Right-handed or left, Maxwell’s hammer lands with equal force
In the dazzling way in which it is employed by batsmen like Glenn Maxwell, the switch-hit can sometimes feel like it’s a shiny new weapon. It’s not. It’s been around for a long time. Mike Gatting’s fateful reverse sweep from the 1987 World Cup final—“the shot that cost England the Cup”—is a famous example from the past. Sachin Tendulkar had mastery over the reverse sweep but rarely used it.
The Pakistani all-rounder Mushtaq Mohammad once claimed in an interview that he had invented the reverse sweep--an on-the-spot inspiration during a match in 1964.
The reverse sweep is now about as classical a shot as the cover drive, and though technically it is a switch-hit, the latter phrase came into its own when Kevin Pietersen regularly began to use it in 2008—changing both his grip and his stance from right to left-handed the moment a ball was delivered. It was really noticed that year in a game against New Zealand where he hit two sixes by flipping his orientation. He was not just getting down on his knee and dabbing at a ball with his blade facing the other way—he was playing full blooded hoicks any which way he wanted like an ambidextrous batsman. It led to an outcry over legality and the MCC had to step in and say it was ok to use it. Immediately, there were demands that bowlers should then be allowed to switch hands at the moment of delivery. That demand went nowhere.
Inspired by Pietersen’s perfect and prolific execution, many adventurous batsmen began to adopt it. But there are switch-hitters and then there is Glenn Maxwell. The Australian batsman’s towering switch-hit sixes in the one-day series against India has again triggered a debate, with Australia greats Ian Chappel and Shane Warne calling it unfair—it nullifies the field setting for the batsman, while the bowler does not get the equal right to switch hands.
This new debate is unlikely to gather steam of course, limited overs cricket being a batters game. What it is then, is simply a breathtaking skill to enjoy, a skill that demands a level of comfort with playing both left and right-handed.
David Warner and New Zealand’s Colin Munro are great exponents of ambidextrous play too.
Warner was in fact a good right-hand batsman during his junior cricket days, and once played a full season as a right-hander. Maxwell was so prodigiously talented as a child that he was often asked to play left-handed by teachers in his primary school days so his teammates could have an even chance to dismiss him.
According to Pietersen and Maxwell, it’s a stroke which is mainly used to counter field placements, especially when the opposition packs one side of the field with a disciplined bowler bowling to a plan.
An example of it was seen in Australia’s game plan against Hardik Pandya in the second and third ODIs. At Sydney, Pat Cummins successfully frustrated Pandya with off cutters bowled outside the off stump with a packed field on the off side.
At the Manuka Oval, captain Aaron Finch tried the same thing with Sean Abbot bowling to Pandya, with four fielders placed between cover point and short third-man, but Abbott wasn’t as accurate as Cummins.
It is a strategy commonly used in Twenty20 cricket. The most commonly used “match-up” is using the left-arm and leg-spinners to turn the ball away from right-handed batters with a packed off side field, or bringing in the off-spinners to do the same with a left-handed batter.
With his complete mastery over the switch-hit that simply won’t work on Maxwell; a sobering thought for India as they go into the T20 series starting today.
“It is very skilful, some of it’s amazingly skilful—but it’s not fair,” Chappell said of the switch-hit earlier this week, seconded by Warne.
Unlike bowlers, a batsman does not have to notify the umpires and opposing team if they opt to reverse their batting style. Ian Chappell’s argument is: “How can one side of the game, that is, the bowlers, they have to tell the umpire how they’re going to bowl. And yet the batsman, he lines up as a right-hander—I’m the fielding captain, I place the field for the right-hander—and before the ball’s been delivered, the batsman becomes a left-hander.”
“When it’s blatantly unfair, it annoys the hell out of me,” Chappell added.
The shot increases the challenge for umpires, including the leg-before and leg-side no-ball laws.
Maxwell countered the criticism after smashing 59 off 36 balls including a huge switch-hit on Wednesday against India, saying it was up to the bowlers to come up with a counter to the stroke. “It’s within the laws of the game,” he said.
“I suppose it’s up to the bowlers to try and combat that, and the skills of bowlers are being tested every day. They’re having to come up with different change-ups and different ways to stop batters, and with the way they shut down one side of the ground and what-not.
“I suppose the way that batting is evolving, I think bowling has got to evolve to the same stage, so you see guys come up with knuckle balls and wide-yorker fields and different tactics. I just see it as a different part of the evolution of the game.”
According to Cricviz, Maxwell has scored a total of 64 runs from switch-hits in the last five years, including First-class, List A and T20s; Warner too has scored the same number of runs with the shot. Only Munro has scored more—70.
Explaining the execution of the switch-hit and reverse sweep in a YouTube video, Pietersen and Maxwell talk in detail about the technique of it.
“It’s all about field positioning, when he sets a leg-side field and takes out the backward point and starts bowling into your legs, that’s when I feel ‘my time to switch around and score runs’,” says Pietersen, who sees the shot as a backhand in squash. After getting into the left-handed stance, “control the bat with my left hand and I get a lot of power from my right hand”.
Pietersen says the key to quickly changing stance is not to grip the bat too hard when the bowler is running in.
In the series against India, Maxwell has shown his mastery over the reverse sweep as well, which is more subtle than switch-hit.
“Reverse sweep is a strong shot for me (as) I don’t have to change too much. Just a tiny rotation of the bottom hand where you can just flick the wrists through it,” he said in the video.
“I can get elevation to hit it over the fielder at point/backward point or play along the ground past that fielder. It’s generally a position where I am trying to move the deep point squarer which then allows me to play more conventional shots and hit over the covers or beat the fielder inside the ring. Generally, it’s a very safe shot to get a boundary if you have these two fielders, backward point and third man, inside the ring and the spin bowlers are bowling just outside off-stump.”