May 4, 2020
Welcome to Rabbit Holes, where cricket-starved ESPNcricinfo staffers dive headlong into debates over text, and bathe ourselves in videos, stats and articles. On this first edition, Supreme Leader Sambit Bal, resident cricket hipster Karthik Krishnaswamy and ball-by-ball snarkster Alan Gardner try to answer the question: who are the prettiest batsmen in the men’s game? (Warning: cricketing smut ahead.)
Alan Gardner, deputy editor: Hello chaps. So we’re here to talk about aesthetics, or sexy batting, as us kids say. The shots that have us purring, the movements that would grace the ballet, the style straight out of a fashion shoot… By which I’m mainly referring to the oeuvre of Alastair Cook.
Sambit Bal, editor-in-chief: I know we are supposed to be talking about current batsmen, but just to set the mood, and to purge this image of Cook from our minds, let’s begin with this photograph of a different England left-hander. I am the oldest here, and unlike most of you, my cricket consciousness was shaped by
stone tablets, newspaper writing, books, radio and photographs. And even before I watched him play, I was besotted with the idea of David Gower.
Karthik Krishnaswamy, senior sub-editor: Helmets have ruined cricket, part 13,783: that photograph wouldn’t look half as glorious with Gower wearing a helmet.
Bal: That’s true, helmets took out a little personality. But there is still a lot left… the flow of the bat, the way the feet line up, the arc of the bat, and how the body finishes.
Gardner: Straight to the golden-locked left-hander, eh? Although who would argue with that? Pinged his first ball in Tests, as a 21-year-old, for four, while looking like a Michelangelo carving and batting with a twig.
Krishnaswamy: How much did Gower’s appeal stem from the fair hair and the lovely features? Would everyone have swooned over him to the extent they did if he was exactly the same batsman from neck down but looked like… Mike Gatting?
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Gardner: I’ve only ever watched Gower on YouTube, but it’s easy to see why people get – what’s an appropriate euphemism – misty-eyed? There’s a documentary from 1989, in which Frank Keating offers up this as his intro: “Only two men – Boycott and Cowdrey – have made more runs for England than David Gower in all Test match history, but no man in the whole game has scored more while at the same time vesting all the world’s cricket fields with such freshness and delight.”
Bal: Here’s a bit from a piece in our own Cricket Monthly – Tanya Aldred on Gower: “His golden curls tumbled like fecund wheat about his head, and when he walked down the pavilion steps they ruffled around the edges of his period helmet or under the wide brim of his white sunhat. Often, though, when the bowling wasn’t too fast, he batted bareheaded, which suited not only his disposition but our understanding of what it meant to be an England batsman – romantically fearless and flamboyantly gifted, but with the understanding underpinning it all that it was only a game.”
(All three whimper.)
Bal (wiping drool from mouth): But I want to pick up from there: when you think of beauty in batting, what stroke personifies it the most to you guys?
Krishnaswamy: It’s hard to pin it down to one, but if I was forced to, I’d pick the flick either side of midwicket. I remember reading in an article sometime in the ’90s that Mark Waugh plays the flick off his hip with the ease of a man putting on his hat. A friend of mine on Twitter posted this, and asked me which of these flicks is better. And it’s honestly impossible to answer. Mark Waugh’s minimalism or Azharuddin’s flourish?
Gardner: If only we had time to psychoanalyse Karthik’s preference for working-class shots (the off side being the “posh side”).
Krishnaswamy: The toff side, you mean.
Bal [Ed: he clearly only asked this question to create space for his own answer]: To me, it’s the cover drive. Always the cover drive. The straight drive, particularly to the on side, is almost the perfect stroke. But it’s often minimalistic. The flick is full of wrist and art, but for full expression and majesty, it’s the cover drive for me.
Gardner: The cover drive is the cricket version of Gentleman’s Relish, right? Although there’s something about an effortless pull shot that flicks my switch. There’s this Arlott line on Clive Lloyd’s pull: “The stroke of a man knocking a thistle top off with a walking stick”.
Krishnaswamy: So since the cover drive makes the two of you so giddy, who plays it best today?
Bal: Three of them: Kane Williamson, Virat Kohli and Babar Azam. Technically, Williamson is the best. He plays it the latest, as much under his eyes as possible. Kohli has a better range – he can played a checked drive, like a punch, one with the full flourish, and also one off the back foot.
Krishnawamy: Those picks are hard to debate. I’d break it down this way: Williamson plays the off drive – beating mid-off either to his right or left – better than anyone today. Kohli’s best shot is the extra-cover drive, beating cover to his right. Babar plays both that and the one to the left of cover with equal aplomb. Though all the social-media love for Babar’s cover drive seems sort of shallow to me and pisses me off.
Bal: Yes, it’s the range that matters. All three of them hit it off both front and back foot.
Krishnaswamy: Vince’s is good-looking but flaky as hell, as likely to get him out as it is to get him a four. But does that disqualify Vince’s cover drive, or add to the appeal of the shot?
Gardner: Since all true beauty is also fragile, I’d say it makes him untouchable. [Ed: In the sense that selectors may never go near him again?]
Bal: I had big hopes for Vince. I fell out of love with English cricket after they sacked Gower and I have desperately waited for that one player who will make me warm up to English cricket again.
Krishnaswamy: Alan’s is a compelling point, and taking off from there, we must look away from the Kohlis and Williamsons while talking about beauty. The fragility is important. Which is why… Liton Das is the world’s most beautiful batsman, full stop. Watch the whole thing, but especially the shot he plays at 2.58.
Bal: But the point is that beauty without substance is nothing. I once thought Darren Bravo would get me deliverance. It’s like we found Lara again in him.
Krishnaswamy: He’s turned himself into an incredible T20 six-hitter now. I’ve never seen anyone hit sixes with such a clean, full-circle bat swing as he did in a couple of matches during the 2018 CPL.
Bal: Just look at the flow of that drive here. Look at where the bat finishes. And he still has all of this but he has become a far more subdued batsman now, often the anchor.
Krishnaswamy: He either blocks or hits boundaries. For someone with his experience, it’s amazing how much he struggles to rotate strike. I think he has Lara’s bat swing but not his hands.
Bal: That’s why he is perhaps not as good off the back foot – no cuts.
Krishnaswamy: The guy with the best hands today, I think, is Glenn Maxwell. I’ve always wondered what sort of batsman he’d have become if there was no T20. He’s got amazing hands, capable of the full spectrum, from slice to whip.
Krishnaswamy: Batting in whites with the baggy green on – this is how Maxwell should appear in everyone’s mind’s eye, but won’t. Buttler generates tremendous power from his wrists, but I’m not sure they’re as rubbery as Maxwell’s.
Gardner: Interesting that a lot of the guys named above (Kohli, Babar, Vince, etc) are right-handers – maybe thanks to Jarrod Kimber busting that lefties myth for us. But one guy who I rarely see but always leaves an impression is Soumya Sarkar. Although that could be as much because of a beautiful piece of writing from Christian Ryan at the 2015 World Cup, in which he pretty much goes the full Gower.
Bal: But we are going away from the topic. There can be things that are thrilling, breathtaking, seat-of-the-pants stuff, but not necessarily beautiful. The hook shot, for example, is perhaps the most thrilling shot in cricket. We know the danger that comes with it. Nothing gets cricket grounds buzzing more than when a batsman takes on a bouncer. But it can sometimes be ungainly – batsmen might end up off balance and very awkward. But a cover drive? Even if you miss it, it still looks magisterial.
Gardner: There’s something of the architectural debate here – form versus function. There’s a brutalist beauty to Cook, or Steven Smith, say, and you can’t argue they aren’t effective. But I think we’re just aiming to find the six batsmen that most make you drop an ice cream into your lap, right?
Krishnaswamy: Yeah. I think cricket writers haven’t done enough to widen the scope of what the world thinks is beautiful. I always thought Simon Katich was unfairly maligned for his shuffling ways, and the universal labelling of the guy as ugly and crabby simply didn’t allow enough people to appreciate his wristy artistry, which was out there for you to see if you bothered to see it (unruffles band t-shirt, which he is wearing ironically).
Gardner: And what about orthodoxy versus innovation? There’s a Kohli shot that most of us would recognise from a screengrab, in which he short-arm pulls Chris Woakes over long-on for six; more muscle than grace, perhaps, but undoubtedly a thing of beauty in its conception and execution.
Krishnaswamy: There was one shot Kohli played in the second innings in Visakhapatnam, against England in 2016, when the ball kept low but he adjusted with zero fuss and put it away through midwicket with the straightest of bats. It was one of those “how did he do that!” moments.
Bal: I guess when we talk of beauty in batting, we generally talk about the wholeness of it – from the set-up to the finish. Most beautiful batsmen have that, compactness and balance.
Why don’t we try to make a top six of the most watchable batsmen?
Gardner: Good idea, but perhaps we need to whittle the list down to a dozen current players who would make our swoonsome six? And then discuss the finer points? How about a longlist to get the discussion started? Kohli, Babar, Williamson, Liton, Soumya, Shai Hope, Dhananjaya de Silva, Vince? Aiden Markram? Moeen Ali? Marnus Labuschagne? One of the above might not be a serious candidate.
Gardner: Can’t believe I nearly forgot to mention Moeen, who can play every shot and make it look both brilliant and awful – he’s that good.
Bal: Rohit Sharma is an interesting one here. I was thinking about him too. He is perhaps the most languid six-hitter of all time, with a pretty good cover drive and the most gorgeous of pulls.
Krishnaswamy: I’m surprised, actually. I thought he’d be the first guy everyone would mention! Actually, move Rohit up to open instead of Latham and put Williamson in at three.
Gardner: Rohit leaves me a little cold (with all due deference to Osman’s majestic appreciation of his pull shot). I don’t mean in a Kallis way, mind you. But I don’t get the same frisson from watching his all-round game. Goes straight into my press-conference banter top six, though.
Okay, okay, I think we are getting there. Is this a fair longlist? Kohli, Babar, Williamson, Liton, Soumya, Hope, Dhananjaya, Vince, Rahul, Latham, Samarawickrama, Rohit, Maxwell?
Bal: I was thinking of six players in Tests: Williamson, Kohli, Babar, Rohit, Dhananjaya, Moeen.
Gardner: My six would be Williamson, Kohli, Hope, Babar, Vince and Soumya. Not necessarily in that order.
Krishnaswamy: So we’ve all picked six each?
Gardner: And Williamson is the only unanimous pick?
Bal: Vince (my heart breaks, because god knows how much I have rooted for him) and Soumya wouldn’t make it to my list because they don’t make it to their own teams always. So Moeen will go too.
Gardner: KK so hipster that he refuses to pick Virat.
Krishnaswamy: I don’t find him that good to watch. He’s one of those guys who’s too aware of how good he looks, especially those big front-foot-stride-swish drives, which I’d argue are more about gymnastic rather than cricketing grace. It’s this feline-balance thing, which screams, “Look at me, losers.”
Bal: And none of you find Kusal Mendis good-looking?
Gardner: No, I’d take a slice of that. But left-handers and their old-world charm are really on a downer, from the looks of our choices. Too flaky for the hard-nosed modern game?
Krishnaswamy: They were never really that good to watch anyway. Especially that Gower fellow.
Gardner: Also Karthik: “Brad Pitt is only conventionally good-looking.”
Krishnaswamy: Brad Pitt’s smirk = Virat Kohli’s cover drive.
Bal: But I do like Bravo. So: Willamson, Kohli, Babar, Rohit, Kusal Mendis and Bravo. I will stick to my instincts. That innings Mendis played against Australia is still on my mind – where style met substance. I’m putting him in ahead of Dhananjaya.
Gardner: This is a good shout. I’m tempted to sub in Mendis for Babar. Maybe I’ll take whichever one can correctly describe the golden ratio.
Bal: So where do we stand in terms of votes?
Krishnaswamy: On votes alone, Williamson is the best-looking batsman. He’s the only unanimous pick.
Gardner: Ah, he who was once a darling of the underground, but now has gone mainstream, as our colleague Nishi has noted.
Bal: I don’t think we’re going to get enough agreement to produce a uniform six. Let’s just each pick a top order to finish off.
Gardner: Let’s do that. And then I’ll need a cold shower.
(All delete search history)
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