It is not usual for former players and commentators to repeatedly praise a stroke from the blade of a batsman in glowing terms. These rare instances happen when the batsman is able to pull off a shot that has not just audacity but also innovation and absolute mastery written all over it. Further, this should also be performed with authority against the best in the world to get the stamp of approval from critics. Rishabh Pant, the young wicketkeeper-batsman of India, managed all of this while creating a new stroke in the cricketing lexicon, during the matches in the series against England.
Pant attained cricketing immortality by playing “reverse scoop” while facing two of the top fast bowlers in the world - James Anderson and Jofra Archer. As the name implies, this stroke has two components - reverse and scoop. The first refers to the batsman involved changing from his chosen stance at the batting crease after the bowler enters his delivery stride and playing the ball with his new orientation. Thus a person, who takes guard as a right-hand batman suddenly effects a quick change of grip and position of foot and faces the delivery as a left-hander, after the ball is sent down by the bowler. The scoop which is a rather recent addition to the shots played on a cricket field has the batsman using the pace of the ball to “spoon” it over the wicketkeeper and slip fielders, through the usually unguarded areas behind them, to the boundary.
“Reverse” shots, in particular reverse sweep, had been played by batsmen during the last four decades. It was Ian Botham, the legendary all-rounder, who popularised this stroke by employing it effectively against Indian left-arm spinners Dilip Doshi and Ravi Shastri, when the side toured England in 1982. Till then, the bowlers and fielders expected the batsmen to either cut or square drive balls pitching on or outside the off stump and turning further away, and field placements were done accordingly. However, Botham changed the rules of the game by changing his stance from right handed to left and placing his left foot out and bringing the full force of his huge frame on the sweep shot, which invariably sent the ball to the fence. The Indian spinners had no answer to this stroke and Botham scored heavily in this series, notching up a century and a double hundred.
Subsequently, reverse sweep was adopted by other batsmen also. The increasing popularity of limited overs cricket with its restrictions on placement of fielders offered scope for unconventional and innovative stokeplay. This encouraged many batsmen to attempt this stroke, with varying degrees of success. Kevin Pietersen of England stood out as one who could play this shot with power and precision and successfully deploy it even against the fast bowlers.
Scoop, on the other hand, was first played in international cricket by Dougie Marillier, incidentally a tailender with the bat who bowled off-spin for Zimbabwe. He demonstrated this shot for the first time while facing Glen McGrath against Australia at Perth in 2001. However, he employed this stroke to deadly effect when Zimbabwe played India in the first One- Day International of a five-match series at Faridabad in March, 2002. India had the game within their bag, when they reduced the visitors, who were chasing a target of 275, to 210/8 in the 45th over. Marillier walked in at this stage and counterattacked vigorously to score an unbeaten 56 off a mere 24 balls, which included 10 hits to the fence and one sixer! Marillier repeatedly “scooped” the thunderbolts sent down by Zaheer Khan, which unnerved the Indian pace bowler so completely that he lost his rhythm. Towards the end of the game, Marillier even played this shot off Anil Kumble to script a remarkable win for his country.
Though India’s first brush with “scoop” shot ended up in a loss, the entire nation rejoiced when Misbah-ul-Haque chose to play this stroke, when he had taken Pakistan to the doorsteps of a victory in the final of the inaugural T20 World Cup hosted by the International Cricket Council (ICC) at Johannesburg in South Africa in 2007. Batting second, after India had posted 157, Pakistan stumbled midway through and were struggling at 104/7 when Misbah took charge. He navigated the chase effectively in the company of lower order batsmen and took the total to 145/9 wickets when the last over began. After 7 runs came off the first two balls sent down by Joginder Sharma, which included a well struck sixer, Misbah unwisely decided to scoop the next ball above the wicketkeeper. But he top edged the ball, and the resultant catch was held by S Sreesanth to seal off incredible win for India.
Thus the followers of the game are familiar with both reverse shots and scoop, but it took the genius of Pant to combine both and create a new stroke, which he played against the visiting England side. He played this for the first time in the fourth Test of the series at Ahmedabad, where his innings of 101 helped India secure a precious lead in the first innings. With Pant nearing his ton, Anderson pitched one just outside the line of his off stump and Pant, a natural left-hander, switched his orientation and scooped the ball over the slip cordon for a boundary. Veteran cricket writer Suresh Menon described this shot as one that would give him goosebumps whenever he thought about it, such was the confidence and daredevilry involved in playing it! Pant showed to the cricketing world that this was no fluke, when he played the shot again, this time while facing Archer in the first T20 International between the two sides. In this game, India were in trouble when Pant started batting, having lost K L Rahul and skipper Virat Kohli for only eight runs. But Pant was undaunted by the position of his side and reverse scooped Archer, who was bowling with a new ball at speed exceeding 90 miles per hour, and the ball landed beyond the ropes for a six! Pietersen, who was in the commentary box, could not believe his eyes and remarked that this was the greatest shot ever played on a cricketing field.
Playing reverse scoop requires not only confidence and courage but also razor sharp reflexes, especially when it is attempted against the fast bowlers. For one, the change in orientation invariably places the batsman in the path of the ball from where he has to move quickly enough to play the scoop. While playing the scoop shot care should be taken to ensure that head and body are outside the line of the ball as otherwise one risks a direct blow which can be quite damaging. Further, the contact of the willow with ball must timed in a manner to ensure that the pace of the delivery is used to propel it above the keeper and slip cordon to the fence. Without doubt, this stroke is not for the fainthearted nor should it be attempted by one with a proclivity towards classicism. This is a shot for those young, brash, audacious batsmen blessed with absolute faith in their abilities and complete absence of fear.
While on the subject of new strokes, one remembers the first time Mohamed Azharuddin played the paddle sweep against England in his debut series in 1984-85. Azhar had taken the cricketing world by storm scoring back to back hundreds in his first three T. It was during the last test at Kanpur that Azhar played this stroke, which was a sweep shot played with a vertical bat, against the visiting spinners Pat Pocock and Phil Edmonds. The press contingent from England covering this series went into raptures over this and hailed the arrival of both the latest star on the cricketing firmament as well as the new stroke. With passage of time, paddle sweep also became a commonly used shot in cricket fields all over the world.
In cricketing circles, certain batsmen have come to be identified with certain shots for the felicity and beauty with which they execute it. Gundappa Viswanath playing the square cut against the best fast bowlers in the world was sight to treasure. One can place Dilip Vengsarkar’s cover drive, Mohinder Amarnath’s hook, Sachin Tendulkar’s off drive, Sunil Gavaskar straight drive and Vijay Merchant’s late cut in the same category. However, none of them invented these strokes; they only took the execution of the same to the level of sublime, by their precise and artistic execution. The only Indian batsman who can claim patent to a stroke in cricket coaching book, prior to the 1980s, is Ranjitsinhji, the erstwhile Jamsaheb of Nawanagar, who is acknowledged as the father of the “leg glance”.
The advent of limited overs matches has opened up many avenues for innovation in cricket, especially in batting. These improvisations and novel changes bring more excitement to the game and are hence enthusiastically welcomed by the viewers of the sport. It goes without saying that only extremely talented and supremely confident players can attempt to play new shots in international matches and emerge successful. Pant has, during the short period he has played the game at the highest level, demonstrated that he possesses the skillsets and temperament to rise to the level of greatness. One hopes that he does full justice to his potential and evolves into a world-class player capable of taking his place among the pantheons of all-time cricketing greats.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)