This month's cover story goes into territory cricket writing normally fears to tread
Halfway through his maiden Test double-hundred, against India in Ahmedabad in 2008, AB de Villiers told Jacques Kallis about a shot he had mastered. He referred not to a cut or sweep, lap or ramp, not to one of those outlandish pick-up shots that a hockey player would try if handed a tennis racquet. No. De Villiers was talking about the far more humble defensive block.
A helmeted de Villiers, bat in hand, pink pads on, ready for a hit in an indoor net, recounts the moment via a video clip on cricketyard.com. "If I could have my career over again," he says, "this will be the first shot that I'll teach myself: the late block. Once you can play this shot, everything else will come naturally to you… Every shot I play, I set up to play a really late defensive stroke."
De Villiers goes on to demonstrate how he shapes up for each ball - bat pointing to first slip, backlift raised high at the point of the bowler's release, set to meet the full ball with a late block, before letting his reflexes take over. If the ball is wide, he will allow his hands to flow. If short, he will cut or pull as per instinct. "I don't have a defensive mindset when I do it," he says of setting up for the defensive block. "All I know is, that is my best chance of getting into a really, really good position for my other strokes. And if it's a really good ball, I will sort of succumb to the bowler and say, 'Listen, well bowled, I'm going to do the late shot.' And I might still get off strike if it runs down to third man."
Process that for a second. The most versatile shot-maker in the game - with the capacity, it seems, to hit any ball, of any length, in any format, to any part of the ground - has a method rooted in a textbook forward-defensive. The shot that results may go against the dictums of cricketing geometry - not to mention the laws of physics - but until the ball is delivered, de Villiers adopts a tried-and-tested approach. Only when he is ready to defend - visualising a box in front of him, within whose boundaries he keeps his bat, feet and head - does he consider the possibility of attack.
The world of batting abounds with such contradiction. Most of the analysis (from commentators and writers) is little but informed guesswork. A lot of it is convenient categorisation. Spectators may term a firm push back to the bowler as a defensive shot, but a batsman may think differently. For him, picking the ball out of the hand, reading length early, taking a purposeful stride and finding the middle of the bat may all be signs of aggression. Similarly, commentators may assume a batsman is "confident" when he strides out, but he could be putting on an act when actually being wracked with insecurity.
Spectators may term a push back to the bowler as a defensive shot, but a batsman may think differently. For him, picking the ball out of the hand, reading length early, taking a purposeful stride and finding the middle of the bat may all be signs of aggression
A batsman's body language, his strokes, his response to a bowler mouthing off, all this is only one part of the story. When one observes said batsman at practice and listens to him deconstruct his method, when one speaks to his team-mates and coaches, keeping in mind past batting successes and failures as well as critical junctures in his career, only then does the full picture emerge. And that too is often work in progress.
There was a time when journalists (and players) explored these themes in books (and autobiographies). The amount of time available between tours allowed for deep analysis, and the terrific rapport between cricketers and writers enabled colour and insight. These days there is barely time to hammer out match reports, let alone examine spells and innings. Journalists have to make do with press-conference mutterings and the occasional one-on-one. Backroom access is almost out of the question.
Which brings us to this month's cover story: Ed Smith's meticulous exploration of technique and coaching in the age of the dazzling bat. Smith is a former Test cricketer who draws upon his technical and tactical know-how. He is an aesthete who is well versed with the game's evolution, able to link a Virat Kohli cover drive to an image of Geoff Boycott taking his stance.
Earlier this year, Smith worked as a consultant to Royal Challengers Bangalore, getting a ringside view of some of the finest limited-overs batsmen of our (and all) time. Which put him in an enviable position - not only because he was able to watch batsmen of the calibre of de Villiers and Kohli from close range but also because he could shadow them at practice, observe them at team meetings and listen to what team-mates had to say about them. "Inside knowledge isn't always right," Smith cautions. "But about pure talent, people close to the subject tend to know. Ask cricketers to name the game's freak, they'll say AB. When de Villiers walks into a room, you sense exactly that. He does not signal this pre-eminence himself. It is written on everyone else."
There is much else to savour in this issue: a cracking history of Pakistanis in the north Staffordshire leagues, the little-known story of Don Bradman meeting Kerry Packer, a Garry Sobers retrospective, and five writers on how cricket broke their hearts.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is a writer based in the USA
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