Balance is beautiful. Whether found in sport (how about this from Diego Maradona or this from Alberto Juantorena) or art – if you’ve never seen contemporary dance up close, you should – or closer to home – my five-year-old son simply sat on his bike and rode it first time, as if every kid did it, as I watched, mouth agape. Yet in cricket, balance finds its most beautiful manifestation, as it lies at the heart of all three skills.
I was first aware of the genius of David Gower not through his sublime batsmanship, but through his fielding. He was a 20 year-old unknown in this match at Liverpool, but caught the eye gliding about in the covers, barely touching the ground, like one of those magnetic trains from the future. Mark Waugh, just emerging from his “Afghan” period, impressed with neither bat nor ball is this largely forgettable match, but in the field, he was like a different species – a thoroughbred amongst donkeys. He seemed to swoop, gather and throw all in the same movement, indeed, in the same moment. Like all the best balanced sportsmen and sportswomen, he made the effortful look effortless. At Croydon this last season, I saw Jason Roy of Surrey in the Jonty Rhodes position, dive, stop a full-blooded square cut, get up on to his knees and throw down the stumps to effect a run out. It was the best single piece of fielding I have ever seen and was born of the same balance that allows a young man, unremarkable in physique, to hit the ball into the third level on The Oval Pavilion seemingly at will.
Spin bowling is all about energy through the crease, with the front leg braced as a pivot as the bowling arm comes over the top and the fingers and wrist rip the ball imparting drift, bounce and spin. With all that going on, everything has to be pointing in the right direction and, whenever geometry is important, balance is crucial. Shane Warne‘s preternatural accuracy was rooted in how so many moving parts lined up exactly as intended, ball after ball, spell after spell, year after year, whether he was bowling the big leg-break, the conventional leg-break, the flipper, the zooter and all those other deliveries carefully implanted into batsmen’s scrambled brains. He was able to think so hard about what was happening at the crease 20 yards away, because he had to think to little about what was happening at the crease that accommodated his delivery stride.
At the other extreme, and so often at the other end, Glenn McGrath (who might just be my favourite cricketer) dedicated much of his career to bowling the same ball over and over and over again. Nevertheless, balance lay at the heart of his deceptively prosaic craft too. He played some of his best cricket at Lord’s, oblivious to the slope, getting in tight to the stumps, delivering the ball seam-up on to the sixpence, then getting off the pitch again, all with minimum effort and maximum result. Never was his deadly simplicity better illustrated than in his legendary early evening spell at HQ in 2005. A handful of bowlers, at their very best, may have matched that performance (Curtly and Mako when the muse was with them) but I do not believe that even they could have bowled better than Pidge did on the first day of that glorious series.
As for the genuine quicks – well, has there ever been anyone so beautifully balanced as Michael Holding at The Oval in 1976? In the clip, Richie says it all.
When it comes to batsmanship and balance, one is spoilt for choice, but I’m limiting myself to three highly contrasting players.
Rahul Dravid’s Indian summer has surprised many good judges (and me), and it has delighted purists everywhere. No shot delights those purists more than the shot that gave the nickname for which the great man does not care – the forward defensive. The outcome of countless hours of practice and more deliveries in the middle than any other batsmen in Test cricket’s 134 years, it is the shot that defines positive play in defence. Feet, arms and hands move exactly as he wants them and the head stays still as the ball hits The Wall.
A batsman who exhibits none of Rahul Dravid’s footwork, but is just as effective in defence and attack, is Marcus Trescothick. In form, Tres simply rocked forwards and backwards over the crease, relying on a combination of the left-hander’s natural capacity to leave balls delivered right-arm over the wicket and his own ability to get his head still and in the right place for the hands to come through just so ensuring that the ball hits the bat directly below the eyes. A big man, Tres generated enormous power from these tiny movements – all executed with perfect balance.
Probably the hardest shot of all for the cricketer who relies on balance and timing to generate power, is the pull / hook. It demands a keen eye, fast feet, swift hands, bravery and the restraint to avoid the temptation of hitting it too hard. No batsmen in my time has played the shot more effectively than Ricky Ponting. Like the very very best, Punter’s pull would often rocket to the fence in front of square. So assured was he in the stroke, that he would play it off the front foot as well as the back foot, and he’d be as happy employing it on 0* as on 100*. Viv Richards did all that too, but not many others! Only once can I recall Punter failing with the stroke – beaten for pace, his balance betrayed him and Steve Harmison winged the Australian captain. But lots of things happened in The Ashes 2005 that seem hard to believe now – and it hasn’t happened since.
Balance – bestowed on the beautiful and the brilliant.