A lot has been said and written about the acceptability of switch-hit as a cricketing shot. Kevin Pietersen, in particular, executes this shot well and often. In his classic knock of 151 in the recently-concluded Test at Colombo, which England won to retain its No 1 standing, Pietersen resorted to the switch-hit time and again to unsettle the bowlers. His switch timings often preceded the ball delivery even if by an ignorable fraction of a second. Tillaratne Dilshan, the bowler, had to stop himself from concluding the delivery, leading to a face-off of sorts. As it turned out, the culpability of the incident appeared to lean on the bowler than on the batsman. The MCC in its post- match explanation considered the shot an innovation, difficult to execute and offering an even chance both to the bowler and the batsman.
The MCC’s explanation is authoritative and much as we may wish it away, this particular shot is going to stay in the game. However it does not stop us from debating its acceptability from the view point of a puritan or from the spirit of the game.
It will be difficult to believe that Pietersen of switch-hit fame or notoriety is more talented and innovative than Don Bradman or Wally Hammond or George Headley of yesteryear. Why did they not innovate? The reason is simple. It was perhaps beyond their imagination that such a switch in batting stance, once the bowler was in motion, could conform to the spirit of the game. They were all the gentlemen of the game, not the mercenaries as of now, and so were the cricket authorities.
The spirit of the game then overrode everything else. Now it is the money epitomised by IPL which dictates every small action in the game. It is the money which has brought in the bookies and the match-fixing.
Cricket, as it was played, was an even tussle between the bat and the ball. The authorities were the first to mutate the spirit underlying this tussle to ease the task of a batsman. The mutation has continued since and presently has become completely batsman-centric, so much so that the game often appears cruel to a bowler. It is not difficult to discern and conclude the reason for this. The authorities have through the ages held the view that the batting must not often fail if the game has to retain its popularity and attract lucre.
The Bodyline series triggered this radical shift to cushion batting. The fall of Australia (batting) was viewed a national catastrophe and strained the relations between the two contesting nations no end. The Game’s decline was imminent, so was it held. The Body-line series carried the seeds of eventual restriction on bouncers. The batsmen and their batting were to be saved. The moment there was a restriction on bouncers per over, the genuine quickies were no longer a deterrent. The batsmen are almost no longer under dichotomous imperatives of saving their respective lives and their wickets.
The evenness of battle between bowlers and batsmen was further eroded, especially in the Test matches, with the decision to cover the wickets. While the wicket for the first couple of days conduced to batting, its being left uncovered hastened its bowler friendly character. The wickets were left exposed to the elements. Bowling, as also the batting, on a wet wicket was an art. It distinguished one batsman from the other. This has been beautifully brought out by CLR James in his book, ‘Beyond A Boundary’.
James writes, “In 13 innings on wet and uncertain pitches, George Headley passed 50 seven times. Three times only he scored less than double figures, and in his other three innings his scores were 25, 35 and 40. In 15 innings, Bradman passed fifty only once, 40 only twice and 15 only four times. His average is 16.66. George’s average was 39.85. One need not build on these figures a monument, but one can’t ignore it. Bradman’s curious deficiency on wet wickets has been the subject of much searching comment. George’s superior record has been noticed before, and the finest of cricketing critic Neville Cardus has stated that Headley has good claims to be considered on all wickets the finest of the inter-War batsman.”
The Bradman’s batting genius could only be tested only on wet wicket where he appeared to have only a mortal level. But with covered wickets, the batsmen, especially those considered gifted and great, are not really stretched as to their batting abilities. With this, the tussle between the bat and the ball became further askewed in favour of the batsman.
As is these were not enough, the batsmen have been allowed to put on their persona all kind of safety pads and a head gear to minimize the risk of physical injury. Batsman stepping out of crease against quick bowlers is not a rare sight. A felled Bill Ponsford or a felled Nari Contractor is virtually no longer possible now. Even though all the present day greats Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting, Jacques Kallis have been hit on their respective heads and yet continued to become the greats of the game. Without helmets, some of them would have taken by the wayside like a Ponsford or a Contractor. In fact, batting with an armor is certain to give a relatively a better career average for a fair assessment, we need to apply a moderating yardstick: by appreciating the career average of each batsman playing without helmet by five or reducing the batting average of one with the helmet by five. If the former is applied, Bradman will have a batting average of 104.94 and Sunil Gavaskar an average of 54.12 (two point cut for his skull cap). If the later is applied Tendulkar will have an average of 50.55.
Field restrictions in ODIs give the batsman a license to loft the ball. At times the bowler appears the whipping boys of the game. It should not surprise anyone if in the name of enhancing the game’s popularity the field restriction rule is brought to the Test matches also. In ODIs, the bowlers cannot pitch the ball even marginally outside the leg stump. That would be a wide. It severely cramps a bowler and his capacity to innovate. If the rule gets adapted in Test matches too, the bowlers would irreversibly loose their competitive edge.
These changes, viewed in totality, have made the game distinctively batsman-friendly or a batsman’s game. The switch-hit is only a further amendment in the same sequence to give the batsman a further ‘ability’ and a bowler a ‘handicap’. Pietersen’s switch-hit is to be seen keeping in view as to how the game has progressed and evolved in the last 80 years. KP’s switch was perfectly alright. However, no batsman should have a right to rattle or confuse the bowler. The legitimacy of the stroke should accrue only if the switch was effected after the ball left the bowler’s hand. Not to get rattled should be the right and prerogative of a bowler, on the same footing as the batsman cannot be distracted by the movement around sight screen.
(Gaurav Sahay holds a Master’s degree in Business Administration and is set to complete a degree in law. A banker by profession, his interests range from cinema, music, astrology and, of course, cricket – especially its history, evolution, social impact and economic importance)
Another view of the switch-hit: Switch-hit experts like Pietersen & Warner need to be encouraged than restricted