Let it go: the art of the leave in cricket | Cricket

Hear that? Pitter patter of footsteps. Whoosh. Silence. Thud. Groan. The sound of leather not on willow. Cricket revolves around the tussle between bat and ball. But in order to make runs, batting in the longest format is as much about survival and occupation: of actively choosing not to hit the ball.

According to CricViz, 16% of all deliveries in Test cricket are left, which makes the abjuration of a stroke comfortably the second most common “shot” in the format after the defensive forward. All that energy expended over nothing. A Beckettian passage of play that repeats sometimes over a hundred times a Test match. Day after day. Nothing happens. Somebody bowls. Somebody lets it go. Is it absorbing?

The great cricket writer Gideon Haigh describes the leave as arguably the subtlest act in all of cricket. “The exchange of an advantage so small as to be in most cases is almost immeasurable,” he wrote in 2007, long before Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne came along with all their jerky, performative demurring.

Coaching manuals are rife with information about how to play the proper forward defensive as well as other more attacking strokes. It’s much harder to find literature, coaching or otherwise, about the art of shouldering arms.

In the MCC Masterclass coaching manual published in 1994, Geoffrey Boycott describes how the leave can be used to manipulate the bowler to bowl where the batter wants, to grind them down in the battle of wills. “Wait. Have patience. Let him see you refusing to drive so that he is tempted to land the ball a foot closer to you. Then bang. Get on the front foot and drive the ball away. ” Here is the dual purpose of the leave. It is primarily an act of survival but can evolve into one of coercion.

Another former England great who contributed to the MCC Masterclass is David Gower. His final act in Test cricket, not that he knew it at the time, was to shoulder arms to Waqar Younis in a 1992 Test match at The Oval. Gower had played and missed at four deliveries that had shaped away, only to leave one that held its line, the ball flicking off Gower’s bail like a child knocking off the head of a dandelion.

“It was a very good piece of bowling,” Gower recalls. “On a better day I’d have perhaps done something different, but it wasn’t one of my better days!” How natural a thing was it for him to leave the ball alone? “My greatest instinct was to go to the ball, to try and score runs. But when you get that wrong and get out, as everybody does at some point, you realize you need to learn to leave the ball as well, at first it is a method of survival. ”

There’s a particular ignominy to being bowled out shouldering arms, to “die in a strokeless ditch” as Haigh calls it. Perhaps because it often looks dramatic or incongruous. Maybe because it seems as if the batter has gone down without a fight. Much better to have loved and lost, tried and failed, to go down wielding rather than withdrawing? “I got out like that to Geoff Lawson at Trent Bridge in 1989,” Gower adds. “The ball pitched 12 inches outside off stump and seamed back late. I don’t blame myself one little bit. It looks bad but there’s nothing you can do. ”

Ricky Ponting lets a delivery go against England in 2007. Photograph: Sydney Morning Herald / Getty Images

Sometimes it plays into a narrative. Dan Lawrence, Dominic Sibley, Keaton Jennings have all got out shouldering arms early in their England careers. Dismissals accompanied by talk of “scrambled brains” and of them being unsure of their process at the highest level. Gower thinks this is unfair. “It is an error of judgment in exactly the same way as playing at a ball that is a foot wide of off stump. No better, but certainly not worse. ”

The way a batter leaves a ball is often a continuation of how they bat in general. Consider the groin-busting alpha lunges of Ricky Ponting and Kevin Pietersen, arms and blade aloft like an executioner – except the final blow is never landed. The languid leave alone of Gower was entirely in keeping with his style. The minimal curtain pull known by some as “the Kent Leave” is a style of leaving that involves playing inside the line of the ball, which sometimes makes it look as if the batter has been duped but in fact they are following through with the line of their stroke rather than nibbling at the ball.

Mark Benson was an early exponent, Michael Carberry more recently too. But the style is most synonymous with Marcus Trescothick, the West Country Lineman. With barely perceptible foot movement, his technique relied heavily on his hands and weight going at the ball; often the bowler would think they were certain to take his edge, only for it to be drawn away at the last.

Playing club cricket in the North Derbyshire and Yorkshire leagues as a callow teenager, I began to get a reputation as an obstinate opener. My role was clear, whether I liked it or not, to open the batting and hang around for as long as possible, frustrate the opposition and allow the “men” at the other end to reap the rewards of the ensuing wayward bowling. As tactics go it wasn’t ground-breaking – essentially send the boring kid in to annoy the enemy. As the years went by I grew tired of my enforced piety. I wanted to play my shots. Still, for a few seasons there was a weird satisfaction to be taken in defying the bowler. In seeing how close you could push it, the ball passing so close to the stumps it could whisper sweet nothings into the bail groove.

I’d developed a late leave whereby I would trust my young reflexes to be able to get my hands and bat out of the way at last, the bat still hovering horizontally. I’d blink up at the bowler, not turning to see the end of the ball’s journey, confident that it had passed by harmlessly, taking an admittedly lo-fi pleasure in it. If the bowler combusted then all the better.

The first time I was called a certain four-letter expletive I was at the crease. It was preceded by the word “jammy” but I didn’t see it that way at all. Gower agrees. “When you are in command then you enjoy the ones that are close, you might get an ‘ooo-arr’ from the other end but you just look at the bowler and smile and let him worry about that. That in a way is all part of the fun. ”

But what of the other player involved in this fruitless exchange? The bowler. How does it feel to be on the receiving end of the leave? “If a batter is leaving the ball well, you can see their game is in good order and for me I thought if they were leaving me easily then they were imposing themselves on me as well,” says Simon Jones, 2005 Ashes winner and catalyst of perhaps the most famous shouldered armed dismissal in Test cricket.

“Ricky Ponting was a great leaver of the ball. Our margin for error was miniscule. He’d leave you and then you’d try something a bit different and he’d be on it, flashed to the boundary, then you have to start all over again. It can be really demoralizing. ”

Marnus Labuschagne lets it go in England in 2019.
Marnus Labuschagne lets it go in England in 2019. Photograph: Alex Davidson / Getty Images

Jones mentions that in addition to line and length deliveries, if a batter is able to evade the short ball too then it is even more of a frustration. “It simply came to our notice then. All that effort and they sway nonchalantly out of the way? You’re kidding me. ”

This feeling of being imposed upon by the passive act of leaving the ball has been taken to the next level in the past few years by Smith and Labuschagne. Pointing the bat down the wicket towards the bowler like a jouster and bellowing ‘no run!’ (er, obviously) as the ball passes into the keeper’s gloves. With Labuschagne’s matador-esque shenanigans it feels like the non-stroke is entering new territory, that the leave is being weaponised.

Labuschagne recently tried to explain his logic. “It’s just about getting into the contest. So me leaving the ball extravagantly, or a little bit over exaggerating, it’s just me showing energy, because a leave can be quite a mundane type of shot… maybe it puts pressure back on the bowlers because there’s a bit more intensity with the leave, it creates a bit more atmosphere when you bat. ”

So how would Jones react? “That sort of stuff can be really annoying. I’d try and not let it bother me, but sometimes that’s easier said than done. You know he’s trying to get into your head. ”

A beat passes before the fast bowler’s spirit bubbles to the surface. “I’d let him crack on with his silly antics and concentrate on just bowling on a spot. Take the player out of it. Plus if you do get him out in the end you can always enjoy giving him a bit of a send-off. ”

I can’t let Jones go without asking him about that ball from 2005. He knows precisely which. “The Michael Clarke ball. It’s the one people remember me for, 100%, ”he says. Jones’ delivery to Michael Clarke during the Old Trafford Test of the 2005 Ashes is one of the most memorable sights and sounds of cricket in recent history. The thunk of the ball as it careers into and removes the future Australian captain’s off pole is deeply satisfying.

What does he remember of those four seconds of visual, aural pleasure? “I knew I had to set him up. I went for two or three overs of conventional away swingers to lull him into a false sense of security, make him think he knew what was happening. It’s a strange feeling, I got to the top of my mark and the crowd had gone a bit quiet, so I turned around to give them a bit of a gee up and I thought, ‘Right, this has got to be the ball that I’m going to deck one in ‘. It came out perfectly. I knew I’d got him as soon as I let it go. I could see he was getting ready to do his lunge and put his arms up. I was so happy he left it. You just know you’ve absolutely done someone when they do that. ”

In this era of short-form dominance, or “hit and giggle” as Gower calls it, it feels like the leave could become a lesser spotted sight throughout the game.

Batters are keener to feel bat on ball, while the drip-drip of dots in a T20 or ODI can be a death knell for the white-ball player. One suspects there will be a knock-on effect on Test cricket. Yet those purists who are concerned that the leave shot – as a symbol of “proper” Test match batting – will eventually become obsolete, should note that CricViz suggests otherwise: according to their data, when batters face pace in Test cricket, they leave the ball up to 22% of the time, a figure that has remained broadly the same throughout the century.

The new issue of Wisden is out now.
The new issue of Wisden is out now.

Far from being its thrusting savior, Labuschagne, who has moved to the top summit of Test match batting by eschewing any tempters, is merely the latest convert to this most subtle of batting arts. And that’s the funny thing about the leave. Even when it looks like nothing is happening, something invariably is.

This article was first published in Wisden Cricket Monthly. Guardian readers can get three digital issues of the magazine for just £ 2.49 or three print issues for just £ 5.99.

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