By S Giridhar and V J Raghunath
Some eight years ago, after a spellbinding music concert by the maestro T V Sankaranarayanan, we went on stage to tell him that he had given individually autographed goose bumps to his mesmerized audience. What was that in his music that he was able transport each of his rapturous listeners to their own personal nirvana? To which, Sankaranarayanan, a very avid follower of cricket and also the most modest among the maestros, asked us in return, whether he had done even a fraction of what G R Viswanath did for him?
What is it about the stylists that they make for themselves such a special place in our hearts? Why is Viswanath the most loved cricketer for people of our generation? Why is Laxman so special? Obviously all fine batsmen play excellent shots, many play with such technical excellence that they are a joy to behold. Be it the imperious on drive of a Richards or a copy book straight drive by Tendulkar, they are superb examples of the best of batsmanship. But those whom we are attempting to classify as stylists in this essay come with a very unique appeal that tugs at our hearts.
Perhaps the allure of this special band of cricketers is that they more than anyone else lend themselves to our imagination. Be it the modesty that comes so naturally to most of them or the aura of vulnerability, for we know that in attempting the absolutely silken late cut they may at any time perish when in full flight.
If cricket is a game that has great romance then at the core of it are the stylists. To the good length leg cutter pitched outside off, Azharuddin will conjure a flick that sends the ball to mid-wicket. Perhaps nothing more delectable than the leg glance has ever been created. For that invention alone is Ranji revered as the ultimate wizard. When he first demonstrated that you can turn your bat with such precision to send the ball to fine leg, people rubbed their eyes in disbelief. Today everyone in the world plays this shot with aplomb but this was the shot when one first heard the phrase ‘oriental magic’.
If that heart tugging vulnerability is too ‘namby-pamby’ a reason then there are cricketing aesthetics that sets this breed apart. Almost all of them use light bats and yet with their wrists, their timing and their bat speed, impart such velocity to the ball that it leaves most fielders standing. But then many powerful blows from a Pietersen or Sehwag also leave fielders standing. The difference is that even hard boiled fielders instinctively clap when the stylist unfurls his shots. That is because none of us is immune to magic.
When the bat turns into a wizard’s wand– a front foot cover drive on the rise for instance – the fielder, who is above all a cricketer himself, can only applaud something the other person possesses and which is beyond him. And the shots they play, these are the epitome of nonviolence. When the ball goes to the cover fence, it seems to have been caressed; When the ball is sent scurrying to the square leg fence, it seems to go in unbounded joy; Commentators would never ever use the phrase, “whipped off his legs”, “thumped of the back foot”, “drilled through the covers” to describe the stylists.
We began this piece with music because we believe that silken batsmanship produces the same effect on our souls that great music does. It is not mere coincidence that Neville Cardus was moved by just two passions, music and great cricket. People who watched cricket during those times said that Cardus often wrote what he imagined in his mind’s eye than what he actually observed.
But was it Cardus’ fault? On the contrary, if Ranji or MacLaren played such divine cricket it was natural for a sensitive soul to transport himself into his own world of joy. Simply put stylish batsmanship is a part of the fine arts, just as much as sculpture, painting or music.
So who in our opinion are right hand batsmen who qualify for the ‘stylist’ tag? (a clarificatory point here: Since we have written an article exclusively on the stylish left handers some time back, this essay is devoted only to right handers). This has necessarily got to be subjective. Readers may unanimously agree on some, while they may also be aghast at some of our choices. But ultimately this is an essentially individual exercise and we shall approach our task with this in mind. Our list is as follows:
One can see that even within this band of stylish batsmen there are actually two sub groups. One group for instance consists of Viswanath, Laxman, Worrell, Rowe, Azharuddin, Jayawardene, Trumper and Waugh, the ultimate in elegance and style. The other group consists of the tall, elegant, upright and more ‘careful’ batsmen. Stylists yes, but cavalier no. These are of course May, Chappell, Jaisimha, Crowe and Graveney. In this second category, we could make a serious case for Dilip Vengsarkar of India and Walter Hammond of England. Both were wonderful drivers, for we have read of Hammond’s cover driving and seen Vengsarkar’s on–driving to know they were elegance personified. But Vengsarkar was awkward with his half cock forward defensive and Hammond approached his batting with too much solidity and seriousness.
We cannot do justice to all the batsmen on our list, so perhaps we will touch upon just some of them. With Laxman having recently retired, it will be good to begin with him. So much has been written about him, in such eloquent prose that anything we write would merely be gilding the lily. You name a shot and Laxman played that; what is more, he played it more prettily than anybody else. Often compared to his Hyderabadi predecessor Azharuddin for his wristy genius, there was a defining difference.