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By Suresh Menon
Did a reverse sweep kill Robin Uthappa’s chances of making it to the Indian Twenty20 team? He began the innings with a boundary off a reverse sweep against Delhi Daredevils, and a big score that night might just have tilted the balance. Or perhaps not. It is difficult to be sure of these things. But one thing has become clear in recent years. The reverse sweep is the ugliest stroke in the game, despite the uncorking of several new ones by creative batsmen from around the world in the shortest form of the game.
Umpires are not empowered to give decisions based on aesthetics, but the authorities should make an exception for the reverse sweep. Umpires should be allowed to lift their forefingers on appeal, whether the batsman makes contact with the ball or not. The very idea of playing the shot ought to be punished, rather in the manner of the very idea of taking one’s life is. Successful execution in either case is irrelevant.
I once saw Kevin Pietersen in England reverse sweeping Muthiah Muralitharan for a six in a Test at Edgbaston. It was depressing. Next ball he was out leg before, attempting the traditional sweep. Of course, some decades ago it was not known as the traditional sweep, but something far worse. “Not to be recommended,” said Neville Cardus in an essay on Dennis Compton who swept all before him. By the time Tony Lewis played the shot in India three decades ago, it was being compared to his other skill – playing the violin. Since Cardus first brought music and cricket together, writers have been reluctant to separate them.
Cricket forces you into all sorts of strange body positions. From a physical point of view, all shots on the off side appear unnatural, yet it is the cover drive that has provoked the most poetry. Is it the game’s most beautiful stroke, marrying as it does ballet and geometry? Or does that claim more legitimately belong to the leg glance which begins without fanfare but ends in a whirr of wrists? There is something to be said for Gundappa Vishwanath’s recoiling square cut, when he seemed to be looking at midwicket as he leaned to meet the ball and then moved away. There were rumours that the bat touched the ball, but you were not sure till you saw the cover point fielder picking it up beyond the boundary.
The canvas of the game has such delightful colours, some dabbed delicately onto it, others in broad, even harsh brush strokes. And then there is the reverse sweep, which is neither colourful nor delicate and is thoroughly out of place. The reverse sweep, to quote W H Auden in another context, “is a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes.”
When Duleepsinhji first played the reverse sweep some eight decades ago, there was an appeal for ‘unfair play’, but when Rahul Dravid plays it today, the appeal ought to be for ‘ugly play’. Dravid has had the mortification of seeing a reverse sweep knock his stumps in a match; not even he, the most stylish of modern batsmen can make the reverse sweep look elegant.
The modern version is aimed at taking the sting out of defensive off spin bowling; there is something to be said about it as a practical tool. And when you say that, you also point out that the game today places practicality above aestheticism, cruelty before beauty. In that one shot, therefore, is the story of modern cricket.
At the 1987 World Cup (50-over), England skipper Mike Gatting lost a final by playing that shot against Australia. It is tempting to call that poetic justice, but considering the pedigree of the reverse sweep, perhaps it would be more accurate to call it accountant’s justice.
That shot has been with us long enough to admit of variations. New Zealander Craig McMillan first showed us how an already ugly stroke can be made uglier still by switching hands before playing it. The switch hit has very quickly been welcomed into the fold too.
But the law needs to go further, for aesthetic reasons. Or perhaps the ICC Code of conduct which penalises a player for picking his nose or cursing a batsman in the wrong accent can have the final say and hand out a five-match ban for playing ugly cricketing shots.