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Sunday 14 April 2019

innovation in sport

The sweep of history

  • One stroke, the reverse-sweep, has come to embody modern cricket. Exciting, unorthodox and risky, it thrills the crowds and outrages purists
  • It also embodies the sport’s dilemma. On the one hand, there is the 142-year pomp and tradition of Test matches. On the other, the fast and lucrative draw of one-day internationals
  • This summer England will get a sense of what the future holds, first by hosting the sound and fury of the 50-over World Cup, then taking on Australia in the stately drama of an Ashes Test series

By Derek Pringle

As cricket strokes go the reverse-sweep is not a lordly shot. There is no heroic follow-through where the batsman can hold a noble and upright pose like one of those conquerors you see on plinths in old market squares. No, the reverse-sweep requires the player to stoop low, both physically and morally, its execution an artful subterfuge widely frowned upon, at least before the pragmatism of its worth came to outweigh the game’s etiquettes.

 

Like many things in sport which begin life in controversy – and like the belly putter in golf or the spear tackle in rugby, the reverse-sweep started life mired in it – the shot was invented as a solution to a specific problem. We can even pin down the precise moment of its genesis on a nondescript cricket ground in Wembley, or at least when the stroke’s acknowledged inventor, Mushtaq Mohammad, remembers first playing it. Sunday 15 August 1965.

Mike Gatting plays a reverse-sweep in the 1987 World Cup Final, the stroke that later led to his dismissal

Mushtaq, a fine right-handed batsman who had made his Test debut for Pakistan at the age of 15, was in England to secure a contract to play county cricket for Northamptonshire. Back then, all cricketers not born within a county’s borders had to spend two years qualifying. This was done by living within the county and playing for its second team or for a club side in the area.

This match was neither, being one that involved the International Cavaliers XI (ICXI), a team of mostly international cricketers sponsored by Rothmans which, between 1964 and 1968, travelled around England playing against county sides on Sundays. The brainchild of Ted Dexter and Bagenal Harvey, the original sports agent, those ICXI matches at 40 overs a side, were the precursor to the John Player Special Sunday League, which began in 1969.

On this occasion Middlesex were ICXI’s opponents in a match at the Vale Farm Sports Ground in north-west London, adjacent to where Wasps’ rugby ground used to be. Batting first, Middlesex made 209 from 39 overs.

Back then, anything over 200 was a challenging total so Mushtaq, who opened the innings for ICXI, knew he had to keep things moving if his team were to get close, something he managed to do until confronted by Fred Titmus, Middlesex’s off-spinner.

Titmus was having great success: the pitch offering enough grip that he felt able to put six fielders on one side of the batsman (a so-called six-three field – six fielders on the leg side), a ratio not permitted in today’s limited-overs cricket.

“Not being a big hitter, I just couldn’t get a run against Fred to start with,” recalled Mushtaq 53 years later. “So against one ball from him I just turned my bat round and tapped it down to third man where there was no fielder. It was completely pre-meditated but it went for four.”

Surprised by the shot’s success, he repeated it soon after for similar reward, at which point Titmus complained to the umpire that it was unsporting and not cricket.

“Fred was livid,” Mushtaq remembered. “His point to the umpire was that the bowler should be informed if the batsman was going to bat left-handed. But I was taking guard right-handed before playing the shot, which he felt was cheating. But it forced him to move a fielder to the off-side to block the stroke off, which opened up space on the leg-side.”

The shot bore more dividends. Mushtaq made 66 while Titmus, frustrated, conceded 24 runs from four overs, far more than the frugal spinner normally allowed. As a result, the International Cavaliers won the match comfortably with 27 balls to spare.

You’d have thought the advantages of such a stroke as the reverse-sweep might have been clear to those who played in the match but, incredibly, only Mushtaq appeared to see the possibilities of the shot, which offered not only run-scoring opportunities but tactical ones too. The indifference to it is borne out by the testimonies of the county pros of the era, none of whom can recall anyone except Mushtaq attempting to play it, at least not until the late 1970s.

This is partly because there was little one-day cricket, where the attraction of a high-risk, high-reward shot was greatest.  Old-fashioned three-day Championship matches rarely forced such haste upon batsmen as to force them into something so risky as a reverse-sweep. Yet there was also a reverence for orthodoxy among batsmen then, an attitude that if the great Edwardian cricketer, Jack Hobbs, didn’t play it, nor should they. Save for a lone pioneer, most regarded the reverse-sweep as the devil’s work.

“I practised it in the nets and in 2nd XI games for Northants so I could play it pretty well when I got into the first team,” Mushtaq said. “But when I tried to get teammates like David Steele to play it, they were too scared they might get out.”

Most innovation has its sceptics, at least initially, and cricket’s conservative flock was awash with them when it came to the reverse-sweep. But while traditionalists tut-tutted and bowlers moaned whenever Mushtaq played it – and according to Essex’s John Lever he used it against medium-pacers as well as spinners – there were also puritans, like Ken Turner, the secretary of Northants, who wanted it banned.

“I got out playing it once against Surrey,” Mushtaq said. “As I walked off, Ken Turner came to meet me and said: ‘My office, five minutes, Mohammad.’

“He then told me that if I ever played the shot again while he was secretary I’d be getting my P45. It didn’t stop me altogether, though I’m pretty sure I didn’t play it again that season.”

The reverse-sweep was still seen as exotic, and by extension an unnecessary risk, when I joined cricket’s professional ranks in the late 1970s. At Essex, the county I joined, Graham Gooch used to play it in the nets but rarely unsheathed it during matches and then only when well set.

As someone not especially nimble on their feet against spin, I liked the idea of the shot as it offered run-scoring options and wound-up bowlers into the bargain. I played it to the first ball I faced in the 1985 Benson and Hedges final between Essex and Leicestershire, getting three runs for my cheek.

The bowler, Peter Willey, turned the air blue, even elbowing me in the ribs as I turned for a second run. He apologised afterwards – once his team had won – but the umpire’s lack of intervention at the time was telling, the inference being that it wasn’t just Willey who felt it the shot of a Clever Dick.

Although it was considered a difficult stroke, I found it easier to play than a normal sweep, in which you tend, as a right-hander, to fight your balance. For the normal sweep, the front leg, bat and bodyweight all get thrust over to the off-side as you bend down over a planted front leg to scythe the ball, with a horizontal bat, down to backward square leg. If you are tall, with a high centre of gravity, it is easy to topple over playing it.

By contrast, the reverse-sweep requires the bat to be coming from the leg-side to the off, which helps to counterbalance the batsman, providing they are still leading with their front foot, the left one if right-handed. There is a complication: the laws state hands on the bat must roughly stay where they start on the handle of the bat.

Having been educated at public school, with the opportunity to play all sports, a reverse-sweep for me was just like a reverse-sticks shot in hockey. You didn’t change the position of your hands to do that. Instead, you just crossed your wrists over and struck the ball with the stick turned round the other way (there being no left-handed hockey sticks or players). For that reason I found it just as natural with cricket bat in hand, though with the added attraction and thrill of it being considered illicit by most of my peers.

Dextrous wrists, often developed by playing hockey, tennis or squash, can also help to utilise the stroke, which may explain why the best proponents have tended to be those with experience of playing multiple racket and stick sports growing up. As evidence I offer Eoin Morgan, who played hurling as a boy in Ireland; England’s Jos Buttler, who played hockey and squash at boarding school in Taunton; and South Africa’s AB de Villiers, a schoolboy international hockey and tennis player.

Jos Buttler executes a reverse-sweep against India in 2015

These three play the reverse-sweep as well as anyone in cricket history. Indeed, Morgan, England’s captain in 50-over and T20 cricket, sees it as fundamental to his repertoire as any other shot. He once argued as much over dinner with Gooch, the latter’s take being that it was an unnecessary risk in red-ball cricket when you are not up against the clock as in white-ball formats. Yet Morgan has always claimed to find the reverse-sweep as easy and natural to play as any other stroke, and continues to unfurl it in all formats.

As a run-scoring option and as a manipulator of field settings, one which puts the bowler under pressure to defend areas he would rather leave open (namely the quadrant behind cover on the off-side), the reverse-sweep has undoubted value. But while those qualities made it attractive, the rapid uptake of lightweight helmets with strong grilles in the 1990s and 2000s reduced the physical risk that came with it. After all, it is easier to attempt something knowing you won’t lose your teeth if you get it wrong.

Though it is a go-to shot against spin for most these days, there nevertheless remain some, like Virat Kohli, India’s captain and batting maestro, who regard the reverse-sweep as a sign of weakness. Kohli, a purist with bat in hand, is so good and quick at picking length and so adept at using his feet, that he already has numerous options over where to hit spin bowlers. To him, playing the reverse-sweep would be an admission of defeat and a huge affront to his skills as a batsman.

He is certainly not alone in feeling that the shot is the repository of the scoundrel, the chancer, the compromised or at least those less confident of relying on orthodox strokes to keep the scoreboard ticking over. After all, the reverse-sweep is premeditated, which means it offers a solution, potentially, to whatever ball comes down irrespective of line, length or spin. In that regard it is utilitarian, a catch-all shot.

While today’s cricketers are encouraged to practise and play the shot, I know a high-level coach who feels that many of them, probably in response to the rise in white-ball cricket, go too readily to the reverse-sweep. In that sense it can be seen as a neat metaphor for the current state of the game, with its headlong rush towards Twenty20 cricket leagues, official or otherwise. It doesn’t need a visionary to see that there is gold in them thar franchises and cricketers of all stripes are trying to mine it using the reverse-sweep as their pickaxe.

The shot can also be seen to resemble, in its evolution from once maverick stroke to darling of the mainstream, the rise of India, a once lowly member country of the International Cricket Council, to cricket’s pre-eminent powerbroker.

When in the 1970s, the reverse-sweep occasionally poked a tentative head out from among the traditional strokes, India was still in thrall to England and Australia at the ICC – in the room but not at the top table. Yet the deregulation of India’s economy and then its cable television networks have changed all that by creating a burgeoning middle class and then selling them the dream of a better lifestyle, including a souped-and-soaped-up version of T20 cricket called the Indian Premier League. Suddenly, the game’s worth with regard to the value of its broadcast rights was huge, with several quantum leaps taken since.

With this new-found wealth and an audience to sustain it, India’s cricket board, the BCCI, has become cricket’s alpha male. Just like the reverse-sweep, itself initially kept in check by a disapproving establishment, there has been no stopping it since world domination became a possibility. Yet like all disrupters they have only been able to enter the mainstream because of their success. Without that, both would have remained cults where devotion tends to happen but without the devotees.

But what of the future? Shots are always being tweaked and finessed and the reverse-sweep is no different. The latest variant comes from David Warner, the pugnacious Australian batsman, who is serving a 12-month ban for his role in using sandpaper to roughen a cricket ball during a Test match.

Playing recently for Sylhet Sixers in the Bangladesh Premier League, Warner, a left-hander, has taken, when it suits him, to batting right-handed. Although clearly ambidextrous to a high degree, he has confused his opponents further by setting up right-handed but then playing the reverse-sweep which, to those who have watched him through most of his career, simply looks like him playing a normal left-handed shot.

Cricket, too, is constantly reconfiguring itself in an attempt to woo new audiences both live and on television. The latest attempt at this has been the The Hundred, a bastardised version of T20 in which each team receives a maximum 100 balls, due to be introduced next year. Every match must be completed within three hours to satisfy the time pressures of its perceived audience as well as those of terrestrial television stations like the BBC, who need the certainty for purposes of scheduling.

A new format is bound to bring innovation on and off the field as batsmen and bowler continue their 200-year-old struggle to gain dominion over one another. Yet old favourites, like the reverse-sweep, will persist. It wasn’t so long ago that the shot was castigated and criticised in much the same way as The Hundred has been recently. It is just that in the latter’s case a ball has yet to be bowled.

Photographs by Getty Images

Further reading

  • Pushing the Boundaries, by Derek Pringle. The author’s account of a tumultuous decade of international cricket.
  • The Test, by Nathan Leamon. That rare thing, a successful sporting novel – by a man who has spent a decade as the England team’s performance analyst.
  • Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2019, edited by Lawrence Booth. One book no cricket fan should be without