The hook is perhaps the most adventurous of strokes, combining skill, physical danger and flamboyance. Arunabha Sengupta fears that with the advent of protective gear, this thrilling facet of the game is fast becoming obsolete.
When David Gower, with his boyish looks, blue eyes and bouncing blonde curls, graced his first ball in Test cricket by languidly stepping across and dispatching Liaqat Ali to the square-leg fence, an elated John Arlott announced, “Oh, what a princely entry!”
Forty three years earlier, when Stan McCabe had similarly sent a delivery from Bill Voce screaming to the boundary, Neville Cardus had penned with flourish, “McCabe hooked Voce with a forked lightning stroke, and the crack of his bat was the accompanying thunder.”
Nor were the doyen of cricket writers and the supreme of commentators the only ones to be moved to ecstasy by the gliding feet, pirouetting body and the adventurous horizontal arc of the blade, as the best wielders of the willow executed the hook shot off the fast, climbing deliveries.
Even when Rohan Kanhai butchered the Indians at the Eden Gardens, and then Wes Hall mowed them down to the ignominy of a defeat by an innings and 336 runs, thousands went home with proud memories that would be recounted to generations thereafter – that of Vijay Manjrekar hooking the fire-breathing Hall off his eyebrows.
The heroic hookers
In many ways, the hook is the most gallant of strokes, where the willow approximates the sword of the warrior, accompanied by the physical danger of a duel - a stroke that treads the fine line between sport and war, a venture of bravado exuding primal energy amidst threats of decapitation.
Who can forget the sight of Viv Richards getting struck on the face by Rodney Hogg, and the jaw swelling as it chomped down on the habitual chewing gum; and then the next ball sent into orbit, landing way beyond the bemused spectators seated in the stands behind square leg.
Or the enduring image of Roy Fredericks during the World Cup final, sending Dennis Lillee to the distant corner over the long-leg, while at the same time tumbling and falling, feet disturbing timber.
Yes, the hook involves quicksilver movement of the feet, away towards the off stump, out of the line of the ball fraction of a second before the quick pivot of the torso. Much like the skilled fencer has to manoeuvre his body to evade the swift thrust of his opponent’s rapier.
This very movement brought that sense of tingle, that increase of the beat of the heart, that gasp as one perched on the edge of his seat … a movement followed by the horizontal swish of the willow, characterised by the scientific brutality of Gilbert Jessop, the raised left leg of Gordon Greenidge, the arrogance of Ian Chappell and, in the case of Majid Khan, the elegance of royal majesty.
If the fierce square cut embodies the spirit of the attacking sword in a bat, the hook is the flashing blade that counterattacks in the face of furious onslaught - the stroke of romantic adventure.
The unrestrained energy of the stroke is perhaps best captured in the many photographs of Ian Botham – often finishing well beyond the off-stump, swivelling his torso, bat in the last stages of follow through, the face turned in a half smile half grimace, as the eyes follow the ball towards the fine leg. So many of the shots came off on that famous day in Headingley, 1981. And a decade later, the torso no longer amenable to such sudden revolutions, he staggered rather clumsily in the act, the bail flicked with his thigh, giving birth to the entire ‘leg-over’ episode.
Traded for economy?
And now, this stroke of profit and peril seems to be on the verge of extinction.
At Trent Bridge in 1921, Australian fast bowler Jack Gregory had knocked out Ernest Tyldesley with a bouncer, the ball hitting his head and then dropping on the stumps. After the match, when Neville Cardus had conveyed his sympathy to the unfortunate batsman’s elder brother, the famed JT Tyldesley, he had found the latter curiously devoid of compassion. “He was trying to hook and ran into the ball,” the former great had exclaimed. “When a batsman tries to hook he should move over to the offside, then if the ball is not at the right height to hook, he leaves it alone, and the ball passes harmlessly over his left shoulder.”
True, but is it worth the trouble today? With batsmen peering from behind the grills of their helmet, why should one sacrifice economy of motion against the speeding ball by making that initial movement towards the offside? Way distant are the days of even Mohinder Amarnath, who had hooked three sixes in his first innings 91 at Barbados, and had to wash blood off his shirt when struck on the face in the second innings before returning to score 80.
The worst that can happen today is perhaps a thud on the helmet. It will send the heads of the old timers into simultaneous shakes of dismay, and perhaps result in a psychological victory for the bowler – the magnitude of which grows smaller each day. Clumps on protective gear do not reflect on the scoreboard – not immediately, and increasingly less during the course of the innings. It can be considered a part of the game – avoidable but not inadmissible. With the downside of physical damage out of the way, it makes sense to pull the ball off the body or, when opportunity and skill synchronise, delicately or brutally, depending on whether one is a Sachin Tendulkar or Virender Sehwag, upper cut it over the head of slip.
No. This is not to argue that batsmanship is on the decline and helmets have taken skills away from the game. Nothing can be more unreasonable in the days of rapidly changing technology. Like any sport, cricket had to evolve, and with time physical dangers had to be eliminated. The modern batsman, under heavy, constraining helmets from a tender age, will obviously not spend as much time getting his head away from the line of the ball as a young Victor Trumper might have.
That does not mean batsmen of the day are inferior to the brave souls of the past. They are just different. Challenges have changed. The decline in the number of tearaway pace bowlers may not be a sign of plummeting standards. It can very well be that with threats to life, limb and face growing less and less lethal, industrious men are investing their skills with the cherry in departments other than sheer pace. Changes of pace, reverse swing and other methods of diabolical deception are now the tools of trade for the fast man. And negotiating them is as much a test of skill as swaying, weaving, ducking and hooking bouncers.
However one misses the buccaneering derring-do of the hook that slowly goes out of the game in modern times, becoming as obsolete as high sea adventures in the jet age. If a batsman, once in a rare while, does execute the shot, he does so from behind the cushion of protective equipment. It is but a poor simulation of thrill much as a cheap ride on a speedboat can substitute the stormy, pirate infested seas navigated onboard wooden merchant ships.
Skills do change, the game does evolve. Standards generally improve – although with the multiple formats of the day with their various financial equations queering the pitch, such statements about the game hardly remain axiomatic.
What is of concern is the gradual disappearance from the game of a stroke that stirred everyone, from the cricketing commoner to the elite – with the right mix of guts, gamble and grandeur.
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)