Viv Richards hits out
© Getty Images

The Jury's Out

The best batsman to watch

Touch artists, god's gifts, naturals, geniuses and giants: five batsmen who set the pulse racing

Viv Richards
West Indies, 1974-1991
8540 runs at 50.23 in 121 Tests
6721 runs at 47.00 in 187 ODIs

By Mark Ray

What a difficult choice. Trumper, my favourite cricketer of all time? I've seen film of him. From memory, he's wearing a large broad-brimmed hat and lashes a short ball over gully for four.

Sobers? January 13, 1961 - unbeaten on 152 - third match of the tied Test series. I was eight. I reckon this was my first day at a Test match. I can still see him thrashing drives through cover with those remarkably loose limbs. That morning my father told me we might see something very special, and we did.

As a fan or journalist I've seen the Chappells, Kim Hughes, David Gower and the equally graceful Mark Waugh, Allan Border, Brian Lara, Steve Waugh, Sachin Tendulkar, Javed Miandad. It's so hard to choose that I'm going for one over of brilliant batting I saw from close quarters.

It was my first-class debut, New South Wales v West Indians, November 1981. Viv Richards captained the tourists. He batted at No. 7 in the first innings and hadn't been out there long when Len Pascoe, still a Test bowler at that stage, charged in for the first ball of an over on a flat Sydney pitch. I had a ringside seat at second slip, with Steve Rixon keeping and the NSW captain, Rick McCosker, at first slip.

Lennie's first ball was typically short. Viv ignored it with typical disdain. Lennie was not impressed and gave him a mouthful. I couldn't hear what was said but I saw Viv's chest and shoulders expand alarmingly. He strolled a few steps down the pitch and casually patted a few spots. I remembered the two had a history of aggravation on the field. Lennie had many such histories.

The second ball was short again, just outside off stump. Viv didn't bother to move his feet. He just leaned back a little and pulled it for four over straight midwicket.

I looked at Viv and wondered what it must feel like to be good enough to decide to destroy a Test bowler in a few deliveries

The third ball was similar but this time Viv hit it earlier and squarer. Four more.

At this point McCosker sighed knowingly and turned to me. "You better go out to square leg, just behind the umpire." In those days the SCG wicket table was noticeably higher than the outfield. I was at backward square, about 30 metres from Richards. But because of the slope, I was looking up at those menacing shoulders.

"Pitch it up, Lennie," I thought. "If Viv hooks one towards me I'm going to have to try to catch it. It's going to be coming at 100mph and I could be in for a broken hand. But I've got to try."

Lennie being Lennie, the fourth ball was also short, but it went nowhere near me. It smashed into the midwicket pickets.

Fifth ball, Lennie pitched it up. Viv still wasn't bothering to move his feet. He just leaned into it and creamed it on the rise through cover. A fourth consecutive boundary.

The last ball of the over was on a good length just outside off stump. Viv hit it with tremendous power through extra cover. Five imperious fours in a row.

I watched Pascoe, head down, take his hat and jumper from the umpire and head to the safety of deep fine leg. I never thought I'd see Len Pascoe so resigned to his fate.

And then I looked back at Viv Richards and wondered what it must feel like to be good enough to decide to destroy a Test bowler in the next few deliveries - and to do it with such authority.

I certainly wasn't playing club cricket any more.

Journalist Mark Ray played for NSW and Tasmania in the 1980s. He covered international cricket from 1988 to 2001

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Rohan Kanhai
West Indies, 1957-1975
6227 runs at 47.53 in 79 Tests
164 runs at 54.66 in seven ODIs

By Ian McDonald

The first time I saw Rohan Kanhai bat was in 1956, when he was playing for Guyana against a touring side and he wasn't yet a Test player. I had recently come to Guyana to live and work and that night I wrote to my father in Trinidad that I had just seen the best batsman in the world. That marvellous first impression has never left me.

Over the years I tried to separate the ingredients that went into Kanhai making this impression on me. One, he had a natural genius for the art, ingrained like the feel for poetry in a poet. Two, he had the physical make-up - that combination of strength, quickness, reach and perfect coordination of eye and muscle that gives rise to reflex action quick as light. Three, before he aged he was splendidly fit, simply the body tuned to its highest possibilities.

© Getty Images

Well, four, concentration - full attention to the task in hand, whatever the circumstances - eluded him at times. When winning easily, Kanhai could get bored and not bother very much. Perhaps that is why his Test average is fairly ordinary and did not end up in the high 50s. But it did not matter because, five, he had the willpower to perform at his best when it really mattered.

In the batting I have seen, as in all the great arts of sport, there are many supreme proficiencies. There is statistical greatness - Bradman. There is the greatness of the man who carries a team on his shoulders almost alone - Headley. There is the greatness of athletic genius - Sobers. There is the greatness of tenacity, persistence - Gavaskar, Boycott, Chanderpaul. Is there not greatness in elegance too - Worrell? There is the greatness of the hammer-stroke batsman - Walcott, Richards. There is greatness in a crisis - Lloyd.

Greatness lies in all these names and in a hundred more you or I could go on naming. But for me the best I have watched remains Rohan Kanhai of Guyana and West Indies, the batsman who had a good part of all the greatnesses but, in the indefinable totalling, surpassed them all.

Because in the end I am not even talking about the attributes and the proficiencies, important though they are. There was something much more about Kanhai's batting. It was, quite simply, a special gift from the gods.

You could feel it charge the air around him as he walked to the wicket. I do not know quite how to describe it. It was something that kept the heart beating hard with a special sort of excited fear all through a Kanhai innings, as if something marvellous or terrible or even sacred was about to happen.

When Kanhai was batting, every stroke he played, one felt as one feels reading the best poetry of John Donne or Derek Walcott

I have thought a lot about it. I think it is something to do with the vulnerability, the near madness, there is in all real genius. It comes from the fact that such men - the most inspired poets, composers, artists, scientists, saints, as well as the greatest sportsmen - are much more open than ordinary men to the mysterious current that powers the human imagination. In other words, their psyches are extraordinarily exposed to that tremendous, elemental force that nobody has yet properly defined. This gives them access to a wholly different dimension of performance. It also makes them much more vulnerable than other men to extravagant temptations. The gods challenge them to try the impossible and they cannot resist. This explains the waywardness and strange unorthodoxies that always accompany great genius.

When Kanhai was batting, every stroke he played, one felt as one feels reading the best poetry of John Donne or Derek Walcott or listening to Mozart or contemplating a painting by Turner or Van Gogh or trying to follow Einstein's theory of relativity - one felt that somehow what you were experiencing was coming from "out there": a gift, infinitely valuable and infinitely dangerous, a gift given to only a chosen few in all creation.

Ian McDonald is a poet, novelist and columnist in Georgetown, Guyana

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Barry Richards
South Africa, 1970
508 runs at 72.57 in four Tests

By Mark Nicholas

There is an apocryphal tale about Barry Richards batting for his club, Durban High School Old Boys, in an important league match. So hard was it to motivate Richards for such a trifle that Dennis Gamsy, a Test player himself, is supposed to have challenged Richards to hit various deliveries to nominated parts of the ground, and that, suitably amused, Richards made 70-odd. Legend has it that at Gamsy's whispered request, short balls at the body were somehow hit over cover, while off-stump half-volleys were whipped past square leg. If you saw Richards at his best, you could believe it.

© Getty Images

There are any number of stories. The Hampshire players reckon he went from 94 to 100 in a Sunday League match using the edge of his bat, on purpose. Denis Lindsay, another magnificent South African cricketer from what we must call the golden age of the game in those parts - 1966-1971 - said Richards did this in Currie Cup matches too. Lindsay pointed out that he made playing with the edge look as easy as finding the middle. Richards was cricket's artist/athlete. His gifts were as outrageous as the politics that denied their fulfilment, but as he tired of the limitations of first-class cricket, cameos replaced epics and the game that had once been his inspiration became a chore.

Few players have had such time to play the ball. He was always tall and elegant at the crease. A still head and precise footwork allowed him to play the ball unnervingly late. He stood side-on to the bowler, chin tucked in tight to his left shoulder, and held the bat with an orthodox grip and an exaggerated high left elbow. This made him immensely strong through the off side from either foot, and I have not seen anyone, not even Sachin Tendulkar, drive the ball off the back foot through the covers in such sublime fashion. He could pick a spot and hit it at will, moving the field any which way, as if mocking the opponent.

Like Tendulkar, he applied straight lines to the art of batting, which led to a contemporary, almost geometric effect. If the great stylists among left-handers - Frank Woolley, Garry Sobers, David Gower and Brian Lara - had a more vivid brushstroke, the right-handers (Richards and Tendulkar, Mark Waugh, VVS Laxman and Majid Khan, to name a few) applied a more angular set of parameters. The canvas created by the right-handers happens to be my thing but then one man's Canaletto is another man's Gerhard Richter.

In Perth in 1970, Richards made 325 in a day for South Australia against Western Australia. Ian Chappell says that in the hurry to get to 300 before close, his new recruit from Natal hit the last 40 exclusively downwind, which, given the quality of the attack, was quite some show. Chappell adds that the final ball of the day, bowled by Dennis Lillee, was hit over Lillee's head with such ease and power that it appeared as if the striker regarded the whole performance as the norm.

I have not seen anyone, not even Sachin Tendulkar, drive the ball off the back foot through the covers in such sublime fashion as Barry Richards

Call it arrogance if you will but from it came thrilling improvisation. Richards was the first man to back away from the line of the ball and either late-cut straight balls or smash them over extra cover. Exasperated attacks used to wilt in the face of a flair and confidence that cannot have been far short of contempt. He toyed with bowlers, many of whom would resort to all-out defence as the only option to first contain and then bore him into a mistake. Richards hated the mundane, for he saw batting as something beautiful, and with his talent came the duty to entertain.

Frustratingly, there is little video evidence. Snippets from South Africa's 4-0 win over Australia in 1969-70; some clips from World Series Cricket; and a hundred for Hampshire in the Gillette Cup against Lancashire. The grainy footage and some indifferent editing show us little of the genius. For that is what it was. A worthwhile piece of film to study is the charity match at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1994, when, aged almost 50, he opened with Sunil Gavaskar against Lillee and Jeff Thomson for a World XI against a Bradman XI. Look at the economy and effect of the footwork and the precise placement of each stroke. It was only 24 but other than the first and last balls, it was a lovely 24.

Sir Donald Bradman called him the greatest right-handed opener ever and duly picked him in his all-time team. Enough said, really, though I cannot help but add that watching him at the wicket brought the greatest joy. Arguably a few have played better but none has brought such grace and style to the nitty-gritty of performance. It was perfection, touched by something almost risqué, and satisfied all the requirements of a young boy in love with the game and, specifically, with its aesthetics.

Former Hampshire batsman Mark Nicholas now hosts Channel 9's cricket coverage

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David Gower
England, 1978-1992
8231 runs at 44.25 in 117 Tests
3170 runs at 30.77 in 114 ODIs

By Tanya Aldred

Sir, the wine list. On such a delightful afternoon, may I suggest the David Gower - a dry white with a fruity palate and shades of relaxed caramel and willow? Occasionally it disappoints, but on song there is nothing finer. This '85 is a particularly good vintage…

During the social turmoil of the early Thatcher years, there was no question over the nation's favourite batsman: Gower was the man we wanted to be, Gower was the man we wanted to watch. He was the silk dressing gown of the England side, the wry cigarillo: fancy, carefree, elegant, poised. Left-handed, of course, a casually garnered pair of tickets to the evening's opera perennially tucked into the top pocket.

© PA Photos

His golden curls tumbled like fecund wheat about his head, and when he walked down the pavilion steps they ruffled around the edges of his period helmet or under the wide brim of his white sunhat. Often, though, when the bowling wasn't too fast, he batted bareheaded, which suited not only his disposition but our understanding of what it meant to be an England batsman - romantically fearless and flamboyantly gifted, but with the understanding underpinning it all that it was only a game.

Cover drives of exquisite timing were combined with late cuts and wristy flicks, minimalistic leg movement and, seemingly, even less effort. He was tall and rangy, no hint of the mighty English oak, and his strokes were fast and smooth. The caressed ball crossed the boundary in time with the crowd's admiration: ahhhhhhh!

He had his flaws; of course he had his flaws. A lapse of concentration was only ever a ball away, and he had a severe but compelling weakness for following the ball outside either stump with a waft here or a casual flick there. No England batsman until Kevin Pietersen, a quarter of a century later, engendered such feelings of both open-mouthed admiration and head-in-hands despair. Some thought his god-given talent a gift squandered, but a tethered Gower, a good-boy Gower, where was the pleasure in that?

Some thought his god-given talent a gift squandered, but a tethered Gower, a good-boy Gower, where was the pleasure in that?

Though Gower was largely a television presence for me, I did see a cameo, on the Saturday of the 1989 Lord's Test. England had spent most of the day force-feeding Australia runs, before Terry Alderman reduced them to 28 for 3 after tea. Gower, the beleaguered captain, made an unbeaten 15, the usual mix of stomach-churning fishing and two darling boundaries. What followed was the famously tetchy "anything goes" press conference, a classic 106 on the Monday and defeat by six wickets. A vintage performance.

A self-starter and ardent believer that cricketers were adults and responsible for their own performances, Gower became an accidental fig leaf for the creeping professionalism that was working its way up the ladder by the twilight of his career. In the late 1970s and early '80s, you could laugh in the face of early nights and compulsory nets, and Gower did just that. Didn't everyone know that cricket was all about style and class?

Ultimately that insouciance was to prove his downfall, but for 14 glorious years Gower graced - and how apt that he was to spend his formative years at Grace Road - Test cricket. Even the possibility of a Gower innings was something to be savoured. That golden summer of 1985, when the light seemed always perfect and the pitches verdant, he scored magical runs and people's eyes sparkled when they talked about him, and then they went back and watched the highlights on BBC2. And Gower would give that droll little smile and tootle off. He'd done his bit, now there was a life to be lived.

Tanya Aldred is a freelance writer in Manchester. She co-edits the Nightwatchman, a cricket quarterly

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VVS Laxman
India, 1996-2012
8781 runs at 45.97 in 134 Tests
2338 runs at 30.76 in 86 ODIs

By Sambit Bal

At its very core, sporting experience is visceral. It feeds the basic human urge for combat - someone has to lose for a winner to emerge. But the language of sport is visual. Beyond victory and defeat we remember moments, and the artists who painted them. Beauty matters.

I admire grit, technical virtuosity, bloody-mindedness, and the ability to get the job done. But how the job is done has always mattered. Sunil Gavaskar, my first sporting hero, wasn't quite the touch artist, but he was picture-perfect: beautifully balanced, footwork precise, not a muscle out of place when he moved in for the cover drive or the forward- defensive. Viv Richards set the pulse on testosterone, but it was David Gower, incapable of inelegance even when dismissed, who defined my sense of beauty. I have still not forgiven English cricket for its ill treatment of him.

William West / © AFP

For the purpose of this piece the choice was narrowed to two others, mostly on the basis of how much more of them I had watched. Brian Lara brought breathtaking audacity and a distinct Caribbean aroma that was heady to cricket lovers. His batting was nearly hyperkinetic, all movement, all flourish, feet twinkling, bat flowing, and the ball whipped with a spectacular finish. A typical Lara innings was a production with sound, light and music. You were enthralled. Your money had earned handsome returns.

But it's VVS Laxman who wins. Like a gentle, fragrant breeze he made the senses tingle. His bat met the ball gently and caressed it into open spaces. There was no exaggeration to his movements: footwork minimal, bat-swing precise, wrists supple, and timing - the soul of his batting - ethereal. Mark Ray, the Australian photographer and writer who has made a pick of his own elsewhere in this article, and who shot Laxman's 281, once remarked that he had rarely seen a batsman who provided such symmetry from every angle.

When Laxman was on song, the ball was his ally - it was merely persuaded, never belted. Laxman's strokes didn't scorch the turf; they teased the fielders. When Virender Sehwag flayed the ball, fielders only made token attempts to stop it. Laxman tormented them, for the ball left his bat softly, creating the illusion of being within reach, slowly gathering pace to make the chase interesting, and then acquiring a final impetus to elude the despairing chaser. Each Laxman boundary was a little story in itself, and though you knew the plot, the narrative still kept you engrossed.

That Laxman's artistry was not an indulgence only enhanced his appeal. I once asked him if he was aware of the beauty of his batting and the effect it had on the viewer. He looked embarrassed. But what he said was revealing. "What I am really proud of is my mental strength. I really relish pressure situations, when you have to bail the team out, and you can't do that if you are not mentally strong." And in the finest phase of his career, as part of the best batting line-up India ever put up, there was no one more capable at the business end of a Test. His silk was underpinned by steel. He was a supreme stylist who cared about substance.

Laxman's silk was underpinned by steel. He was a supreme stylist who cared about substance

I watched both his hundreds in Australia in 2003-04, and though the one in Adelaide, from 85 for 4, set up a famous win, the one in Sydney is better imprinted in memory. Perhaps that is because of the contrast it bore to Sachin Tendulkar's monumental self-denial in constructing 241 - 120 of Laxman's 178 runs came in fours, and on the second morning he scored 65 to Tendulkar's 37, unfurling a series of gorgeous strokes on either side of the wicket. I asked Tendulkar about that partnership. "When Laxman bats," he said, "you just watch. But tell yourself not to try those things."

I remember three fours off Brett Lee. The first was no more than a dab that took the ball from well outside off stump and sent it playfully to the midwicket boundary. The second was a back-foot punch that took him from 95 to 99: mid-off was deep and straight, and there was hardly a follow-through, yet the ball went smiling to the fence. The third was off the back foot again, but square. Steve Waugh had two fielders at point, a distance of two slips between them, yet Laxman found the timing to manoeuvre the ball through that space.

So delicate and so sensuous was Laxman's craft I suspect even the ball felt loved.

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo. @sambitbal

 

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