Sublime strokes, not subjugated by scores!

Favourite cricketers fall into two groups. Those watched at the ground, and those appreciated in the mind’s eye.

“If Michelangelo hadn’t done David, he would have been happy to do Viv Richards instead; a man of comparable pride and majesty.”   -  THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

My first cricketing heroes batted and bowled in the pages of books. I read Ralph Barker’s Ten Great Innings and also his Ten Great Bowlers serialised in Sport and Pastime, an ancestor of this magazine. Growing up I knew more about ‘Demon’ Spofforth and S. F. Barnes and Ranji and Jack Hobbs than I knew of emerging heroes at home. Barker’s essays allowed a boy’s imagination to roam.

Later, one didn’t need to imagine, one witnessed.

Viv Richards making his debut in Bangalore, struggling against Chandrasekhar, and then in the next Test reprieved first by the Indian selectors (who dropped Chandra) and then the umpire (who ruled him not out) going on to make 192. If Michelangelo hadn’t done David, he would have been happy to do Richards instead; a man of comparable pride and majesty.

Brian Lara of a later generation had power and control and a sense of mischief in attempting the more difficult alternative in stroke making.

Lara uncoiling himself into the drive or hopping back to flick the fast bowler off his hip remain among the visual treats of the game. It is not enough to play the perfect drive, you have to communicate a sense of excitement, and Lara did that. And despite two first class quadruple centuries, there was a sense of vulnerability too, the vulnerability of a man temperamentally more likely to fly close to the sun than be satisfied with remaining grounded.

Sculpture garden

Some day they will find a way of erecting statues to cricketing strokes. In such a sculpture garden you will see Lara’s casual pull shot to a good length delivery, Greg Chappell’s on-drive, Barry Richards’s backfoot cover drive, Sachin Tendulkar’s straight drive, Gundappa Viswanath’s square cut, and more from among the modern masters.

It isn’t all about strokeplayers though. In a Chennai Test of the 80s, which saw three centuries, the shot of the match was the magnificent backfoot defence by Sunil Gavaskar taking a climbing delivery from Imran Khan and dropping it at his feet.

“Brian Lara had power and control and a sense of mischief in attempting the more difficult alternative in stroke making.”   -  AP

 

Favourite cricketers fall into two groups. Those watched at the ground, and those appreciated in the mind’s eye. As a boy, the latter was the more familiar group, players I knew better than the ones I actually saw in action. There was Victor Trumper, of whom Neville Cardus wrote that his art “is like the art in a bird’s flight, an art that knows not how wonderful it is. Batting was for him a superb dissipation, a spontaneous spreading of fine feathers.” Greatness was stamped on a season (1902 in England), an innings (104 before lunch at Old Trafford) or even a stroke (the magnificent George Beldam picture of Trumper stepping out to drive).

There was Australian Spofforth’s repetition of “This thing can be done” as England, set 85 to win, folded for 77, Spofforth claiming seven for 44. That was in 1882, and the beginning of the Ashes legend.

There was Clarrie Grimmett, who, according to Roberston-Glasgow, “was composed of tea, leather, patience and subtlety,” and at the end of an over used “Groucho Marx’s walk to his place at cover.”

Scoreboard an ass

For a boy, there was something alluring about the Cardus credo: “Who cares for the tussle for championship points if a Ranji be glancing to leg?” The scoreboard, Cardus said, writing in the 1920s, is an ass, and decades later it resonated with a boy’s ideas of romance, style, and art.

Thus, it was always Charlie Macartney or Archie Jackson over Don Bradman, Dionysius versus Apollo, the spontaneous and vulnerable versus the studied and ruthless. It is a bias that has stayed with me.

Macartney, like Mercutio had “no use for the man who fought by the book of arithmetic,” wrote Cardus. It was cricket’s conceit that a poetic 25 is “greater” than a workmanlike century, however pretentious that might sound.

“Batting for Gundappa Viswanath was not about how many runs were made but how they were made.”   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

Cardus wrote on music as well, and used musical references in his cricket. Of a hero he wrote: “Spooner’s cricket in spirit was kin with sweet music, and the wind that makes long grasses wave, and the singing of Elisabeth Schumann in Johann Strauss, and the poetry of Herrick. Why do we deny the art of a cricketer, and rank it lower than a vocalist’s or a fiddler’s?”

Individual performances

The end result of a match being divorced from the individual performances in it had to do with the writings of Cardus. A perfect cover drive topped everything else. Even someone like the novelist and essayist J. B. Priestley argued that opening batsman Herbert Sutcliffe was, compared to him, “the better performer,” adding, “Not for long years, if ever at all, shall I achieve in this prose the grace, the lovely ease that shines through innings after innings of his.”

So cricket was music (Cardus), literature (Priestley), art (A. G. Gardiner on Ranji’s art, “It is a great etcher who with a line finds infinity”), dance (C. B. Fry, “Cricket is a dance with the bat in your hand, or the encumbrance of a ball”). All that might sound rich, even pompous, with a whiff of the unattainable. By painting these performers in such heroic colours were the writers exaggerating in order to draw attention to the players or to their own writing?

“This hankering after aesthetic significance,” wrote the social historian Derek Birley in his critical essay on Cardus, “is harmless, and often enjoyable.”

“David Gower, a batsman who never made an ungrammatical stroke in his life.”   -  THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

 

Something beyond itself

Cricket has always stood for something beyond itself, taking the shape of whatever notion it has been poured into. But “harmless and enjoyable” is the key.

Cricketers of the past lived through the writings of men like Cardus; in later years it became slightly embarrassing to read his purple prose and forgive his non-factual truth, but it was a necessary phase, and in any case childhood heroes have to be above criticism. One read Cardus like one read Dickens, for the charming story without the boring moral, and for the gentle humour.

By definition everybody has style. But not everybody has grace. And aesthetics is not the same as beauty. These insights came later, with age and maturity.

The British philosopher Stephen Mumford once wrote, “Entering a sports stadium is a bit like entering an art gallery. One is there for a different kind of seeing, one that invites an aesthetic perception.”

In my early years of entering a sports stadium, it was more like entering a temple that invited worship. For I followed Gundappa Viswanath everywhere — first class matches, league matches, even friendly games with a tennis ball. Viswanath was a dream come true for the Cardus-soaked. Born on the same date as Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln, he meant more to a lad growing up in Bangalore than the other two.

Arcs rather than angles

Batting for him was not about how many runs were made but how they were made. Others scored more runs, but few gave as much pleasure. Like a cat, he never made angles to the wind — the geometry of his batsmanship was contained in arcs rather than angles.

“The charming Hyderabadi, M. L. Jaisimha, did not even have to hold a bat — his walk from the pavilion alone was worth the price of the ticket.”   -  THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

 

For sheer beauty we are yet to see anything to match a late cut by Vishy (as he became, years later), or a leg glance or a square drive. Often this was beauty made thrilling by danger, the prospect of dismissal. He sometimes got his eye in by playing the kind of shots an average batsman never produces in a lifetime.

I once ran on to the ground at a Ranji match to shake Vishy’s hands when he reached 50. I was 12 then. “There are no cricketers like those seen through 12-year-old eyes,” as the England leg spinner and writer Ian Peebles wrote.

Believing in Santa Claus

Vishy was a throwback to an (imagined) era in cricket when style was everything, success incidental. Such an era did not exist, of course, despite the claims of romantics, but we continue to pretend it did. That realisation came later. At 12, you wanted to believe in Santa Claus.

In a tribute in the 1970s, N. S. Ramaswami wrote: “...Viswanath’s spiritual ancestors were the makers of Belur and Halebid. They carved infinitely graceful sculptures; he creates breathtakingly beautiful cricket strokes. Had he lived in the 11th or 12th centuries, he would have been as great a sculptor as any of those who have carved their names in some of the Hoysala temples.”

Ramaswami not surprisingly used the pen name “Cardusian.”

It was always elegance above arithmetic; one hour of crowded glory was worth hundreds of runs without any charm.

A line of stylists

Vishy prepared me for Zaheer Abbas, Saeed Anwar, Mohammad Azharuddin and V. V. S. Laxman, for David Gower and Mahela Jayawardene, Mark Waugh and Martin Crowe. All of them insisting the scoreboard was an ass. Of Gower, a batsman who never made an ungrammatical stroke in his life, Peter Roebuck wrote, “Half England wants to mother him or marry him, and everyone else wants to bat as he does, as if in some enchanted dream. Wry in calamity, nonchalant in triumph, never straining too hard.”

“Today’s players — Rohit Sharma and K. L. Rahul are obvious examples — often combine beauty and effectiveness in a manner that keeps both sides of the debate happy.”   -  PTI

 

“Never straining too hard” best described the stylists. The charming Hyderabadi Jaisimha did not even have to hold a bat — his walk from the pavilion alone was worth the price of the ticket. Relaxed, collar up, seemingly swaying to the beat of music only he could hear. He could bring a crowd to its feet by merely pushing his hair back. And when he finally held a bat in hand, he swung between mastery and vulnerability, but he couldn’t play an ugly stroke even if he tried.

Where are they today?

Which brings us to the question that has been hovering over all this: where are they today? The ooh-makers and aah-makers, the Vishys and Gowers? To borrow from Francois Villon’s paen to nostalgia, where are the snows of yesteryear?

There can never be another Trumper, as we are told a few times every generation. This is true. The exact set of circumstances that gave birth to a gentleman and batsman such as he will not be replicated. Not just cricket, but society itself keeps changing, and too many stars have to be in alignment, too many conditions follow one another in a precise order for another such player. The argument can be extended to the others mentioned above, most of pre-1971 vintage, who have inspired effusive and imaginative writing.

Does a graceful batsman inspire lyrical writing and thus get pinned to immortality or is it the other way around? A romantic writer overstates his case and posterity simply takes him at his word? Live television has, in some ways, taken the romance out of cricket by eliminating mystery and the formerly unknowable.

Old-timers tend to believe that in their lifetime cricket has been converting itself from a genteel sport to a commercial activity. Perfection was always in the past, the golden era decades earlier, and after Trumper (or Hobbs or Hammond or McCabe or Sobers or Gavaskar), the deluge.

The modern game

True, one-day cricket and its offshoot, T20, eschew style and attractiveness for the “brilliant” inside edge past the leg stump. “It doesn’t matter how they come so long as they do,” the commentators keep reminding us, possibly reflecting the philosophy of the modern game. There is little time to stand and stare.

The tension between function and beauty hardly exists — the former has won that battle. Winning is more important than looking pretty; it is better to play an ugly heave beyond a fielder than a classical drive that evokes oohs and aahs but few runs.

Birley in his essay, called Cardus a blatant purveyor of debased romantic imagery; it is easy to imagine a modern batsman who sacrifices efficiency for style being accused of the same thing. “Nothing fancy” is the motto. If cricket, as is claimed, is a reflection of society, then it should not surprise that there are fewer Viswanaths playing today. Winning, not visual beauty, provides the greater pleasure. Winning ugly — to borrow a phrase from the tennis guru Brad Gilbert — is better than its opposite.

Yet, that might be a limited (and limiting) argument. Elegance is an individual thing. Even if Gower were to play T20 today, it is unlikely that his approach would be different. Those who are incapable of an ugly stroke are not suddenly going to find themselves playing one.

Today’s players — Rohit Sharma and K. L. Rahul are obvious examples — often combine beauty and effectiveness in a manner that keeps both sides of the debate happy.

The bowlers

Any discussion on style in cricket tends to be restricted to batting. But fast bowler Ray Lindwall was seen as poetry in motion and of Bishan Bedi it was said by Tony Lewis: “When you have seen Bedi twirl down his spinners after 60 overs with the same gentle rhythm as he settled into at the start of the spell, you understand why his is a great bowling action. A clockmaker would have been proud to set Bedi in motion — a mechanism finely balanced, cogs rolling silently and hands sweeping in smooth arcs across the face.”

Jim Laker wrote that his idea of paradise was to have Lindwall bowling from one end and Bedi from the other on a sunny afternoon at Lord’s. Let me extend that thought: Facing them would be Trumper and Viswanath, with Gower padded up to come in next.

What is one step higher than paradise?