The death of Phillip Hughes casts a terrible shadow over fast bowling. But without that duel between quick bowler and attacking batsman the game will lose much of its visceral appeal, says Daniel Brigham.
Nine Englishmen stand by the boundary.
Dazed and wearied by the Antiguan heat, they face an even greater foe than the Caribbean sun: Viv Richards, in his very own playground at the Recreation Ground, has swaggered his way to fifty off 35 balls.
Then comes carnage.
His great mate Ian Botham, two short of Dennis Lillee’s record of 355 Test wickets, meets ego with ego. He crosshairs Viv’s unhelmeted, maroon-capped head with a series of bouncers. What a mistake.
Richards, brought up on angry, cracked pitches in which playing defensively got you nowhere – “the batsman might as well try to hit the ball into the surrounding undergrowth” – responds the same way he always has. He stands tall and hooks his way out of danger.
Like a drilling machine hitting oil each time it hammers into the ground, every Botham bouncer triggers a controlled, hostile hook. “Botham,” said John Emburey, playing in the match, “came off second-best each time: one six off him shattered a bottle of rum in the stands and the ball came back with a piece of glass embedded in it!”
Nine men on the boundary. England’s most successful bowler. No one can constrain the force of Richards’ hooking as he powers his way to the fastest Test century of all time. “The crowd was jumping and the car horns were blowing all round the island,” said Richards.
Five years earlier, in 1981, Botham, without helmet, had dished out a Vivving to Lillee, fearsome Dennis Lillee, at Old Trafford. Three blind and brave hooks sent the ball arcing into the stand at fine-leg on his way to 118 from 102 balls.
Botham’s and Richards’ very special brand of thunder always came with the loudest claps of all: the sound of a sweetly violent hook.
Following the traumatic events at the SCG on November 25, that sound may be lost forever. The death of Phillip Hughes was a horrific reminder of the dangers of facing a fast bowler who, at any given time, will try and hit you. Hughes was one of the few remaining happy hookers, one of the few batsmen with an instinct to swipe rather than sway. To watch him bat was to conjure the days of Ted Dexter dismantling Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith, Stan McCabe unshackling during the Bodyline series by meeting Bill Voce’s and Harold Larwood’s fire with petrol, Everton Weekes’ elegant fury, Ian Chappell equating the bouncer to a free scoring option.
Judging by the Australia-India series, Hughes’ death hasn’t ushered in an era when bowling bouncers is seen as socially unacceptable – as it was for a decade after Bodyline – but batsmen may now be even more inclined to duck rather than hook. It would be an ill-fitting legacy for Hughes, who played the game as Richards did, choosing to punch instead of weave.
Yet the hook was already becoming a rare beast at international level. If you fast-forward a couple of decades on from Richards’ mauling, when Adam Gilchrist, in 2006/07, came within one ball of equalling Richards’ record against England and when Misbah-ul-Haq equalled it in November against Australia, the hook was almost absent.
Of the 32 boundaries hit across those two innings, only one was hooked. Then take a look at the last five Test triple-centuries. Of the 1,594 runs that Chris Gayle, Michael Clarke, Hashim Amla, Kumar Sangakkara and Brendon McCullum – and that list includes two of the more aggressive batsmen in the modern game – scored between them, only six of them came from the hook: McCullum bringing up his 250. Instead of trying to hit boundaries into the surrounding undergrowth, like Richards, these batsmen instead chose to duck or sway.
The hook, it seems, was on the way out. Now it may be at tipping point. So where has the hook shot gone?
IT’S A MENTAL THING
It’s logical to think that since the helmet was introduced, batsmen would be more inclined to hook. Perhaps the truth is counter-intuitive though. Before helmets, batsmen knew that to face Tyson, or to face Lillee, or to face Larwood was to face the very real risk of serious injury each time they padded up.
Hooking became a statement in the pre-helmeted era, a marker laid down to warn bowlers off from bouncing them before they could inflict some real damage. If you bounce me, you’re getting hit for six. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t – in the innings before Richards’ record century, he was caught for 26 after miscuing an attempted hook off Botham. The introduction of helmets meant there was simply less need to warn the bowler off. Without needing to negate the risk of being hit in the head, there was no need to risk getting out playing the hook.
Despite the protection of a helmet, the shot remains as much in the mind as in the hands and eyes. “You can’t tell nobody to hook. It’s about confidence,” Roy Fredericks said after his 169 from 145 balls, against Lillee and Thomson at Perth in 1975/76.
Paul Collingwood, who was fond of the pull but tended to avoid the hook in a favour of a duck, says hooking is about more than just confidence. “It’s probably a case of madness more that bravery I think,” he says. “I remember facing spells from Fidel Edwards, Brett Lee and Shoaib Akhtar and you think, ‘Right, if this is pitched short I’m just getting under it’. The amount of times my knees were killing when I came off the pitch because I’ve ducked that many times!”
Sometimes ducking bouncers isn’t a batsman’s best defensive option. Sometimes the only way to survive is to subscribe to the theory that it’s better to be caught on the boundary than at short-leg. Collingwood was witness to one of the great counter-attacks of modern times – Kevin Pietersen’s assault on Lee at The Oval in 2005. Collingwood believes Pietersen’s savage attack was his only means of defence.
“KP tried to defend Brett Lee’s short balls before lunch and he was getting hit in the gloves. It was real serious pace and causing problems,” Collingwood says. “After lunch he really went out and fought fire with fire and really took it on. It was ridiculous. I was facing Lee thinking, ‘These are the quickest bombs I’ve ever faced in my life’ and I was happy to sway out of the way of them, not even entertaining the idea of playing an aggressive shot against them. And you had this bloke at the other end who was pounding the short balls into the crowd and I was thinking, ‘What is going on here, this is just ridiculous’.”
Pietersen agrees. Like Richards before him, it was either hit out or get out. “I saw the hook shot as a fantastic scoring option,” Pietersen says. “Occasionally there was risk with it but the key to the hook shot is what it does to the opposition bowlers. It’s an intimidating shot and if you play it well it sort of takes the fear factor out of batting and it also conveys a message to the opposition that you can’t intimidate me with short bowling because I’ll score off it. It’s about removing the fear of batting, and if as a batsman you can play those sort of shots then it really helps your mental game.”
EVERYTHING’S SLOWED DOWN
If hooking is, in essence, a protective stroke – initially to safe-guard your head, then to shield your wicket – shouldn’t it have got easier to play as pitches have become slower and flatter?
Again, the truth may be counterintuitive. For Pietersen, slower pitches mean that young players aren’t tested enough by the short ball to form a good technique against it. John Snow, one of England’s most lethal bumper-bowlers, once said, “The bouncer is a short and emphatic examination paper that you put to the batsman”. It was the ultimate test of technique. Now, though, there are two ways to pass the exam, and the easiest way is to duck rather than hook. After all, slow pitches mean there’s more time to take evasive action. Or, if a batsman does prefer to attack, rather than get onto the back foot to give themselves as much time as possible to see the ball as they would have done on quick wickets, now, emboldened by the safety their helmet provides, they instead rock onto the front foot and play the pull shot to the short ball. Ricky Ponting made a career out of doing so.
Collingwood doesn’t agree, however. Like a cricketing Pythagoras, Colly wants to bust some prevailing myths about international pitches being flat. “The pitches have always been flat,” he says. “I don’t know why people are making massive issues. Test pitches have always been flat and slow. I go back to county cricket and think, jeez, these pitches are doing all sorts. The easiest pitches to bat on are Test pitches because they’ve always been bloody flat. I don’t think they’re less quick now – batsmen are making bowlers look less quick. If you look at footage from 20 years ago, I just think batsmen have better techniques now because they can get used to that pace against bowling machines. Apart from [against] Mitchell Johnson, batsmen are playing fast bowling better now, and that’s by getting out of the way.”
Ah yes. Johnson. The pace saviour. The fast bowler who, alongside Dale Steyn, is carrying the weight of Ambrose, Wasim, Donald, Waqar and Shoaib on his shoulders. A 90s pace attack rolled into one slick, violent machine. Pietersen calls him “unhookable”. It’s the left-arm angle, as well as the ability to bounce you, then swing one away from you and then, crucially, bring one back in to your pads. You can count on one hand the number of bowlers who have successfully utilised those four assets at international level in Test cricket’s 130-year history.
Peter Siddle, part of Australia’s resurgently fearsome pace attack with Johnson, believes that his bowling partner may be leading a pace revival which in turn might bring about the return of the hook. “I think the wickets being a little flatter and a little less lively does play a part, so if you do have that extra pace I think it gives you a real weapon,” he says. “Teams are trying to go for the fast attack now. We went to South Africa and we had Morne Morkel trying to do the Mitchell Johnson role of bowling fast around the wicket, and Liam Plunkett did that for England. So I think most sides will want a bowler trying to fill that role. And if fast bowlers are going to come around the wicket more then I think there’s going to be more young batsmen coming in who’ll be wanting to take them on more with the hook shot.”
THE RIGHT WAY TO GET OUT
There is another factor standing in the way of the hook: pressure. While most fans love to see attacking cricket, the paradox is that batsmen are often admonished when caught in the deep. It’s a thin boundary rope between hero and villain and with TV cameras, column inches and social media all ready to pounce on any perceived indiscretion, batsmen are perhaps more inclined to play it safe.
“It’s a dangerous shot in terms of how much you can control it,” says Collingwood, “and in today’s high-pressure international matches it’s probably not a shot that batsmen want to have to play. Other shots may be considered more productive. I always looked to play a pull shot, but a hook shot was always a little bit more dangerous.”
And just look at the size of bats. Nudges and pushes can fly for four now. Why take so much risk to find the boundary when there are far safer means? Collingwood and Siddle also believe that the advent of T20 has made players think differently about their scoring options. With fielders often posted at fine-leg or deep backward square-leg, batsmen are more inclined to step out to leg and ramp bouncers over the wicketkeeper or use flat-bat shots to the off-side. The hook shot just isn’t as necessary, or practical, as it once was.
There is much standing in the way of a hooking comeback. Technique. Pitches. Pressure. Hughes’ death casts an awful shadow over fast bowling but, from the moment Johnson struck Virat Kohli on the helmet in the first Test at Adelaide, it was clear the players understood that the game must retain an element of fear between quick bowler and attacking batsman. Without it, cricket would lose much of its visceral, gladiatorial appeal.
Collingwood tells a story of being wowed by a moment early in his county career when Nasser Hussain had come to the crease for Essex against Durham. Steve Harmison was bowling rapidly and bounced him first ball. Hussain stood tall and clattered a hook into the stands. Harmison, ego dented, followed up with another bouncer. Bang. Straight into the stands again.
“I remember watching that and just thinking wow,” says Collingwood. “There’s no better feeling than having a fast bowler running in from 40 yards, pumping away and sweating, all grizzly and sledging you and he bangs one in short and you stay tall and manage to play the hook shot and it goes for a boundary.
“There’s not a better feeling in cricket.”
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