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The Perfect Stroke

Arunabha Sengupta

Cricket Historian

Cricket — a game of artistry and numbers, of sophistication and statistics.

It is simulated warfare on the pitch, as well as craftsmanship on display, every event on the pitch documented with scientific rigour. The required finesse and the associated nuances are refined and complex, different from any other sport, and all these give rise to the phrase ‘the noble game’.

Underneath the surface of intricate combats, of skill and guile, of art and statistics, it is a relentless quest for perfection. It is a sport like no other in which champion cricketers engage in smaller battles within the greater war of the teams, lending flavour to the fare, delicious sub plots even as epical encounters are scripted on the grounds.

It is this quest of perfection through which we see the birth of champions. And it is in their exploits that we see the emergence of the ideal manoeuvres — the perfect stroke, the perfect delivery, the perfect take.

The perfect stroke is a combination of class, style and panache; a blend of technique and aesthetics.

And it is always wrapped in a sheen of effortlessness.

Yes, a perfect stroke always seems to be essayed sans effort. It is this ease of execution that lends the final stamp of excellence.

Yet, this very effortlessness is a product of years of toil, incorporating polished and perfected technique on top of natural flair and brilliance. Finally, there are the ingredients of precision, timing and split-second decision making.

Picture Sachin Tendulkar straight driving Shoaib Akhtar during his magical innings of 98 at Centurion.

It was the high profile 2003 World Cup encounter between the arch rivals India and Pakistan. A pressure match if there ever was one. A formidable target of 274 stared at the men in blue. In charged the Rawalpindi Express from his endless run up — fast, furious, hostile. And the Little Master responded as only he could.

A small shuffle and the full face of the bat met the ball. The MRF logo appeared in full view across the millions of television screens around the world. There hardly seemed to be any imparted force. There was absolutely no follow through as Tendulkar held his pose. And yet the fastest of offerings from the quickest and scariest of bowlers was sent straight back, past the bemused paceman, down the ground, scorching the outfield and crashing into the fence. A stroke as perfect as can be.

It looked hardly more than a defensive push.

Yet, this very effect of ease, grace and outcome was the amalgam of chiselled technique, years and years of drills and relentless quest for perfection, all that calibrated with scientific meticulousness.

The judgement of length was quick enough to grant that extra fraction of a second, the extra margin that is reserved as a gift for the great. That tiny shuffle was to adjust for the line and effect the transfer of balance, getting the front foot close as possible to the pitch of the ball. The weight was transferred forward, the head was held still, directly over the ball at the moment of impact. That ensured that the ball sped along the ground rather than travelling dangerously in the air. The bat came down as vertical as possible. The top hand with its high elbow did most of the work, the bottom hand provided support and direction. The timing was precise, exactly as the ball was about to come up after pitching, to ensure that the oncoming momentum was at the minimum, thereby reducing the necessity to hit hard. All this theory and science was transferred into consummation through the hands of genius, executed to perfection. Away sped the ball. And the miracle of it was that when all this came off on the greatest stage of all, it looked effortless.

The Master himself loved playing the stroke.

"My favourite shot is the straight drive, opening up the face of the bat...no bowler likes to see the face of the bat.” Even in this casual remark the fastidious attention to detail was evident. Play straight, show them the maker’s name. A Sachin Tendulkar straight drive was more than just perfection, it was a thing of beauty.

A hundred centuries and 34,000 international runs — all that was the product of such sterling exactness. The runs did not just accumulate on the scoreboard, they were gathered with methods and manner befitting the most complete batsman of modern times.

Be it the sparkling straight drive of Sachin Tendulkar or the magical drive through the covers of Virat Kohli or the spectacular lap shot essayed off the faster bowlers by AB de Villiers, each one of these strokes are produced by the same mechanism of underlying process for excellence. Where diligence and craftsmanship merge with talent and science and produce impeccable moments of artistry with the willow. Moments of magic that make cricket the game it is, the passion of millions.

Perfection in action looks uncomplicated, natural and smooth, and the results are incredible on the statistical tables. But the process of production involves painstaking preparation, accuracy of execution and split-second decision making.

Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian who also writes analytical pieces on the modern game. He is the author of ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes’. He tweets @senantix.

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