The Six

Ben Cutting batting for Brisbane Heat at The Gabba, Brisbane, in the Big Bash League 2014
Ben Cutting (via Haley Jackson, Flickr)

Indian Premier League 2016, Final: Royal Challengers Bangalore v Sunrisers Hyderabad at Bangalore, 29 May 2016

19.2
Watson to Cutting, SIX, Cutting launches it out of the Chinnaswamy! 117 metres. Bang! Watson lobs a full toss, the batsman bashes it over backward square leg, out of the ground

The sight of a cricket ball disappearing into the stands used to bring fans to their feet. Jaws went slack in astonishment. Arms flew in the air. Cheers and screams followed, regardless of whether the player on strike was on your team.

In the 1992 World Cup, New Zealand opener Mark Greatbatch charged at the finest fast bowlers of the era. Martin Crowe may have finessed NZ’s dominance through the tournament, but it was Greatbatch’s sixes that broke the opposition early. He stunned them into submission. Malcolm Marshall? Unremarkable. Allan Donald? Pedestrian. Kapil Dev? Hit for six.

Like a baseball home run, or a long drive off a championship tee, there is something transcendent about a cricket ball hit for six. The ball in flight above the turf of the stadium seems to achieve a brief life outside of the game. For a moment, you think it might fly forever. A perfect cover drive along the ground for four directs your focus squarely towards the batter: their front foot stride, their high elbow, their elegant batswing. A slog for six, on the other hand, invites you to follow the ball as high and as far as it will go. The point is not the execution but the journey, and to some extent the destination.

The six takes you out of the field of play, and for this reason, purists find it repugnant. It perverts their enjoyment of the game, which is based in the prolonged assessment of a player’s technical ability. We should be praising the cover drive and good length bowling on a fourth stump line, they say, not hitting at all costs.

But economic imperatives dictate change. Twenty20 came along and made quick runs worth a lot more than a high price on your wicket. Nowadays, openers and tail-enders alike work on their power hitting in the nets. And because the big hits are what the fans come to see – a bare minimum of five per match, please – forward-thinking administrative bodies have allowed thicker bats and shorter boundaries. (At its grossest point, David Warner’s Gray-Nicolls KABOOM is about half as thick as it is wide. Greatbatch, meanwhile, might as well have been clearing the advertising hoardings with an olive branch.)

Even the most classical batting exponents concede to fan expectations in Twenty20. Rahul Dravid, for example, was one of the finest exponents of defensive batting technique in the modern era. He hit one six every 13.6 innings in Test cricket and faced an average of 109 deliveries every time he went out to bat. However, in his solitary T20 international innings, he clobbered three ugly hoicks over mid-wicket before getting out off his 21st ball. These sixes constituted a barely memorable footnote at the end of a long and glorious career, with the focus on the flying ball. For most observers, the six was everything and the striker was nothing – never mind that it was Rahul Dravid.

*

The Indian Premier League, where innovation and financial reward are more advanced than anywhere else in Twenty20 cricket, holds the six as its chief stock in trade. Cheerleaders, fireworks, trumpets, and confetti draw the fans – men or women, young or old, rich or middle-class – into the tamasha. But it is the six that keeps them there. It is the meat of the IPL’s ‘premium entertainment product’, with the glitz and glamour serving to edge it closer to the realm of Bollywood, its major market competitor.

Close to 700 sixes were hit during the 60 matches of IPL 2016. If ever there was a cricket tournament to engender six fatigue, this was it. Fans whooped and danced every time the ball came their way, but such displays of exuberance represented the excitement of expectations met, not expectations transcended. By and large, each six served less as a remarkable event in the context of a match and more as the measurable delivery of product to consumers.

But in the 2016 IPL final, in the last over of Sunrisers Hyderabad’s fitful innings, there was a six that meant something. Ben Cutting’s blow off the second ball delivered by Royal Challengers Bangalore all-rounder Shane Watson was instinctive: a waist-high full toss on the hips, met with a swift and strong swing of the bat. Stock standard IPL up to this point.

The ball, though. It kept going. It didn’t smack into the upraised palms of a dozen hopeful crowd catchers. It seemed to truly fly: high, long, and out of the Chinnaswamy. The broadcaster put it at 117 metres, but the arbitrary nature of this number paled in comparison to the visual of the white ball disappearing into the night sky. As a physical feat, it was extraordinary, even with the sixes raining down on a nightly basis. Jaws dropped open. Fans turned to each other in astonishment: have you ever seen one that big?

Shane Watson, meanwhile, was the player who had been keeping guys like Ben Cutting out of the Australian team for a decade. His all-round gifts waxed and waned alongside a procession of injuries, but he always had the mental strength to let the public’s harsh words bounce off and stay focused on being the best player his aching frame would allow him to be. While his batting through IPL 2016 had been mediocre, his metronomic medium pace brought him 20 wickets, the third most of any bowler in the tournament.

Cutting swatted all that aside. No respect for a senior national colleague, but also no sense of the gravity of the situation. Against a red-hot RCB top order, the Sunrisers bowling attack needed at least 200 runs to bowl at. Cutting put all that out of his mind and reacted to the delivery as it came at him, and 117 metres later, Watson was broken. He conceded a further fourteen runs off the remaining four balls.

That, too, was where RCB was broken. A ten-over onslaught by Chris Gayle and Virat Kohli appeared to have made the chase easy, but the quality of the Sunrisers bowlers pulled things back. As a unit, they worked and worked – first to stop the scales from overbalancing in RCB’s favour, then to pull things back Sunrisers’ way.

And who was it who dismissed Gayle and started the collapse? It was Ben Cutting. Fresh from the high of 39* off 15, he backed his off-cutter against RCB’s big men and claimed two key wickets. He rode the confidence-boosting wave of his power hitting into the bowling crease and changed the match situation — again.

The six may not be the time-stopping shock it used to be. But at the right moment, and with the right emphasis, it can still blow the mind, and the game, wide open.

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