Gideon Haigh, writing in the 2018 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, examines the little quirks and mannerisms that cricketers carry – and what they reveal to us.
Few batsmen in history have had such an idiosyncratic technique as Steve Smith, with his backlift more of a sidelift, his trigger movements as elaborate as loading a bolt-action rifle. Fewer still can have had such a repertoire of habitual gestures: the tactile preliminary inventory of his pads, gloves, helmet and trousers, bat held upright; the stiff-legged double tap; the bent-knee double dip. Then, after each stroke, the signature followings-through, including – when he leaves the ball – a gesture of the bat as if bestowing a knighthood, and a movement of the right arm as though slipping it into a sleeve.
Far from random, it has a hint of the robotic; Smith admits to being fussy and controlling, obsessed with his gear, superstitiously averse to anyone touching his bat during breaks in play, insistent on taping his laces tight to his shoes for neatness’s sake. But it also follows in traditions well-worn. A game of repetition and repose, cricket offers ample scope for different methods and manners, quirks and quiddities.
Who has not picked up a bat and flourished it in the manner of a personal favourite? Who has not fancied themselves in the mould of champion bowler or fielder? It is an expression of wonderment and allegiance to mimic Dhoni’s helicopter shot or Pietersen’s switch hit, as it was to emulate Ranji’s glance or Hammond’s cover-drive. It might, though, simply be the way a player stands, moves, occupies space, that detains us. There is a T-shirt of a broad-backed figure, leaning on his bat at the non-striker’s end with legs crossed. The face is obscure, but you know at once that the jaws would have been chewing gum implacably, because it is unmistakable as Viv Richards.
Observation and emulation start in childhood, where the discovery of sport intersects with the world of make-believe. In The Return of the Ashes, Mike Brearley describes the three-year-old son of friends who, by shaping left-handed, tugging a cap low and swinging vigorously to leg, made himself into a facsimile of Australia’s wicketkeeper Rod Marsh. He had a commentary to match: “I’m Rommarsh. Square cut.”
Sometimes the homage leads to greater things. It was Richards’s lounging prowl and Sunil Gavaskar’s studious control that Sachin Tendulkar used to imitate in his games of tennis-ball cricket; it was Ian Chappell, with that upturned collar, and Dennis Lillee, with his spread-eagling appeal, whom Shane Warne favoured in backyard Test matches against his brother.
They matured into players with their own catalogue of tics, notably Tendulkar’s helmet tug and bow-legged squat, and Warne’s languid hand-to-hand roll of the ball and adjustment of the shoulder of his shirt. But mostly we go on living in our own heads, wondering what it feels like as we grow familiar with what it looks like, noting the similarities and differences, continuities and originalities.
In How to Watch Cricket, John Arlott argued that cricket’s “immense imaginative quality” was rooted in the habits of youth, never quite outgrown, of discerning character in distinction. “Hero-worship is expected to disappear with maturity, and at its most idolatrous it is not a good thing for a man,” he wrote. “But in watching a cricket match, only a sheer dullard will fail to realise that he is not watching 11 identical and drilled dummies. All men are different, and their differences show on the cricket field. Cricketer after cricketer reveals his essential nature at this game.”
It was, perhaps, ever thus. John Nyren’s The Cricketers of My Time rejoices in the foibles of its characters. Billy Beldham had “a peculiar habit of bringing his hand from behind his back immediately previous to his delivering the ball”, the Duke of Dorset “when unemployed, of standing with his head on one side”. Noah Mann was “short in stature” and “swarthy as a gypsy”, and “always played without his hat”; David Harris prepared to bowl by “standing erect like a soldier at drill”; Lumpy Stevens celebrated wickets with a “little grin of triumph”. These are cameos that vault cultures: C. L. R. James read them as a boy in Port-of-Spain and “began to tingle”.
While there is little directly descriptive writing about W. G. Grace, and next to no footage, one idiosyncrasy is mentioned almost invariably: the way he cocked his front toe. As Arthur Conan Doyle noted, Grace would “slowly raise himself up to his height and draw back the blade of his bat, while his left toe would go upwards until only the heel of the foot remained upon the ground”. It conveyed a cocky readiness, an imperious disdain. It was, perhaps, the Edwardian embrace of style, with its premium on appearance and deportment.
Victor Trumper was known by the neatness with which he folded his sleeves beyond the elbows – you can see it in George Beldam’s sublime photograph. Generations of Sydney grade cricketers did the same, including Alan Kippax, who in his boyhood followed Trumper to every local game, with a scorebook in which he recorded only his hero’s runs.
Jack Hobbs’s custom of spinning the bat in his hands before facing was immortalised in a cartoon by Arthur Mailey. Cecil Parkin’s trick of flicking the ball from boot to hand was regarded as so novel as to feature in its own Pathe´ newsreel, helping cement his reputation as cricket’s great jester. As the distinctive grows familiar, in fact, the familiar turns suggestive. Philip Mead’s range of cap tugs, bat pats, wiggles and shuffles encouraged R. C. Robertson-Glasgow to see “the air of a guest who, having been offered a weekend by his host, obstinately decides to reside for six months”.
Walter Hammond’s walk to the wicket was in J. M. Kilburn’s opinion “the most handsome in all cricket”, a flow “linking stillness to stillness”, inherently regal: “He came like a king and he looked like a king in his coming.” Recalling the blue handkerchief that protruded from Lala Amarnath’s trouser pocket, Vijay Hazare thought he displayed “showmanship that would have been the envy of an advertising expert”. Citing Richie Benaud’s plunging neckline and unrestrained appealing, Ray Robinson referred to him as “the spectator’s best friend”.
After the Second World War, television and the age of mass reproduction brought appearance into sharper focus. The Brylcreemed locks of Keith Miller and Denis Compton in the 1940s savoured of masculinity and sophistication; the probity of the 1950s, wrote Simon Rae, was somehow “guaranteed by Peter May’s immaculate parting”; the swing of the 1960s was caught in Ted Dexter’s seigneurial bearing, and the glint of the gold chain round Wes Hall’s neck.
By the 1970s, there were cricketers with a set of moves that would not have been out of place on the dance floor. Lillee choreographed his walk back so superbly that he needed only a casually outstretched right hand to accept the ball, and a single right forefinger to flick the sweat from his brow.
Long careers leave deep traces on the memory. Graham Gooch took guard proprietorially by presenting the full face of the bat in front of middle and leg; David Gower took his leave by nonchalantly tucking it beneath his arm, as though that was enough elegance for the day; Derek Randall jerked and twitched as if on a puppeteer’s strings.
A generation of Indians imitated Mohammad Azharuddin’s upturned collar. Sri Lankans were intrigued by Sanath Jayasuriya’s preparatory check of all his gear. In the last couple of years in club cricket, I have seen batsmen fiddling with the Velcro on their gloves every bit as pedantically as M. S. Dhoni, and setting fields from the crease in the mode of Michael Clarke. In the case of 18- year-old Austin Waugh, the likeness is more than skin deep; he is the spit of his father, Steve, in motion and at rest.
The gesture can also convey the autobiographical. It might tell us something of a cricketer’s upbringing: Morne Morkel undertakes his anticlockwise twirl at the end of his run because there was a lack of room in his local nets when he was growing up. It may relate something of their technical contemplations: Shane Watson’s nervous adjustment of his back pad before every delivery is a little memento mori of lbw. It may reveal a belief system: Lasith Malinga applies a kiss to the ball before bowling because as “a good Buddhist” fortunate enough to lead a comfortable existence, he feels obliged to “worship what helped me get here”.
In a recent interview concerning that fashionable notion of batting with intent, David Warner proposed a wide definition: “Intent can be leaving the ball, and your mannerisms around the crease. Those things bring a spark to my eye when I am at the other end. You know when your partner is on as well.” Warner’s little limbo after taking guard, his loosening of the shoulders before he takes strike, and of the wrist bands on his gloves when he is off strike, are fundamental to his ringcraft.
His captain now intuits that he is being watched too. When Smith played and missed during his Test century at Pune in February 2017, Ravindra Jadeja cheerfully imitated his head toss, eliciting from Smith a smile of recognition. When he was beaten by a ball that kept low at Bangalore, Ishant Sharma responded with a range of grimaces, which Smith met with an insouciant head wobble, and the next ball an almost self-parodic leave. All part of the plan, he has said: “I like to try and annoy them a little bit with some of my mannerisms rather than anything I say.”
Yet there remains a pleasing sense at such moments that we are seeing the player unguarded, free – whether it’s Joe Root’s warning against a run by holding his bat vertically in his left hand like a stop sign, Stuart Broad’s trio of jumps and scratches before bowling his first ball, or James Anderson’s adjustment of his forelock after each delivery. For all his experience, Alastair Cook still embarks on a single with a sudden ungainly lope, as though still a schoolboy slightly surprised to have made a good hit.
To enjoy these little glimmers of imagined personality is also to express our freedom as spectators. Cricket is growing obsessed with action and spectacle to the exclusion of the game, as though any pause for reflection or digression is against the spirit of entertainment.
Where television was once about conveying the live experience, the role of the live match now is to be more like television, a narrated whirl replete with replays and advertisements. To watch players be themselves is to appreciate cricket’s compounding of human material, its space and its scope.
During his 239 at Perth against England in December, Smith faced 399 balls over 20 minutes short of ten hours, while 505 runs were added. That’s a lot of pads touches, bat taps and knee bends, but they all in their way played a part.
Previous Almanack feature: Andrew Flintoff: Naturalness, fame & vulnerability – by Ed Smith