Pant and the brave new world where old orthodoxies are cast aside

A young man had pushed the boundaries of the possible in a manner that saw the game transition from the old to the new

For a moment the world stood still. Then the visual began to unspool itself in the mind. Did he really do it? Was that actually possible? Could he have reverse-swept one of the world’s best fast bowlers to the boundary over the heads of slips? And that too off the new ball?

What was that — the shot of the decade, maybe even the shot of the century? Are batsmen smiling assassins too? For having stunned the bowler, fielders and onlookers, the batsman then broke into a smile.

Outrageous, audacious, impudent, cheeky, sassy, mischievous, insolent, feisty, brazen, impertinent… descriptions were dredged up and then dismissed as inadequate.

Had we arrived at a brave new world where the old orthodoxies had been cast aside and the shocking and dangerous were commonplace? Perhaps this was how the world reacted when W.G. Grace first showed that back-foot play could be productive. Or when Ranji invented the leg-glance.

Rishabh Rajendra Pant didn’t invent the reverse sweep, not even the variation he played that day in Ahmedabad against James Anderson in the final Test. He didn’t need to bend low as he might have against a spinner, he had to make allowance for the bounce. He didn’t need to slap the ball either, merely guide it with the gentlest of persuasions.

There was no tension or straining for effect. It was as if he saw the ball come to him in slow motion and had the luxury of time. His legs were bent, the bat held loosely. Had he got any single element otherwise, there might have been disaster — physical or in terms of a wicket lost.

Precision was called for — the bat had to meet the ball at precisely that moment with precisely that touch and at precisely that angle. And suddenly the ugliest stroke in the book was converted into something poetic.

One crowded moment of glorious life is worth an age without a name. For one instant, the state of the match didn’t matter, it wasn’t important who was winning or losing. It was enough to know that a young man had pushed the boundaries of the possible in a manner that saw the game transition from the old to the new.

There have been great shots before. I recall my favourites. Gundappa Viswanath on his toes square cutting the world’s fastest bowler then, Andy Roberts. Sachin Tendulkar beaten in the flight but still going through with the shot for a six against Abdul Qadir. V.V.S. Laxman reading a Shane Warne googly and driving him inside out against the turn. Rahul Dravid pulling Allan Donald. Sourav Ganguly stepping out to the left-arm spinner and depositing him into the crowd. Sunil Gavaskar standing up to his full height and dropping a rising delivery from Imran Khan dead at his feet. Virender Sehwag making it all look so easy, cutting or driving between fielders.

But these were strokes wrapped in orthodoxy. Driving with bat and pad close together, rolling the wrist over while cutting, getting behind the line of the ball in defence. For years our coaches insisted there was only one way to bat if you had to be taken seriously.

Technique was everything. You ignored that at your peril. When Rahul Dravid was bowled reverse sweeping at 270 in a Test match, it was seen as divine punishment for a batsman so wedded to orthodoxy. It was as if there had been a momentary glitch in the cosmos.

The altar of orthodoxy

When Sunil Gavaskar hit a six in the pre-lunch session on the opening day of the Golden Jubilee Test against England in 1980, jaws dropped, and there was much tut-tutting. Such behaviour was not expected of one of the great technicians of the game.

I liked Gavaskar’s response then. He said it was a tribute to opener Mushtaq Ali, the first Indian to make a century abroad and whose batting was described as “swashbuckling.” He was in the audience.

Some years later, when Gavaskar mentioned casually that he would like to enjoy his cricket and play more strokes, something close to a national outrage erupted. How dare he! He had to carry the Indian batting on his shoulders, not enjoy himself.

Indians — players, fans, media — worshipped at the altar of orthodoxy. Any deviation from the straight-and-narrow was looked down upon.

Perhaps I exaggerate. After all, Mushtaq Ali apart, there were players like Salim Durrani, Farokh Engineer, Budhi Kunderan, and later K. Srikkanth who bent orthodoxy into different shapes. But you get the idea.

Had Pant done then what he did now, he might have been ostracised, or at least sent to bed without supper. Disrespecting an elder like Anderson would have earned him a stern talking-to.

How times have changed! And how grateful we are for it!

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