Is cricket dead? Not that it has become unpopular or that there is diminishing interest for it on television, but in a deeper, more creative sense. Has everything to be known about the game — the crafts, techniques, tactics, strategies — already been revealed, and can one say with conviction that there are no more worlds to conquer?
Somehow that doesn’t sound right. No field of human endeavour can say there is nothing more to be done. At the turn of the 20th century, it was believed that physics was dead. As if on cue, quantum theory and relativity upset long-held ideas, and the field was blown wide open. It is a useful lesson.
The gifts from Pakistan
For long it was assumed that in cricket there were just a few gaps to be filled. The googly had been invented at the turn of the 20th century, and for decades its mirror image was sought — the leg-break bowled with an off-break action. Then Saqlain Mushtaq developed the doosra. The other major development also came from the gifted Pakistani bowlers — reverse swing. From Sarfraz Nawaz to Imran Khan to Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram it was an unbroken line.
The rest of the cricketing world followed after initial skepticism. When it was discovered that the doosra usually indicated a bent (or straightening) arm, and therefore might be an illegal delivery, the authorities put a figure on what constituted a legal one. Bowlers were allowed to straighten their arm by 15° to remain within the law. The change allowed us to appreciate the skills of bowlers such as Muttiah Muralitharan and Harbhajan Singh and the possibilities in the doosra itself.
Both these innovations took place in the last century, and for many coaches there are no more gaps to be filled in the evolution of the game. There was the odd club bowler who could bowl off either arm, but he was seen as a freak rather than the harbinger of a revolution.
In international cricket it happened on one memorable occasion, though. Garry Sobers was batting on 364 when the occasional off-spinner bowling to him — Hanif Mohammad — switched to left-arm spin. Sobers didn’t mind (he was later quoted as saying, “He could bowl with both hands if he wished.”). He then pushed for the single that gave him the highest individual score in a Test innings.
The ambidexterous bowler
The ambidextrous bowler is a rarity. He (or she — Bangladesh’s Shaila Sharmin and Australian Jemma Barsby are in this exclusive club) is usually a spinner, but Pakistan’s Yasir Jan, a pace bowler, has been described as “left-arm quick, right-arm quicker”. That is both evocative and a pointer to the future.
The Sri Lankan with a name that can be set to music — Pasqual Handi Kamindu Dilanka Mendis — bowled both left-arm orthodox and right-arm off-spin on his debut against England. Vidarbha’s Akshay Karnewar has played 15 First Class matches in this dual role.
The shortest format of the game can be expected to encourage the ambidextrous player — one who can bowl and bat both right- and left-handed as well as field and throw off either. That’s six players in one! Often we don’t know there is a gap to be filled till someone actually fills it.
Batting has seen fewer fundamental changes. The switch hit or the Dilscoop over the wicketkeeper’s head are recent, but batting is about refining what already exists rather than inventing something fresh.
Sunil Gavaskar once famously batted left-handed for Mumbai in a Ranji Trophy match, but that had little to do with technique or tactic and more with (opponents Karnataka believe to this day, four decades later) tantrum.
Old school coaches discourage players from doing too many things. If you can bowl both spin and pace, then focus on one or the other, they say. If you can bowl off either arm, stick to one. Some schoolboys can bat either left- or right-handed, but they are told this will not do. As a boy, Michael Hussey was a right-handed batsman till he saw Allan Border bat, and switched to batting left-handed. He does everything else right-handed.
Right-handers Sachin Tendulkar and Kane Williamson write left-handed and hold their rackets in their left hand. Coaches speak about the dominant hand and how to use it, but do not encourage those who are comfortable doing it either way.
The next major innovation in batting is in the hands (left and right) of the coaches who will have to jettison a favourite theory: that it is better to be a good right-hander or a left-hander than an unsure left-and-right hander.
About one percent of the world’s population is ambidextrous. Surely there are some cricketers among that 70 million?