A simple, graceful cover drive

Things are changing all the time and the new generation of top international batsmen are more unorthodox than the majority of the players of my era.

The glory of a Mahela Jayawardene cover drive.   -  GETTY IMAGES

Recently, I was coaching some schoolchildren and a young boy asked: “Mahela, what was the secret to your mastering the cover drive?” I was immediately flattered, but the hard truth is that no player, no matter how good he is, can “master” a stroke. All we can do is prepare as best as possible and then execute the shot when the right delivery comes along.

The cover drive was one of my favourite strokes and that is not surprising because players from the sub-continent are often more comfortable on the front foot. Our technique is forged during our childhood and is invariably influenced by natural conditions. I loved to play off the frontfoot on Colombo’s slow pitches, while Sanga was more adept off the backfoot having been raised on the livelier hill-country pitches of Kandy.

 

The differences are even more obvious when you compare players from Asia and Australia. Australia’s best batsmen are traditionally ruthless with the cut and the pull, but Asia’s heavyweights plunder runs off their pads and are very adept at using their feet. The challenge for us all is to harness our strengths, while also improving our weak areas and adapting to conditions.

So then I told this boy that the only really important secret was: practice, practice, and then more practice.

Personally, I loved to tuck runs off my pads and also scored heavily through point, playing late and guiding the ball. I was also comfortable with the spinners, especially sweeping. I was, in general, reluctant to pull and during my early days was less comfortable on the backfoot.

However, you cannot achieve sustained success unless you are able to play all the strokes and that is why you have to go to the nets and work hard. Strokes need repetitive practice, they need to be ingrained into your muscle memory to the point that your body can simply react to a delivery and dutifully execute without thought.

This takes hours and hours of focused practice with the coaches spending hours throwing balls or using a bowling machine. The same is true of bowling. Everyone used to marvel at Murali’s accuracy, but this was not a fluke, it was the end result of exhausting practice. No one practised harder than Murali; he could bowl on his own to a stump for hours and hours.

Once you have honed a stroke, the next challenge is the quality of your decision-making and choosing the right moment to play the stroke. This is the trickiest part. I know I was a good player of the cover drive, but that did not mean that I always chose the right deliveries for the stroke.

When you are a batsman you ideally need a clear mind. The easiest and safest way to bat is without pre-meditation. You need to see a delivery and react. In terms of judgement, there are two key issues: the line of the delivery and the length. The line is the easier issue; picking the correct length is the harder decision. You have a spilt second and you have to trust your eyes and mind. When it comes to the cover drive, as an example, you need to adapt to the conditions. Obviously, it is easy to cover drive a half volley to the boundary anywhere in the world, but sadly you don’t get many of those in Test cricket. In England where the ball swings or in the humid conditions of Sri Lanka, you need to play the cover drive late so that you can adjust to any movement, meaning the ball often travels squarer through point. In Australia or South Africa, meanwhile, you have more freedom to drive on the up through extra cover.

Of course, things are changing all the time and the new generation of top international batsmen are more unorthodox than the majority of the players of my era. Look at Steven Smith from Australia. He’s an unusual player, who relies on quick hands and thrives despite minimal foot movement.

Virat Kohli is more conventional, but still has a unique grip and technique.

New Zealand’s Kane Williamson is supremely talented and probably plays the ball later than anyone in the world right now. He is able to adapt to different conditions well. Joe Root has been fabulous for England, the cornerstone of their top order, and he is also comfortable off the back-foot. AB de Villiers, meanwhile, is unusual because of his positive approach and he relies so much on his brilliant hands and eyes.

The truth is that the cricket world is changing. Those five players have been forced to evolve with T20 cricket and this has spurned new technical developments. Today’s players must be able to successfully pre-meditate, which is not an easy skill. It is very risky, too. Thankfully, in my day, a simple, graceful cover drive was enough.