'Switch hit' enlivens a Flintoff-free summer

Thank you, Kevin Pietersen. You enlivened a somewhat dreary, Flintoff-free summer at a stroke. The stroke christened the “switch hit”.
The MCC, guardians of the laws since 1788, gave it their blessing. They will, no doubt, be rewriting their manual shortly.

I agree with their decision, though not their logic. While seeking to rid us of the notion that all law­makers are batsmen, they point out that bowlers “do not provide a warning of the type of delivery that they will bowl [an off-cutter or a slower ball, for example]”. So, they argue, a batsman should have the opportunity of executing a switch hit.

This is not the correct parallel. The right one would be that batsmen do not warn bowlers which stroke they intend to use (the off drive or the slog over midwicket, for example). Logically, if the bowler has to indicate whether he is going to deliver the ball right- or left-handed, the batsman should say whether he intends to hit it right or left-handed and stick to his word.

But it matters little, except in a dull summer. Only someone of Pietersen’s precocious talent and nerve will attempt this shot in the public glare—though thousands of club cricketers may be dismissed this weekend having a go at it—and there aren’t many like him.

Endearingly, Scott Styris acknowledged that he thought about trying the shot during New Zealand’s reply at Chester-le-Street, but he did not want to risk a second humiliation. (Styris bowled the balls that prompted Pietersen to swivel into a left-hander.)

To accommodate the “switch hit” there may be a need to tweak the lbw and wide laws for one-day cricket. But if anyone tries this shot in Test cricket, well, good luck to him. (Pietersen just about did so when reverse sweeping Muttiah Muralitharan at Edgbaston in 2006.) As Sir Geoffrey Boycott will point out, the switch hit is not a percentage shot for Test cricket. Meanwhile, Peter May, who so abhorred the reverse sweep, must be turning in his grave.

But on the scale of cricketing innovations, the switch hit is a minor ripple in the pond. It does not, for example, rank with amendments to the law that allowed round-arm bowling in 1835 or over-arm bowling in 1864.

Moreover, the switch hit will have to endure a long while if it is to have the same impact as the advent of swing bowling, often attributed to George Hirst in the first decade of the 20th century, the same era as the appearance of the googly, devised by BJT Bosanquet and first used against Australia in 1902.

The googly was another instance of British invention being perfected elsewhere. Bosanquet once took a wicket with a googly, which was also a quadruple bouncer. He was famously inaccurate and since then the English have seldom produced a high quality wrist-spinner—unlike Australia, India and Pakistan.

The switch hit is not so controversial as leg theory, the polite description of Bodyline. I doubt it will be discussed in Downing Street in the way that the ramifications of the 1932/33 tour were. Nor is it as dismal as the advent of pad play in the 1950s, which was employed by Colin Cowdrey and lesser batsmen to negate Sonny Ramadhin and lesser spinners.

The shot has more in common with the step-away that Viv and Barry Richards employed in one-day cricket in the 1970s. Until they set to work it was rare for batsmen to retreat to the leg-side to smash the ball to the vacant regions beyond extra cover.

It will, however, last longer than under-arm bowling, as delivered to New Zealand in 1981 by Trevor Chappell, under orders from elder brother, Greg. It will outlive the one-day declaration, employed by Somerset’s Brian Rose in 1979, the aluminium bat, wielded briefly by Dennis Lillee later that year and the earpiece used in the field by Hansie Cronje in 1999 so that he could hear the advice of his coach, Bob Woolmer.

Pietersen’s baby will not be so influential as the relatively recent innovations from the subcontinent.

The dry, true pitches there have always demanded ingenuity and cunning from the bowlers. So they conjured up reverse swing, pioneered by Sarfraz Nawaz at the end of the 1970s, passed on to Imran Khan and the finest exponent, Waqar Younis; and the doosra, which was evolved by Saqlain Mushtaq in the early 1990s and enhanced by Muralitharan. Pakistan, it seems, is a fertile land. Hanif Mohammed and his younger brother, Mushtaq, are reckoned to be the fathers of the reverse sweep, to which the switch hit is closely related.

So where next? There is now a fervent pursuit for the innovation that will earn millions. Sometimes it is reversion rather than innovation that brings reward. The switch hit and the flick over the shoulder are in vogue, but batsmen are discovering also that the old straight hit, bisecting long off and long on, is even better value in limited-over cricket.

As a consequence, a common fielding position of my youth may return: OBH—over the bowler’s head. Traditional left-arm spinners with a cunning field (watch Daniel Vettori) are proving the most economical bowlers in Twenty20.

If ambidextrous batsmen, why not ambidextrous bowlers and fielders? Muhammad Naeem appeared for Pakistan (again) in the under-15 World Cup in 2000 and bowled with both arms in the same spell, but he has yet to resurface. In the 1970s Arthur Francis played for Glamorgan and startled several batsmen before word went round that this man could throw left- and right-handed with equal facility.

Tall bowlers have been in demand ever since West Indies dominated world cricket from the mid-1970s. Maybe Twenty20 will herald the return of the tiny bowler, who propels deliveries so low-bouncing that the batsmen are unable to create the leverage to smite those sixes.

What about switch-fielding? If the batsman can change his stance, why shouldn’t the fielders frenetically change positions as the bowler runs in? At least that will save us another Shakoor Rana affair.

With so much money to be made from the Twenty20 windfall, the MCC guardians cannot rest too easily. My advice is to keep any really good innovations to yourself until you have tried hawking them to any of the IPL moguls. Meanwhile, KP with that switch hit has, I suspect, already added a few more noughts to his IPL value.—

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