Nonconformists can be masters of the game too!
Three cricketers of contrasting skill sets and styles – Ben Stokes, Steve Smith and Jasprit Bumrah –have had the cricket world in thrall with outstanding performances in the past couple of months. Stokes, of course, has been the “Miracle Man” for England, winning the ODI World Cup and the heart-stopping second Ashes Test, virtually on his own steam. These achievements inspired comparisons with another great all-rounder, Ian Botham, and praise can’t get any higher for Stokes.
The success of Smith and Bumrah, while perhaps not of the same magnitude in terms of results, has been no less valuable for their respective teams. What’s remarkable, however, is how both these players reached the top with their off-beat technique. Smith’s crab-like footwork, the ungainly way he leaves a ball, the propensity to play across the line – often from the off-stump or even beyond – is everything that is proscribed by manuals on batting. Smith is different from any successful top order batsman playing currently – perhaps any time in the history of the game. But however odd his methods may appear, Smith’s been a mind-boggling run-getter.
In the current Ashes series, he’s made three centuries in three Tests already. This is not a fluke. He’s chalked up a considerable body of work and his average today is second only to Don Bradman, among those who’ve played more than 30-Tests. This marks Smith out as a phenomenon. Bumrah is hardly the epitome of fast bowling finesse in his run-up. Tall and lanky, he amble in start-stop, haltering fashion before getting into an awkward delivery action that looks like it could never give him any control. As seen over the past couple of years, however, Bumrah not just generates high pace, but demands respect from the batsmen for the lengths and lines he hits, the late swing both ways and the nasty, well-disguised bouncer in his armoury.
Smith and Bumrah are extraordinarily gifted. But I think they are also fortunate that their natural ability has not been messed around with. A few decades ago, the duo would probably not have passed a coach’s scrutiny because of the rigidity that prevailed in coaching. Not just that, rigidity in coaching often led to adversities in players.
Former India captain and batting great Dilip Vengsarkar recounts that his grip was changed by a stop-gap coach (his regular was on leave) when he was a young boy, which left him insecure throughout his career. Watch any footage of Vengsarkar in his stance before the ball is delivered, and he keeps looking at his grip, almost reflexively, to see if it’s correct. I don’t know much about how Smith was coached, but Bumrah’s been lucky, though he’s had quite a few coaches, mentors and “influencers” in his short career. Of these, “big guns” such as Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumbe, Ricky Ponting, Mahela Jayawardena, Zaheer Khan (for Mumbai Indians) and Ravi Shastri (for India), belong to the classical school in a sense, but to their credit, haven’t amended Bumrah’s methods to fit a predetermined template.
An anecdote about Sir Viv Richards needs retelling at this stage. Brought to England by talent scouts of Somerset county, he was chastised by English coaches for playing across the line, hitting balls from off-stump to square leg, mid-wicket and mid-on. “You have to play in front of the wicket with a straight bat to survive, that’s the correct technique,” Richards was told. Hearing this a few times, he blew a fuse. “If I bat as you tell me, from where will I score runs?” Richards, as we know, went on to become among the most destructive batsmen.
Point is not that technique should be debunked. Rather, what lies outside a prescribed path must also be given weightage. Technique reveals a tried and tested path to boost efficiency. But there can be other creative ways to achieve excellence too. And these cricket examples are only allegorical. Education, business, politics, sports, the arts – indeed every aspect of life – can be enriched by things done differently. If only these are recognised and encouraged.