Opinion

The slashing blade of Liam Livingstone and the monstrous future of the elegant backswing

We’ve known for a while that Liam Livingstone can hit a long ball but boy, does he hit a long ball. And it’s not just one fluky biff across the line carried by an abnormal wave of wind: he does it again and again and again. This Hundred, he has scored 348 runs (the most in the tournament!) while striking at over 170. Oh and not to mention, he’s done this all at an average of over 60 (sorry I can’t find the exact stats, blame CricInfo for bunching the Hundred up with the rest of T20 stats). In the final, he scored a blistering 45 of 16 before succumbing to a lucky direct hit from the boundary. Before the Hundred, Livingstone was busy breaking into the unbreakable England T20 side and he didn’t just break into it, he’s made himself undroppable in the space of a series. The point is, this guy is an absolute freak.

But what I find most freakish about him isn’t actually how far he hits his sixes, it’s how he hits them. In his stance, his bat swishes languidly like a willowy palm tree riding the breeze. The soothing calm before the thunderous storm. The ball is released: he loosely picks up his bat high in the air, two heads above his helmet. His eyes remain set upon the ball, surveying any possible deviations. And then bang! The calm has become the storm.

Commentators talk about bat speed, Liam Livingstone is bat speed. He swings the bat down rapidly with the ferociousness of someone swatting a particularly irritating fly. His head, hands and hips are all aligned to a common goal: to smack that damn ball as hard as he can. Just after Livingstone’s chunky bat laid contact with the ball, those heavenly wrists kink into place. This is the icing on the cake that allows the ball to enter the stratosphere.

He follows through with such vigorousness that you worry for the well-being of that poor old shoulder. He stands and admires the perfect trajectory of the ball in a dominant, arrogant pose that any golfer would be envious of. To make a long story short, the Liam Livingstone backswing is a less muscly, more refined version of Andre Russel fused with the celestial wrists of Jos Buttler. That is some combo.

Watching the flashing blade of Livingstone has made me think about backswings as a whole: they are changing. A lot. Before T20 came into the picture, the backswing was a delicate butterfly of a thing. Batsmen like Geoff Boycott and Sunil Gavaskar relied on an economical pickup of the bat that barely qualified as a swing. They never hit the ball, they gently ushered it into following the bat’s bidding. Timing was all that mattered.

You wouldn’t find Geoff Boycott in a position like this

T20 has changed all that. Bigger bats, smaller boundaries and bigger batsmen have resulted in the desecration of the sacred backswing. Batsmen like Livingstone, Russell and Kieron Pollard have backswings like living windmills, mindlessly destroying anything in it’s arc. They never hit the ball, they brutally murder the helpless thing until it doesn’t look like a ball no more. Mind me, the classical backswing of yore is still alive in test game (exhibit A: Cheteshwar Pujara) but it’s overall abundance is waning.

But if you think this new high backswing has no nuance, you’re wrong and Julian Wood will prove it to you. Wood, a former Hampshire cricketer, is the cricket’s first specialist power-hitting coach. His inspiration derives from the baseball world during a holiday to the USA 12 years ago. Since then he’s used bungee ropes, Irish hurling sticks and non cricketing ideas to become the guru of power hitting. Wood has worked with Carlos Brathwaite, Sam Billings, Ben Stokes, Liam Livingstone and even a touch player like Joe Root so this guy knows his stuff. And as promised, here’s Wood summarising the nuances behind his big hitting philosophy.

White-ball batting is hand-eye coordination with power and skill. When you bat, you lead with your head. When you hit, you lead with your hip more. It’s about generating power ground-up, from the hip to the hands. Cricket has been traditionally too hand-reliant. That has to change. Power comes from the torso and hips. A kinetic chain of energy happens when you hit the ball explosively: it comes up from your back leg to your hip, to your back, goes to shoulder, elbow, and finally to wrists. What I try to do is to join the dots up. You need to separate your hands from your body. You need to do that separation to improve explosiveness. You see that in baseball, the back leg goes back, hands are separated from the body so to say, and then explosion kicks in.”

Julian Wood

What’s noticeable is that he believes power isn’t just through the backswing, it’s a gradual ascension of energy through the body parts. I can also see similarities with power hitting in fast bowling; bowling coaches tend to refer to hip-shoulder separation (I won’t get into the technicalities) while Julian Wood talks of hands-body separation. So hitting sixes isn’t just about having bat speed or being big and strong, it’s a complicated technique just as hard as learning the perfect cover drive.

Just like hitting coaches in baseball, coaches like Julian Wood will soon flood the market. Just like golfers, batsmen will meticulously obsess over their swings and attempt to extract every ounce of power they can. Stuff like the StanceBeam cricket bat sensor will become all the rage as whacking sixes is taken to whole new level. It is only a matter of time until the delicate butterfly has become a six hitting monster.

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