T20 World Cup: To counter short and hard lengths, batsmen find a new weapon – a thunderous forehand

At the turn of the year in Melbourne, Rafael Nadal produced a savage account of his forehand mastery. He would move Daniil Medvedev, ten years younger, forward and back with short slices, followed by violent, out-of-reach forehand winners in a thrilling final. In two months’ time, he would descend in Melbourne to defend his crown, but before that some of the batters in the T20 World Cup are setting the prelude with thunderous forehands themselves, as a ploy to counter the hard and short-length barrage of fast bowlers on the fast and bouncy surfaces the tournament had served up.

Against the most ferocious of hard-length peddlers, Lockie Ferguson, Jos Buttler, himself a youth-level tennis champion of his county, whipped up forehand fury. Ferguson slipped in a slow bouncer. Buttler skipped across, stood tall from his crouched stance, waited for the ball and flipped it over mid-on, like a cross-court forehand, his flexed forearms facing Ferguson. Later, he flayed Trent Boult into the stands with another forehand.


Boult was not as quick or bouncy as Ferguson, so he had more time to get on top of the ball and swing it over the sight-screen. Two days before Buttler’s assault, Suryakumar Yadav executed a down the line forehand off Anrich Nortje on a pitch with tennis-ball bounce.

The fundamental stance of both games are different. A tennis player stands crouched and open to receive the ball. But he closes his stance, when he moves sideways, so that he gets into a semi-sideways, semi-open position.

A cricketer traces the opposite path. He opens up the side-on stance as he plays the stroke. At the point of impact, and in the few micro-seconds before it, the posture is identical. They both rise with the bounce—a tennis player usually takes it torso high, a cricketer almost at his chest.

The racquet wielder then straightens his hitting arm and keeps it straight through contact, allowing him to extend his racquet toward the target. So does a cricketer, keeping the bottom hand straight and the shoulder on the same line all the way through the stroke. The arm follows the path of the ball until the elbow naturally bends.

Forehand virtuosos in tennis could manipulate different angles and spaces. Like adjusting the racquet face could help create top-spin or slice, as Nadal’s great contemporary Federer would. But batters, the bat clearly heavier than the racquet, and the leather ball heavier than the tennis ball made of inflated rubber, cannot flip the angles as easily, and could only hit the ball with the bat perpendicular to the ground, which results in a flat, fluid drive. A last-second twirl of the wrist, if the batsman has time, enables placement, but it’s difficult. The safer option is the Suryakumar down-the-line forehand.

This World Cup, it has emerged as an antidote with less side-effects than the standard pull and the hook, or the upper cut. The advantages are clear.

The batter could get his body fully behind the ball; it’s played right under his eyes; it’s easier to maintain the shape. Hence more control and balance. The movements are not as complicated and more natural than the pull and hook. In a sense, it resembles the pull, or a half-complete pull, where the batter does not complete the entire motion.

Upper cut needs sufficient room, either sideways or for the batsman to get underneath it. That most bowlers are looking to shape the ball inwards at high pace, it’s a high-risk choice.

Batters generally exude better control when hitting straight than hitting behind the keeper. Apart from control, there are few fielders down the ground. And even if you don’t get the distance, the long boundaries in Australia mean that the ball would land safely in un-prowled expanses. Batters, for a long time, have employed the shot. Both Virender Sehwag and Kevin Pietersen used to summon the shot in Australia or wherever bounce was a factor to negotiate. So did MS Dhoni in the early days of his career.

However the shot is not risk-proof. It does entail a certain degree of danger. Getting on top of the bounce on surfaces with tennis ball bounce is difficult. Not completely risk proof

The prospect of the ball getting big and taking the top edge lurks. The bowler could also out-speed the batsman, as has often happened to Shreyas Iyer. Against bowlers of less pace, he unleashes the forehand; but against quicker bowlers, he often ends up top-edging. It’s also not a shot that could be played against every short ball. It has to be at a certain height—above torso and below chest; it has to be at a certain line—outside the off-stump and angling in.

It’s a difficult stroke to play against an out-going delivery, or a ball at the throat or the head. There involves a certain amount of premeditation as well—to shift across and wait on the back-foot.

Batsmen often pick clues from field settings.

Suryakumar unleashed the stroke when Nortje had brought the deep midwicket and long-on into the circle. The idea was clear. He would invite Suryakumar to drag the ball from outside the off-stump to the leg-side. But Suryakumar outwitted him and was ready with the forehand. The mid-on was inside the circle when Buttler executed the first of his two forehands.

As the tournament kicks on, more batsmen could employ the forehand to neuter the short and hard lengths, the hottest selling currency in the tournament. So much so that the crack of the forehands could be heard even before Nadal descended on Melbourne Park to defend his crown in January and subject his adversaries to forehand storming.

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