Once, Imran Khan asked Abdul Qadir to grow a goatee before a tour of England. If he had succeeded, he would also have made her wear a turban.
The ‘Conjurer from the East’ look was to give her nifty leg-spinner – complete with those mesmerizing eyes and spellbinding stroke – an extra layer of mystery. By the end of the tour, the Englishman kept talking about the sneaky spinner who had hidden tricks in every knuckle of his magic wrist.
Until a week ago a group of Indian cricketers were on tour in England. Most wore stubble. It wasn’t a management edict, they weren’t characters in the script written by their captain. It was the team’s signature match face, they couldn’t have passed themselves off as an exotic illusionist.
A few more of them – Rishabh Pant and Surya Kumar Yadav – managed to sweep the inhabitants off their feet, casting a spell over them. The two caused collective wonders in the stands and in the television/podcast studios. As in the case of Qadir, we were talking about magic wrists.
The non-English drummer’s ease and innovation caught the eye of eyes more accustomed to watching textbook hits that were mostly about the elbows and arms.
When India got angry and angry about Virat Kohli putting the ball behind the stumps, England, in a trance, dealt with two emotional centuries – Pant’s 113-ball 125 in the Manchester ODI and the 55- ball 114 from Surya in the Nottingham T20I.
They showered them with praise, overwhelming the two new stars with grueling expectations. In the known country of cricket lyricists with poetic license, they made some pretty bold comparisons.
Popular podcast The Analyst, presented by top cricketer pundit and former top-class player Simon Hughes and the BBC’s Simon Mann, took a leap of faith, the kind that not even Indians can dare. Pant, they said, was better than MS Dhoni, with just a tiny bit of reluctance.
There were also talks of Surya’s 360 degree play and his knack for exploring the less guarded uncharted areas of a cricket ground. His unconventional game behind the square still fresh in mind, Surya called himself the ‘Next AB de Villiers’.
Other top talk shows on English shores have called Surya’s knock the ‘best T20 innings ever’. All post-match dissections of his stroke play had mention of the reinforced flex wrists on the Mumbai maidans.
Hughes mentions the left-handed Pant’s unique way of handling James Anderson’s deadly balls around the wicket which are thrown very short. This is the preferred variant of the English master pacer to test the best in business.
Launching diagonally from the edge of the crease, the ball travels further towards the batsman, threatening to take the edge of his bat or knock down the stumps. It’s a tight ball that limits the movement of the batter’s hands and even cramps his feet. Hughes says most of the time hitters are in and tend to put the ball on their tight pads.
But Pant is different. He quickly jumps to the back foot and kicks his front leg out. “It allows him to move the ball to the side of the leg with a little flick of the wrist,” says Hughes. Again the wrists.
It’s these tricky late maneuvers, performed by a subtle flick of the wrist, that baffle even seasoned observers of the game. are the results of full wood contact and lack mystery. They are beautiful to look at but explicit. You see the powerful action of the bat and anticipate the subsequent reaction of the ball hurtling towards the fence. You see strength and expect acceleration – it’s simple science.
The wrist strokes follow a micro-science, their nuances are too complex, they are invisible to the naked eye. Beyond the boundary line, it’s hard to see how a simple kick can send the ball into the parking lot outside the stadium. They trigger ‘How did this happen?’ curiosity. It also enhances interest, generates admiration. All that is unexplained and invisible is enveloped in a veil of enigma. It is also breathtaking.
Those emotions were in abundance when Surya played blinder at Trent Bridge. Despite the sublime and impressive rounds, India continued to lose the game, but those on the ground were shaking their heads in disbelief. Surya has exploited impossible angles by putting himself in hitherto inconceivable positions.
He stretched his left foot towards the ball thrown outside the stump. He would step into the delivery line and lovingly flick through the thin leg for six years. For the same ball, he had other options. He was getting back into shape like he was about to play a kneeling cover. But then it would have been a very English shot. Surya, while on his haunches, would size him above the point for six. Again, it was all down to those infamous sub-continental flex wrists.
There are shades of ABD in him but he’s still very different. The South African mainly guides the ball to the thin leg by changing the angle of the bat. Surya puts more work on the ball. He has the skills of a hockey drag-flicker. His engagement with the ball is deeper.
The two heroes of this English series were following a long-standing tradition that the great Ranji had started by showing up for Sussex. He too baffled the English with his new range of strokes.
Neville Cardus would be on hand to register the first major battering adjustment. Cricket would be described as if it were the criticism of the Great Indian rope trick. Cardus would write of Ranji belonging to the country of “Indian jugglers of Hazlitt, where beauty is subtle and not simple and unambiguous”. Something Imran had in mind.
He said that the Indian Prince of the Nawanagar Cup was a “dazzling spear of drummer”. His bat was like a “flexible cane making rapid movements that circled around those matchless wrists”. The fascination with this specific part of the anatomy is centuries old and still continues.
For Pant and Surya, it was a coming-of-age tour. The biggest stars – Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma – weren’t quite in the process of bringing down the roofs of the stadiums, but their failure went unnoticed. No one missed Kohli’s cover drive or Rohit’s sweater. There were new stars, new hits to celebrate.
If the transition had an image, it was of Surya returning to a standing ovation from the packed Nottingham crowd and Vivek Razdan from the commentary box singing one of his instant verses.
“Buland iraadon se likhte hain taqdir apni, hamari kismat haath ki lakiron ki mohtaaj nahi haihe said as if in Surya’s thought bubble. It loosely translates to “the fate of those with great ambitions does not depend on the lines of palms”. He was right, in the case of Surya and Pant, it’s the wrist.