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PLAY THE FIELD

Hooked to the habit

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The most audacious of all cricketing strokes had all but disappeared from India's top order batting. Until, new boy Cheteshwar Pujara showed a flair for it. His willingness to play the hook shot - despite batting at No 3 - has alarmed the purists.

Cheteshwar Pujara's attempted hook shot went high up in the air and there were a few gasps all around the MA Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore.
"What's this guy doing!? " that was the general mandate, but there were exceptions. "A player should not cut out the shots he has in his repertoire. . . He should only look to better it, " Rahul Dravid, the master of it all, said.

Pujara is trying to fill in the void left by Dravid in this Indian side, and that means he has to assume the role of a responsible No. 3. And an airy-fairy hook shot doesn't always go with that sense of responsibility, at least for the purists.

But one and all agree that the hook shot holds a special place in the cricketscape. In the pre-helmet days, ducking under a bouncer was always seen as a safe option, but there was always the odd cavalier who was ready to take the paceman on.

"It's actually a matter of instinct. I was almost a compulsive hooker and it brought about my downfall also on a few occasions. . . But I didn't like taking a backward step, " says Krishnamachari Srikkanth, a ferocious hooker in his playing days.

He believes that this shot, in a sense, is a matter of intent and players who can also know how to leave a bouncer are probably the better players of short bowling. And in this case, the two names that readily come to mind are that of Sunil Gavaskar and Mohinder Amarnath.

"While Jimmy, to an extent, was again a compulsive hooker, Sunny was technically so sound that he could just about play any shot he wanted. . . The hook was one of those, but he brought it out as and when he wanted to, " adds Srikkanth, Gavaskar's long-time opening partner.

But Chika was not there when Gavaskar played the hook to devastating effect. It was the second Test of the 1983 series against West Indies at Delhi's Ferozeshah Kotla. India were battered and bruised in the first Test by one Malcolm Marshall, and it was to such an extent that Gavaskar's bat flew out of his hand in the second innings at Kanpur.

"Sunny was determined going into the second Test. But the pitch at Ferozeshah Kotla played its part too. . . Sunny knew that the bounce on Day 1 will be even and he hooked everything that came between his shoulder and head, " Anshuman Gaekwad, who was with the original Little Master at the other end, says.

The 29th century (equalling Don Bradman's tally) happened in that innings and it became a part of cricketing folklore. But when Gaekwad said that Gavaskar hooked everything that was between his shoulder and head, he was making a pertinent point.

The deliveries that are below the shoulder are there to be pulled, and in that case, the ball can sometimes be rolled down to the ground. "Dravid, I believe, belongs to that school. The ones that were head-high, he generally evaded or employed the glide. . . He didn't exactly play the hook shot, " points out Gaekwad.

According to the former India opener and coach, the shot that Pujara is playing is the more authentic hook shot, but that is fraught with danger. "He has many shots in his book. I would advise him not to play that shot at this stage of his career, " Gaekwad says.

On this point, WV Raman, another great Indian exponent of the hook shot, differs. "It's a gift and I feel he should try and perfect it instead of putting it inside the cupboard, " Raman says. "If a young player gets out trying to play the drive, you can't ask him to stop playing it. The hook is a bit of a low percentage shot, but it's all about working on it, " says the southpaw.
According to the top coach of the Indian circuit, Pujara is sometimes playing the hook shot "a little too close to his body".

"At times, he is not getting the free swing that is needed to clear the fence. . . He should look to meet the ball a little early if he wants to make it a bread-andbutter shot, " points out Raman.

Raman and Srikkanth were part of the same Tamil Nadu side that produced some good hookers in the late '80s. And Chika says it has a lot to do with the wickets that they played on. "When we were growing up, we were often playing on matting wickets and the ball used to come up to our chins. If we didn't have that shot, we would probably have never played for India, " Srikkanth says with his customary wink.

In the years that followed, matting wickets in firstclass cricket went out of vogue and players could easily to come to the front-foot and hit through the line. Through the '90s, backfoot play almost became extinct in the Indian circuit, but for a Sachin Tendulkar or a Dravid, who simply had the gift and the dedication to perfect every cricket shot that could be played.

There were odd hookers in limited overs cricket though (MS Dhoni, Suresh Raina and the likes), but according to the pundits, that's a completely different ball game. "In ODI, anything above the head is a noball . . . So the batsman knows what height to expect. So don't get too excited by hook shots played in the limitedovers games, " Gaekwad says.

The real test of the hook shot, without a shade of doubt, is in the longer version, and that's where players like Pujara and Virat Kohli will be tested in the days to come. "They are good players and that's why they have played such a difficult shot to good effect. Now it's a matter of keeping it going, " Srikkanth says, hoping to see his picks blossom into another fantastic batting unit.

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