Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Does "class" matter?

When it comes to batting, there's this notion of the "class" of a batsman. Trying to define it is hard, like defining "obscenity" - and yet, you know it when you see it! You watch a batsman in action, even if it's in a minor game against not-too-challenging bowling, and you just know that the guy's got class. Names like Sachin Tendulkar, David Gower, Mark Waugh, Saurav Ganguly and Brian Lara immediately conjure up pleasing images of their flashing blades. Contrast that with batsmen like Geoff Boycott, Javed Miandad, Allan Border or even today's superhero Ricky Ponting. Absolutely nothing wrong with their career records or their influence on their teams' successes. Fabulous run-machines, each of them. And yet, they seem to fall short of the earlier group in some intangible aspect. If I had an hour or three to spend on watching cricket highlights, I know which group of batsmen I'd rather watch in action.

So what's a classy batsman? Our internalized definitions of class appear to be driven by textbook definitions of correct batting - but going beyond that, by a certain natural grace, fluidity of movement (of body and bat), effortlessness of execution, superb timing. Importantly, class appears to be a predictor of success in cricket. Most "classy" batsmen have done well over the long-term in their careers, and hence the cricketing saw "Form is temporary, class is permanent". So naturally, it's important for selectors to find and pick classy batsmen. Or is it?

Before wading into that question, a quick story from about 10 years ago. I watched a game at the Wankhede Stadium, between West Indies 'A' and an Indian Board President's XI. Didn't know many of the players by face, but I saw one Indian batsman struggling so much that I made a note in my diary - "find out who batted at #5 today, he doesn't appear to have what it takes (class)"! This guy spent at least an hour at the crease, scratched out 11 runs, and then got out tamely. Meanwhile, the guy at the other end was batting effortlessly - not scoring rapidly, mind you, but he just looked classy. I knew that guy - Amol Muzumdar of Mumbai. The next morning, I checked the scorecard in the newspaper - the guy at #5 was Vijay Bharadwaj, of Karnataka. These days he's on the coaching staff of the Royal Challengers of Bangalore, in the IPL. As you might know, Amol Muzumdar never played for India. Vijay B. was picked for a handful of Tests and one-dayers, did nothing of note, and was then dropped.

Now, granted that this was a very limited amount of evidence, but to me it was clear that Vijay B. would never be a long-term Test prospect. On the other hand, Amol M. looked the part. So what were the selectors thinking? Of course they picked Rahul Dravid and Saurav Ganguly ahead of Muzumdar for the Indian team, and no one can complain about those picks. But they also picked, and played, guys like Jacob Martin and Vikram Rathour! Looks like the selectors relied more on batting statistics than batting class...

To come back to the present, in this age of T20 cricket, does class matter any more? Success is coming just as easily (if not more) to batsmen who clobber the ball, as to batsmen who caress it. Even in Test cricket! Witness the likes of Andrew Symonds, Chris Gayle, Jacob Oram, Graeme Smith, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, scoring tons of runs in all forms of modern cricket. It is a given that the T20 version will dominate in future (unless they come up with an even more frenetic version). The vast majority of nouveau cricket fans are not even going to watch Tests. Where's the room for the classy batsmen in the modern game, then? They're not going to be as marketable as these boom-boom T20 stars. Of course there are some exceptions - Yuvraj Singh and Sehwag come to mind as classy batsmen who will do well in the new world. But these guys were brought up in an earlier era where class got its due. The new kids aren't like that. A Rohit Sharma is classy, but feels obliged to try (and gets out to) wacky shots like the Marillier scoop to fine-leg, even when his classy stuff is working just fine! These kids are growing up watching the limited-overs game. The air-time, the glamour, the adverts, the money are all going to the players who can do well in the TV-friendly versions of the game - that's an economic reality that won't go away.

It may well be true that classy batsmen are born, and not made. The danger however is that most of these born classy batsmen will end up abandoning their classy strokes for the slam-bang-wallop stuff that fetches the fame and the success in T20. If you have heavy bats, short boundaries, field restrictions and hobbled bowlers, why would you need to play classy cricket? Why bother to time the ball nicely, place it perfectly? Just crash it through, or over, the field. The crowds seem to love that as well...


Anonymous said...

came here through RSC - why don't you cross-post this at as well - an amateur forum that a bunch of cricket crazy fans participate in. your contributions there will be awesome!

Shyam Prakash Jha said...

I believe you should have included GR vishwanath and Md. Azharuddin as classy batsman if you have considered players from 70s (Boycs) and 80s (Gover). Cricket has come a long way since India won the world cup in 1983 and it became so much popular in India that the commercialization effects are seen all over the world cricket. Earlier, cricket was played as sport and so there were class players now it is getting played for making money and entertaining the masses so the commercial success is main mantra. You totally left area of bowling. In IPL it was very much visible how the classic bowling (swing, spin) is getting lost and only low fulltoss, short pitched deliveries are getting bowled to batsman.

Neeran Karnik said...

Thanks for your comments. The article was purely about batting class, so yes I haven't considered the impact on bowling at all. Maybe a topic for a future blog post.

As for Vishy and Azhar, true they're classy players too. I didn't intend that list to be comprehensive... There could be many other contenders in the 'classy' list, like Zaheer Abbas, Martin Crowe, Viv Richards, etc. And the other list would have names like Graham Gooch, David Boon and Clive Lloyd.