TELFORD VICE, Cape Town
CRICKET saw a flash of the future in the 13th over of the third T20 between SA and Australia at Newlands a dozen days ago, and it worked.
Dale Steyn’s yorker flew flat and fiery at Steve Smith’s feet. Would he dig it out? Would stumps be smashed? Would bones be broken?
Instead, Smith opened his legs, closed the face of his bat, and squirted the ball between his feet to fine leg for four with a stroke as deliberate as it was outrageous.
By then, Smith had drilled Imran Tahir down the ground for six and reverse swept JP Duminy for four. The Steyn squirt was the 11th ball he had faced.
No fours before lunch? More like no dot balls allowed. Ever. Steyn’s next delivery was the first in Smith’s innings that did not yield a run. There would be only three more in the 26 balls from which the Australian scored 44.
He found the boundary just once more but still outscored bigger hitters like David Warner and Glenn Maxwell.
Who said T20 was for sloggers? Maybe in summers since faded. Not anymore. The format that has revolutionised the way the world thinks about cricket is itself caught in the ooze of evolution.
“What less powerful hitters have done well is to learn to play flicks and scoops; they’ve learnt to play with finesse,” Lance Klusener, a past master of brawny batting, said.
“The only way to do it used to be to stand there and hit straight.”
Which brings us to Chris Gayle. You wouldn’t call him a dinosaur to his face, but that’s what he is in the modern context.
“Gayle still does it the old-fashioned way – he hits the ball in front of the wicket,” Klusener said. “If it goes behind square it’s because he’s edged it.”
The joltin’ Jamaican did just that in West Indies’ World T20 match against England in Mumbai on Wednesday. Of his 100 not out, which he hit off 48 balls, just six runs were scored behind square. The left-hander hammered 71 of his runs in his favoured on-side arc.
Gayle bats like the Springboks play rugby when they are in winning form: with a plodding predictability that is plain to see but damnably difficult to do anything about.
But, along with the dinosaurs and the dashers, there is another species out there.
“The really good T20 batsmen – like AB (de Villiers) – can do both,” Klusener said. “And that makes it bloody hard to play against them.”
De Villiers is as comfortable driving through the covers of an ancient coaching manual as he is cartwheeling into the stroke of a cyborg – one half a tilting windmill, the other Don Quixote himself.
He has Smith’s audacity (and then some) and Gayle’s ripping power, and he isn’t afraid to use whatever works.
Unlike Jimmy Cook, who scored all of his runs in an era when radicals dared to cut and pull almost as often as they drove.
The hook was a gateway drug to dismissal, unless your name was Kevin McKenzie. The sweep was a four-letter word – a torrent of which would come your way should be stupid enough to get out playing it.
“These days guys have far more innovative shots,” Cook said. “The game has got to keep going forward, and guys are discovering new ways in which they can score runs.
“When they play sweeps over fine leg they actually don’t see it as a risk – they practise that. They see a stroke like that like I would have seen a cover drive.”
What would the hardboiled Clive Rice, Cook’s captain in the “Mean Machine”, have said had the elegant opener hauled out a reverse sweep?
“‘You’re good enough not to have to do that’,” Cook said. “But that would have been in those days. Nowadays he would encourage me to play it.”