Shahid Afridi tries to clear the ground with a massive hit

In 2013, Shahid Afridi smacked two monster blows in South Africa, one of which went via the roof of a stand into the golf course outside the Wanderers

© AFP

Essay

The longest shot

Who has hit the biggest six? And why aren't modern batsmen breaking the records supposedly set ages ago?

Charles Davis |

The question of who has hit the biggest sixes is one of great popular interest. Unfortunately, the level of interest greatly exceeds the amount of reliable information. The vast majority of historical sixes have no available measurement, and nor do many modern hits. Search the web for "long sixes" and you find massive exaggeration. There is nothing really new about this; I believe that, historically, exaggeration has always been the norm.

There are two periods where hits beyond 120 metres have been reported regularly: back in the 19th century, and more recently, in the past couple of decades. The claims from the 19th century are led by a supposed hit of 175 yards (160 metres) by a fellow named Fellows in 1856. It is still mentioned in Wisden. However, even as long ago as 1960, cricket historian Gerald Brodribb, in his book Hit for Six, was sceptical about this one, and believed that it was a measure of total length of travel, not the length hit to pitch. The shot, which was made in practice, was to publicise a new (but by our standards still primitive) type of bat. The promotional purpose of the claim makes it dubious.

On the right surface, it might well be possible to hit a ball that rolls 175 yards. I recall Gary Gilmour in a Sheffield Shield match in the 1970s hitting a low-angle shot so powerful that it literally knocked a picket out of the fence at the SCG (it happened right in front of me). On a hard, dry turf, such a shot would have rolled a very long way.

Brodribb is more accepting of the claims on behalf of CI Thornton, also a pre-Test player, whose longest hit (again in practice) was said to be 168 yards (154 metres) in 1876. Brodribb reports many hits, by Thornton and others, that supposedly carried 140 yards or more. (Brodribb does not make the claims, he just reports them). We have to wonder. It is curious that these claims tend to become more extreme the further one goes back in time. Brodribb published his book in 1960, but mentions very few giant hits after 1910. Also questionable is the use of excessive precision in some early claims (such as "170 yards, 1 foot 5 inches" by one JEC Moore at Griffith, New South Wales in 1930).

Athletes are bigger, stronger, and faster than their counterparts 100 years ago. Claims that the batsmen of long ago could hit the ball so much further are literally incredible

The problem in a nutshell: if Chris Gayle, with modern "super bats", cannot hit a ball 130 metres, how are we supposed to believe hits like Thornton's? Gayle's 119-metre hit in the 2013 IPL, where some of cricket's biggest hitters were giving it their all, was reportedly the longest hit of the season. In virtually every sport, athletes are bigger, stronger, and faster than their counterparts more than 100 years ago; batsmen have a further advantage from their much superior modern equipment. Claims that the batsmen of long ago could hit the ball so much further are, in my opinion, literally incredible.

It was said Thornton - who incidentally lacked any sort of Superman physique - made hits of 140 yards (128 metres) or more in nearly every significant innings he played almost 150 years ago. Count me sceptical. To illustrate: at the MCG, no such hit has ever been verified, in any era. That also applies to the slightly smaller SCG, according to Jack Pollard, who canvassed the subject in detail in Cricket: The Australian Way. (Merv Hughes joked that he once hit a ball onto the roof of the Great Southern Stand at the MCG, before adding that the stand was under construction at the time, with the roof panel lying on the ground!)

One hint of the exaggeration: a Thornton hit to the pavilion at Fenner's in Cambridge was described as 105 yards, but a check against old maps suggests a distance of 90 yards. The longer hit would have landed out on the street. Similarly, reported giant hits by Thornton out of the ground at The Oval would only need to have carried 100 to 105 metres to land on the street. This also applies to grounds such as St Lawrence in Canterbury, with its famed lime tree, and a puzzling number of extreme claims.

As Dean Jones would say: gone

As Dean Jones would say: gone © Getty Images

When a ball is hit out of a ground, spectators will probably not see where it lands, and people outside the ground are unlikely to be looking in the right direction at the right moment. Situations like this are ripe for exaggeration. This may apply to a hit by Peter Heine at the Ramblers Ground in Bloemfontein in 1955, with claims ranging from 150 to 180 yards. The ground no longer exists, and the rather variable claims are difficult to evaluate.

Claims like "the ball was still rising when it hit the pavilion" can also be found quite regularly. I have even seen it claimed for Kim Hughes' famous six off Chris Old at Lord's in 1980. This is more than improbable. According to research done at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, a baseball still rising after travelling 90 metres would have to be on a trajectory of more than 155 metres. Given the similarities in size and weight, a cricket ball is likely to behave in a similar manner. Keith Miller made a similar hit to Hughes' at Lord's once; he was perhaps Australia's biggest hitter of the mid-20th century, but none of his hits in Australia can be verified as reaching 120 metres.

Another hint comes from the low number of over-the-boundary hits in the 19th and early 20th century. Detailed research by cricket historian Ross Smith and others comes up with a total of just 95 such over-the-boundary hits in Tests prior to 1900. Under the scoring system of the time, most of those shots counted as five (or sometimes four) runs, but even if counted as sixes, that represents only 1.2% of all runs scored. In Tests since 2000 on the same grounds, more than 3% of runs have come through sixes. Even allowing for modern boundary ropes, why were there so few such hits back then if so many players could supposedly strike the ball 130 yards and more, especially since it was possible, before 1910, to score a six by hitting the ball "out of the ground"? In more than 60 Tests in England and Australia before 1902, only two such out-of-the-ground hits were recorded. Both were by Joe Darling, one in Adelaide in 1898 (over the short square boundary) and one, according to the Melbourne Argus, at Trent Bridge in 1899.

Exaggeration of the biggest hits extends well into the modern era. Fans of Shahid Afridi are particularly prone, with myriad claims to be found on the web of supposed hits of 158 metres or 160 metres or beyond. The numbers are fanciful. One such Afridi hit of 160 metres was supposedly made into a stand at the MCG, but the video clearly shows the WACA in Perth. It was indeed a fine hit, but Mark Waugh in 1997 hit a ball onto the roof of the opposite stand - with the ball travelling an unimpeded distance of 120 metres, perhaps. So Afridi's hit may not even be a ground record. Another acclaimed Afridi hit came down on the roof of the stand at the Wanderers in Johannesburg, but Google Earth and maps suggest the contact point was no more than 100 horizontal metres from the bat. If the shot had been unimpeded, 120 metres is possible, but 130-plus is out of the question. Google Earth also suggests that a hit by Afridi out of the ground in Bloemfontein in 2013 carried no more than 120 metres, not the claimed 158. This hit is sometimes confused with the Johannesburg six.

Some verifiable 120-metre hits
  • 130-135m* by Brett Lee, Gabba 2005 (Test)
  • 130m by Aiden Blizzard, WACA 2008 (T20)
  • 127m by Martin Guptill, Wellington 2012 (T20)
  • 124-125m by Albie Morkel, Chennai 2008 (T20)
  • 122m by Simon O'Donnell, MCG 1993 (first-class)
  • 122m by Adam Gilchrist, 2011 (IPL)
  • 120-plus by Victor Trumper, Redfern Oval 1903 (club match)
  • 120m by Mark Waugh, WACA 1997 (Test)
  • 120m by Shahid Afridi, Johannesburg 2013 (ODI)
  • upto 120m by Albert Trott, Lord's 1899 (first-class)

*Non-standard bat.

Distances are "unimpeded", equivalent to returning to ground level. I have not seen video for another claimed IPL six of 124 metres in 2008, by Praveen Kumar

Other claims, like a 128-metre hit by Kieron Pollard, have only weak video evidence. There are, however, some giant hits that are more credible:

  • A 127-metre hit in 2012 by Martin Guptill at Westpac Stadium in Wellington in a T20I against South Africa comes from trajectory-tracking technology. The ball hit the roof of the stand about 105 metres' horizontal distance from the bat, and could easily have carried another 20 metres.
  • Tracked hits of 122 metres in the IPL by Adam Gilchrist (2011) and 124 metres (or 125 metres, according to some sources) by Albie Morkel (2008).

It is said that in baseball, the optimum hitting angle for distance is 30 to 35 degrees above the horizontal; anything much outside this will not be breaking any records. The figure for cricket is likely to be similar, since the ball is of similar size and weight. Due to air resistance, the angle of descent will be much steeper than that of ascent. So even if a shot lands high in a grandstand, it will probably be already descending quickly and its trajectory may be only 20 metres beyond.

In 1932, CK Nayudu reportedly hit a six to the next county, clearing the Rea river at Edgbaston

In 1932, CK Nayudu reportedly hit a six to the next county, clearing the Rea river at Edgbaston © Getty Images

The largest hits with video evidence that I have been able to confirm using Google Earth measurements are:

  • Aiden Blizzard (Victorian Bushrangers) at the WACA in a T20 final in 2008. This was a full-blooded hit by a known big hitter. The shot, to square leg and assisted by a strong wind, came down in the practice-wicket area, about 130 metres from the bat, and based on estimates from the video and Google Earth, rolled another 30 metres. Claims of even bigger hits by Blizzard are questionable; Blizzard himself names this as his biggest hit. The wind assistance was a critical factor.
  • Brett Lee in a 2005 Test at the Gabba. Although supposedly clearing the grandstand, other reports suggest it landed on the roof and bounced/rolled off the back, which may have added a little to the distance. The ball lodged in netting about 135 metres from the bat. Lee was using a non-standard carbon-fibre reinforced bat that was banned soon afterwards.

Other historical hits worth mentioning:

  • Albert Trott hit a ball to the roof of the pavilion at Lord's in 1899; he remains the only player to do so. It was said to be coming down steeply when it hit one of the pavilion's chimneys. This implies a carry of 105 metres and unimpeded length of, say, 115 to 120 metres.
  • Doug Walters at the SCG No. 2 in 1962; the ball was found in Kippax Lake across the road from the ground. Now this one certainly went 140 metres; however, this includes "rollout", extended by pitching on the road and running down the slight slope to the lake. Walters was only 17 years old at the time. The ground itself, which no longer exists, was a small one.
  • Victor Trumper at Redfern Oval in 1903. During his phenomenal 335 in less than three hours for Paddington (with 22 "fives"), Trumper hit a ball out of the ground and broke a second-storey window across the street. Thanks to the evidence of the window, and old maps, the distance can be estimated even though the building no longer exists. An estimate of 120 to 125 metres unimpeded seems fair.
  • At The Oval in 1893, JJ Lyons made a hit that the Times described: "… he drove straight to the roof of the pavilion, the ball bounding over". Based on an 1890s map, I would estimate 101 to 110 metres from the crease to the central part of the pavilion; add about ten metres for an unimpeded distance.
  • The longest known hit at the MCG was in a Sheffield Shield match between Victoria and New South Wales in 1993, by Simon O'Donnell off Greg Matthews, to the third level (out of four) of the Great Southern Stand. The location has been marked by a yellow-coloured seat that can even be seen on Google Earth. As so often, exaggerated claims have been made with regard to the distance, but a figure of 122 metres (unimpeded) is supported by checks against Google Earth and Google maps.
  • In Edgbaston in 1932, India's captain CK Nayudu hit a ball "into the next county", clearing the River Rea which runs by the ground. The landing point is not described, but 110 to 115 metres would be sufficient to clear the river. Nayudu was an exception among his compatriots when it came to six-hitting; there were only four sixes by Indian batsmen in Tests in large Australian grounds in 20 Tests from 1947 to 1990.

When you get the same reward for 70 metres as 120 metres, why try for the latter and risk loss of control?

In the modern era, hits that carry 110 metres occur occasionally; those travelling 120 metres are rare but have definitely been recorded; while hits beyond 130 metres are all but non-existent.

There is some interesting data from baseball that is relevant here. ESPN has lists of the distances of all Major League Baseball home runs since 2006, logging more than 40,000 hits. Remarkably, the frequency of hits drops precipitously at extreme ranges above 470 feet, or about 143 metres. There were almost 700 hits from 450 to 470 feet (about 137 to 143 metres), 83 between 470 and 490 feet (about 143 to 149 metres), but only five over 490 feet, the longest being 504 feet (about 154 metres).

Looking at other sources, the longest genuinely measured baseball hit of the 1990s was 502 feet (about 153 metres); this despite steroid use by batters being rampant at the time. Barry Bonds holds the record for most career home runs; his longest confirmed hit was 499 feet (about 152 metres). All this puts great doubt on historical claims of giant baseball hits that extend 600 to 700 feet; as with cricket, the claims tend to be from a long time ago.

Minimum effort, maximum output: with modern bats, it's not unusual to see mishits clear the boundary

Minimum effort, maximum output: with modern bats, it's not unusual to see mishits clear the boundary © AFP

The frequency of verifiable baseball hits drops by maybe 80% for every extra five metres of distance, and there have been no "outliers", or hits ranging far beyond normal limits. The implication for cricket is that, statistically, for any genuine 140-metre hits to occur, you would expect to see 130 metres as a regular occurrence.

More recently, there has been an odd trend, with fewer giant hits being reported. Dan Christian hit a 117-metre six onto the roof of the Gabba in the 2015-16 Big Bash, but of the 314 sixes in the World T20 earlier this year, the longest was 101 metres by Mitchell Marsh. The best of the 2016 IPL was reportedly 117 metres by Ben Cutting in the final, clearing the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore. The IPL has been running for nine years, but eight out of the longest ten reported hits came in the first four seasons, when the tracking technology was new; the two longest sixes, by Albie Morkel and Praveen Kumar, were in the very first season (2008). No hit in the 2015 World Cup travelled more than 110 metres - a six struck by Martin Guptill against West Indies in Wellington.

So where have the 120-metre hits gone? This is a puzzle, and I can only speculate. I wonder if the tracking technology has been tweaked slightly; it was only introduced in 2007, and perhaps it was not fully proven in the first few years (attempts to contact Hawk-Eye received no response). But perhaps it is just that batsmen with their super bats have realised that it only takes three-quarter power to clear most boundaries, especially in India. When you get the same reward for 70 metres as 120 metres, why try for the latter and risk loss of control?

If you want to see full-blooded hitting, check out videos of Ian Botham or Viv Richards hitting sixes with older bats. The shots may not have gone quite as far, and you never saw a mishit drive go for six, but they put everything into them. Many of the strokes that so easily go for six these days look like chip shots by comparison.

Charles Davis is a Melbourne-based statistician and author who had developed a large ball-by-ball database for Test matches

 

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