Leave it alone — it’s a subtle art, but there’s some danger too 

No one wakes up in the morning and decides to go for a cricket match hoping to see batsmen leaving the ball alone (‘shouldering arms’). Yet it is one of the subtler arts of a fascinating sport, and one that is on the verge of disappearing from white ball cricket. In red ball cricket, it was calculated that nearly a quarter of all deliveries are left untouched by batsmen.

A ball not played does not indicate an uneventful moment in the game. Cricket is unique in that it is as much about batsmen leaving the ball as hitting it. You can’t refuse to hit a good serve in tennis, for example, simply because you think it might send the ball out.

Batting specialty

Voluntary non-playing is a batting specialty. A form of passive aggression, if you will. A fast bowler comes thundering in off a long run up and throws his heart into a delivery only to find the batsman whistle at it (and not always metaphorically) as it goes past him. Frustration can lead to mistakes.

After India won the Centurion Test last year, K.L. Rahul, who scored a century, spoke about leaving the ball outside the off stump, “It is something that I enjoy doing a lot. That’s the key to Test cricket, as you need to enjoy leaving balls outside the off-stump.” Not all batters will confess to enjoying the act, but the thinking is sound. The more a batsman enjoys it, the less a bowler will.

What is interesting about the leave is that both batsman and bowler can feel, legitimately, that each is setting up the other. The bowler keeps bowling wide outside the off stump and watches with a secret smile as the batsman lets the deliveries go. Then he brings one in, catching the batsman with his bat held high as the ball crashes into the stumps. Simon Jones dismissed Michael Clarke thus in the Ashes series of 2005. In the Lord’s Test of 2014, Virat Kohli was shocked when an apparently harmless ball from Liam Plunkett suddenly developed fangs.

This is cricket’s most mortifying dismissal, and needs an expression to itself. Perhaps a batsman is ‘shouldered out’ when he misjudges thus.

Most famous

The iconic shouldering out in India’s history came at the 1983 World Cup final when Gordon Greenidge allowed a ball from Balwinder Sandhu to go but it refused to do so, changing its course and that of the match.

Like scoring a zero, getting out while shouldering arms has been the fate of many batsmen. David Gower, that most elegant of players was elegantly dismissed by Waqar Younis in his last Test innings, the ball delicately removing the off bail.

From a batsman’s point of view, letting the ball go is a strategy to get the bowler to fall into the trap of changing his line or length and to get punished for it. As the bowler readjusts, the batsman pounces on the offering.

Sunil Gavaskar, one of the great leavers was also one of the most elegant. The more he left, the more he settled in. With some batsmen it is possible to say they are in good nick when they play a favourite shot early. With Gavaskar, the more he didn’t play, the more dangerous he grew.

Ricky Ponting lunged, and Kevin Pietersen seemed to threaten in the act; perhaps it irritated the bowler more. Tough to say, although bowler-irritation is an element of ball-leaving.

Unique methods

At the other end of the elegance scale — but more entertaining — was the technique of Courtney Walsh who jumped across, squared up, and after a little jig ended up with the bat under his arm having earlier swung it over the ball. The shining eyes completed the stroke (or lack of it).

Steve Smith in his fidgety days ended up facing the wicketkeeper while leaving the ball. Things happened in-between, but he might have employed more muscles to leave the ball than he did to play it.

Judging a ball as being harmless enough to ignore is one of the least discussed aspects of batting. Coaching manuals ignore it. Even players don’t make a big deal of it. Perhaps they are superstitious, rather like actors who refuse to mention the name of the Scottish play by Shakespeare.

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