My first love in cricket was Graham Yallop. I shrink with embarrassment revealing that, of course, but what the hey. I was a sensitive and artistic kid, he had a sumptuous cover drive, one thing inevitably led to another. The planets were aligned.
My infatuation with Graham Yallop took me on an emotional roller coaster ride during the early 80’s. Graham Yallop was really only a fringe player, so I was forever agonizing over his selection. Time and again, he was found out at Test level and banished back to shield cricket. Every time this happened, I took it hard. It was as though artistry had been conquered; it was as though sumptuousness had no place amongst the brutal forces at the international level. For a starry-eyed 13 year old, it was downright depressing.
Fortunately, Australia was at a low ebb during this era, so Yallop was recycled more times than cardboard. Just as I’d thought a limp capitulation to Bob Willis or Colin Croft had sealed his fate, a tour to the sub-continent would follow, and he would be back in favor. Here, against the wiliness and wizardry of spinners and away from the intimidatory methods of fast bowlers, he reveled. (And did he what!) On these turning wickets, Yallop’s dancing feet nullified the spin and he made numerable big scores. Every time he did, all was right in my world; every time he did, I walked with a spring in my step (and I did so even though I’d only ever see grainy highlights of these innings on the news.)
My love of sumptuous batting peaked at a new high upon Mark Waugh’s arrival. No player I’ve seen before or since has had his artistry. His on side play was pure poetry, and in watching him, you couldn’t help but think that humans were genetically engineered to be cricketers, such was his symmetry.
A brief Mark Waugh innings left you unsated and hungering for more. It was like having a triple fudge sundae taken from you after one bite, and in the cases where he lazily chipped a innocuous delivery down mid-on’s throat, it was like dropping your double cone Gelati into kitty litter.
In accordance with my sensitivity to textbook batting, my favorite form of the game is naturally enough Test cricket. It is here where orthodox batting thrives – where V.V.S. Laxman, Ian Bell and co can wait for the right ball to play aesthetically. The short form games, however, ask these players to compromise their art. Instead of waiting for the right ball, batsmen are under pressure to score off every ball. Batsmen here have to throw out the manual and hit across the line. They have to slog into cow corner and flat bat down the ground. Disconcertingly, the short forms pervert the finest traditions of batting.
Picture this classic tableau: three slips and a gully, a ring of infielders and a fine leg. It is, of course, a Test team on the attack. A fast bowler then releases the ball and a counter attacking batsmen plays an elegant stroke that pierces the field. The ball stops just short of the pickets and the crisscrossing batsmen complete three runs before a fielder’s sizzling throw slaps into the keepers gloves. An appreciative audience of connoisseurs then applauds politely. It is all very civilized and cultured and idyllic. Now picture a typical tableau in T20: no slips, a ring of outfielders and a team looking helplessly on the defense. The bowler releases and a beefy batsman slogs across the line. The struck ball, more muscled then timed, fizzles towards cow corner where it is cut off by an outfielder. The ball is then thrown to the keeper after the batsmen have ambled from crease to crease to complete a run. A drunken, festival audience expecting the pyrotechnics of another 6 hardly notice the stanza and look on blankly. It is all dumbed down and lowest common denominator and brutish. Now I ask you, where of the two are you more likely to the find the exquisite? (and as an aside, where are you more likely to find half a brain?!)
Textbook shots, when played by the finest batsmen are of endless wonder. I never tire of their nuance and charm. I also love how they are part of cricket’s etiquette. If the ball is pitched up, you play off the front foot. If it is short, you play off the back. There is an appropriate shot for every ball. There is an order. “Akram pitches it short and Laxman rocks back and cuts sweetly. What a gorgeous shot! Now back to Kerry’s ramblings.”
The game has evolved the off drive, the on drive and the straight drive. It has developed the cut, the hook and the sweep. Then there is also the pull, the loft and the defensive prod. And what about the non shots: the shouldered arms, the duck and the leave. They are all part of cricket’s rich heritage and so long as the game is played over 5 days and bowlers bowl at different lengths and on different sides of the wicket, they have their place. That I’m sure is immutable.
Lastly, orthodoxy also brings out the more refined elements in our language. Cover drives are glorious and hook shots are commanding; late cuts are elegant and clips of the hip nifty. And then there’s batting described as sumptuous. Sumptuous is reserved for the highest echelon of artistry. Mark Waugh off drives are sumptuous and Graham Yallop’s off side play was sumptuous. Indeed, sumptuousness found its true calling when describing cricket. But only test cricket. Sumptuous has no place in the short form games. Here, big hits are incredible and smashed balls are awesome. In this landscape, cricket is described by illiterates – and spotty faced teenage types at that.
I guess I sound snobbish about crude stroke play, but I’m not. It’s just that I don’t want textbook players batting that way. In fact, I quite enjoy batsmen hitting across the line. Indeed, at Test level it is exhilarating. The players who hit across the line in Test cricket do so knowing that they will be severely criticized if dismissed cheaply. They are daredevils on a trapeze wire with no net. There is a perspective. Most tellingly, they are usually bowling all-rounders. Think Botham, Dev and Akram. Because they are primarily picked as bowlers, bowling all-rounders are liberated to bat cavalierly. When it doesn’t pay off, they can always redeem themselves with the ball. I think this creates a lovely contrast. The all-rounder at Test level is a swashbuckler, a carefree type that takes risks and lives dangerously. He is a different breed to the specialist batsmen, who is more workaday and conservative. Only test cricket creates this differentiation – in short form cricket, everyone bats like a millionaire. Short form cricket lacks Test cricket’s complexion.
Sadly, Test cricket has become moribund in many parts of the world. We Australians and the English get it, but everywhere else they don’t. It staggers me that countries with deep cricketing roots such as India, West Indies and New Zealand cannot see the trees from the forest. They now prefer a dumbed down version of the game to the genuine article; or to put it more in keeping with my article, they now prefer pyrotechnics over artistry. Hopefully, good taste will prevail and one day this will be remedied.
Footnote: I have one last embarrassing detail about Graham Yallop. When I was 14, I said to a schoolmate, “If I was a girl, I’d marry him.” My schoolmate inched away, naturally enough, and never looked at me the same way again.