Close your eyes for a couple of seconds, and imagine yourself in the shoes of a batsman walking in to bat, with the scoreboard reading 20 for 2. An absolute pressure-cooker situation; with the fielding side all pumped up, and a tearaway fast bowler steaming in to bowl what could quite possibly be a brute of a first delivery to you.
Butterflies... lots and lots of butterflies in the stomach, is what you're going to be experiencing as you mark your guard to face the speedster. It won't matter if you've scored a mammoth hundred in your previous outing, or if you were dismissed first ball. It never does. Every innings is a brand new beginning. You have to start from ball one all over again.
Now unless you're in the form of your life, it's pretty normal to find yourself a bit tentative early on with both, your foot movement as well as your stroke play. You've just arrived at the crease and you need to get a feel of the conditions out there in the middle. You need to assess how the pitch is behaving, the way the ball is (or isn't!) coming onto the bat, whether there is any movement in the air or off the seam, etc. Initially, you may find yourself a bit rusty. Your feet may not move fluently, your timing may be a bit awry, you might play and miss a few... Yes, it can take a while for the butterflies to settle down.
But a nice crisp straight drive to a juicy half volley can change all that in the matter of one ball. Suddenly, you swell with confidence and feel like a million bucks. You're among the runs again. The butterflies have vanished. And the tearaway fast bowler doesn't seem all that fast anymore! That is the kind of magical effect that a well executed straight drive has on a batsman's confidence. The stroke is like a shot in the arm for all of us batsmen. For all budding cricketers, here are some tips on how to play, perhaps the most beautiful and satisfying shot in cricket.
Playing the Straight Drive
Jacques Kallis. Grant Flower. And of late, Martin Guptill and Kevin Pietersen. All excellent players of the straight drive. However, for me there is no better exponent of this particular stroke other than Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar. A purist to the core. His is the definition of a textbook straight drive. That broad bat face meeting the ball right in the middle, the high left elbow, the near-effortless punch, the signature Tendulkar follow through... it is as pleasing to the eye as it can ever get.
These are a few things that every young batsman can learn from Tendulkar's straight drive:
One of the first things that you realize is that Sachin's straight drive (be it an on drive or an off drive) is rarely about power. More often than not, it is just a harmless looking punch off the front foot (at times, simply an extension of the forward defense). But what makes the ball race away to the fence is the sublime piece of timing behind his stroke. He does not try to overhit the ball. The lesson to be learned here is that the magic within the straight drive lies in the way you time the ball. The bat must meet the ball at precisely the right moment. If you bring your bat down with a ferocious bat swing and try to hit the leather out of the ball, your timing will be all over the place. Therefore, focus on timing. Not power.
• Leaning Forward Towards the Ball
This is something that applies to nearly all cricket shots off the front foot, and not just the straight drive. If you observe Tendulkar playing the straight drive from a side-on view, you will notice how his upper body (in sync with his front foot) goes towards the ball (as opposed to staying upright). You should lean forward into your shot and meet the ball in front of your left pad (in case of a right-handed batsman). Not only is this important for getting your timing right, but also to ensure that you hit the ball along the ground and not in the air.
• Watching the Ball Onto the Bat
This is a very important element of batting. From the moment the ball leaves the bowler's hand till the time it meets your bat, you must carefully watch the ball all the way through. You may watch it out of the bowler's hand and even through the air, but if you take your eyes off the ball at the point of impact, then there's every chance that you will end up mishitting the ball in an unintended direction.
• Judging the Line and Length Early
Once again, this is a prerequisite for every cricket stroke. As far as the straight drive is concerned, you should ideally look to play this stroke to balls which are pitched in line with the off stump or the middle stump, and on a length which is anywhere between good length and beyond. For a ball that is pitched in line with the leg stump, the flick towards midwicket is a better option. Similarly, for a ball that is pitched outside the off stump, the cover drive or the off drive is a more appropriate choice of stroke. Pay careful attention to the length of the delivery. If the ball is pitched on or around a good length, then you must let the ball come to you and then play it; rather than you reaching out too far forward towards the ball. If the ball is swinging, then by waiting for the ball and allowing it to come to you, you give yourself that extra element of time to counter the swing and movement (as opposed to you reaching out for the ball instead).
• Firm Bottom Hand
A firm bottom hand is necessary to ensure that the bat handle does not turn in your hand at the point of impact. If you play with a loose bottom hand, the bat handle may turn and the ball may hit the inside (or outside) half of the bat face, and go in an unintended direction.
Last but not the least, observe and learn. Keep observing the great players and study their technique. If you get a chance, watch them as they go about their practice sessions in the nets. That is the time when they themselves work on the finer points of their technique. You can watch, learn and pick up some really useful tips from the nets and practice sessions itself.
All the very best! Play straight!