As a kid, I had a book called Boycott On Batting (okay, okay... I know) the selling point of which, alongside the accumulated wisdom of the great man at a reasonable price, was a rather neat little gimmick. Down the edge of each page were a series of photographs that showed Geoffrey demonstrating four strokes in a darkened net. When flicked through quickly enough Boycs came to life, his legendary forward defensive available stop-motion style.
Well it's what we did before youtube, kids... The other day, I watched Nick Knight interviewing Brendon McCullum about Twenty20 batting. Just as enough monkeys with typewriters will eventually produce a coherent sentence, Knight and a microphone finally coalesced and made a revelatory little film, aided by his own considerable expertise as a limited overs player.
What hit home was not just the technological remoteness of the decades between Boycott On Batting and Brendon McCullum, or the shifts in playing technique. It wasn't even the amount of 'product' Brendon had in his hair. Instead it was the psychological change, one that drives at the very heart of batsmanship. Boycott's game was based around his famous saying, 'I can't score runs if I'm in the pavilion'. McCullum's short game is dictated by something else: 'It's [about] not having the fear to get out. You've got to be able to make plays that carry an element of risk with them'.
It doesn't sound much but it is a giant, counter-intuitive leap and we are the only witnesses to the generational divide that it spans. In a few years, all of the players that grew up with the singular notion that batting begins with the intention to stay in will be gone, and that means that even Test match cricket, already accelerating at a rate that defies most of its history, will become a different game.
That's alright. In fact, it's more than alright. Every generation should do its own thing and leave its own mark, informed by the past but unencumbered by it too. The old school tends to get bogged down in debates over what has been lost, but McCullum's interview also carries the thrill of possibility.
He's fascinating to watch here, as he takes block relatively conventionally but then sets himself with feet spread far enough to eradicate notions of conventional front foot and back foot play. Instead his foot movement is abbreviated in favour of a broad base from which he sends his weight forwards or backwards in the crease. Like Boycott, he is well briefed on how his opponents will bowl and he has in mind some shots that will ease the pressure of his first few deliveries.
There's no great mystery to the rest, but then there was no mystery to Geoffrey's method either. McCullum wants to get boundaries away early if the ball is in his 'areas' (did Geoffrey have areas? Not in the same way, because his technique was based around the classical response of 'the right shot to the right ball'). The heart of McCullum's innings is the shift between 20 runs and 40 ('as fast as possible') and it's here, usually against spin, that staying in becomes a lesser goal.
Standing rather incongruously in front of a set of plastic stumps, he shows Knight how he re-marks his guard an extra six inches outside of the popping crease. 'It's only a small amount, but it creates so much more opportunity'. Knight, who has not been retired for that long, asks why he'd do it, and the answer is brutally simple.
'Because I'm coming anyway,' McCullum says, as the film cuts to a shot of him walking down the pitch to smite the ball miles into the stands. 'If I get stumped by an inch or a metre it doesn't matter...'
Boycott's fear was not of physical pain. His career as an opener was a monument to sporting courage. His fear was of the pain that dismissal brought, a feeling that could linger for days. McCullum and everyone else in the modern game have learned, at least in the short form, to eschew that fear, to set it aside, to accept that failure means less than it once did. It's a different kind of courage.
'I'm coming anyway'. That's why batting, and cricket, remains both knowable and unknowable and infinitely interesting, because however much you might want not to care, the survival instinct is strong. The game wrangles with this. Kevin Pietersen's batting has in part been defined by what much of the press see as a kind of mad impulse to hit the ball. 'It's the way I play,' as he often says. It is, and it has felt alien in this old land. But less so now.
Of course T20 cricket exaggerates the notion. Aggressive, new generation players Joe Root, Faf du Plessis and Moises Henriques have played hearteningly long rearguard knocks in Test match cricket in the last few months. Yet that first impulse is shifting and the game is shifting with it.
It's coming anyway.
NB: Listening to Brendon, Stuart Broad might want to rethink his slower ball bouncer...
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