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.
Unlike Azhar, Laxman played the fast stuff superbly and nothing exemplified it better than the pull that he played to such perfection. And he was as good of the front foot as of the back. But the greatest thing about Laxman is that he was India’s greatest third/ fourth innings match winner. Yes, the 281 against Kolkata, rated among the greatest of all time knocks; but also the fact that of his 27 knocks above 50 in the third or fourth innings, India won 13 of those matches and only lost seven. So behind that gentle smile and almost apologetic four scoring persona, was a man with steel and determination. So for those who think style comes at the expense of dependability, Laxman is the biggest proof that they are wrong. To us the essence of Laxman is that nice guys finish first.
Among our heroes, whom we have not seen, Trumper will always stand first. So whether we write about great openers or about fast scoring batsmen or stylists, Trumper will be there. Cardus doted on him. Mailey the legendary leg spinner worshipped him and played test cricket only because he went to bed every day, genuflecting in front of a poster of Trumper, promising himself that one day he will play alongside his idol. But even people born many years after Trumper died write movingly on him. Reading Ashley Mallett write about Trumper – as an example - is to simply experience the affection that generations of cricketers will always have for a batsman who was in every sense the noblest of batsmen.
From one favourite to another: Frank Worrell was obviously much more than cricket. To his beloved West Indies, he was the culmination of a socio–political revolution, described better than anywhere else by CLR James in “Beyond the Boundary”. In terms of universal affection, Worrell is by any yardstick the most beloved. Of the three Ws of West Indies cricket - Worrell, Walcott and Weekes - Worrell was the stylist.
Precociously talented, he scored at will, always elegant and everything about his batting was sheer poetry. His batting moved opposing captains to open admiration while his demeanour and spirit of sportsmanship remains one of the greatest advertisements for nobility in sport. Trumper died tragically very young, so did Worrell. In faraway Chennai and Delhi, we mourned his passing as deeply as did his beloved countrymen.
Another beloved batsman, who is immortal for the spirit with which he played the game: Gundappa Viswanath. You could place twenty fielders between cover and third man but Viswanath’s cuts and square drives would still find the boundary. And bad wickets seemed to bring the best out of him. On placid wickets when the other batsmen made merry, Viswanath seemed somehow bored; what he needed was the challenge of a green top, a turning track or a battery of fast bowlers to face.
The greatest, non-century innings ever played by an Indian is certainly the 97 not out by him against Lloyd’s team in January 1975. The next highest score by a batsman was 19. Another example, this time from Melbourne in 1981 against Dennis Lillee and company: 114 out of a total of 237 where the next highest score was 25. Adversity stirred this gentle soul.
Perhaps that is what was required for this genius to paint the ground with vivid colours. Living by the cut he often died by it; on such occasions even before the bowler could appeal, Viswanath would tuck his bat under his arm and walk away. He was clearly the fairest of sportsmen to have ever graced a cricket field. There was time in the early seventies when the immensely gifted Viswanath would get out invariably in the thirties when he looked good for a century. And yet prosaic writers were moved to poetry, by such paltry contributions. For within that thirty, Viswanath had compressed four of the best shots of the day!
Zaheer Abbas, contemporary of Viswanath was the most stylish batsman to have come from Pakistan. His speciality was his back foot play and he used his bat like Zorro. Staid Englishmen in 1971 were thrilled out of their skins as they saw the bespectacled Zaheer combine supreme artistry with a monumental hunger for runs not often associated with batsmen of his ilk. He remained stylish to the end; even as form deserted him and age slowed his reflexes we could still see glimpses of why he was among the most sublime batsmen of all time.
If we had to pick a batsman from the Englishmen in our list it would be Tom Graveney. Everything about Graveney was grace and style. Tall and upright, he had a nice back lift and his cover driving and on driving was unsurpassed. Whimsical selection was the sole reason that Graveney played a lot less than he deserved. Recalled at the age of 40 in 1966 to save England against the rampaging West Indies, Graveney showed what class is all about. Against Hall, Griffith, Sobers and Gibbs, he reeled off scores of 96, 109 and 165.
He met fire and brimstone with classical batsmanship. Many years ago, one of your authors, Raghunath, asked Venkat the Indian off spinner freshly returned from a tour of England, who the best player of spin was. Venkat without hesitation said Graveney for he had timing, footwork and the gift to find gaps in the field where none existed!
We could go on. Honestly we are tempted to pay tribute to Rowe and Jayawardene, to Duleepsinhji and Mark Waugh, but we must stop somewhere. Perhaps the best way to sign off is to remember some of India’s most stylish first class batsmen. For every Jaisimha who made it, there was a Vijay Bhosle or a Ramesh Saxena or a T.E. Srinivasan who did not make it. In the 1970s there was no finer sight in India’s maidans than the classical back foot square drives of Srinivasan.
Playing for South Zone against Imran Khan and the touring Pakistanis, Srinivasan hit a century of such dazzling beauty that it is recalled even today, with stars in the eyes, by those who witnessed that magical batting display. Sadly he played just one test for India; the loss was not his as much as that of the country and the spectators in other parts of the world. This essay is as much a tribute to the memory of great stylists like Srinivasan and Saxena as it is to their more famous brethren like Trumper and Worrell.