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.

The Grafter

Australian cricket player John Hastings
John Hastings (via bestofT20.com)

IPL 2016 — 2nd match: Kolkata Knight Riders v Delhi Daredevils, 10 April 2016

5.2
Hastings to Nair, no run, nibbles away off the seam again, Nair is late on the drive, doesn’t miss the edge by much

Sweat rained from John Hastings’ brow as he shook his head. He’d beaten the bat, again – the fourth time in eight balls.

The mercury was hovering around 37° C. Hastings is a big man, and even though he is from sun-scorched Australia, no human is built for charging in and bowling at 140 kph on a humid Kolkata evening. Conditions like this are why elite sportspeople put themselves through all those beep tests and laps. The refinement of line and length in the nets is all well and good, but without the fitness to back it up, the body will refuse to do what you tell it to do.

On his IPL debut for Kolkata Knight Riders, his considerable frame in good shape, Hastings was putting the ball on a paisa. Good length on about a fifth stump line. The covering of grass on the pitch meant that was all he really needed to do.

Again and again, Delhi Daredevils batsmen Mayank Agarwal and Karun Nair wafted aimlessly outside off as the ball fizzed past their bat. Hastings kept shaking his head. Somehow, he wasn’t catching the edge.

At the other end, Hastings’ teammate Andre Russell had picked up three wickets despite an erratic line and length. Two of them were skiers off hit-me length deliveries. Russell isn’t a line and length kind of guy: dyed mohawk, fierce good looks, massive slogs, and raw pace. He couldn’t be more different from Hastings, who is another one of these no-nonsense Aussies hardened by Shield cricket into a relentlessly effective machine. But Russell’s glitz was attracting all the luck.

Hastings turned at the top of his mark and changed his plan. The good length balls weren’t getting wickets; maybe a half-volley would. So he pitched one up, a little wide – a teaser for Nair, who was starving for a little bat on ball. Nair obligingly smacked it straight to point.

Sweat rained from Hastings’ brow again, but with a roar rather than a shake of the head. He would go on to bowl out a maiden. Later, after spinners Brad Hogg and Piyush Chawla bamboozled the rest of the Daredevils, Hastings returned to take the final wicket, earning himself a few pats on the back. He wouldn’t be man of the match, he wouldn’t be sought out by the press, but he provided the steady bookends to KKR’s bowling effort.

The Resistance

Indian spin bowler Harbhajan Singh of Mumbai Indians in training
Harbhajan Singh (via Royal Challengers Bangalore, Flickr)

IPL 2016 — 1st match: Mumbai Indians v Rising Pune Supergiants, 9 April 2016

19.5
Sharma to Harbhajan Singh, SIX, carved straight into the Pune ice box! The men in the dug out had to run for cover there. Low full toss, slapped down the ground

It was little more than a tap off Harbhajan Singh’s bat. He was off balance, falling away towards the leg side as he gave himself room. A resurgent Ishant Sharma at full pace meant he was barely able to complete a full-blooded swing. But still, the ball flew off Harbhajan’s blade, back over Ishant’s head and beyond the long-off boundary.

This is Harbhajan the irresistible force. The guy who destroyed the all-conquering Australians at Kolkata and Chennai in 2001. The guy whose natural gifts seem able to make his fielders grow extra arms, double the decibel level of the crowd’s roar, and triple the size of his bat.

After the six, Harbhajan took one more four off Ishant’s bowling to finish on 45 off 31. Not his most destructive IPL innings, but it dwarfed his teammate’s efforts. At one stage Mumbai Indians appeared unlikely to crack 60. Thanks to Harbhajan’s hitting, they finished on 121.

Unfortunately, Harbhajan is not in the team for his batting. He earns his crores as an off-spin bowler – the most prolific in India’s history. Mumbai Indians rely on him to take wickets and keep the run rate down, not to biff sixes.

The blessed natural talent is still there. But there’s a lack of fluidity in Harbhajan’s bowling stride now. He used to hop gracefully through the crease, a smooth carriage to support his windmill arms. Something has changed. He stutters a little just before the delivers the ball.

For Harbhajan’s Rising Pune Supergiants and Indian national team rival R Ashwin, stutters and jerks in the delivery stride are a stock in trade; an intentional variation. They are not what we expect from Harbhajan. Kevin Pietersen delivered the exclamation points: two vicious sixes over mid-wicket. But the story of Harbhajan’s decline had already been told in that stutter.

This decline, this inevitable slowing, is something that happens to every cricketer. It’s especially brutal on bowlers, whose shortcomings are revealed repeatedly, ball by ball, rather in the one-off event that is a batter’s dismissal.

Harbhajan will still have his good days with ball in hand. He is still one of the best spin bowlers in India, which is a lofty position if you consider how many million spin bowlers there are in India. For now, at least he knows that if the bowling action isn’t running smoothly, he can still swing the bat.