Short pitch: my favourite shot
Mominul Haque, the young Bangladeshi batsman who has made such a fine start to his Test career, told a cricinfo reporter this week that his favourite shot is the square-cut. My interest was piqued, because if I interviewed professional cricketers, that’s exactly the question I would ask (and feel a bit foolish for doing so). Mominul went on to say something that I strongly identified with, “Well [my favourite shot] changes from time to time..”
My favourite shot journey has gone something like this.
I started with the hook. This was before I played cricket and was based on watching batsman in the 1970s flaying their bats around their heads at fast, short bowling. It was the only shot, it seemed, that ever scored a six in cricket of that era.
My first favourite shot based on my own batting was the pull. Age 11, it was the shot that brought me most runs, so it made sense to cherish it. But soon, as my own game developed, and cricket’s cliche about elegant left-handed batsmen filled my head, a long-lasting preference for the off-drive took hold. It says more about their rarity than their perfection, but I have precise memories of three specific drives hit all along the ground, wide of mid-off in June 1993, August 1994 and April 2008.
The off-drive retained my principal affection, despite challenges from the on-drive – “the most difficult shot to play” the school 2nd XI master said by way of a compliment – and the straight drive hit back past the fast bowler. It’s hard not to be seduced by that abrupt reversal of force of a ball struck back in exactly the direction it came from, “with interest” as we learn to say.
The off-drive was finally toppled, seven or eight years ago. But the rise of its successor I can trace back twenty years to an afternoon at Lord’s spent watching Mark Waugh bat. Time and again deliveries would be, it seemed, drawn into his pads. With a flick of his bat, balls were sent bounding down the hill past mid-wicket. Its appeal was part mystery: with all my other favourite shots, it was easy to relate the batsman’s action to the outcome. With this shot, consequence seemed out of proportion to cause. The other draw I found was that, as a batsman, I had a vulnerability to the same ball (delivered at considerably less speed) that Waugh feasted on. A ball pitched up in line with middle and leg would, far too often, go on to break the stumps. My inability to play the shot (in fact any shot to that sort of delivery) held it back from becoming my favourite shot.
Years later, my comeback to club cricket threatened by a string of low scores, I bought some coaching sessions. In the second of those sessions, the coach showed me how to stay balanced when the ball was in line with my pads. Suddenly, I was playing (allow me some latitude) left-handed Waugh-like flicks through mid-wicket. And it was my favourite stroke.
More recent contenders have been the slog-sweep – but only when played by Marcus Trescothick as a expression of audacity in the midst of a tense passage of Test cricket – and the upper-cut. The latter only appeals when played with full follow-through that sends the bat scything through the air like a scimitar. But as I can perform neither of these shots, they could never become the favourite. Now into my fourth decade of playing cricket, I find much less pleasure than ever in playing cross-batted shots. They simply require too much energy.
There is one other shot that quietly retains a favourite status. Out in the middle, no shot gives me as much comfort and security as a forward defensive. As a junior coach, I have endured a few too many matches where all I wanted to see was one judicious, respectful forward defensive.