In general, sport values utility above artistry, and efficiency over creativity so we ought not to be asking if the age of the artist has ended in cricket.
The IPL raised that question afresh, a question that is its own answer (if you have to ask…). There was a cookie-cutter quality to the batting, a sameness to the bowling (the differences being only in degree) that threatens sport with its greatest enemy: homogeneity.
This is not unique to the IPL, but the format does encourage a depressing uniformity. You watch a large number of matches in a short span of time, so the apparently memorable quickly slips into the commonplace, making recall difficult. When you see 1062 sixes packed together in a tournament (as happened this year), the effort can lose some of its allure.
To borrow from what the musician T.M. Krishna said in another context, T20 with its emphasis on continuous excitement lacks a period of necessary inactivity to both understand and appreciate the sport.
Winning is everything
Batsmen move their front foot away from the line of the ball and swing for the rafters, then repeat themselves. Repetition is the death of variety. T20 cricket rearranges a fundamental notion of the game: here, winning is everything.
Elegance, style, artistry — elements on which the sport prides itself — are secondary if they exist at all. The odd pull shot by Shubhman Gill, a cover drive by Rohit Sharma, an on-drive by K.L. Rahul all remind us that cricket is a game of great possibilities, and equally, that these possibilities are not always profitable to a team setting a target or chasing one.
It is true that the crude can also be artistic, and beauty in any case is in the eye of the beholder. Still, there is something about a Sourav Ganguly cover drive or the overall batting of a David Gower that elevates sport from mere competition to something artistic in most people’s minds, and there is no reason why sport should not aspire to that state.
Umran Malik made one sit up with his pace. The realisation that he has some way to go still is a frightening thought for batsmen around the world. Watching Rashid Khan outwit batsmen match after match was thrilling too and a reminder that leg spinners have psychologically more in common with fast bowlers than with fellow-spinners. Think Shane Warne, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar or Abdul Qadir — the sheer energy of their performances, the physical strain they put on their bodies and the shock on the faces of beaten batsmen are straight out of the fast bowler’s book of dreams.
Combining grace and effectiveness
Like artists who instinctively know which colours work best in combination, artistic players combine grace and effectiveness without strain. Two of the best India have produced are Bishan Bedi and Gundappa Vishwanath.
I have always loved this description of Bedi in action by the former England captain Tony Lewis: “When you have seen Bishan Bedi twirl down his spinners after 60 overs with the same gentle rhythm as he settled into at the start of the spell, you understand why his is a great bowling action. A clockmaker would have been proud to set Bedi in motion — a mechanism finely balanced, cogs rolling silently and hands sweeping in smooth arcs across the face.”
Writers struggled to capture the elegant mix of gentleness and power in Vishwanath’s square cut. He — and others like him — epitomised what Robertson-Glasgow said of England’s Frank Woolley: “easy to watch, difficult to bowl to and impossible to write about”.
When batsmen move around too much at the crease, overbalance or fall over, they have opted for the crude over the elegant. This is understandable — no coach will tell someone who has just hit a boundary, “That was not an elegant shot. Next time, focus on style even if you don’t score any runs.”
Elegance is not the criteria
There was a time when being known as a stylish batsman was a compliment; now it is close to a put-down. The implication is that style is the enemy of effectiveness; teams prefer a crude boundary to a graceful single. No player has been picked for his elegance alone — beauty without cruelty makes no sense in competitive sport. Still, the same results can be arrived at with greater elegance.
Perhaps artistry is an old-fashioned concept. Maybe the artists in cricket have been the exceptions in every generation, giving writers an easy path towards romanticising the game. “Look where your feet are,” a coach once berated a batsman for getting it wrong. “Yes, but look where the ball has gone,” was the reply. Perhaps that has always been the philosophy.
Can players train to be elegant? It’s a thought, even if the modern aesthetic tends towards ugliness if you go by some of our art, architecture, music or films.