Purists may grimace, traditionalists may scoff and ancients may shake their beards and rue the decadence in the modern game, but the truth remains that a Kevin Pietersen or a David Warner playing the switch-hit is a display of creativity mingled with skill that marks a peak in sports watching excitement.
True, I would travel miles to watch a perfect Sachin Tendulkar straight drive. I do confess to being an aficionado of the abstract art of cricket and I can watch Rahul Dravid present a copybook forward defensive dead bat over and over again as the scoreboard remains static. Yet, to me, a switch-hit does not seem at loggerheads with the sanctity of technical perfection as do slogged cow shots. It is indeed improvisation, depends on quickness and skill rather than luck, and looks thrilling rather than uncouth. Seldom, if ever, will it be attempted with success by anyone other than top order batsmen – unlike hoicks over widish mid-wicket which brings an Yusuf Pathan, a Zaheer Khan and a VVS Laxman to the same level of visual coarseness.
However, the game of cricket is complex and the extraordinary change of grip followed by a perfect wrong-handed strike does raise quite a few difficult questions.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the age old tussle
Conan Doyle does not enter the discussion as curious trivia. He was a thinker by nature, cricketer by hobby and a writer by profession. Hence, he thought a lot about the game and documented it in a quaint story titled Spedegue’s Dropper.** (see note below) The hero of the tale was an old fashioned lob bowler who developed a strange delivery that was launched to a great height, and came down at the batsman riding on the pull of gravity, arriving almost like fast bowling from above. In the story, Spedegue goes on to win a famous Test match for England against Australia, the ending quite a cricketing fairy tale, but the plot did underline one very important aspect of the game. Inventiveness is an undeniable necessity for gaining the upper-hand in an age old tussle between the art of batting against the guiles of bowling.
And this is where the cricketing community has raised eyebrows about switch-hit. While agreeing that it is indeed an exciting import into the game, is it another of those allowances made to batsmen that makes the balance tilt way too much in favour of the willow? After all, a bowler cannot change over from right to left arm, or even from round to over the wicket, without informing the batsman. Why then should the batsman be granted the license to make the switch?
Shackling the bowlers
Indeed, early 20th century Australian master batsman, Charlie Macartney, observed in his autobiography that the reason for increasing dominance of the bat over the ball ever since the pitches became standardised is that every time the bowlers uncovered a new secret, the batting world soon unravelled the mystery. The bowling innovations such as the bosie – googly, the Chinaman, off theory, Bodyline, leg theory, flipper,doosra, reverse swing – have all been either demystified by the batsmen or stopped from making the 22 yard journey by new clauses added to the cricketing law book. The shorter boundaries, the featherbed wickets, the restrictions on various types of field placing and the increasingly better makes of the bat have not really helped the cause of the toilers with the red cherry.
Things came to an almost ridiculous pass in 1991 when, in trying to curb the dominance and intimidation of the West Indian pace bowlers, bouncers were limited to one per over. Although the rule was subsequently overturned, the bowling fraternity could not be blamed for feeling the after effects of discrimination. In the shorter formats, the men running up to bowl, along with the field setting, are so fettered by rules and restrictions that often they can be thought of as glorified bowling machines.
No wonder Shane Warne claimed the discovery of new deliveries every time an Ashes series was in the offing – if only to psychologically counterbalance the preferential treatment and kid gloves with which batsmen were entertained by the guardians of the game.
The Laws and Lagaan
Apart from the apparent partiality towards batsmen by granting them the right of sudden change, there are some interesting pitfalls in the interpretation of some rules when the one indulges in switch-hit. The lbw law, as well as the stipulation about wides – the latter especially in the case of limited over matches – leans heavily on the definition of off side and leg side as determined when the striker takes guard. Sudden reversal of his orientation raises complicated questions. Can one be declared leg before wicket when deliberately padding up to a delivery pitching outside the original leg stump after switching over to the reverse position? Should a ball which passes under an attempted switch-hit square cut be called a wide? The answers have been debated and documented, but quite a few ring as unconvincing – and many underline the continuing plight of the bowlers in the face of cricketing legislation.
|Which is the off stump and which is the leg stump now?|
While all this is food for thought and no one can deny that bowlers have habitually been at the wrong end of the stick ever since the 1920s, it does seem that inhibiting an innovation such as switch-hit is perhaps the worst way to go about balancing the game. The answer lies in lifting many of the existing restrictions, not stifling the game by imposing more.
Unbridled excitement of cricket
For the spectators to enjoy edge of the seat thrills of sporting action, it would be far better to limit the embargoes in place that take the competitive edge off the skills and strengths of players. With the struggle fierce and unyielding, run making and wicket taking difficult with both the ends of the exchange operating at their ultimate levels of ability, unchecked by stupid laws, new methods would be invented of necessity and the game would evolve in a healthy, competitive way rather than producing terrible sloggers wielding the bat like a scythe, robotic pacemen bowling continually in the same corridor and tweakers increasingly pushing it through, indulging in flight only when travelling from one venue to the next.
There is a Japanese word – takemusu. Roughly translated into English, it means achieving spontaneous creativity on the martial field – the most sublime level that can be attained by a warrior. Strokes like switch-hit also echo this inspiration in the heat of battle, an achievement of skill and quickness of action and thought. It is a mixture or imaginative mastery and visual thrill which adds a distinct edge to cricketing action. For the sake of the sport, such strokes need to be encouraged, and, if possible, analogous techniques, deemed legitimate, need to be discovered by the bowlers.
** The following note is courtesy http://www.bestofsherlock.com/ref/spedegues-dropper-bloomsbury.htm
Some Recollections of Sport by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Strand Magazine, Volume 38 Number 225 (September 1909), pp. 270-281
I have only once felt smaller, and that was when I was bowled by A. P. Lucas, by the most singular ball that I have ever received. He propelled it like a quoit into the air to a height of at least thirty feet, and it fell straight and true on to the top of the bails. I have often wondered what a good batsman would have made of that ball. To play it one would have needed to turn the blade of the bat straight up, and could hardly fail to give a chance. I tried to cut it off my stumps, with the result that I knocked down my wicket and broke my bat, while the ball fell in the midst of this general chaos. I spent the rest of the day wondering gloomily what I ought to have done—and I am wondering yet.
Conan Doyle repeated this description in his autobiography Memories and Adventures (1924). The event clearly inspired Conan Doyle to write about lob bowling in "The Story of Spedegue's Dropper." Reports, such as the 1999 ESPN cricket web article that Doyle read about it in an 1880s book by A. G. Steel and the Hon. R. H. Lyttelton, are almost certainly mistaken as to the story's origins.
The above Arthur Twidle illustration of the incident appeared with the article in both the September 1909 London edition and the October 1909 New York edition of The Strand Magazine.
History / Origin of Spedegue's Dropper
Owen Dudley Edwards, in his 1983 The Quest for Sherlock Holmes, called it "one of the funniest, tensest, and most improbable cricket stories ever written." Sir Arthur was an avid cricketer, and based the story on an incident in which he was bowled with unusually high lobs by A. P. Lucas. Doyle recalled that event in an article for The Strand Magazine, excerpted below: