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The future is tall

The great batters have historically been on the shorter side. T20 is changing that. Here is why

Tim Wigmore  |  

On the 1994-95 Ashes tour, England's players met Don Bradman. England's Angus Fraser was left with one abiding memory of their meeting.

"I couldn't get over how small he was," Fraser later wrote. "He was tiny, but there was an aura about him that very few people have."

Bradman was 86 at the time, and may have lost an inch or two from his playing career. But, at 5ft 7in during his playing days, he was always on the short side.

Bradman may have been an outlier in his batting, but he was representative in one way: his height was typical of the finest batters in the history of the men's Test game.

In men's Test history, 28 batters have scored 5000 runs at an average of 50 or more - a good approximation for historic greatness. Of this rarefied group, only three - Jacques Kallis, Greg Chappell and Matthew Hayden - are six feet or taller. About three-quarters of the list are 5ft 10in or shorter.

Len Hutton observed of Bradman that his balance and flexibility underpinned his batsmanship. "He had very small feet, that was one of the secrets of his success. Very light on his feet and quick moving," Hutton said.

In Test cricket these advantages seem to remain for batters on the shorter side. Kane Williamson, Virat Kohli, and Steven Smith - three of the contemporary Test game's "fab four" are 5ft 8in, 5ft 9in and 5ft 9in - with Joe Root the sole member of the club to reach 6ft, and only just.

For batters, the demands of T20 are often compared to those in baseball. The comparison is a little overblown: T20 batting still rewards the touch, improvisation and situational awareness integral to batting in the longer formats. Yet, power is more important in T20 than the other formats and batters are adopting hyper-specialised methods to train for it, as recently explored in the Cricket Monthly.

Rishabh Pant, Brendon McCullum and David Warner - all 5ft 7in - prove that small players can still hit the ball with stunning power. But in general, players who are taller are more likely to be able to.

"All things being equal from a strength-ratio perspective, such that both players can move their bodies at similar speeds, the taller player will hit the ball harder due to their larger levers," explains Dr Paul Felton, a senior lecturer in biomechanics from Nottingham Trent University, who has worked with the ECB.

"The bat velocity at the point of impact with the ball is directly proportional to the length of the lever," concurs Ross Tucker, a leading sports scientist in South Africa. "So it does stand to reason that if the game is evolving for distance, and particularly I'd say distance straight back past the bowler, then being taller is advantageous."

The long game: Matthew Hayden is one of only three batters over 6ft to have scored 5000 Test runs at an average of 50 or more

The long game: Matthew Hayden is one of only three batters over 6ft to have scored 5000 Test runs at an average of 50 or more Chris McGrath / © Getty Images

Cricket does not yet comprehensively record data on the heights of players. But baseball has always recorded these numbers. Today the average height of professional men's batters in Major League Baseball, according to baseball-reference.com's data, is 6ft 1in - four inches taller than the average height of a US male.

"In the general population* you're more likely to make the majors if you're 6'2" than 5'7"," explains Ben Lindbergh, a senior editor for the Ringer, a sports and pop culture website, and the co-author of The MVP Machine. He believes that the very best hitters in the major leagues would be a little taller than the overall average for major-league hitters.

Even in the absence of comprehensive data in cricket, it is reasonable to say that the average height of a professional men's batter in cricket is likely to be several inches shorter than in baseball.

To understand the potential benefits of height in T20, it is useful to consider the fundamental differences between the two formats. In Test cricket, essentially, the bowlers are the attackers and the batters are the defenders - literally, of their stumps. But in T20 these traditional roles are inverted: with wickets far less valuable, batters are liberated to attack, and bowlers are now thrust into the role of defenders.

This prism may help explain why, in Test history, no one from the elite group of 28 batters has been over 6ft 2in. At 6ft 4in, Kevin Pietersen and Clive Lloyd vie for the tag of the tallest outstanding batter that Test cricket has seen, with Graeme Smith and Inzamam-ul-Haq coming in an inch lower. Tall batters have often found their unusual height a problem at the very top level of the game.

In general, very tall batters have not had a lot of success in Test cricket

In general, very tall batters have not had a lot of success in Test cricket Matt Roberts / © Cricket Australia/Getty Images

"If you look at the defence mindset of Test cricket, if you're 6ft 6... [if the ball is] a little bit shorter, it's still an awkward position," believes Trent Woodhill, who has worked as a batting coach with Australia and in the IPL. On the whole, tall batters have to play at a greater range of lengths than short batters, and that includes deliveries on and around off stump. "So the balls that you play at, you're bringing the keeper and slips into play." The recent struggles of the 6ft 5in Zak Crawley in Tests highlight this potential danger.

And since tall batters have a broader range of lengths to contend with, they can be vulnerable to a full ball or yorker if they are concerned about the short ball, and vice versa. As Woodhill says: "Tall players have to work so much harder around dealing with the red-ball threat in defence than a short person."

But these encumbrances are heavily reduced in T20, when defending is seldom part of the game. Taller batters, Woodhill notes, are liberated to play more aggressive, horizontal-bat shots at deliveries just outside off stump.

The shift in approach between the formats means that extra height, which can be a liability in Tests - creating more of a target for the bowlers - flips into an asset. To generalise hugely, Woodhill suggests that defending is easier for shorter batters, but attacking is easier for taller batters.

Chris Gayle, Kieron Pollard and Andre Russell are the only three men to have hit over 500 sixes in T20. All have a build markedly different to the norm in Test cricket: Gayle is 6ft 3in, Pollard 6ft 5in and Russell 6ft 1in.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

When it comes to hitting sixes, players like Pollard have distinct advantages, regardless of the kind of bowling they are facing.

One is reach. For a T20 batter, being taller is akin to playing tennis in a smaller court than normal. Consider the use of the wide yorker at the death. A batter like Pollard has more chance than a shorter batter of being able to make contact with a ball just inside the tramlines on the off side.

The other advantage for taller batters is that they can hit within themselves and still clear the boundaries, rendering it easier to maintain their shape when trying to hit sixes. "The shorter guy has to be able to hit the ball out of the screws all the time," Woodhill says. "Russell, Gayle, Pollard or Pietersen have the natural advantage to get the ball over the rope. Where Pollard became a better player is he trusted that him hitting it 80% [effort] was still enough to hit a six. Other shorter batters especially need to go at 95% to hit the ball the same distance - that brings about the potential for a mishit."

"If you're big, it is easier because you can miscue it for six," says Julian Wood, a cricket coach specialising in power-hitting. "The smaller guys have got to be more precise and skilful."

In his T20 career (for which ball-by-ball information is available) Pollard scores at a strike rate of 145.25 against spin - 28 more than the average strike rate for all batters. Most strikingly, he hits a six every 8.6 balls against spin, compared to the average of 21.7 for all batters.

"I definitely feel having height is an advantage, especially to spinners," says Srinath Bhashyam, the general manager of Sunrisers Hyderabad. He cites Pollard and Tim David, who is also 6ft 5in, as examples. "They can get to the pitch of the ball easier. When you have that reach you are able to get to the pitch of the ball, get your foot down the track and hit it for six."

Batters like Tim David, 6ft 5in, can mess with bowlers' lengths, easily pulling deliveries that might otherwise come awkwardly at shorter batters

Batters like Tim David, 6ft 5in, can mess with bowlers' lengths, easily pulling deliveries that might otherwise come awkwardly at shorter batters Robert Cianflone / © Getty Images

Woodhill observes that taller players like Pietersen have the ability to get under the ball, which means they have less need to use their feet - a much riskier option against the new wave of spinners, led by Rashid Khan, who bowl at over 60mph. Taller players might also find it easier to loft short-of-a-length deliveries down the ground.

Against pace, being taller has different benefits. Zubin Bharucha, the strategy and performance director at Rajasthan Royals, thinks of two shots as particularly essential for modern T20 batters against pace: driving the ball on a good length; and then, in response to bowlers pulling their lengths back, pulling deliveries that are just short of a length, off the front foot. He reckons taller batters are better equipped to drive on the up, reducing the bowlers' margin of error and in turn creating more opportunities to pull.

Bharucha suggests that teams could identify batters with these two shots as potential openers.

"The key to the powerplay is trying to get over the top," he says. "My belief is that if teams want to maximise potential, they need to review the possibilities around batsmen who have that dual ability - the height to pick up length over the top and ability to pull - moving up to open. Then you can start to manufacture guys who are taller into openers. You should be changing the entire profile of what a modern-day opener looks like. That's where the game is going."

Against Chennai Super Kings in the first game of the 2020 IPL season in Abu Dhabi, Mumbai Indians made a surprising decision. They dropped Ishan Kishan, already regarded as one of the most exciting Indian T20 batters, despite his inconsistency. In his place they selected Saurabh Tiwary, who had not played an IPL game for three years.

The Zayed Cricket Stadium is unusually long square of the wicket, but relatively short down the ground. According to ESPNcricinfo Mumbai's decision was to do with Tiwary's ability to exploit the straight boundaries. Tiwary is 6ft 3in and Kishan, the more rounded batter, is 5ft 6in. The decision could be considered a success: Tiwary hit 42 from 31 balls, including a six over long-on off Ravindra Jadeja and consecutive fours through midwicket and mid-off against Lungi Ngidi.

A batter's height might be a parameter that T20 franchises take into consideration in their selection and auction strategies. Saurabh Tiwary (in picture) was picked over Ishan Kishan, who is nearly a foot shorter, for his ability to better target the long boundaries in Abu Dhabi in an IPL game last year

A batter's height might be a parameter that T20 franchises take into consideration in their selection and auction strategies. Saurabh Tiwary (in picture) was picked over Ishan Kishan, who is nearly a foot shorter, for his ability to better target the long boundaries in Abu Dhabi in an IPL game last year Vipin Pawar / © BCCI

In general, taller players are better at hitting the ball down the ground and shorter players are better at hitting it squarer. As Tucker notes: "The ability to hit straight would seem the most logical place where the lever-length advantage would present itself."

In all T20, batters score 29% of their runs in the V down the ground; for Tiwary, the figure is 38%, and for Kishan just 24%. Of T20 players to make 2500 runs, Pollard scores the second-highest percentage of his runs straight - 40% - with Daren Sammy (39%), Gayle (38%) and Russell (36%) not far behind. The list, from CricViz analyst and consultant Freddie Wilde, also shows how smaller batters score the lowest proportion of their runs straight. This percentage is lowest for 5ft 3in Mushfiqur Rahim, just 13%.

All this suggests that while taller players generally have an advantage, savvy teams could deliberately complement taller and shorter players together - as they do left- and right-handers - or follow Mumbai in favouring taller players at certain venues.

"T20 is increasingly defined by boundary-hitting, which should see the physique of batters changing towards taller and stronger players," says Wilde, who has worked with multiple IPL teams and recently with Pakistan during the T20 World Cup. "We are likely to still see short players - because they are generally more adept at scoring 360 degrees and countering negative spin match-ups with reverse sweeps. But they are likely to be in the minority, sandwiched by bigger players whose games are focused on hitting down the ground."

For T20 batters, bigger is better only up to a point. An increase in height comes with an associated increase in limb inertia, requiring greater strength to generate bat velocity, Felton explains. "Strength doesn't increase linearly with muscle mass - otherwise bodybuilders would sprint the fastest - so there is likely an optimal size."

Asked to estimate the optimal size for batters to generate power - the height at which, all things being equal, they might typically generate the most power, but not are too tall to be taller than ideal to hit the ball effectively, Felton suggests 6ft 5in. That is exactly the same height as Pollard, the first T20 cricketer to reach 500 appearances. If Bradman's 5ft 7in, more or less, was the optimal height for batters in Tests, the optimal height for batters in T20 might be Pollard's 6ft 5in - very rare in much of the cricket-playing world.

Nothing's out of reach for me: gigantic Kieron Pollard can clear the boundary even when he doesn't middle the ball

Nothing's out of reach for me: gigantic Kieron Pollard can clear the boundary even when he doesn't middle the ball Deepak Malik / © BCCI

And of course, such height would need to be married to a range of other qualities. "They have to be athletes," Woodhill says. Players need agility if they are to be able to deal with straight yorkers - one delivery in T20 in which being taller seems to be a barrier. Taller players are generally less-suited to sweeping spinners, and to getting down low enough to play ramps and scoops.

But such improvisation is seldom needed if you can clear the ropes straight with astounding regularity. Pollard's power-hitting down the ground has led bowling teams to deploy a new fielding position against him - a man right on the boundary rope, directly behind the non-striker, between long-on and long-off. Even that hasn't stopped him.

Part of the rich tapestry of batsmanship is its capacity to absorb all sorts. Shorter players will not become extinct in T20. But they may well become rarer.

"My vision will be, there'll be fewer short batsmen," Woodhill says. "It doesn't mean there won't be an exception to the rule. There'll always be a David Warner who competes with the big men.

"What's the next batting change in T20? Maybe it's that franchises are looking for long-levered batters, especially in the IPL. If your reach is longer, and you can get under those better bowlers, why wouldn't you look at that as an advantage? Unfortunately, as someone who's five- seven-and-three-quarters, I know how much of an advantage those bastards have."

*Ben Lindbergh used this source for average height data

Tim Wigmore is a sportswriter for the Daily Telegraph and the co-author of Cricket 2.0: Inside the T20 Revolution