Playing the ball late: A boon or a bane?
In order to play late, batsmen rock back into the crease, allowing them those precious few extra milliseconds to play the ball. It might not be enough to even blink the eye, but that extra time often allows batsmen to leave balls that are not moving towards the stumps, or to get their bat in the way. Batsmen are then able to avoid playing at balls needlessly, and better time the balls that they do play at.
Unfortunately, hanging back in the crease can also be a threat, especially against bowlers like Ravindra Jadeja, or Sunil Narine, who target the stumps relentlessly. A minor lapse might result in the ball hitting the pad right in front of the stumps, leading to an easy lbw decision.
This scenario was demonstrated perfectly by Virat Kohli while taking a swipe against Jeetan Patel, after reaching 211 in the final test against New Zealand, resulting in him losing his wicket. Playing with a straight bat generally reduces this threat. Kohli’s case might have been due to a break in concentration since it was the beginning of a session.
Another player who hung back in the crease but had to pay for it was Kane Williamson, who was at the receiving end of a terrific delivery from Ashwin. Despite using a straight bat, the ball squeezed between his bat and pad and went onto the stumps.
Fortunately, the chances of a ball turning that much are quite rare, and even against a delivery that difficult, Williamson nearly kept the ball at bay. Had he put a stride forward to that delivery, he might not have lost his stumps but against quality spinners on a spinning track such rare deliveries are always a possibility. Since the ball turned square, even a stride forward might have resulted in an edge.
Playing the ball late does narrow done the range of shots that can be employed. For example, while playing late off the back foot, it is quite impossible to loft the ball over the bowler’s head for a six.
While playing late, especially off the back foot, a batsman can choose from among the square cut, the late cut or the upper cut (as popularised by Virender Sehwag) on the offside; similarly, a flick off the pads, a leg glance, a hook or a pull can be employed on the onside. Driving or sweeping, as a matter of principle, require a stride forward.
Front foot players
While players like Jayawardene or Laxman might rarely step out against spinners, it doesn't mean that front foot players are at a loss against quality spin in the subcontinent. As Clarke demonstrated with a wonderful knock of 151 on his Test debut against bowlers like Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, assured footwork is often the best ploy against spin.
Front foot players have and will continue to strive as long as their footwork is determined and unambiguous, and they are using a straight bat. Yet, such players best know the value of playing the ball at the last instant, for it is vital to do that in order to time your shots and get maximum value even when on the front foot.
The greatest at playing the latest
Some of the greatest players from India were absolutely brilliant at playing the ball very late. Two of the greatest at that art were Ranjitsinhji and Gundappa Viswanath. While Ranjitsinhji (after whom the Ranji trophy is named) played his cricket for England, he was a revolutionary figure in the cricketing circles of those days.
In an era where most batsmen always looked to press forward, Ranjitsinhji succeeded as a predominantly back-foot player. His contemporaries were amazed at how he managed to hit the ball when it had almost gotten past him. He is attributed with inventing the leg glance, such was his uniqueness in that era.
Another gem of Indian cricket, Gundappa Viswanath, excelled at playing the cut shot. His skill and temperament are underlined by the fact that he played in an era when he had to face fast bowling from the likes of Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner and Andy Roberts, all at the same time and that too without a helmet. Against the most fearsome fast bowlers the world of cricket has yet known, he had the ability of waiting till the ball was almost past him, but then unleashing the deftest of cuts.
Boon or bane?
Playing the ball late is an extremely graceful and elegant art when mastered. It is hard to classify playing late as either a boon or a bane because no art can be thus reductively analysed. It might sound like a walk in the park, but because the threat of playing the ball too late is ever present, it is anything but easy.
Playing the ball late requires great composure, a very skillful technique and above all, patience. While possessing all of the above-mentioned qualities, a player still needs to put in many countless hours of practice to be able to play those late cuts and the deft leg glances. It is an art that comes at a price.
It is an art that needs to be learned by any cricketer with aspirations to be adept at batting. While flashy players of the day might warm up to the front foot cover drive or the swipe over midwicket, a true cricket connoisseur will know and admire the player who possesses a delicate clip off the pads or a lovely square cut.
However, learning that skill is essential because some situations call for stoic defence and similarly, some call for nimble, late touches, just as some others call for shots of the slam-bang variety. Playing the ball late might not be a valued art today, but it can often be the difference between a player getting out for a duck and scoring a century to etch their name in the annals of cricket history.