Up, up and away – Stokes and Watson and the joy of six

<em>Picture: Tessa Carroll</em>
Picture: Tessa Carroll

While the eyes of the sport-spectating world these past couple of days have mostly been on events at Augusta, or on Sebastian Vettel’s win in the Malaysian grand prix, or – inevitably – on various football matches, there has also been some unusual and entertaining cricket action.

In an odd coincidence, the small section of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack that provides details of six-hitting records has seen two candidates for inclusion within the space of 24 hours.

First – in the opening round of domestic county championship matches – the 19-year-old Durham all-rounder Ben Stokes came within one mighty swish of being only the third person ever to hit all six balls of a first-class over for six. En route to an unbeaten 135, Stokes dumped the first five balls of an over from Hampshire’s left-arm spinner Liam Dawson beyond the boundary – before Dawson obtained a modicum of revenge when the last ball was merely edged down to fine leg for a single.

“We are really, really chuffed for him,” said Stokes’ mother Deb, when the News & Star asked what she made of her son’s big-hitting exploits.

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Had that last ball flown for six, Stokes would have joined an extremely elite club. The first – and still the most celebrated – instance of “all six” was by Garry Sobers, playing for Nottinghamshire at Swansea in 1968, an occasion immortalised by one of the most fortuitous pieces of forward-thinking in the televised history of any sport.

Although BBC Wales had been broadcasting live coverage for Grandstand, it was off-air when the great over came. But producer John Norman had told the cameraman to keep filming, and so the Sobers assault – with its over-the-boundary “catch” from the fifth ball and its monumental, away-down-the-street, “that’s not a six, that’s a 12” finale – has been preserved for YouTube posterity.

Sobers plundered the respected Glamorgan bowler Malcolm Nash – who, like Dawson, was bowling left-arm spin, although his normal trade was as a medium-paced seamer. Nash also suffered being smashed for 34 in an over by Frank Hayes of Lancashire nine years later, but it’s those few minutes trying and failing to tame the great Sobers that will forever define his cricketing career.

There was a second instance, untelevised this time, by Ravi Shastri. The Indian was another very fine all-rounder – it’s odd that the two successful efforts and Sunday’s near-miss have all been by all-rounders rather than pure batsmen, although Sobers would be a candidate for an all-time World XI on batting alone. Playing in what was then Bombay, now Mumbai, Shastri smashed Tilak Raj of Baroda (another left-arm spinner) for six consecutive sixes in a Ranji Trophy match in 1985.

There have been two further instances in one-day cricket – where the format makes such feats more likely than in the first-class multi-day game. Both came in 2007: first by Herschelle Gibbs of South Africa, in the 50-over world cup, against Dutch bowler Daan van Bunge in St Kitts. Then India’s Yuvraj Singh tonked England’s Stuart Broad for six in a row – including two over the off-side – in Durban in the Twenty20 world cup. For this, in the manner of a golfer gaining a prize for a hole-in-one, Yuvraj received a Porsche 911.

Having said all that, because Stokes “only” ended up with 31 from Sunday’s over in Southampton, he remains a long way short of the top of the list, given that other batsmen have scored 34 or 32 off an over at various times. These include a couple of to-be-expected names – Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff – but also some batsmen not renowned as rustic hitters. Ian Redpath, who went 666644 in Bloemfontein in 1970, was “an opener so obdurate that he did not strike a six until his 66th Test”, according to Cricinfo, while Paul Parker (466664 at Edgbaston in 1982) was “an entertaining and correct middle-order batsman”.

Then, as if that wasn’t enough excitement, just a few hours after Stokes had earned himself a couple of pints, Australian opening batsman Shane Watson did something equally impressive in a one-day international against Bangladesh at Mirpur. Bangladesh made 229 in their 50 overs, which was never likely to prove a troublesome target given the gulf in class between the teams. But Australia – and Watson in particular – didn’t mess about. The match was won off the last ball of the 26th over, by which stage Watson – a brute with a bat when his eye is in – had made an unbeaten 185 off just 96 balls, including 150 in boundaries: 15 fours, 15 sixes.

Watson only managed four sixes in succession – off the middle four balls of an over bowled by Suhrawadi Shuvo (inevitably a slow left-armer). But he beat the previous highest tally of sixes in a single limited-overs innings, which had stood at 12, by New Zealander Xavier Marshall. The first-class record remains the higher of the two – 16 in an innings of 254 by Birmingham-born Aussie muscleman Andrew Symonds, in 1995 (coincidentally at Abergavenny, birthplace of Malcolm Nash).

Both Stokes and Watson – who sound like they should set up in business together – must have entertained their respective in-the-ground crowds tremendously. Do their efforts tell us anything new about the game, however? Probably not – especially the Watson innings, given that it only reinforces how substandard Bangladesh remain in top-table international terms (something that will further rile Ireland’s cricketers, in light of the news that they will not be allowed to try and qualify for the next world cup, whereas Bangladesh, arguably a poorer team, will be automatic entrants).

In a way, it’s a good thing that Bangladesh didn’t score more than 229 – or that Australia didn’t bat first. With Watson in that kind of form against that standard of bowling, he could well have scored 300-odd including 25 sixes, which would surely have crossed the boundary of what counts as fair or fun.

We live in a batsman-favoured time, however, and while such feats will remain infrequent, there are likely to be more of them than in ages past. Heavier bats, shorter boundaries – even in first-class matches – and various bowling restrictions mean that the six-hit doesn’t count for quite as much as it used to, the simple scoreboard statistic aside.

That said, there has always been a fascination with the sixer – and as far back as 1960 the cricket historian Gerald Brodribb was able to write a learned and lengthy book on the subject, Hit for Six.

Brodribb clearly loved the subject (another of his books was The Croucher, a biography of the great Edwardian strokemaker Gilbert Jessop), and it was with evident relish that he gave his chapters titles such as “Some Great Hits and Their Makers”, “Danger and Damage” and “A Spree of Sixes”. The book is worth seeking out for the pictures alone: a great ones of Frank Woolley hooking Alf Gover “out of the ground” at the Oval – a very big ground – in 1934, and of Errol Holmes, Percy Fender, Charles Oakes and the like.

The game has moved on greatly in the half-century since Brodribb’s book, but the basic joys remain the same. Just as there is scarcely any better sight than a genuine pace bowler in full flow, so nothing prompts cricketing awe and amusement quite like a batsman hoicking the ball high over deep square leg – or, even better, the clean straight hit, back over the bowler’s head and on to the roof of the stand or beyond.

Messrs Stokes and Watson will have brought a lot of smiles to faces – apart from those of beleaguered bowlers and fielders – with their recent efforts in belligerence.

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