The style of batting

BATTING, said a guru, "is a simple matter if you sort out two things — judging line/length and deciding whether to defend or attack.

MATHUR

BATTING, said a guru, "is a simple matter if you sort out two things — judging line/length and deciding whether to defend or attack. Once this is done, the rest is easy." I can't remember the name of the person offering this gyaan because everyone (from retired professionals to aspiring actresses and extras in a TV serial) are cricket experts. But it can't be disputed that there is substantial truth in what this anonymous guru said.

Batting is simple, but only when high quality players are playing. Sachin can give a lesson to Shoaib Akhtar, smashing him as if he was chucking juicy lollipops, but the same bowler makes lesser players jump. Against them, it seems, he is hurling hand grenades, that too from a suspect action.

With batting being an art, and as each individual has a distinct style, it is fascinating to see them prepare before a game. Sachin begins by switching on the computer in his mind, he likes to first check out what happened in the past. Thereafter, he plans strategy against bowlers he is likely to face, after which he works things out in the net. Which means, for example, if short balls are expected into his body, Sachin will practise the pull or the cut for hours.

In Durban, before the World Cup, he spent considerable time in the indoor net, using a bowling machine, something he had not tried earlier. "I have problems spotting the ball as it comes out of the machine", he said, sweat dripping from his helmet, having faced close to 200 balls. That is why I prefer that someone alerts me before releasing it.

Sachin is a perfectionist, for him a net session is not just a mindless hit but an opportunity to iron out rough edges from his batting. On some days he spends hours sorting things out, trying new shots and working on certain aspects which require attention. On other occasions, even a day before an important match, he can give practise a miss, secure in the feeling that he is already prepared. Even on the morning of a match he is happy merely to knock a few balls around, gently patting them back to the bowler with his head down.

Reason for Sachin's intense, and deeply meticulous, preparation is his incredible focus. Nothing shakes his concentration, nothing distracts his cricket, nothing dulls his enthusiasm for the game. Despite 14 years on the road he approaches the next day as enthusiastically as a schoolboy looking forward to the summer break.

Like Sachin, Sourav too has a special way of preparing for a match. His kitbag contains so many bats it is like a bat showroom which would meet the needs of the entire team. Before a game he chooses his bat carefully, trying it out for balance and feel which is crucial because his game depends so much on timing and rhythm.

"I try and play to my strengths", as do most others, he explains, "adding extra grips on the chosen piece of willow. I cut and drive, and when the spinners come on I go for the big shot down the ground".

This Sourav plays like a golfer hitting the ball off the tee with a driver, really launching into the shot. When he connects, which he usually does, long off and long on are mere spectators — they can only watch helplessly as the ball sails into the stands.

For Rahul Dravid, batting is calculated and cerebral, an activity requiring planning and careful thought. The shots to play, and others that should be left behind in the dressing room, depend on the nature of the surface and the state of the match. If there is movement off the pitch then the cover drive is a high risk shot not to be employed. If the ball is stopping, not coming on to bat, better to stay back and wait instead of getting on to the front foot.

But, regardless of the extent of preparation, not every aspect of batting can be planned in advance. Dravid is a firm believer in rhythm, a difficult to describe feeling from within which either makes batting easy, or creates a situation where nothing seems to work.

"It is very strange", he says, "but some days you can't do anything wrong. The timing is good, the ball hits the middle of the bat and your shots don't find the fielders. Batting is easy for some reason and you can just go out there and do things that you want. But on other days batting can be a huge struggle because you could be tight or nervous, the bat suddenly has no middle, only edges.

Off drives end up at third man, square cuts go to fine leg, and it is difficult to get the ball off the square. But the interesting thing is you can't explain good form or bad form beyond a point".

That batting is intuitive and instinctive is proved by Sehwag whose methods are more direct, upfront and uncomplicated.

Contrary to the popular image of being a don't-care-a-damn shot maker, Sehwag thinks deeply and works out his batting as much as anyone else.

"I play my own game", he says with refreshing candour, his mind uncluttered by too much theory. "I see the ball, bowler koi bhi ho and if the ball is there to be hit, I hit it. Maarne ki ball maro nahin to run kaise banega". If you go by reputations and think too much then you are dismissed in the pavilion itself, even before playing.

While people make a huge fuss about his partnership with Sachin, Sehwag, in typical straightforward terms, puts the issue in perspective. "I play my game, he plays his game and both have to make runs for the team. Beyond a point it does not matter who is at the other end. But the advantage of playing with Sachin is he plays shots so the pressure is reduced — the scoreboard keeps moving"!