossal six-smackers. Chris Gayle, the elitist of all, strokes one every every ninth ball he faces in T20s. Chris Lynn sends the ball tipping over every 10th ball. The game, to use linguistic licence, has already been sixified.
After meeting Donald Bradman during the latter’s visit to New York at the peak of Great Depression, the legendary base-baller Babe Ruth, dubbed the Sultan of Swat for his prolific home-runs, was convinced of his gleaming cricket future. “Perhaps I should try this cricket business, maybe it’s my game,” he told Bradman and set off to England next summer. Two months later, after failed auditions, an exasperated Ruth quipped: “How could I help it when you have a great wide board to swing?”
For all the ostensible similarities between cricket and baseball, techniques used in one don’t necessarily carry over to the other. In baseball, for instance, you have to open the hips as you swing to provide the torque to hit the ball. Do that in cricket, and you square up and play across the ball. Pitching has more in common with throwing than it does with bowling. And even catching is a different proposition when you’re doing it bare-handed rather than wearing a mitt.
But examine some of the popular strokes in T20 cricket, and you wonder whether the boundaries have blurred. Deconstruct Gayle’s heaves over the cow cordon—he clears the front-leg, opens up the hips and shoulders, pivots on the back leg to shock-absorb the force he imparts on the shot, and swings the blade with a thumping majesty—there’s an inescapable baseball hitter’s alignment and technique in him.
Even the back-lift, coming down angularly than straight is a subconscious baseball rip-off. The former English batsman Paul Collingwood once noticed that “when he is in his stance he’s got the hitch on his back leg just like a baseball batter.” The only un-baseball part of that particular stroke is the non-existent flourish. In baseball, it’s exaggerated with the striker almost completing a 360-degree turn, because they have to hit the ball longer using bats with sweet-spots measuring about a quarter of an inch across, against pitchers consistently clocking 95 mph.
Not just Gayle, several modern-day hitters are increasingly embracing the method, arguably the most natural and elemental six-hitting mode. It may be derided by purists as bad technique, which for first-class cricket it maybe is, but it is perfect for hitting the ball for six in limited-over games.
It expands the range and canvas of six-hitting. Anything short or on good length can be smeared over the cow cordon. Anything fuller could be hefted straight, or depending on the line, over extra cover. The short ones on off can be swiped over point. A batsman can premeditate, but last-minute adjustments too aren’t ruled out.
Some players have already inculcated baseball techniques into their game. Like England’s Jos Buttler. He recently explained the baseball technique in his defence. “When I trigger, my back foot goes back and my front foot moves forward a bit but not quite as exaggerated as Joe Root who really goes far back and then forward. Moving back then forward helps me get momentum into my shots. It’s like a baseball technique, where you load up and then come back at the ball. I could stay where I am, but going back feels like it gives me a bit more drive to come back into the ball and get all my weight and momentum going back to the target of where I want the ball to go.”
In other words, the modern T20 batsmen trust power more than timing to nail the sixes. That’s how the whole concept of power-hitting crept into cricketing parlance. The concept in cricket is widely credited to ex-Hampshire all-rounder Julian Wood. A modest cricketer in his days, Wood was vacationing in the US when he met the hitting coach of Texas Rangers. Some of his training methods and techniques piqued his curiosity and he began wondering if some of baseball’s power-training methods would work in cricket. “When you absolutely need a six to win a match, the first instinct is to go for a power hit, rather than, say a well-timed inside out drive,” he explains in a podcast with the BBC.
It’s this realisation that set off his journey as a power-hitting coach as well as quest to unlocking and maximising the six-hitting potential of contemporary cricketers. “In cricket, it is very hand-dominant, and this needs to change. Coaches and batsmen are often confused about the position the body needs to get into for six-hitting. My methods focus on transferring power from the hip to the hand, like in baseball,” he says.
Awed by the output, several international teams, T20 franchises and individual cricketers have sought his services. Twice as many have sought apprenticeship under him. He agrees: “T20 is getting increasingly a power game, and there would be a time when it will be all about trying to hit every ball for a six.” It would be a matter of time before power-hitting coaches become permanent fixtures of a T20 side.
It’s in T20 cricket’s power-hitting dynamics that American sports agent JB Bernstein senses the potential of baseball players making the switch to T20 cricket. Some of them, like Boomer Collins, a 26-year-old former outfielder for the Toronto Blue Jays, has already tried his hand at T20 cricket, albeit without much success. But Bernstein, who famously arrived in India searching for kids who could throw at 90mph and discovered Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, their story later inspiring a Hollywood movie, has already set up a camp in Miami to “unearth America’s first IPL export”. Every year, he tours the US Schools and campuses putting cricket bats in the hands of 50,000 wannabe baseball players.
A select few that impressed him with their hand-eye coordination and instinctive hitting capabilities are ringed in to the academy. “We’re optimistic that a baseball player can transfer his hitting skills to cricket as effectively as a cricketer can transfer his throwing skills to baseball,” he told The New York Times. “The guys that are used to hitting with a baseball bat are going to look at a cricket bat with eyes wide open. It’s a big hitting area, and there are going to be guys backing themselves to hit a six every time.” Babe Ruth, the Sultan of Swat, thus was way ahead of his times.
A six off every ball. It’s the lilting fantasy of a child. No cricketer, ever in the history of competitive cricket, has struck every ball he has faced for a six, not even in T20 cricket. It’s impossible. But do cricketers, across formats, realistically envisage hitting every delivery for a six? They do claim, often metaphorically, that their sole ambition is to wallop every ball out of the park.
But cricketers, even in this era, seldom stride in with a six-a-ball mindset. Even the most violent six-hitters are clutched by conventions, their brain formatted to play in a particular framework. It explains why it took so long for batsman to realise the untapped potential of a six.
Six-hitting wasn’t a necessity until T20 cricket proliferated—mostly it was considered muscular mediocrity. And notoriously slow learners as the game is, it took almost a decade after the installation of T20 cricket for six-hitting to gather real pace. And the sixification of the game has already altered the metrics of the game.
Not just the batsmen opening up their hips or bowlers trying knuckleballs, or the fielders trying to throw the ball while still in the air (check the famous Pat Cummins run out of Cheteshwar Pujara) but more perceptional revisionism. Like how the conventional metres of the game are viewed and reviewed. For instance, T20 cricket has made averages almost redundant, strike rate emerging as the most definitive criterion in defining the mettle of a batsman. It has also resulted in the elimination of the run-a-ball sheet-anchor role, hitherto considered a necessary antithesis to a stroke-maker. But when the whole ambition is to hit every ball out of the ground, such batsmen often face disappointment on auction days. The primary role was to preserve wickets, but new-age coaches have realised that the stress on wickets has been holding totals back. Resultantly, the run-making pyramid too has been inverted. “They set themselves up to clear the ropes first, then work back from that to a four, a three, a two or a one,” observes Wood.
A whole lot of data analysis has gone into this, and a research in England has fished out a stat that an average team loses only six wickets an innings, and big-hitters are often wasted too low in the order. Consequently, more and more teams are looking for short, impactful knocks from their batsmen rather than longer, steadier knocks. For it’s unaffordable to even waste four deliveries, which in a 120-ball game, equates to nearly four percentage of the deliveries. The concept of getting in and then switching gears has gone out of vogue and batsmen are expected to start hitting from the first ball. To achieve this, cricket’s batting cages are being readied so that the new batsman can start walloping the ball straightaway. There are also talks about batsmen using virtual reality headsets, which can neurally prime batsmen’s brains before they face their first ball.
So much of new-age gadgetry and analytics that makes you wonder whether T20 cricket will mutate into a different sport altogether. With the dizzying pace at which cricket is mutating, it could well be a different, independent sport, liberated of Victorian England precepts and pretenses. Americanisation of another sport is underway. Cricket may soon be called cric-ball.
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