Writing cricket

In a piece on Virender Sehwag in the ToI Friday, under the title ‘Virunder’ with VI and DER in bold black and RUN in blue [nudge-wink, did you see what they just did there?! Oh, and the front page went Viru Say Wah! — do they have some kind of contest on who can deal the most mortal blow to the English language?], K Shriniwas Rao came up with an opening gambit that made me spill my morning coffee.

Here it is – complete and unadulterated.

Makes you think about the advice bowlers sometimes get, about the virtues of not trying too hard, of just putting the ball there or thereabouts, and letting it do all the work.

The problem with an extraordinary display of talent [and when Viru plays a big one, “extraordinary display of talent” is mealy-mouthed understatement] is that the reporter’s adrenalin levels soar. He knows he has just witnessed something remarkable, and believes he has to “do justice to it”.

So we get Charles Darwin. Neanderthals. The “Wolverine effect”. A cornucopia of counterfeit verbal currency.

Of all the wtf possibilities, the line that gave me most cause to pause is this: “Primal in his talent, a tad primitive in his thinking…”

There’s a stereotype for you, in all its knee-jerk glory: Sehwag is a muscle-bound bully whose “thinking” is bookended by two actions: hit and block.

For an antidote to such facile characterization, read this: my friend Chandrahas Chaudhury, back in the day when he was writing cricket articles not novels, and Nishant Arora also of Cricinfo walked Sehwag through the different moods and moments of his controlled 155 against the Australians in Chennai on the 2004 tour.

Here’s a wonderful look under the hood, a peek into the mind of a batsman at work.

Primitive? Really?

Reading Hash’s play-by-play piece prompted me to go back to the Cricinfo archives for other specimens of good writing. Here’s Sehwag through the eyes of some of my favorite cricket writers. [Oh by the way, this is not because ‘Sehwag is my favorite batsman’ – though he most certainly is on a very short short-list; I picked Sehwag only because he is the flavor du jour, and because when he bats at his best, his deeds exhaust adjectives and defy writers to push their own limits.]

First, two articles by Amit Varma. The first is against the backdrop of the India versus Pakistan Test in Bangalore in the 2005 season.

Sehwag’s watchfulness is predatorial: he waits for the right moment to pounce on his moving dinner. It is an aggressive watchfulness, not a defensive one. It intimidates the opposition, because when he gets the opportunity, he strikes with speed and finality. The rest of the time, muscles taut, mind relaxed but alert, smelling prey, he makes sure that his wicket is safe.

Even Sehwag’s defence has aggression. When he defends on the back foot, he punches the ball as much as he pats it down, and it often speeds to the boundary, so well is it timed. There is nothing about his game that is diffident, and he defines a bad ball more broadly than most other batsmen. Bowlers toil in a meritocracy when they bowl to him; when they err, they pay. But he sets the terms, and soon they’re broke.

The second predates the one linked to above, and is an appreciation of the Sehwag-Aakash Chopra opening combination, written against the backdrop of the Multan Test of 2004:

A common view of Sehwag, when he entered Test cricket, was that he was a one-day swashbuckler, who might fit into the lower-middle order in Tests, but was unsuited for the kind of rigour and discipline that opening the batting supposedly needed. Sehwag certainly is no classical opener, but Test cricket, in recent years, has broken away from the traditions of more than a century, and Sehwag has emerged as a batsman ideally suited to the times.

Steve Waugh’s Australians have redefined Test cricket as a game of aggression, where momentum always overcomes solidity, where the traditional dichotomy of Attack and Defence is recast into a new paradigm of Attack and Counter-attack. Think of the great opening batsmen of our age: Matthew Hayden, Herschelle Gibbs and Michael Vaughan routinely play at a pace that brings them 180-plus runs in a day. Virender Sehwag is a perfect opening batsman for what Test cricket has become today.

Here’s Chandrahas, on Sehwag’s batting style:

But it is his approach to the game – his gambler’s instinct and his insouciance, the free and easy air with which he plays his slightly chancy game – that is his most charming and attractive quality, made all the more endearing because of the intense and competitive world in which he practises his craft. To me there is no stroke in the game more beautiful than a cover-drive or a flick from the bat of VVS Laxman, and yet there is no prospect as pleasurable in general as that of watching Sehwag bat. There is something irresistible about such bravado and dash, such disregard of rules of batsmanship thought to be almost sacrosanct. Even strolling about the crease between deliveries, he appears to be thinking not about the bowler changing his line of attack, or of this fielder going here and that one there, but rather of palm trees and golden beaches.

It is this very style that earned Sehwag the reputation of a “dasher” in his early days in international cricket, but there is something about that label that suggests style over substance, and also hints at a certain weakness – at faults and chinks waiting to be exposed. Sehwag has proved without doubt that he is not just a dasher. In fact, he has readily agreed to open – the position where dashers are most susceptible, against the new ball in Tests, and has responded with five centuries, each one a longer innings than the last, against five different attacks in two seasons. Not so long ago new-ball bowlers around the world used to see Indian openers in their dreams. Now they usually come running in and see the ball disappear over point off the second ball of the game.

To change the perspective slightly, check out Osman Samiuddin’s comparison of Shahid Afridi and Virender Sehwag, two modern players who define the conditions rather than “play according to it”:

But what holds more allure than changing a game is the way they do it. Almost certainly both would have played the way they did, whatever the situation. Context is not important because they create it. When Irfan Pathan peppered Afridi with bouncers and three men patrolling the long-on, deep-midwicket and square-leg boundaries, he didn’t shirk, he took him on, pulling twice for six and once for four. When Anil Kumble tried to curb the scoring by bowling a leg-stump line, Afridi didn’t pad, he tried to reverse pull him, failing once and succeeding the second time. Would he do the same if Pakistan were trying to save a match? He did in Kolkata.

By expressing themselves, both regularly shun traditions in what can be a stifling sport. We look, particularly in batting, for correct techniques, of playing within certain areas with the bat at certain angles, with certain stances and grips. Sehwag and Afridi challenge this openly, they rebel against this conformity.

Sehwag in a floppy hat yesterday seemed right, for it stirred a refreshing spirit, of flexibility not rigidity, of not being confined. Leaning like a lethargic lord, with one hand on bat and other on hip, he could have been playing at club or school level, or even in a maidan. The hat, as opposed to helmet, made for a cute and apt symbol for this. Not for him is the endeavour for perfection or precision in his technique, in his strokes. He does what is necessary, get bat on ball and score runs by doing so. High left elbow, straight bat, nimble footwork, they are rendered meaningless by his brazen defiance of the essence of batting. In any case, he is gifted with admirable traits, but he doesn’t strain for them, they come naturally. Simply, if the ball can be hit, it will be and if it can’t, it won’t. All else, how he does it, against whom he does it and in what situation he does it, this is frivolous.

Afridi is more rustic, more rudimentary but within him rests a similar approach. The very first ball he faced today was pulled for four as if playing a tape-ball midnight Ramzan tournament in Karachi. There was no lining up of the ball, of attuning to the light or the pitch. No strokes were practiced diligently between deliveries, no poses were kept. Only the ball was struck, as hard as possible with minimal concession made to technique or footwork. Here instinct is master and Afridi its slave.

In similar compare and contrast style, check out this piece by another good friend, Rahul Bhatia, where he looks at how the emergence of Sehwag impacts on Sachin Tendulkar:

Ever since Virender Sehwag became the new Tendulkar, the old Tendulkar’s been given a right bollocking for not being his old self. Pressure, burden, caution, restricted are the words used to describe his batting now. He used to be free-flowing, manic, electric and risky. Commentators say that he needs to play his own game, that his back foot moves across too much, among other things. Newspapers mourn the old days, when good ol’ Sach gave the ball a wholesome tonk. Sniff.

And finally [Sambit Bal has many lovely pieces on Sehwag and other players, but I’d linked to his latest just yesterday], a masterly example of seamless construction by the inimitable Rahul Bhattacharya. This one, like the others, is worth reading in full; I chose the quote below only because it plays into my day three theme of seizing the momentum:

Since Australia are the benchmark – and in batting the Indians ought to be meeting them eye-to-eye – it is instructive to note that when Matthew Hayden makes a score (fifty or more, for the purpose of this exercise), those who follow him score marginally faster than they would do had he fallen cheaply (at a rate of 3.79 against 3.75, from September 2001 onwards). When Sehwag scores fifty or more, however, the rest of the Indian line-up make their runs discernibly slower (2.96 against 3.15, in matches where Sehwag has opened) than they otherwise would. So where Australia are taking a man’s success and building on it, feeding off it – the cornerstone of their cricket in general – India are using it, bizarrely, as an occasion to play inside their abilities.

Some of India’s recent post-Sehwag dawdles make damning reading. At the MCG last season, when Sehwag was fourth man out, having made 195, the run-rate plummeted by 1.75 points (or 157 runs per day). At Kanpur against South Africa this season, when he was second out, having scored 164, it dropped by 1.52 (137 runs per day). At Kolkata in the following Test it fell by 1.02 (92 runs per day) after he was gone for 88. And at Mohali most recently against Pakistan it dipped by 1.46 (131 runs per day). Of the above matches India could only win the Kolkata Test. And there too South Africa, had they shown more resolve in the second innings, could have made India regret the tardiness, as the Pakistanis did at Mohali.

Each of these pieces is different in texture from the others, but they are all prime examples of the art of developing a theme. More to the immediate point, they are all examples of high quality writing that doesn’t get in the way of the subject.

American singer, actor, producer and music historian William McCord – better known as Billy Vera — has helped produce albums for an entire telephone director of music legends. He was once asked what it was like to produce Ray Charles. “You don’t produce Ray Charles,” Vera replied. “You just get out of his way.”

The same is true of writing about great sporting moments. Every building block you need — conflict, tension, the drama inherent in the juxtaposition of the success of one and the failure of the other – it is all there in the event itself. All the writers above do is get out of the way of their subject – perhaps the hardest skill there is to learn in the craft.

PS: Some traveling to do this weekend through Monday, so off Twitter for the duration. Back here in the evening with an end-of-play post. Enjoy the weekend, you guys.