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.

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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.

The Fury

Australian cricket player Glenn Maxwell playing for Victoria in the Ryobi Cup.
Glenn Maxwell (via NAPARAZZI, Flickr)

Indian Premier League, 21st match: Kings XI Punjab v Mumbai Indians at Mohali, Apr 25, 2016

17.1
Bumrah to Maxwell, OUT, bowled, is that the game? It could as well be. A slower delivery outside off, Maxwell looks to bludgeon it over cover but is through the shot too early, a thick inside edge clips the leg stump. Nice innings from Maxi though.

“Fuck’s sake!” yelled Glenn Maxwell as he wandered off the field, angrily ripping his gloves off.

It’s hard not to love a guy who does this at the nerve-shredding climax of a World Cup match. It’s also hard not to love a guy who banters with Kieron Pollard at the start of his innings — “looks like you’ve been enjoying your time off” — and blows up in fury at its premature end.

The crowd-baiting and opponent-taunting is Maxwell’s default state. He is never short of a word, and because he is articulate enough to avoid curses in most of his on-field banter, he is often miked up for the broadcaster’s benefit.

Maxwell is, however, out of form. A remarkable stat came up on the screen during Kings XI Punjab’s loss to Mumbai Indians: this was only his second fifty in 33 IPL innings in India. This is the guy who seemed to have taken batting to a new level when the 2014 IPL kicked off in the United Arab Emirates, and who had since developed into one of the first picks in Australian limited overs teams: a reliable performer with bat and ball. And if those parts of his game misfire, he is worth an extra ten to twenty runs in the field.

It is riveting to watch a player out of form drag themselves back from the brink. That was what this Maxwell innings gave us. The words with Pollard at its outset were an anchor, a reminder that he was out there to enjoy himself. But it soon became clear that the switch hits and no-look cut shots were in the kit bag, eschewed in favour of bunts into the leg side and ripping cover drives. Proper cricket shots.

Not that this back-to-basics approach relaxed him. Quite the opposite: the longer it went on, the more desperate he became to turn it into a winning knock. He berated his batting partners whenever an opportunity to run two was missed, and he berated himself whenever he swung at thin air. There was one immense six off Tim Southee that seemed to signal a return to the free-swinging Maxwell of old.

But then he was gone, throwing the kitchen sink at a Jasprit Bumrah slower ball. It collected the inside edge of his bat and banged into leg stump, cannoning back up in front of his face. Maxwell was so furious he almost swung his bat at it again, but quickly caught himself with a sheepish look up at the umpire.

He bit down firmly on his bottom lip until he was out of the umpires’ earshot. Then came the torrent of curses. Kings XI Punjab lost, again, but these were good signs from their marquee player: the strokeplay, the passion. At 27, he is still developing.

The Spark

Cricket player James Taylor batting for Nottinghamshire before his retirement due to a heart condition
James Taylor (via DncnH, Flickr)

Royal London One-Day Cup, 1st Quarter-Final: Nottinghamshire v Derbyshire at Nottingham, Aug 26, 2014
(Video highlights)

44.2
Footitt to Taylor, 2 runs

Flicked off the hip behind square, and as batting partner James Franklin reaches the halfway point of the pitch, James Taylor is about to ground his bat at the other end. Remember that Taylor has played a back-foot stroke and was therefore bound to the crease, but he has still covered almost twice the distance of Franklin, who had the luxury of backing up (and of a non-striker’s clear head).

But Taylor is on 98, just another short sprint from a perfectly paced century, so he turns and bolts back across the pitch. He is a short man, barely five foot six, but the blur of his legs brings him home comfortably ahead of the throw.

He raises his bat calmly to acknowledge the crowd’s applause. His heart rate is high from the sprint, and he takes a few moments to let it settle and soak in the glory of three figures. Then he plunders 46 more runs off the last five overs of Nottinghamshire’s innings — ultimately enough for a comfortable victory.

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James Taylor’s cricket was characterised by electrifying bursts of energy, especially in his running between the wickets. During his only international century, in a one-day international at home to Australia, he was content to wait until his 53rd delivery to hit a boundary. Not that it had mattered all that much. Taylor’s hard running had already brought him 42 runs up to that point.

As those last few overs against Derbyshire showed, Taylor was also as effective and innovative a short-form hitter as anyone. From paddle-sweeps to smashes down the ground, James Taylor could hit you just about anywhere. And if he failed to find the boundary, you knew he would probably take on the fielder’s arm and come back for a second or third, and almost certainly make it home.

Taylor’s superior fitness and passion for training also made him an outstanding fielder. His work at short leg during England’s remarkable series win in South Africa in 2015 was especially notable, with cricket podcast Reverse Swept Radio suggesting Taylor was the best specialist short leg since Brian Close.

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Given the broad and ever-widening range of his gifts, it almost seems unfair on us, the fans, that we won’t get to see James Taylor play any more. Of course, it is much more unfair on him. He just seemed to have cracked England’s Test team, having established himself in the one-day side. The rate and all-round nature of his development suggested he could wear the Three Lions for another decade, anchoring the middle order with Joe Root.

Unfortunately, Taylor’s diagnosis of arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy (ARVC) cannot be taken lightly. Retirement is the only option. It is possible that he could continue playing for years without any problem — he has, after all, been playing top-level cricket for eight years already — but the consequences of an adverse incident would constitute the most dire kind of medical emergency.

For example, there is the story of Fabrice Muamba, the Bolton Wanderers footballer who retired after an on-field collapse and a similar diagnosis, is well known. And if you have a really hard heart, type Antonio Puerta or Miklos Feher into YouTube.

The condition is not so commonly discussed in cricket as it is in football. Presumably, football requires greater exertion on the part of the player and therefore poses a greater risk of cardiomyopathy-related arrhythmia. But a study by the Government Medical College of Surat in Gujarat, India, cites the sudden death of an 18-year-old male cricketer due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

There is therefore at least one precedent of sudden cardiac arrest on a cricket field. The risk is not worth any reward.

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James Taylor has now been implanted with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator device (ICD), which shocks the heart in the event of life-threatening arrhythmia. Support has rolled in from across the globe, from cricket circles and beyond.

He’s also received support from someone who can empathise:

Meantime, Taylor’s liberal Twitter use of hashtags such as #whenlifegivesyoulemons and #BeingHeldCaptive suggest he is taking his current predicament with some humour. I expect his tenacity and drive on the cricket field will translate to his career off it.