"When Ranji passed out of cricket," wrote Sir Neville Cardus, "a wonder and a glory departed from the game forever." Kumar Shri Ranjithsinghji (Ranji), an Indian prince, might have been one of the finest batsmen of all time. Not only did he score a mountain of runs (over 25,000 in all forms of cricket), he also introduced fans to an array of elegant new strokes. His keen eye, inventive style of play and nimble footwork meant that he was skilled enough to first bring to the cricket world’s notice the delectable pleasures of the late cut and leg glance, as well as the statuesque back-foot defensive shot. Today, nearly a century since Ranji departed the game, two of the three above mentioned strokes have more or less disappeared from the public eye.
Take the leg glance, for instance. This incredible and subtle shot was last spotted in the 90’s. As far as I can recall, Mohammed Azharuddin was the most recent exponent of it. Speaking of this fleeting dab down the leg side, Syed Kirmani (India) and Wasim Bari (Pakistan) were two (of the few) wicketkeepers so good with their collections in that direction that they used to dive full length and turn some the finest leg glances into even finer catches. But all that glancing and full length diving down the leg side is now a thing of the past, sadly.
With the fall of the leg glance, a touch of romance has gone out of cricket. Perhaps it’s the advent of heavier bats that has brought about the demise of this tantalising thing of beauty; for a weighty club makes it virtually impossible to hit the ball deftly down the leg side. Try it, and you’ll quickly realise that the ‘batzilla’ in your hand will come down either too soon or too late for you to glance the ball. All you will end up doing is either missing the delivery or hitting it to the left of fine leg (if you are a right handed batsman). It’s no coincidence that the last man to master the leg glance was also the last one to use a light bat.
Also gone, the way of the leg glance, is the late cut. Few modern batsmen are adept at playing this most skilful and laidback of shots. Nowadays, the only known cricketer who still employs this clever little touch of joy every once in a while is good old Sachin Tendulkar. Before him, Brian Lara was proficient at executing the late cut to perfection.
Pray, why has this thing of beauty been pretty much expunged from shot armoury? It could be because not too many batsmen, nowadays, are confident enough to play the ball so late. Most of them prefer to go after it. Few possess the skills to play off the front and back-foot with equal felicity. And the thing about the late cut is that to play it successfully you have to be able to use the length and breadth of the batting crease very well. This is probably asking for too much from a guy with a bludgeon, who finds it much easier to simply biff the ball, preferably across the line, to somewhere in the region of cow corner.
If the leg glance and the late cut are the touch artist’s weapons of choice in the war against bowlers, the hook is what the buccaneering batsman unleashes to dispatch one of the most (if not the most) aggressive legal deliveries a fast bowler can send down: the bouncer. Gordon Greenidge, Mohinder Amarnath and Roy Fredericks, to name three, were among the finest exponents of this thrilling shot. Sachin Tendulkar, too, during the early 90’s, was quite happy to employ it to good effect. But he completely cut it out of his arsenal at the turn of the millennium.
In recent times, I can’t think of too many batsmen who have resorted to hooking the ball. The reasons for this are not hard to pinpoint. After the bouncer law came into effect (in 1991), bowlers were not allowed to send down more than one per over. This rule was then changed to ‘two bouncers per over’ in 1994, but the ICC decided to go back to the ‘one bouncer per over’ rule in 2001. As a consequence of this rule, and the preponderance of Kevlar-like helmets, the hook shot became quite unnecessary. After all, why bother with such a complicated manoeuvre when it’s much safer to somehow get out of the way?
Fortunately all is not lost. In fact, the modern game has been enriched by the arrival of the likes of the reverse sweep, paddle shot, upper cut, dil-scoop, ramp shot, helicopter shot, and switch hit. Be that as it may, fans of a certain age can’t help but feel a touch nostalgic for the shots that are no longer with us.
Recall, for instance, the heart-warming pleasures of watching a film in black and white or listening to the best of Mohammed Rafi or The Beatles. And that’s why this writer hopes to someday see a batsman with the skills and courage of conviction to play the leg glance, late cut, and hook once again. But for that to happen, a few of the rules of engagement that currently hold sway in cricket will have to change. For starters, might we consider reducing the legally permissible weight of the cricket bat?