Is it absolutely necessary to know about Barton King?
By Suresh Menon
A young cricket fan came up to me at the Jaipur Literature Festival and asked me, presumably on behalf of thousands like him, “Why do we need to know the history of cricket? Would Mahendra Singh Dhoni have been a different player had he known all about Farokh Engineer?”
A few minutes earlier, at a session with Rahul Dravid and Ian Buruma, the cricketer and the cricket intellectual respectively, the television anchor Rajdeep Sardesai had cracked a joke about Dhoni not knowing who Engineer was and had asked if current players lacked a historical sense.
“How will you understand the present if you are not aware of the past?” I asked the young fan who had asked the question, before realising that the understanding of the present was not particularly high on his priority list. So what if Virender Sehwag did not know who Vinoo Mankad was, did it keep him from making two triple centuries in Tests and a double in one-day internationals?
“Show me how you play the cover drive,” I requested. And the boy took his stance and proceeded to shadow-drive an over-pitched delivery outside the off stump.
“That,” I told him with a great deal of emphasis and possibly a touch of the pompous, “is the way the stroke has been played for decades – you can see in it the majesty of a Walter Hammond, the mischievousness of a V V S Laxman, and so on. Wherever you learnt it – at coaching school, while watching television – that is the way the stroke has been played historically.”
History is not merely knowing when Hammond played that stroke or indeed if he was the one to have played it better than anybody else. It is acknowledgement of the fact cricket is a growing, evolving, almost breathing entity. History is always beside us whether we are conscious of it or not. It is also crucial to know history in order not top repeat mistakes or to have to re-invent the wheel, as it were. A Ranji has already invented the leg glance; today's players don't have to develop that from first principles. Likewise with Bosanquet's googly.
When the Twenty20 version of the game was invented, one of the first batting techniques to emerge was the inversion of the classical get-to-the-pitch-of-the-ball-and-drive. Now batsmen didn't play bat and pad close together, but instead placed the front foot away from the line of the ball before swinging the bat through in an arc. Getting that front foot out of the way created space and opened up scoring opportunities. Today's contemporary tactic is tomorrow's history.
Jack Hobbs has already shown us how to bat on a wet track, Bradman how to use the feet and hit the ball between fielders, Viv Richards how to send the perfect outswinger screaming past midwicket, Prasanna how to flight and bowl the off break as if the ball is being held by a string to control where it pitches, we don't need to get there from scratch. The coaching manual is the sum total of our dialogues with history, and young cricketers ignore the wisdom of the past at their own peril. Sehwag not knowing Mankad is not as important as Sehwag's batsmanship being fashioned by the methods of those who went before him.
When the mathematician Ramanujan went to Cambridge at the invitation of G H Hardy, the great number theorist, the latter was both apalled and fascinated to discover that the Indian had proved many theorems starting from first principles, unaware of the fact that these were already common knowledge in the West having been proved decades earlier. The mathematician's creative span is short (much like the sportsman's), and this represented a huge waste of time that might have been better used to tackle more serious and unsolved problems.
A knowledge of history prevents waste of time and effort. There is little point in attempting to invent the outswinger today. It has been in use for decades now, at least since the American John Barton King bowled it with such control and effectiveness at the turn of the 19th century. Is it necessary to know about the outswinger? Yes. Is it absolutely necessary to know about Barton King? Perhaps not, but it would help understand not just cricket or the outswinger but America's role in the early development of the game, the beginning of international sport in 1844, and so on. And that is reason enough.