Michael Vaughan plays a cover drive

The perfect cover drive: one where every constituent part is the total act of beauty

Stu Forster / © Getty Images


On beauty

Yes, it matters in cricket. But what is it?

Nicholas Hogg  |  

It was beauty that brought me back to cricket. After 12 years away from the game, burned out from obsessively watching and playing the sport I'd loved from the age of 11 to 22, I signed up for an indoor league in Tokyo. It had been so long since I'd played that I wondered if I still knew how to hold a bat, let alone score runs. Running in to bowl, worried that I'd not get to the crease, and whether it was even worth getting to the crease, I was just a few steps from an epiphany - that it would be the aesthetic of the game that still held joy for my 34-year-old body.

There was nothing beautiful about the venue, an indoor-tennis school in Chiba, a radioactive town downwind of the fractured Fukushima nuclear reactor. Twenty-two yards away, the opening bat for the Japan women's team took guard. Balanced, poised. Then I bowled, my first ball in competitive cricket in over a decade. The average, and perhaps even ugly, delivery was met with an exquisite cover drive into the netting. In that instance of timing and technical perfection, a culmination of dedication, ability and talent, was a moment of cricketing beauty.

I'd fallen back in love with the game.

If the beauty we seek is excellence, then any correct player would be a joy to behold. And to a point, this holds true because technique has evolved to be efficient

Philosophers have long debated the nature of beauty, and when Aristotle was asked why people desired physical beauty, he answered, "No one that is not blind could ask that question." There's no doubt about the existence of beauty, yet to call something beautiful is, of course, a subjective judgement. The argument is that a universal beauty isn't possible, as true beauty only exists in the eye of the beholder.

However, I'd nominate the white-tipped cone of Japan's Mount Fuji as an object of near universal acclaim. The snow-capped volcano set before the backdrop of a clear blue sky is a near-mystic totem, at least for one nation. And perhaps it's fitting that Japan - a culture where it's not simply what is achieved but how something is done that is celebrated, from the delicate art of flower-arranging to the stick-fighting sport of kendo - should be the locale where I rediscovered cricket and its glorious aesthetic.

Sport, and especially cricket, I'd argue, is beautiful when grace overcomes the brute, where the execution of power via technique and cunning, or the exertion of force with efficiency and style, is a success. It's a flawed beauty to look great and lose. Pretty players are dropped if they don't score runs or take wickets. Ultimately the numbers in the book, and not the crowd's artistic appreciation, decide the victor.

Despite the cold, hard digits of our sport, cricket and beauty have a long and intertwined history, from the early paintings of the game in the 1700s, to the cigarette-card poses of cricketing stars beginning at the end of the 1900s, and now the modern-day digital photograph. But consider, especially, how those coiffured cigarette-card men are static. These figures represent the period we call the Golden Age, when gents with waxed moustaches and flamboyant caps took to the manicured gardens of country houses and the ball was stroked rather than struck. Yet we don't know if that same handsome figure, beautiful before the camera lens or the artist's brush, was actually awkward or ugly when swinging a bat.

Waxed moustache alert: a vintage cigarette card featuring Scottish amateur Leslie Melville Balfour

Waxed moustache alert: a vintage cigarette card featuring Scottish amateur Leslie Melville Balfour © Getty Images

In the amateur game, where the social player has no previous intel on the opposition, we attempt to gauge the ability of the incoming batsman from the moment he steps out of the pavilion. We inspect his kit, whether he wears gleaming whites or ancient buckled pads, even though both can be red herrings for talent. Closer to the wicket we inspect his gait, and try to suss athleticism and prowess by how he takes his guard. Until a cricketer faces a ball or sends down a delivery, he can't be beautiful. He might have the looks of a male model and the body of a Leonardo sculpture, but he can't be a beautiful player until he has performed. I've watched many a muscle-bound Adonis in resplendent whites walk to the crease and flex their biceps, survey the field with Pacific-blue eyes while the sunlight glints off their golden hair, before the aesthetic is undone by that first ball and our cricketing god is just a mortal hacking with a club.

Our biffer's contrasting team-mate is the middle-aged bloke with grass-stained whites and a taped-up bat. Perhaps he wobbles around the waistline as he shambles to the wicket because he loves a good cricket tea. Maybe the zip is broken on his trousers, and his cap is sweat-stained. This vision is transformed when the bowler releases the ball, and our ordinary citizen morphs into a work of art as he late cuts, with a deft flick of his wrists, a missile from his off bail down to the third-man boundary. We don't even notice his yellowing pads when he glances the next delivery off his shins down to fine leg.

It is technique, the mastery of movement, combining fine motor skills with explosive power, that is the foundation of beauty in cricket. And yes, again, I must accept subjectivity if I talk of beauty. One man's Gower is another man's Gavaskar. But I also want to highlight my use of the word "foundation", as excellence in technique is simply not enough. Was Bradman beautiful at the crease? Or was his "rotary method" too modern for what was considered style in his era? Geoffrey Boycott was a batsman who sought excellence through attention to detail, yet few would call him graceful.

I still play cricket, with diminishing returns, it seems, each season. I play on with the wish to be part of one more grand act of beauty

If the beauty we seek is excellence, then any correct player would be a joy to behold. And to a point, this holds true because technique has evolved to be efficient - if a shot didn't work, it would die out of the game. Ultimately when excellence seems to be effortless, and that on-drive is leant on rather than drilled, we admire the artisan rather than the athlete.

Consider that any well-coached junior cricketer could model an immaculate cover drive, that high elbow pointing where our young dreamer envisions the ball racing. But the in-game execution of a perfect cover drive is rare, certainly in the amateur sphere. The modelled stroke in the nets must also work in the middle. A robotic motion is less likely to have the effective timing, and therefore the true elan, of a flourishing blade that strikes the ball at the optimum point. And when a batter does connect with such a cover drive, it's a moment appreciated with that involuntary utterance of "Shot" from the fielding team. That applause by friend and foe, perhaps even the bowler - okay, probably not Jimmy Anderson - is a rarefied event in competitive sport. Few other contests bring the opposition to coo in delight at the grace of their opponent. This cricket art, whether it be Shane Warne's "Ball of the Century" to Mike Gatting, or a picture-perfect cover drive from Rahul Dravid, rather than gladiatorial combat, has superseded the battle as spectacle.

It is this grace under duress that creates beauty. This is why Michael Holding was majestic ("possibly the most beautiful athlete to grace a cricket field," as described by Mike Selvey in the Guardian) and Shaun Tait wild. Both bowled at a lethal pace, delivering a ball as fast as possible at the extremes of dynamic athleticism, but only one seemed to do it without effort.

"Moving, numinous things": Michael Holding (left) and runner David Rudisha © Getty Images

Writing about sporting beauty for the Guardian, Daniel Harris observes that Holding exuded a "harmonic, symphonic" quality that compares to other aesthetic sporting greats, Stefan Edberg, Ernie Els, Roy Jones Jr and David Rudisha. Harris argues that the beauty of these athletes comes from "a particular human being doing what he is meant to do, to his maximum capacity", and that the allure of a runner such as Rudisha, and perhaps a bowler such as Holding, is "to watch a moving, numinous thing. A man in absolute mastery of himself and his self."

Alas, comparing bowlers and their actions to Holding's seems unfair. Bowling is an act of nature. Yes, we can tweak our run-up and the angle of our leading arm and our grip and adjust our foot position at the point of delivery, but the raw motion of how we bowl a cricket ball is something we are born with.

So let us go back to that perfect cover drive, where every constituent part is the total act of beauty. "The details are not the details," stated celebrated American designer, Charles Eames. "They are the design." He may have been talking about furniture, but we can apply the same maxim to cricket. If one part of the cover drive fails, the head position falls, or the bottom hand forces the shot, the choreography is awry. The batsman may close the face and drag the ball through mid-on, or lift the cherry over the outfield, or even thick-edge it square to the boundary, and still be effective. But to be beautiful there are rules of technique that have formed to dictate what is grace and what is slogging.

When Aristotle was asked why people desired physical beauty, he answered, "No one that is not blind could ask that question"

And even if this technical perfection is achieved, the sports fans, the self-appointed aesthetic judges, must then grade the difficulty of the action to the game situation. A rank half-volley, floated down by a struggling bowler, is expected to be driven to the boundary. A Mitchell Johnson rocket, minutely veering off line and length, is not. Dr Emily Ryall, a senior lecturer in the Philosophy of Sport, notes the "correlation between what is generally considered skilful and what is thought beautiful". The empirical evidence for this is the criteria for scoring in gymnastic sports - the greater the level of difficulty in the performance, the greater the number of points available. While cricket is what the late sports philosopher David Best would define as a "purposive sport", a sport with objective measures for winning, feats of cricketing beauty are still remembered as much as any outcome.

Poise and prowess, along with hours and hours of practice, and that vital gift for timing, the talent to locate the best point in space for bat to strike ball, are what elevates the ordinary to the prodigy and makes the cricketer beautiful - the "sublime machine", as the writer Anthony McGowan titled his work on conceptions of masculine beauty.

Batsmen at a social level may not be Dravid or Gower, yet many have one shot that complies with these "foundations of beauty". The same player who can't connect with a half-volley can actually parry a sumptuous square cut.

Even in the ad hoc games of cricket I've conjured up in car parks, back gardens, on decks of cruise ships, and surprisingly, an East London squat, beauty can be created. Ever since playing the "Test Match" board game on my kitchen table and those tennis-ball epics in student dorms, I've shouted the phrase, "Test Match Out". This excited reaction is saved for when a moment of "proper cricket" has been reproduced in the most unlikely surrounds. In the trashed living room of a derelict house I once lived in in Stratford, we taped a set of stumps to the back wall and positioned two armchairs at mid-on and mid-off, and a beanbag at short leg. Underarm legspin, delivered with both hands squashing the ball at the moment of delivery so it would rip at right angles after pitching on the carpet, was the spearhead of any attack. If that ball, played with a textbook forward defensive, touched the edge, or ricocheted bat-pad into the beanbag's (brilliant) hands, our imagination ignited to a sunlit Lord's and a cry of "Test Match Out" would celebrate the dismissal. Even in that broken house on the edge of a council estate, there could be a glimpse of true cricket choreography that never needed debating or explaining - we just knew when a wicket or a shot was worthy of glee.

It is the settings, too, that make cricket beautiful

It is the settings, too, that make cricket beautiful Laurence Griffiths / © Getty Images

The cricketer's inbuilt affinity for beauty is no better demonstrated than in our ardour for a brand new cleft of willow. I often walk around my house simply holding my bat, a Custom Cricket Company blade, admiring the grain and the craftsmanship, the aroma of linseed oil. Most players have a faithful love affair with a fine bat, but I suppose not all of them look on it as an object of beauty. At least not the bowlers, or the true social cricketer who digs around the club kit and hacks away with any old branch. Perhaps to admire beauty in cricket, if it is indeed style with textbook substance, the true critic must be educated in the ways of cricket. Although I did once take a bat into a class of Italian university students I was lecturing, and despite none of them knowing anything about this 2lb 7oz length of wood, apart from that it was wielded in a kind of baseball-hockey sport, they did understand it was an object to be revered. That an artisan had worked it into a shape of sublime efficiency to strike a ball. "It's beautiful," the students agreed, awkwardly swinging and demonstrating how difficult it truly is to use a bat beautifully.

I guess we are back to that Charles Eames quote, about the detail actually being the design. Cricket is a complex game developed over centuries, over millennia, if we include the humans who have evolved to play it, and then the materials, the ground, ball, clothes, bat, and the technique we have honed for its defining aesthetic - like fashion, what is beautiful now may be outmoded in the future, when altered forms of the game demand (the next) shift in cricket style.

Since I was a boy in the back garden with my father, when my dad lobbed down tennis balls and corrected my grip, I've observed, and I hope (to the observers, at least) been part of cricket acts of beauty. I can still see a languid Gower flicking a six off his legs into the clock tower at Grace Road, and how Jonathan Agnew yorked Chris Broad with a dreamy slower ball. And although I now bowl spin, I spent 30 years trying to swing the ball away from a right-handed batsman, and forever have in my archives a late boomerang that had Mark Ramprakash, that most graceful of players, snicking to first slip - and it doesn't even matter that it was grassed, because every point up to that drop, a sunny day on a beautiful ground, bowling against a player who had already leaned effortlessly into a couple of drives, was (to me, anyway) a classical scene.

I still play cricket, with diminishing returns it seems, each season. I play on with the wish to be part of one more grand act of beauty. And if it's the details that make the game beautiful, then here they are: I'd be batting on a rural ground with a view of trees and sky, a green and gold landscape of English summer rolling away beyond the boundary rope. There would be sunshine gleaming off the pavilion roof, a little wooden score box clunking through the numbers, and the crimson beam of a brand new Dukes pitching on a true hard track with an emerald green tinge. A light breeze, so the leaves in the tops of the trees feather and shush as the delivery swings from the bowler's hand, a bowler with a smooth run-up and glide into the crease, the liquid grace of a Hadlee or a Holding, before I pick the flight and step forward, my bat, my cleft of willow that grew by a river in the rain and the sun and the changing seasons, carved by an artisan who too has played and loved and felt the beauty of the game, striking the ball with musical percussion. And with the same effortless straight drive that Sachin Tendulkar perfected, the ball races away and the fielders are compelled to praise - not the batsman, merely the conduit of the aesthetic, but cricket itself.

Nicholas Hogg is a co-founder of the Authors Cricket Club. His third novel, TOKYO, is out now. @nicholas_hogg