A few days back the International Cricket Council (ICC) had put up on Twitter a collage of four batsmen playing the pull shot with the caption “which batsman, past or present, has the best pull shot, in your opinion?”. The batsmen shown in the picture were West Indies legend Viv Richards, former Australian captain Ricky Ponting, ex-South African opener Herschelle Gibbs and current Indian captain Virat Kohli. It is universally acknowledged that each of these could play the pull shot to perfection and master any conditions.
This picture would have remained relatively unknown except to the most studious of cricket buffs till Indian opener Rohit Sharma responded with a tweet asking “Someone’s missing here? It is not easy to work from home I guess."
This message from the Indian stalwart started a debate regarding the merit of the four batsmen showed in the picture and whether Rohit was a better player of the pull shot than those selected by the ICC. A prominent cricket website also did a quick study which revealed that Rohit scored 1,567 out of his 8,968 runs in international cricket since 2015, a staggering 17.47 per cent, from the pull shot. This made him top the list of international batsmen, who had scored more than 5,000 runs cricket, when it came to percentage of runs coming from the pull shot, the next being David Warner of Australia at 13.89 per cent. It was also revealed that he used the pull shot against 570 deliveries, out of which the ball landed beyond the boundary lines on 116 occasions!
These figures would indicate that angst that Rohit felt, at his name being left out of the list of great exponents of the pull shots in the history of the game, is justified. This would give rise to the question as to whether the ICC did not check these figures and statistics before shortlisting the batsmen? It would not make common sense to think that the ICC did not consider these figures which are available in the public domain. If, despite that, it chose to ignore Rohit, what could be the reason for doing so?
While doing so, one should first go through the names of batsmen figuring in the list and find out what makes them so special. The first amongst them, Richards, is undoubtedly one of the greatest batsmen. He was the most destructive batsman in international cricket during the period from 1975, when he displayed his talents against an all powerful Australian side till his retirement from the game in 1991. More than the 15,200 runs that he scored in Test matches and One-Day Internationals (ODIs) put together, what made him different was the manner in which he could dominate the bowlers and tear apart the stuff they served with utmost ease and contempt. He had all the shots in the cricket coaching book and some more of his own, and he could use the pull shot effectively while tackling the fast bowlers.
Ponting was in many ways the successor to Richards, especially in the matter of attacking batsmanship. He scored tons of runs - 13,378 in Tests and 13,704 in ODIs - which made him the second most prolific batsman in the history of game after Sachin Tendulkar. He believed that when the ball was pitched short, it deserved to be either hooked or pulled and he launched into one of these shots instinctively. Though initially he showed a weakness against off-spin bowling, he quickly overcame it and showed his prowess in run making during his subsequent visits to the subcontinent. He was in the shortlist of best batsmen in contemporary cricket during his playing days, across all formats of the game, besides being a highly successful skipper of the Australian side.
Gibbs looked the odd one out among the four in that he lacked the charisma and persona of the other three. His aggregate of 14,261 runs (6167 in Tests and 8,094 in ODIs) places him below the others in the pecking order in terms of total runs scored. Gibbs had a repertoire of unorthodox shots, including a short arm pull played off the front foot, that he could employ effectively against all bowling attacks in the world. His capacity for annihilating even the best of bowlers is evident from his knock of 175 runs off 111 balls, which helped his side to mount a world record chase of 434 against the Aussies in a one-dayer in 2006. Like Ponting, he also had difficulties while playing high quality spin bowling at the beginning of his career but could surmount the challenge posed by the turning ball as his career progressed.
Kohli is the youngest of the lot and the only one among the four who is still playing international cricket. Till date he has scored more than 21,900 runs in the three formats of game put together, which makes him the best batsman across all versions. He is an intense character who brings in high levels of energy into the game whether it be batting or fielding and even while captaining the side. Kohli had problems against the seaming ball in his early days but soon got over it as he proved during the tour of England in 2018, when he topped the list of run-getters from both sides. Presently, he is the most complete batsman in international cricket, adept at scoring runs and dominating bowlers in all conditions.
What does Rohit lack that these four batsmen possess? In the first place, his record in Test cricket is poor with only 2,141 out of the 14,000-odd runs he has scored in international cricket coming from the longer version of the game. Further, he has not performed creditably in Test matches played outside the Indian subcontinent as can be seen from his average score of 26.32 in such games. He is yet to reach the three figure mark in Tests on foreign soil despite scoring mountains of runs in shorter formats in all countries. He has recently taken to opening the innings in Tests as well but has not played in this position in matches outside India.
There is no doubt that Rohit is one of the best batsmen in the world in limited overs cricket. But he has so far failed to come good in Test matches played outside the Indian subcontinent, which constitutes the acid test for determining whether he can be considered as a great player. Rohit is 32 years old and has been in international arena for the last 13 years, having made his ODI debut in 2007. Unless he picks up the gauntlet and decides to prove his detractors wrong by scoring heaps of runs in Australia, England or South Africa, he would continue to remain in the category of “flat track bullies’, who score runs heavily on easy paced tracks that favour batsmen but fail miserably in conditions where bowlers have the upper hand. It is for this reason that Rohit finds himself out of the list tweeted by ICC and not because of manner in which he plays the pull shot or its productivity in terms of runs.
I would conclude by mentioning the best pull shot that I have seen. It was played by Kim Hughes of Australia while facing the bowling of Michael Holding of the West Indies in the first Test of the series between the two sides in December, 1981, at the MCG. Holding was then at the peak of his prowess as the fastest bowler in the world and West Indies under Clive Lloyd were the uncrowned champions of the game. In the first innings, Hughes walked in with score board reading 8/3. He went on to play the innings of his life to score an unbeaten 100 out of the Australian first innings total of 198, while Holding finished with 5/45. A picture published next day in the newspapers showing Hughes leaning back placing entire weight of his body on his right foot, while pulling a delivery from Holding right from the top of his stumps towards midwicket fence, remains etched in my memory. It was a ball delivered at speed nearing 100 miles per hour being met powerfully by a bat, yet the positioning of the body and the manner of playing the shot made it appear so beautiful, elegant and sublime. For me, this would remain the best ever pull shot of my lifetime, such was the unparalleled grace and sophistication on display.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)