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By Suresh Menon
Watching Rahul Dravid play the forward defensive stroke in an IPL match was as incongruous as it was thrilling. It was like sighting a sparrow in our cities. Surprise gives way to nostalgia.
Dravid is yet to make a century in T20, but he has shown that there is room for style and orthodoxy even in this format. A couple of years ago, Sachin Tendulkar made the first double century in one day internationals. What was remarkable about that innings was that it was built on the straight lines of orthodoxy, with not a single shot that was 'unchristian', as Ranji's leg glance was once called.
Today the leg glance is seen as one of the game's most pleasing strokes, a visual delight to sit alongside the classic cover drive.
Is that how strokes elevate themselves over a few generations? Will today's ugly stroke turn out to be tomorrow's romantic ideal? When he made his highest Test score of 270, Dravid was dismissed by one of the ugliest shots in the game, the reverse sweep. Perhaps this was divine retribution. But already the reverse sweep has stopped causing comment and the debate over its bastard son, the switch hit, has more to do with legality than aesthetics.
There is something to be said for expanding the range of tricks in a batsman's (or bowler's) armoury. If the so-called Dilscoop, for instance, fetches runs, then who cares if the batsman ends up looking silly at the end of it? When Rohan Kanhai was playing his falling sweep, it was seen as exciting even as the batsman lifted himself off the ground dusting his backside. Forget the pretty picture, look at the ball which finishes up in the stands.
To accept the runs-are-everything theory is to accept the essential nature of the modern game where it is more important to be efficient than to be pleasing; where what you do is less important than what you get for it.
I was watching the IPL game in Bangalore with Gundappa Vishwanath the other night, and suggested to him – one of the most attractive and stylish batsmen to have played the game – that all this wild hitting and desperate lunging that passes for batting must be making him sick.
Vishwanath's creative batsmanship was built on a strong foundation of orthodoxy, which meant that rather like Tendulkar he was as capable of saving a Test match with his batting as of winning it in a tight run chase. Importantly, he was incapable of playing an ugly stroke.
“You can hit a six from anywhere today,” Vishy said as Chris Gayle and de Villiers demonstrated that in front of our eyes.
There is no arguing the fact that there is more than one way of doing something. You can, like Dravid, lean into a cover drive, place the ball between fielders and finish with a lovely follow through to send the ball to the fence, the bat seemingly an extension of the arm. Or you can bludgeon the ball over a fielder's head, the feet askew, head high, and with the whole effect reliant on the power of the bat and the muscles in the forearm. That will fetch you a boundary too. But the great batsmen – like mathematicians who arrive at more than one solution to a problem – choose the more elegant alternative.
This is not to say that all innovation must be discouraged. Sometimes it is the surprise factor that catches the fielding side off guard and leads to a collective gasp around the stadium. T20 is ideally suited for such experimentation. Stroke makers have already worked out the efficacy of moving the front foot away from the line of delivery to enable them to swing freely and send the ball into the crowds. And if you are quick enough to turn around and hit the ball over the wicketkeeper's head, then the inevitable boundary is due reward.
Cricket is fortunate that it has a format like the T20 where all manner of gimmicks and experimentation may be tried, thus leaving the real game untouched.
Unfortunately, Gresham's Law operates, and the bad shots tend to drive out the good. Which is why it is occasionally uplifting to see a batsman play the forward defensive shot. It is subversive, and therefore exciting.