Saturday, March 19, 2011

Of Aesthetics and Amla

We watch sports for a variety of reasons, some of which are detailed exquisitely in this series by the football blog, Run of Play. In part two of the series, the author speaks of our proclivity for the aesthetic – which in our world is represented through ‘painting, music, and dance.’ He says in football, aestheticism is often found in amalgam with reality – ‘unlike a ballet, it has no predetermined plan or outcome.’ This is of course as true for cricket as it is, perhaps, for all sports. A beautiful cover-drive is made that much more attractive by its connection to reality – the fact that it is unfolding live before our eyes. Our search for beauty therefore often finds validation in the world of sport.

Aesthetics, though, is not a blanket concept. What constitutes beauty is fundamentally in the eyes of the beholder. Any analysis, therefore, on the beauty of a given stroke or a batsman’s style is mostly subjective – I am sure someone out there takes immense pleasure in watching Simon Katich, Shivnarine Chanderpaul or god forbid Graeme Smith play. (Incidentally they are all left-handed batsmen, a breed generally considered more aesthetically appealing)

But does appreciation of beauty have to be natural or is it something that can be constructed? Can we grow to enjoy a certain style as the aesthetics of it begins to impose its beauty – an acquired taste, if you will? Largely, I believe first impressions are the most lasting. I must have fallen in love with Damien Martyn’s batting, for instance, the first time I saw him hit one of those crisp and pristine square drives. With Hashim Amla’s batting, though, this has certainly not been the case.

For the longest time, ever since Amla began to wield a bat in international cricket, I found his style inelegant, gawky even. Indeed, after an inauspicious beginning to his career, he slowly began to make runs in heaps. Yet, I remained doggedly unimpressed, not by his effectiveness mind you, but by his mode of run-getting, which somehow appeared graceless. He seemed to, no doubt, ooze this Zen like serenity at the crease, but the double arced back-lift – he drags the bat back twice, before striking the ball – and an excessive flourish of the wrist, I felt, was ungainly.

Over the last couple of years, though, even as Amla has plundered almost every bowling attack in every format of the game, my opinion has wavered. At times, I find myself in awe of his abilities – his drives through the off-side often timed and placed to perfection can be breathtaking to behold. Yet, now and again, the same drive, timed and placed just as well can look clunky. And even more bizarrely, in the ongoing World Cup, Amla has looked at his most elegant in his knocks of 42 against England, 61 against India and 51 against Bangladesh, while he has looked rather uneasy in his century at Mohali against the Netherlands.

Where then on the aesthetic pedestal is Amla placed? Quite honestly, I continue to grapple with the question. It seems Amla’s batting polarises opinion more than any other’s. Some find it utterly gorgeous, while others cannot stand to watch it. What I do know is that on many occasions, he can make batting look ridiculously easy – as he did at Chepauk against England on a landmine of a pitch before playing onto his stumps an innocuous delivery from Stuart Broad – a dismissal that opened the floodgates for a South African collapse. Till the point of his ouster, though, Amla had batted with sagacious tranquillity – unperturbed it seemed by the demons on the pitch. So even if his stroke-play can generate a mixture of either aesthetic delectation or aesthetic torment, his disposition at the crease will always remain a joyous sight.

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