By S. Giridhar and V J Raghunath
Biggest hit at Lords – “The only known instance of a batsman hitting a ball over the present pavilion at Lord’s occurred when A. E. Trott appearing for MCC against Australia on July 31, August 1, 2, 1899, drove M.A. Noble so far and high that the ball struck a chimney pot and fell behind the building.” - Wisden Cricketers’ Almanac 2010
Ever since the IPL began, we have often been asked to write about at least some aspect of this slam - biff – whoosh version of the game. There is such a crescendo of noise over the number of sixes hit in the IPL that we decided to dig into the big hitting exploits of great test players of olden days and place big hitting in its proper perspective.
We grew up, learning and ‘reading’ our cricket at a time when test and first class cricket was all there was; ODIs and T20 were not even in anyone’s imagination. We read about the exploits of great attacking batsmen like Trumper, Jessop, Macartney, Sinclair and our own CK Nayudu with awe and admiration. Those were days when strike rate was not described as runs per balls faced, rather, in runs per minutes at the crease.
Cricket has kept changing so much that the best way to appreciate it is to look at each era independently. Comparing players from different eras is as unfair to them as to the changing game itself. Rules have changed dramatically - what was LBW once is no more LBW and vice versa; uncovered pitches those days made batting a very special skill while today we have well-manicured turf; protective gear was minimal in those days.
Why, even just thirty years ago, a tail-ender like Chandrasekhar faced Thomson and Roberts bareheaded. If Trumper or Ranji came to a cricket ground today, they would think Martians are batting. A bat was a slim piece of ‘English Willow’ with a thin handle and a couple of rubber sleeves to absorb the shock of ball hitting against bat. The blade required ‘seasoning’; it was regularly and lovingly massaged with linseed oil and preciously maintained to last many seasons. The bat’s edge was truly an edge and if the batsman did not ‘middle’ the ball it would only travel some yards. Today’s bats are made using the finest technology; wood is highly compressed, handles are provided numerous sleeves and the bat has a lethal solid bow to it. The bat’s edge is no longer an edge but actually provides the third side to the bat. So the mishit flies 65 yards and the bowler, who induced that false shot, clutches his head at the unfairness of it all.
Given all this, we examined big hitting through the lens of strike rate, the percentage of runs scored through sixes and the number of sixes and see how things have panned out over the years. We restricted ourselves to batsmen with an average of over 30 and at least 1,000 test runs (we lowered the bar on batting average for the early era batsmen). No surprises at all that modern batsmen have the highest strike rates, the highest number of sixes and the highest percentage of runs through sixes. We put these numbers as a quick snap shot but having done that we will get back to reminiscing about the exploits of the oldies whose figures may not compare with the modern greats but who were in their times and circumstances perhaps as devastating as the modern big hitters.
Clearly modern cricket is in a league of its own. The sixes and fours and strike rates in test cricket have zoomed. The number of runs scored per day (or per over) and the much higher percentage of decisive test matches is something that is to be greatly welcomed.
Why were so few sixes hit in the olden days? The answer is provided by two very compelling reasons. One is that in the first thirty three years of test cricket, the ball had to be literally hit out of the ground to be counted as a six. Many of modern cricket’s sixes would have only counted for a four in those days. The second reason is that before the advent of one day cricket, the distance from the pitch to the boundary ropes was much higher and in many of the established cricket grounds around the world, the distance would be 80 metres or more. For the IPL we have much shorter boundaries so that, commentators can frequently scream “DLF Maximum”.
All this places in proper perspective the path-breaking attacking batsmanship of the early greats. For 100 years of Test Cricket there have been only four occasions when a century has been scored before lunch on opening day. Three of these four feats were from the bats of the golden oldies Trumper, McCartney and Bradman.
Among the golden oldies Victor Trumper was peerless. Acknowledged as the greatest Australian batsman till Bradman made his entry, many of his shots (like Ranji’s leg glance) were seen for the first time only when he played them. Each of his test centuries came in very quick time; for instance his 159 in 171 minutes and 185 not out in 230 minutes and so on. However, as Neville Cardus said “We can no more get an idea of Trumper's [winged] batmanship by looking at the averages and statistics than we can find the essential quality of a composition by Mozart by adding up the notes”.
To get some idea of a genius who lived a century ago, one could read Arthur Mailey, the fantastic Australian leg spinner who played with Trumper and of course Neville Cardus, high priest of romantic cricket journalism who saw Trumper bat in England and Australia. There is a picture of Trumper jumping out to drive that every cricket magazine has always used. It was the picture that Mailey had pinned to the wall as he grew up dreaming that one day he would play alongside Trumper for Australia!
Jessop from England was a big hitter on a different scale. His legend is all about one afternoon in 1902, when he hit a century in 75 minutes to take England to the most unlikely victory over Australia. He was known to be a fearsome hitter and that innings made him immortal. Many of his “fours” cleared the ropes on the full and in fact one of his boundary hits was caught in the players’ balcony. But those days, as we have mentioned earlier, the ball had to clear the stadium to count as a six. Perhaps many of the fours by Jessop that day would actually count as a six by today’s rules. Jessop had a tremendous first class career and scored over 20,000 runs at a mind boggling rate of over 80 runs an hour. Richie Benaud summed up Jessop for us in one pithy sentence: “Perhaps the best one-day player to have ever lived and never played that form of cricket."
There were others of that era too who would have walked into any one day side. Charlie Macartney of Australia was one. Nicknamed Governor-General, he played numerous attacking innings. Those who saw him bat, pick his 151 in 172 minutes, against England on a sticky wicket at Headingley in 1926 as one of his best. It was apparently a very violent innings but it also had some of the deftest shots. Robertson-Glasgow memorably described Macartney’s cuts being "so late they are almost posthumous".
Jimmy Sinclair of South Africa believed that belting the ball was the sole purpose of batting. It is no surprise that he features among those with the highest strike rates or sixes from batsmen of his time. Another batsman of course was Frank Woolley, easily the best left hander ever before Neil Harvey made his appearance. JM Gregory has the distinction of scoring the fastest century in terms of time, taking just 70 minutes to belt a ton against South Africa. Luckily there are records to also show that his century took 67 balls. And in the 90 years since he performed that feat, only Viv Richards (57 balls) and Adam Gilchrist (58 balls) have bettered him.
The years immediately after WW II and till the advent of one day cricket was in a sense the most boring period in test cricket and much of the blame for that would have to go to England and its pernicious pad play. If it had not been for the wonderful spirit of Benaud, Harvey, Worrell, Walcott, Weekes, Sobers, Kanhai, Dexter and others, that period would have been unbearable. This was also the period when India’s own Durani would respond with a six when the crowd clamoured for one and Jaisimha clouted sixes between periods of self-imposed denial.
The 1970s and 80s however was by great fortune, the period of renaissance. Perhaps when one looks back, one would recognize that this was the period when cricket took a grip on itself and reinvented and saved itself. This era belonged to swashbuckling knights such as Richards, Kapil Dev, Greenidge, Fredericks, Majid Khan, Botham, Lloyd, Imran Khan and others even as there was space for the artistry and elegance of Viswanath, Vengsarkar, Zaheer Abbas, Gower, Chappell, Azharuddin and other stylists. People remember Sobers and Shastri for their exploit of six sixes in an over in first class cricket but strangely one forgets Kapil Dev hitting Hemmings for four sixes of four successive balls of an over to help India avoid a follow on in a test match in England in 1990.
Very often one is almost certain that great batsmen of yonder years would have revelled and gloried in our modern times. But once in a while, we should also try and imagine what the modern greats would have done had they played 100 years ago. Sehwag’s blithe spirit would have found the same expression; Trumper and Macartney would have rejoiced playing alongside him. We would like to conclude this essay with a table that encapsulates Sehwag’s uniqueness. The irony of using figures to describe the genius of Sehwag will escape none, for after Trumper, has there ever been someone who batted with a disdain for numbers as Sehwag has!