Everyone has a batsman who plays a shot that does things to them. Magical, visceral strokes that grab us, from nowhere, despite everything, because there is something about their architecture or meaning, or where the ball goes, or where it doesn’t. Of how you can’t help but notice it, or you miss it every time. The connection is yours. But these are some of the best right now.
Shai Hope: the back-foot drive
The ball is short of a length, just outside off stump. He has barely moved from his original position. If anything, he stops his front foot from going forward and drags it towards the crease. But the back one never moves. His head is still; it is entirely his arms that do the work. They wait until the last moment, when the delivery gets to bellybutton height, beneath the eyes. A slightly off-centre straight bat hits the ball, his feet leave the ground, and the ball flies through mid-off.
There are lots of great back-foot cover drives out there. If you can play the shot, chances are it looks good. Stuart Broad has a breathtaking and surprising version. Morne Morkel has shown elegance beyond himself with a few. The best in the game right now is probably Kane Williamson, but Joe Root might want to have words with that opinion. Then there’s Haris Sohail. And Hashim Amla’s back-foot cover drive hasn’t retired yet.
But Hope, when he stays so still, makes one quick movement, and the ball flies through mid-off – it’s just wonderful, and it does something to me. I saw this shot live, and there was a communal guttural moan that followed it.
We all have that shot by that player that moves us. It might have been David Gower off his pads, Virender Sehwag’s square drive, or Neil Harvey coming down the wicket to spin. It’s not the generic “I like cover drives”, it’s the specific, “I like Rohan Kanai’s cover drive.” From now until the end of time I’ll always be moved by Hope playing that shot. I still remember how the arm of the person next to me felt when I grabbed it after Hope played one of these.
Rohit Sharma: the short-arm jab
The front foot comes down the wicket; it’s not a huge stride but the weight is forward. The narrowly back-of-a-length ball challenges that movement. But instead of going back, he stands still and swings his arms across the ball. The ball is picked up from somewhere above bail height and ends miles over midwicket.
It’s not a shot for mortals; the angled bat means you have a significant chance of top-edging the ball or dragging back on. You’re attacking a length ball across the line. And you’re on your front foot playing what has been for centuries a back-foot stroke. To play this, you need to have the extra moment of time that the rest of us don’t have – be the sort of person who stops their own sneeze. Virat Kohli has one, David Warner another, and in recent times Shubman Gill has also played it. But those players emphasise the jab in their shots. They are punching their jab; Rohit caresses his.
The pull shot is the most red-blooded of cricket shots. It’s a combination of protecting your body, getting the ball a ways away, and doing it by any means. With Alastair Cook retiring, Shan Masood’s pull shot is perhaps the best around (a delightful swivel pull). The pull produces interesting progeny like the strapple (straight pull) and the Lara and Greenidge hip flicks. But the short-arm jab is different, as you can score from different kinds of balls.
Warner uses his to find easy twos, Kohli and Gill unfurl theirs when the field is up on the leg side. Rohit doesn’t use it in those ways because he is ethereal. He’s not even a batsman; he’s just a collection of fireflies lighting up our world. So when he plays the short-arm jab, it’s 34 rows back, because he has entered god mode, and he has no time for length balls. He is reaching out with his feelings, finding balance and energy, surrounding and binding cricket fans together.
This is the Rohit Sharma Jedi short-arm ease.
Ross Taylor: the standing hockey swat
The ball is full and wide of off stump, a perfect delivery to be cover-driven or lofted over off. The batsman moves across his stumps and bends his knee. It’s like he’s building to sweep. What follows is a cross-bat shot, although the bowler is fast. The ball disappears over deep midwicket.
There was a time when Taylor was one of the best T20 batsmen on earth. It was only fleeting, but in 2008 he averaged 39 and struck at 182. That was across IPL, domestic T20s at home, and some internationals. At that stage he was playing this shot almost exclusively. If the ball was full, wide, or even straight, spin, seam, it didn’t matter, Taylor was in position to play his stroke. His wagon wheels looked more like a compass, and his north was midwicket. These days he brings the shot out when he gets to the death; given that in the last two years he has averaged 75 in ODIs, that happens more often than not.
Taylor isn’t the first player with a frequent leg-side shot. Yuvraj Singh had his pretty flick, Dean Jones his run-down-the-wicket clip, Eoin Morgan the run-and-swat, and Mominul Haque the chip wide of mid-on. Oh, and I appreciate the Fakhar Zaman fast-action leg flick. More players now have go-to leg-side shots. It’s far easier to take a ball from outside off to leg than the other way around.
Other crazy guys have swept quicks, but Taylor isn’t even doing that. And he’s not using the pace of the seamers, as Mal Loye did; Taylor’s shot is forward of square, usually towards midwicket. And this is not even a cricket shot, it’s more of a drag-flick from hockey.
Unlike most players with their agricultural or necessity shots to leg, Taylor seems to have decided it comprised almost all of his run-scoring options. No player reached further to hit to leg. This is a man desperate to hit a shot, one shot, his shot. The single bloody-mindedness and the huge sixes are admirable.
Kane Williamson: the defensive shot to gully
His eyes are level, he’s in a symmetrical batting stance, his gloves are just near his right hip, there is a slight bow in his front leg. The ball is back of a length outside off stump, and he moves into the line of the delivery and waits for it to come. He is in this position early, and he plays the ball late, so the ball’s under his eyes when it hits his bat. His soft hands roll it out on a gully line, and then straight away he’s off down the other end.
Let us be clear here. For almost any classical shot in cricket, Williamson is either first or on the podium. He probably has the best forward defence, the cleanest conventional cover drive ( sorry, Belly) a world-class pull, the nicest back-foot cover drive. And he may be the best cutter of spin. I assume there are people with all these various shots tattooed across their backs, but Williamson’s defensive stroke is more important than any of them.
In top-level cricket there is no ball more critical than the one in the channel outside off – the corridor of uncertainty, the Queensland line, or whatever your phrase is. It’s the thing you see in Tests and ODIs the most. Top batsmen like Rahul Dravid, Joe Root and Williamson score off them. Root knocks the ball to point and takes a one or two, Dravid used soft hands to guide it through fifth and sixth slip. Williamson is somewhere in between.
It’s not entirely a guide or a push; in most hands it’s probably a play and miss. He does it from the stumps and wide in the channel; he does front- and back-foot versions. It’s a versatile, gentle defensive scoring shot. If it’s a shot you haven’t noticed or fallen deliriously in love with, that’s because it just looks like nothing.
This simple shot allows Williamson to be constantly at the non-striker’s end. Look at the highlights of Williamson batting: no self-respecting TV director is adding this shot to the package. And yet he plays it ball after ball, making bowling in the channel to him like shooting a ghost.
Kusal Mendis: the pull to spin
The batsman moves across and forward, trying to negate the turn. But the ball is just a touch too short. Then, like he is being yanked on a string, all his weight thrusts back. One leg has moved towards square leg, the other is around off stump. He’s low to the ground and putting all his force into a pull shot.
Generations ago, cutting the spinner was seen as high art, but with the advent of DRS, spinners bowl straighter now, and the cut shot has gone. If this piece was written 20 years ago, Tendulkar’s lap, Steve Waugh’s slog sweep, Younis Khan going down the wicket, and VVS Laxman’s inside-out cover drives from leg stump would all be on the list. But spinners have become lbw machines, and many of the scoring options now reflect the need to protect your stumps.
In the last three years of international cricket 13 players have scored 1000 or more runs and averaged 50 plus against spin. Che Pujara has his come-down-the-wicket-and-whip. Steven Smith possesses the fastest feet. Williamson can cut the slow ball. Root pushes through the covers romantically. And Kohli plays a mean cover drive to the offspinners. But as good as all these shots are, none have the drama of Mendis’ pull.
He has the talent to join the big four of batting, but he hasn’t worked out the consistency yet. You can see that in the pull shot. Not one of Virat, Joe, Kane or Steve would play this exact shot. They would work these balls or check the stroke. Mendis is all in; he is splayed across the crease and whacking the ball as hard as he can. Visually it shows speed and desperation; there is a touch of the schoolboy to it. Like he thinks any ball he has a chance of scoring off, he needs to throw everything at it.
AB de Villiers: the sweep against seam
He’s well outside off stump by the time the ball is delivered, crouching low and getting into a near lap-sweep position. Inside the line, and with the shoulders slightly turned towards fine. Then the sweep comes, it’s like a flick-sweep, lofting the ball, which travels for six over short fine-leg’s head.
This shot is remarkable because he has done it to Lasith Malinga and Dale Steyn (OMG! Ponies!), because he hits so often, and because he shows all of his stumps while doing it. But maybe the most exciting part is that this is the only shot in world cricket that can hit sixes off full deliveries behind square off slower balls. The scoop – either Dil or lap – relies on pace from the bowler. The helicopter shot still has to clear boundary riders. Short fine-leg is almost always in the ring. De Villiers’ shot is almost always in play.
ABDV is not a normal human. He played the demon Mitchell Johnson 2.0 like he was bowling yawns. He has perfected the execution of every shot invented, and he once reverse-hooked a ball.
This shot would be foolish from a human player – even he laughs off the fact that he doesn’t do it in the nets because eventually a top edge will remove sections of his jaw. But his ability to play the shot means you cannot york him or bowl wide of off stump. Slower balls are less effective as well. So this stroke ensures there’s no place to bowl to him, and no field to set either.
From a spectator’s point of view, this shot is bonkers, B.O.N.K.E.R.S. It doesn’t matter if it’s bowled by some clubby domestic T20 bowler or Mitchell Starc – sweeping a quick is silly, sweeping a quick while on the move is silly, and sweeping a quick while trying to get inside it is silly. It’s like a triple-pike shot while simultaneously smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer and winking at you that this will all work out.
Jason Roy: straight drive
He has taken a few steps down the wicket. He is not running, though, just getting some momentum, staying leg side of the ball, and that’s so he can swing his arms through the line. The backswing and follow-through are not extravagant, but they are more than enough to clear any rope. This goes long and straight until it slams into the Oval pavillion.
In this generation there are two noises you hear at The Oval, the topless bloke yelling “Come on, the Rees”, and the sound of a Jason Roy drive clanging into the pavilion. Surrey have been tinkering with their members’ stand for a while and Roy has spent most of that time trying to bash it down. It is his statement on how historical architecture fights modern life. It doesn’t seem to matter if he is playing for England or not, Roy always appears to be at The Oval, scaring members.
One of the great selling points of this shot is how similarly he plays it against pace or spin. He is walking down the wicket because the bowler is too slow for his fast-twitch muscles – whether it’s flighted or seam-up, he wants at it, and then swings true.
There are a lot of nice straight drives in the world. Kohli (again). Shane Watson’s has lovely brute force. Ajinkya Rahane is a picture when he plays it, Cameron White a statue. Roy’s is dramatic because of the number of sixes that come from it but also for his method. It’s a combination of old-school batting and newfangled hitting. The raw, muscular athleticism of the modern batsman, but still grammatically as correct as any straight drives of yore. It’s elegantly brutal.
Natalie Sciver: the Natmeg
The ball is full on the stumps, and although she has moved back to give herself room and get into her power position, she is now cramped. Instead of swinging through the line and smashing it straight, she has to come up with a new option. The one she takes is to keep her feet wide and flick a glance through her legs.
The Natmeg even being a thing shows how far women’s cricket has come. The women had cricket’s first World Cup, but it’s not common knowledge. Belinda Clark scored the first ODI double, but that is rarely mentioned. But when Sciver played this awkward genius shot, it all went a bit viral. And what is better is that Sciver didn’t even invent the shot. The draw shot – the name used before hashtags – was a part of cricket back in the men-only days. And Steven Smith had been playing it for a while too.
But there is a specific reason Sciver’s shot is better than Smith’s. It’s because we expect Smith to do weird things. One time he leg-glanced a ball from Wahab Riaz that was missing the pitch on the off side. For a while there he had this sword-dancing leave, and even his regular strokes are not standard human shots.
Sciver is a hitter. She clears the front leg, lofts the ball and clears ropes. There is little art in her batting; it’s just aggressive slapping and muscle strokes. So for her to not only use the draw shot but for it to be back-up for when she fails to slog the ball as well, that’s remarkable.
There’s a delightful awkwardness to her playing this shot. It is not like a leg glance; it is what a leg glance would be if you had only heard about it in a poem one time. She looks like a giant trying to make a daisy chain. Smith doesn’t have that; he was playing the ball through his legs while he was still in utero. Sciver’s version isn’t natural, it’s like a robot squatting, until the moment where she styles it out by artfully giving us a follow-through the legs. But you don’t care, because she hit a ball through her legs.
Jos Buttler: the straight hit
The ball is supposed to be a yorker wide of the stumps and it has not missed its length by much. But since the bowler hit the crease, the batsman has moved back in the crease. His feet are quick, and they stay close together; he doesn’t have a big power stance. His backlift is late, unlike other huge hitters he doesn’t always have his bat lifted like a baseball player. Instead, his bat is at his hip until the ball is halfway down. Then he quickly picks it up to about shoulder height, and it comes down as fast as anything moves in cricket. The shot is played with a slightly angled bat, late, and looks more like a golf swing. The wrists and hands are not like they would be a standard cricket shot, and the ball has a power fade on it as it disappears into the crowd.
It is difficult to stop Buttler; the easiest dismissal seems to be waiting for him to leave the crease before the ball is bowled. In the last three years in ODIs in the final ten overs he has scored 742 runs off 425 balls and been out nine times, averaging 78 while hitting at 10.86 an over. The highest average and second best strike rate of those with over 200 death runs.
He has a million shots – he played a ball over his head while standing upright; he can pull and cut hard; he steps across the wicket to paddle; owns all the sweeps that have been invented; and he has this muscular anti-cover drive that is awesome. Buttler is a favourite shot master. But it’s his straight hit that is the most captivating because it is not like traditional cricket shots, or even like new T20 shots. His method – this small base, golf-like swing and breaking wrists that don’t look like the hitting we’re used to – doesn’t feel quite right, or look like we expect a power shot to be. And yet there it is, disappearing quicker than the cameraman can turn around, again and again. And something is exciting about a player of his size who can launch balls over 100 metres and then paddle a quicker bowler over this head before dashing back for two on the rare mishit.
Virat Kohli: the on-drive
The ball is full and around off stump; the batsman moves across his stumps. The average human instinct is to flick it away, but the galaxy-brained player stays still and punches it back past the non-striker with a straight bat. It’s almost a defensive shot, such is the still head and angle of the bat; it’s just that the ball is now hitting the rope at long-on.
I know already that Kohli fans are angry with me for him missing out on the straight drive and short arm jab. Considering how much arse he has been kicking (vast arse), they always seem angry. But Kohli plays so many shots well that unless you give him a medal for playing them all well (and I assume someone has) you have to pick the that he is best at. Essentially he was not competing with other players for best shots so much as his best shots were competing with each other. And the others are cool, sexy, breathtaking, but his on-drive is something else.
The on-drive is cricket’s one iron, and not even God can hit a one iron. It’s a shot that is not handed out to all batsmen – you have to dislodge a bat out of a rock, Excalibur-style, just to show you’re worthy. MS Dhoni and Kieron Pollard play incredible lofted versions. But as good as Dhoni looks winning a World Cup, or Pollard does in a cap, lifting a spinner over a stand, the artisan’s on-drive is the forward defence that races through the non-striker’s legs.
When the balance, eye and technique meld together, the batsman says, I am the best player on the ground. Or in Kohli’s case, the planet.
Chris Gayle: the heave to leg
His right foot points to midwicket, and the bat starts around his head. The entire pitch is clear for him to swing to leg. This ball is on a length on off stump; his bat comes through on an angle. Once the bat makes contact, the ball disappears, from the pitch, the ring, the ground, the stadium, the solar system.
We’ve seen so many Gayle big hits now, it’s hard to think of his other shots. His footwork to the spinners, the pull shots off the hip, or even his occasional guide down to third man. Once you see him club Brett Lee into the Archbishop Tennyson School, other shots are just white noise.
Slogs to leg have been around for a long time. When players from the top of Test cricket to the bottom of club grades swing hard, it’s to midwicket or cow corner. It’s a natural swing, it’s how kids first swing the bat, and they invented an entire sport around it. So the swing is not new, and sixes have happened before. Sure, he hits it longer, and that catches the eye, but they don’t count for more runs.
But the real reason Gayle is so memorable is that he succeeds in playing a shot most don’t, and he does it over and over again. He is remarkably consistent at nailing what is a low percentage shot. According to ESPNcricinfo records, in the last three years of the shots that have been classified, 24.9% of Gayle’s T20 runs come through midwicket. And of those 565 runs, 294 are from sixes. To mid-on, there have been 365 runs, and 198 in sixes. That is incredible consistency from what is a cross-bat shot, with his foot nowhere near the line of the ball. That shows how well he picks the ball he is going to hit, and how much time he has spent honing this skill, turning a dirty slog into a production line.
And think about this: everyone in the entire universe he claims to be boss of knows where he is going to hit, and he still does it, all this time later.