Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal provided one of the greatest rivalries of sport, not just for the intensity with which they competed but also the mutual respect they showed for each other. It will be hard to choose one over the other. Whilst Rafa’s grit might appeal to some, for others the sheer elegance of Federer’s strokes seal the deal. Why should elegance or as this article puts it, beauty matter in sport? Arguably, no other sport values beauty more than cricket. And who better than Samanth Subramanian to give us this brilliant essay on the subject of why we find beauty in the batting of some players – from the likes of David Gower and Brian Lara to Mark Waugh and Ian Bell.

“Anyone who talked about the game, or wrote about it, treasured some batsmen for their beauty. On broadcasts, a commentator would often let out a soft “Oh!”, or fall momentarily silent, when one such batsman coaxed the ball to the straight boundary. I felt the urge too, as if I’d mislaid my breath. Even a defensive shot, drawing the sting out of the ball and dropping it dead on the ground, was described as beautiful. There were plenty of euphemistic adjectives for these batsmen: “elegant” was one, “effortless” another. Here’s the crux, though: it was almost always the same batsmen, as if selected through some unspoken consensus. And even without explanation, I found that I intuitively discerned this beauty. I understood in my gut why one made the cut and the other didn’t.

…The Australian twins Mark and Steve Waugh were the canonical example of my boyhood, separated by four minutes at birth but by an aesthetic gulf otherwise, because Mark was universally held to be the stylish one. Not once did anyone argue the opposite. When I first watched them, during the 1996 World Cup, I seemed to see it right away. They batted together for a while in the quarter-final, and where Steve trod heavily, nudging or flaying the ball, Mark was feline, his paws landing surely, his weight balanced, his strokes easy but true. Once, after he reached his century, he refined the position of his feet by the merest inch and sent a ball to the boundary; it took more energy for me to gasp than it did for him to play that shot.”

And Samanth gets Steve Waugh to share his thoughts on the subject:

“Steve is an all-time great, the player you’d choose to bat for your life or to come good on any kind of wicket, thanks to his technique and his bloody-mindedness. “It was funny, later on, when Mark would be described as the really talented one, when it was the opposite,” he said. “When we were young, I probably had more natural talent.”

There was something about Mark Waugh, though. For one, he played the conventional strokes — the drive through the covers, the cut square, the whip to leg — perfectly, and in a sport that holds convention dear, that counts a lot towards beauty.

…The label of being beautiful — or not — sticks. In 1999, in a Test match in Jamaica, Steve Waugh and Lara both hit centuries, but Waugh made his considerably faster. “I remember reading reports of the match, saying Lara scored a graceful, elegant 100, whereas Steve Waugh scored a gritty 100,” Waugh said. It still rankles. “Once you have the tag, it doesn’t change.””

In his pursuit of the mystery behind beautiful batsmen, Samanth starts with history:

““There was a class angle to it,” Brearley said. The gentlemen originally playing cricket weren’t the kind who wished to be seen sweating and exerting themselves. That was left to the village blacksmith, who could run in and bowl fast or, as Brearley put it, “swing the bat with strong arms, brute force, not economy of effort. They’re the labourers, they’re the feet. We, the batsmen, are the head. We’re the polish.””

…and then turns to science citing a study by a biomechanist to unravel the mystery:

“The studies yielded some physiological truths: a sequence of three movements that produced the longest hits. First, the shoulders and hips pulled away from each other as the batter twisted into a coiled position, like a golfer at the height of a swing. McErlain-Naylor, seated on a Zoom call, demonstrated this well enough to remind me of contrapposto, the idealised stance of ancient Greek statues of discus throwers and warriors: shoulders thrown away from the hips, chest expanded, one leg more tense than the other, the frame taut and strong. Next, the most effective batters flexed their front elbow at the top of the swing and straightened it back out as they brought the bat through their stroke. Finally, they cocked and uncocked their wrists — a final lash of momentum.”

He even turns to gymnastics, ballet and dance, all demanding form, before concluding with a chat with David Gower, that beauty remains natural.

“For beauty to even exist in sport feels like a miracle, since beauty is not the point. This is more true today than ever, given that both play and players are engineered for efficiency. Bats, diets, muscles, rules — everything has been tightened and tuned to the mass production of runs. Yet, fortunately, the game is still played by humans, each of whom is singular. Some bring beauty to their craft not because they’ve been coached into it but because they are who they are — an increasing rarity. It is precisely the non-essential nature of beauty that makes it, somehow, essential. Beauty doesn’t matter, and yet it’s there. That’s the beauty of it.”

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