Having been gorging myself on Twenty20 cricket during IPL 6, one thing you don’t usually see that much in the shortest format is the ‘leave’. In all other forms of the game it is a very underrated part of a batsman’s repertoire and is as legitimate a stroke or a shot as the cover drive or the slog sweep. This idea is perhaps one that a non-cricket fan would find bewildering; after all how can a situation where the bowler runs up and the batsman watches it go through to the keeper without doing anything to it involve as much technique and judgement as trying to play the ball?
Of course no physical exertion is required to play this ‘shot’ but in terms of judgement, leaving the ball requires a batsman to watch the ball fully, from the moment it leaves the bowler’s hand to the moment it pitches and to the moment it passes by the stumps or whistles past your nose. Most instances of batsmen leaving the ball end harmlessly in a dot ball; but they do occasionally get it wrong – sometimes in spectacular fashion as shown by the following YouTube clip (featuring a lot of Michael Clarke brain farts).
Using that video as an example, it would appear the most cases of right-handed batsmen being castled whilst shouldering arms comes from the ball jagging back sharply or swinging in late at high speeds. Andrew Flintoff, Simon Jones, Mohammed Asif and Umar Gul showing pieces of swing bowling. The left-handers tended to come unstuck when the ball pitched in line with the stumps and either held its line, or did not move as much across as expected. This shows a serious lack of judgement on their parts but it just goes to show that leaving the ball is trickier than it looks. Yes, if a delivery pitches wide outside the off stump its a no-brainer, but say you’re at Lord’s and facing a ball coming from the Pavilion End, do you trust the slope to not bring it back far enough? Or do you prod forward and try to fend it off with the bat where you are taking being bowled or lbw out of the equation but are bringing an edge to the keeper or slips into play.
In essence, shouldering arms tends to be used when batsmen are ‘getting their eye in;’ getting used to the pace of the wicket and the bowler by not playing a shot and being watchful. But you also have to know which balls you can leave and which balls you have to play at; usually this comes with instinct. If a ball is close to a batsman’s pads he is inclined to play at it because the risks of letting it go and hoping it swings away is too high. Alternatively you cannot legislate for one that jags back off a length either. The ability to dodge a bouncer is also an invaluable one. We have all seen cases of batsmen getting smashed on the helmet after moving their head out of the way but taking their eyes off the ball. It does take some practice forcing yourself to watch the ball when every fibre of your being is telling you to dive for cover, especially when you decide early on in the delivery that this ball is too hot for you to handle.
In the time I’ve been watching cricket, the best leaver of the ball I can recall is Aravinda De Silva. Not only did he has exceptional judgement, he movement he undertook when leaving the ball was as if he was watching a ticking time bomb whistle past. He’d make sure the bat was as far as humanly possible from the ball. Brian Lara was also one that had an expansive leave. Playing on bouncy pitches, getting everything out of the way was vital and that was exactly what he would do. His electric reflexes made sure he would sway out of the way of a bouncer at the last moment. Marcus Trescothick was an odd one because he would leave the ball but play at it at the same time. He’d protect his stumps with his bat as opposed to his pads and would give the image that he was playing and missing when in fact he was just playing for his stumps. It was said that because of this the best time to get him out would be at the start of his innings where you could find the odd stray edge off the outside of his bat, but most of the time he would just see himself in and then you as a bowler would be in trouble. Out of the current crop of players, no notable ‘leavers’ spring to mind other than I will say that Jonathan Trott and Hashim Amla show exceptional judgement when it comes to letting the ball go. Their ability to reign themselves in and perhaps even let scoring opportunities go and set themselves into the mindset that enables them to bat for long periods make them formidable batsmen at Test level.
In the current era of big bats and bigger hitting, the subtle arts tend to get lost when teaching the next generation. Certainly in my Colts days when I was being taught, I was told how to play the perfect cover drive or the forward defensive; and as a result when I went out to bat (usually as opener) I would try and come forward to almost every delivery (within reason), always seeing leaving the ball as either a cop-out because I wasn’t confident enough to play a shot or a relief that my inevitable wicket would be delayed for one more delivery. Perhaps in truth, kids need to be told that for every ball they watch goes past dispirits the bowler just that bit more and sets themselves up further for a decent knock.