The short ball has forever been a potent weapon for the fast bowler. When protective equipment for the batsman was scarce, it was perhaps a bigger weapon, but even with more protective gear on, most batsmen don't relish the delivery. Apart from the threat of injury posed by a hard ball hurled at speed and rearing towards the chest or head, the other cause of discomfort is the fact that the batsman's main run-scoring option off that delivery is fraught with risk.
Unlike most other shots in cricket, the pull or hook is one where the point of contact with the ball is well in front of the body, which makes controlling the shot relatively tougher. Also, these shots are often played to deliveries that are shoulder height or higher, which means a batsman needs skill to be able to play it into the ground, or have enough control to loft it into a region where there are no fielders. All this when the ball is often coming at great speed.
Which is why the overall average of all batsmen when playing the hook or pull off fast or medium-fast bowlers in Tests in the last six years is 35.83, a 20-run drop from their average when playing the cover drive. A couple of weeks ago, we checked out the best exponents of the cover-drive; this time around, let's focus our attention on the best players of the hook and pull shots.
Taking 125 runs scored through the pull or hook shot against fast or medium-fast bowlers in Tests since April 1, 2014 as the cutoff, the batsman with the highest average is one who was almost at the bottom of the pile on the cover-drive table. Babar Azam was 42nd out of 45 on cover-drive average, but here he is right on top among the 39 batsmen who make the cutoff, with an average of 152. His strike rate is an outstanding 230 as well, which means it is an extremely productive stroke for him too.
Azam is among only three batsmen who average more than 100 with this shot; to 14 players average more than 100 when playing the cover drive (though that is against all bowlers, not just pace). The other two are Australians, who you would generally expect to be good players of these shots: Usman Khawaja averages 112, and Steven Smith (is there any list where he isn't among the top five?) 102.4.
Also in the top six are Faf du Plessis, Brendon McCullum and Kusal Mendis. Du Plessis ranked very high on the cover-drive table too: in terms of averages he was next only to Aiden Markram, but Mendis' case is like Azam's: he is in the top five here, but his cover-drive average of 44.71 ranked him 44th out of 45 batsmen. Speaking of Markram, he was undismissed on cover drives, and he is undismissed when playing the pull or hook too, having scored 94 runs from 54 balls off those shots. That gives him a total of 432 runs from 217 balls without a single dismissal, when playing the cover drive, the pull or the hook.
Among the other prominent batsmen, Hashim Amla averages 77, which ranks him seventh, while Joe Root is a place below him with an average of 75.2. Virat Kohli is in 11th place, averaging 61.8, which is marginally above Rohit Sharma's 61.33. (More on Sharma and his pull when we look at the ODI numbers for these shots next week.) Further down the list is Kane Williamson, with an average of under 40 while playing these shots, while David Warner has an un-Australian average of 31.81. (A special shout-out to Tim Southee, whose average of 43.25 beats those of several prominent batsmen, including Williamson and Warner.)
If we restrict the analysis to Tests played in South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia (SENA), where conditions are generally more favourable to fast bowling, McCullum and Smith take the top two spots, and Australians dominate the top five (cutoff: 100 runs). Azam still has impressive numbers, having scored 74 runs off 30 balls with one dismissal, but Kohli's average drops to 48.33 (145 runs, three dismissals). Root averages 67.6 in these countries, Williamson 44.6 and Warner 40.62.
That the pull and hook shots are riskier than the cover drive also becomes apparent when looking at the percentage of batsman runs against dismissal percentages. Warner, for instance, has scored just 11.2% of his Test runs against pace through these shots in the last six years, but it has brought about almost 17% of his dismissals. That's a difference of -5.7. Among the others with a negative difference are Kane Williamson (-3.5), Quinton de Kock (-4.8), Ross Taylor (-7.4) and Tom Latham (-8.3). (Notice in the graph below that the runs percentage is lower for the last five names.)
These negative values indicate that these shots have resulted in a disproportionately high percentage of dismissals for these batsmen in relation to the number of runs they have fetched. On the other hand, all batsmen with 300-plus cover-drive runs had a positive difference between percentage of runs and percentage of dismissals, thus showing quite clearly that the pull and hook are far riskier options for batsmen.
However, there are batsmen for whom the risk-reward equation works in their favour. Joe Burns, for instance, has scored 224 runs from the pull/hook, which is 22.5% of his total runs against pace, but has only been dismissed three times while attempting those shots, which is 11.5% of his total dismissals to pace. That is clearly a good bargain from a batsman's point of view, as is Azam's trade-off of 14.25 percent of runs versus 4% dismissals. But further down the graph, there are batsmen for whom the equation isn't as favourable.
The control percentages tell the same story: there is higher risk involved in playing these shots, and hence the control percentages are lower. The top control percentages for the cover drive were upwards of 90, but among batsmen who have played at least 75 pull or hook shots in the last six years, the highest control percentage is just 82.4, by Marnus Labuschagne. He has played 85 such shots, and been in control of 70. (He has scored 119 runs off those deliveries and been out once, so he has an excellent average too, though he just misses out on the 125-run cutoff for averages.)
Labuschagne is the only batsman with an 80-plus control percentage figure. The rest of the top five are all between 78 and 79, and consist of Burns, Smith, Khawaja and Williamson - who makes the top five here despite his relatively low average. (But then, is there any control list that doesn't feature Williamson in the top five?) Williamson's lower average is because of his tendency to get out quite often when he commits an error: his average number of false shots per dismissal when playing these strokes is only 4.7, compared with 15 for Labuschagne, 14 for Khawaja, and 11.8 for Smith.
The lower control percentage numbers for some of the other top batsmen once again highlight the degree of difficulty in getting this shot right: 75.8 for Azam, 70.1 for Kohli, 69.5 for Root, 66.8 for Warner, 64.4 for Ben Stokes, and 63.8 for Taylor. No wonder the fast bowlers don't mind getting into a short-ball battle most times.