Hitting behind

It took a 100 years for batsmen to start hitting the ball behind the keeper, we look at the journey.

This is the transcript for Episode 3, Season 1 of Double Century on the origin of batsmen hitting behind.

Tillakaratne Dilshan would walk slightly across the stump. He’d plant his left leg forward and adopt a prayer or sweep shot position. He’d follow this by laying out his bat as some kind of sacrifice to the gods. Then as the ball comes he would bow his head further, tucking his exposed neck behind the helmet and then push the bat up to hit the ball straight through the gap he’d created with his head. He would do this to Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc, all the Mitchells really. Dilscoop was added to the weird world of cricket vocabulary; the shot was sillier than the word.

This episode is a look at how batting went from off side only to backwards and behind your head.

As you read cricket history, you see it visually unfolding before you as every little part of the cricket field is opened up. For instance, it wasn’t seen as proper cricket to hit a ball from off to the leg in the 1800s. Some did, because mis-hits go there, and batting wasn’t as much a science as it was just random people picking up a bat and trying their best. Obviously balls were hit there when they were too straight. Still, many gentlemen didn’t like putting the ball to leg, and the professionals didn’t want to upset their paymasters. Even when they did, the shots were so crude that they gave the bowlers a chance as the pitches were terrible and it made sense to attack the stumps with uneven bounce and frequent sideways movement. Batsmen respected the lines given to them and played accordingly. And you have to picture the entire game, before WG Grace, batsmen either played all their shots from the front or back foot, it was Grace who mastered moving back or forward because of the length of the ball.

Cricket was basic, I don’t care how bad a cricketer you are now, you would have been better than many of the original first class cricketers. This was a sport being invented. And after Grace it was Colonel H. H. Shri Sir Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji, Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, GCSI, GBE, but more famously as Ranji. Neville Cardus called him “The Midsummer night’s dream of cricket”. Which I believe means he was operated by fairies, if I remember my Shakespeare correctly.

Ranji was once Chancellor of the Indian Chamber of Princes (better than the chamber of secrets), and represented India at the league of nations. Ranji also went to the Rajkumar College for princes. He was like a much cooler, and probably far less whiny Harry Potter. Ranji was wristy, in fact, he was where this fetishisation of Asian cricket wrists started. Take this from Simon Wilde’s book ‘The Strange Genius of Ranjitsinhji’ has “the most disdainful flick of the wrists, and he could exasperate some of England’s finest bowlers; the most rapid sweep of the arms, and the ball was charmed to any part of the field he chose, as though he had in his hands not a bat but a wizard’s wand.” When he arrived at Cambridge, he started calling himself Prince Ranjitsinji, even though he wasn’t one. But he had one problem he couldn’t overcome with his name, he was shit scared of the ball.

So his coach Dan Hayward trained Ranji by tying his right leg to the ground. This one coaching technique changed cricket forever-yet people who still believe cricket coaching is rubbish. It meant that Ranji had to develop another skill for the ball coming straight at him, and he did, the leg glance. Bowlers who went too straight could now be milked, and just like that, a game where players hit to one side of the wicket found the leg side. Ranji would use that shot to score 24,962 first runs at 56, in Tests he averaged 44. He played for England, which shows what a remarkable player he was, and weirdly how ahead on race cricket was.

The next person to change where the ball was hit was Victor Trumper. C. B. Fry once said “He had no style, and yet he was all style. He had no fixed canonical method of play, he defied all orthodox rules, yet every stroke he played satisfied the ultimate criterion of style – the minimum of effort, the maximum of effect.” X factor, gamechanger, employ all modern sports jargon and you get the picture of how different Trumper was.

If you look at the photos of Trumper, not so much the most famous one, but some from that series, shows him taking the ball from outside off stump and dragging it to leg. Trumper hit the ball where fielders weren’t. Batting was changing, the pitches were getting better, and people were perfecting Grace’s method. But batsmen still generally hit the ball based on where you should. A ball outside off would be hit to off, a straight ball straight, and one down leg was hit there.

Players did play across the line, but it wasn’t part of their overall plan, and they didn’t do it like Trumper. He could repeat it, safely, and meant that a ball on the stumps became his strength. Think about how many fielders teams have on the leg side, that’s where the gaps are. And so his scoring rate was incredible, making a hundred before lunch on day one and all that kind of razzle dazzle batting that he became known for. This was so revolutionary at the time, in one game where England bowled wide of off stump to curb him, they were seen as playing against the spirit.  Trumper didn’t invent hitting to leg, but he weaponised it, and that changed the game so much that eventually, we’d have the channel outside off. Trumper could make runs on sticky dog wickets and score quickly on all pitches that turned him into a legend. Nine players from 1900-1910 averaged more than Trumper, Some averaging far more. And yet those players aren’t remembered to this day, Trumper is.

Probably worth mentioning two other men, William Yardley and Walter Read. Yardley was an ambidextrous cricketer who tried two switch hits of some kind in 1870 for Kent against Surrey. He almost killed the poor silly point, though he had warned him he was about to change his stance. Ranji - according to CB Fry - said that Walter Read of Surrey had some kind of twitch hit as well, but if these shots were real, they certainly didn’t catch on.

Reverse sweeps don’t quite fit the template of hitting the ball to a new part of the field. You could cut a spinner to roughly the same area, but what the reverse did was give batsmen a shot to manipulate a spinner’s field from almost any delivery. It’s possible that Duleepsinji, nephew of Ranji, played something that may have been one. The main inventors were Mohammad brothers - both Hanif and Mushtaq have been credited at times - in the 1960s. At that time it was just about moving the field, but it’s become a power shot to the off side. That is why it is so popular today. A normal field for a spinner does not have a man at deep backward point on the boundary. With limited boundary riders, a reverse sweeper can cause havoc to a spinners field.

But it’s other impact was that it was a shot you had to commit to before you knew what the ball would be. Since Grace had read length, batsmen had reacted to what was delivered and tried to handle it best they could. The reverse sweep is a shot where you make the decision first and then hope you can pull it off. Really until there was a need for it, the higher scoring of white ball cricket, it was kept in the background because it was too dangerous.

You could see on a wicket where a spinner was dominating a smart batsman might want to take some pressure off by moving the field and scoring some boundaries, but as Mike Gatting proved in the 1987 World Cup final, if you’re dismissed playing a shot this radical, you will be abused for it for a decade. Bumble, once said, “It’s like Manchester United getting a penalty and Bryan Robson taking it with his head,”. But Gatting’s dismissal didn’t kill it, and by the 90s it was in the arsenal of a few players. And what it did was pave the way for other shots where you made your decision before the ball was bowled.

Perhaps the most remarkable of cricket’s shots – the scoop – was first played as far back as 1933 by the West Indian batsman Learie Constantine. ‘The ball was as big as a full moon to me that day and I remember I moved out of my crease to meet the ball which Allom was coming up to deliver. He saw me move and tried to send a slow full toss over my approaching form. I spotted it in time. I could not reach it with a textbook shot because there is nothing in the textbook about that situation, so I wrote a new chapter by helping it on over my head and the pavilion.’ Constantine was a man well ahead of his time. It wasn’t until 2001 that the scoop became was played again.

2001, Perth, Australia were playing Zimbabwe in an ODI, they scored 302. The Australian bowling was Ian Harvey, Brett Lee, Damien Fleming, Nathan Bracken and Glenn McGrath. Zimbabwe weren’t expected to get close. An incredible partnership of 187 between Stuart Carlisle and Grant Flower made it fun, but both men fell just as they were getting near the target. Meaning Zimbabwe had to rely on their lower order. Glenn McGrath was bowling to the new batsman, and a Zimbabwean batsman who hadn’t faced a ball in the summer so far and now needs to score 15 from the final over to win. Doug Marillier had left no impact on cricket at this point. McGrath went for am off stump Yorker. But overpitched, at this point in the game, low full tosses were still considered good balls. But the real interesting thing happened at the other end. Marillier moves across his stumps and while standing outside off stump he leans forward to scoop the ball over short leg. Two balls later he does it again. Australia move fine leg back, McGrath bowls another Yorker and win the game.

Douglas Marillier averaged 18 in ODI cricket. He was a bits and pieces all rounder for Zimbabwe briefly. Cricketers like him don’t get remembered, or even mentioned decades on. Yet while the shot is not usually called the Marillier shot now, we use scoop or ramp, the fact it once was is remarkable, and that this random cricketer invented a shot that changed bowlers more sacred weapon, the Yorker forever. Weirdly it was Glenn McGrath, perhaps the greatest limited over bowler of all time, who Mal Loye, a county pro chosen for England, decided to sweep. Dion Nash had played a kind of sweep even earlier still to McGrath. Perhaps it was just because McGrath had tailored his game to ensure standard shots would not be successful off him, so people just made them up. It was like McGrath’s accuracy was changing batting.

Australian Ryan Campbell was using a similar shot to Marillier, but different enough version, by the next summer. His went finer, and was played less like a running upper leg glance and more like the Ramp. And also while Marillier’s was about targeting short fine leg, Campbell’s was directly about taking the ball behind the wicket keeper where he knew there wouldn’t be a fielder.

This all led to the most remarkable shot in cricket, the Dilscoop, where Dilshan scooped the ball straight over his head from a kneeling sweep position, seemingly sacrificing his head every time he played it. No other player has consistently committed to that dangerous version of the shot, but it’s doubtful that others won’t go back to that or a version like it. Before Marillier, Campbell and Dilshan, the only way to hit a ball to this part of the field was by edging, glancing or upper cutting a short fast ball. Sachin Tendulkar and Barry Richards played fine upper cuts, but even that shot had a modern facelift when Soumya Sarka’s periscope s basically the finest possible uppercut with a limbo bend.

These guys opened up the last bit of space on a cricket field, finally giving us the ability to hit anywhere we want. Steve Smith and Nat Sciver have the nat-meg a shot that was said to be played by Trumper and Grace. Which is essentially Ranji’s leg glance, but out of a power position and through your legs. It seems like cricket’s batting has had lots of weird adaptations, but not all of them stayed around. Now there is a reason for them too.

We all fixate on Carlos Brathwaite’s four sixes to destroy Ben Stokes, but to get his innings started he ramped a fast bowler past short fine leg. While Stokes was the victim that day, since then he’s gone on to use those shots himself. With almost everyone on the boundary at Leeds and facing an incredible Australian bowling attack, Stokes improvised. He reverse swept Nathan Lyon out of the footmarks for six, and swept a Josh Hazlewood Yorker for six. But at one stage Pat Cummins was coming around the wicket to cramp him up, and Stokes tried to ramp him. He looked like he’d barely ever played the shot before. And against Cummins in the final innings of a Test wasn’t the time he was going to make it work. But Cummins went straight again, and Stokes moved and this time he nailed the scoop, and off the middle of his bat he cleared the very fine leg boundary for six. Here was an English batsman playing all these outrageous white ball shots to win an Ashes Test.

While much of cricket is about Australia and England, there is something great about watching Ben Stokes win an Ashes Test by playing a shot to fine leg - invented by an Indian. Reverse sweeping which is a Pakistan creation. And then finally scooping, a truly international shot from Australia, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. It took hundreds of years and many cricket nations for us to finally open up the entire field.

Double Century is written and narrated by me, Jarrod Kimber. It’s produced by Nick MCCorriston. And my fact checkers were Berti Moores and Abhishek Mukerajee.

This episode was made possible by our supporters on Patreon.