All-out attack: umpire Billy Bowden signals another six in his unique style. © Getty Images

All-out attack: umpire Billy Bowden signals another six in his unique style. © Getty Images

In Death of a Gentleman, the rise of the Indian Premier League is symbolised by shots of seething crowds, comely cheerleaders and the flailing bat of Chris Gayle, while his voice sing-songs through the ecstatic din. “Because it’s a different feeling, I’m telling you, when you see so many flags going, right around the ground, and they are shouting your name, and saying ‘We want a six!’” As various of his strokes are seen soaring into stands, Gayle slips into a seeming trance. “It’s like, damn, OK, I’ll give them a six… It’s a great feeling… Going, going, going, gone… Beautiful.”

Had there been a soundtrack, only Barry White would have been suitable: “Keep on doin’ it, right on/Right on doin’ it.” And, as ever with zeitgeisty Gayle, it was on point. The game has had rhapsodic romances with certain shots, from the cover-drive and the leg glance to the reverse sweep and the ramp. Today it is smitten with a quantity, a unit: the six has become the currency of cricket’s economy. How many in a Test career, a record seized last year by Brendon McCullum from Adam Gilchrist, has become a kind of blue riband. How many in any given T20 game, as tournament six-counters spin like fruit machines, is a favourite gee-whizz stat, an excitement index. Sponsors, from DLF to Yes Bank, have competed for naming rights to IPL maximums. By calling his autobiography Six Machine, Gayle himself incorporated the big hit into his personal brand.

Contemplating the way the six collapsed distance between player and crowd, John Arlott once called it “the most companionable of cricket acts”. Today it is in some ways a marketing device, an act of consumer outreach. As the camera hovers over the expectant terraces, we’re invited to share in the rapture. Look at the fans! Look at them having fun! And – all of a piece with fans having fun – look at the product we’re pitching you!

Oddly enough, the most pronounced growth in the six supply has been experienced in neither Twenty20 nor Test cricket, but in one-day internationals – indicative of the overall tide of aggression and enhancements in technology, but perhaps also of the contrivances adopted to revive the format. Many of the 38 sixes that descended on fans at Bangalore’s Chinnaswamy Stadium during a one-day international between India and Australia in November 2013 seemed almost perfunctory, so far away were fielders kept by restrictions.

Striking early: Joe Darling and Albert Trott. © Getty Images

Striking early: Joe Darling and Albert Trott. © Getty Images

Expectations have changed irrevocably. When Robin Smith (167 not out) set England’s one-day benchmark in 1993, they hit their four sixes in the full 55 overs. When Alex Hales (171) moved that benchmark last year, they hit 16 in 50. The four consecutive sixes with which West Indies’ Carlos Brathwaite lowered the boom on England in the World Twenty20 final a few months earlier still qualified as extraordinary, although not, perhaps, miraculous. No one had counted West Indies out, even though they needed 19 in the final over. That was the way they had approached the tournament: 43 sixes, to go with the 43% of deliveries from which they did not score.

How and why has this changed? In the game’s earliest days, the scarcity of sixes was as notable as their abundance now. That was partly because six was awarded only if the ball left the ground itself, rather than simply the playing area. Australians awarded five runs for hits into the crowd, although this required the batsman to change ends – a penalty of sorts. Everywhere else, the hit beyond the ropes that remained within the ground was worth only four.

If the six has an ideological forefather, it was the broad-shouldered, horseshoe-moustached South Australian Joe Darling, who was irked on his first tour of England in 1896 to hit two balls over the pavilion at Crystal Palace and earn only four for them, as the venue’s defined precinct extended another 100 yards. “Those two hits of mine would have gone right out of the Melbourne Cricket Ground,” he griped.

Eighteen months later, at Adelaide Oval, Darling got a little of his own back by transiting from 98 to 104 in one hit, off England’s Johnny Briggs – the first blow of its kind in an international match, causing nearly a delirium. “Most batsmen display extreme caution when they approach the coveted century,” reported the Register. “Not so Darling, who, getting from Briggs a ball to leg which was just the right height to have a pop at, put all his strength into a hit to square leg and sent the ball sailing out of the Oval. Then the hats left the heads of excited spectators and the cheering continued until the ball was found in the Park Lands, and Darling was ready to take strike again.”

Darling must have enjoyed the sensation, because he wanted to share it, taking on the six as a personal mission. When Surrey hosted a dinner for the Australians in 1899, and discussion turned to the timidity of modern batting, Darling enjoined English administrators to “alter the rules to enable a batsman to take risks by giving six for every hit over the boundary”. He was unsuccessful in the first instance: when Middlesex’s Albert Trott accomplished his unique blow at Lord’s shortly afterwards, wellying his fellow Australian Monty Noble over the Pavilion and into the squash courts, it was worth only four. But when Darling led the touring Australians in 1905, their sixes for the first time had only to clear the fence, which quickly became the Australian first-class norm, and five years later the English norm too.

"Look at the fans! Look at them having fun! And – all of a piece with fans having fun – look at the product we’re pitching you!" © Getty Images

“Look at the fans! Look at them having fun! And – all of a piece with fans having fun – look at the product we’re pitching you!” © Getty Images

To hit in these times was to indulge in an almost guilty pleasure. The notion – so common today it verges on cliche´ – that players were entertainers, had little traction. Even Gilbert Jessop, the definitive hitter of his day, felt no such duty: “Playing to the gallery in all sports is one of the most offensive forms of diseased vanity, and to hit simply in order to extort applause would indeed be a lamentable method of seeking cheap popularity.” Yet he could not deny that it was fun, that there was “some satisfaction in feeling that you are giving pleasure to the vast throng surrounding the field of play, that they are glad to see you appear”.

Even the most bloody-minded batsmen admitted the big hit’s particular frisson, while remaining reticent about such exhibitionism. In 1919, the first season of their famously stubborn and prolific partnership, Yorkshire’s Percy Holmes and Herbert Sutcliffe were enjoying themselves at Northampton, vying with each other to be first to three figures. In his 1935 autobiography, For England and Yorkshire, Sutcliffe recalled the illicit pleasure of straight-driving 40 yards beyond the boundary into the tennis courts, a shot that took him from 94 to his maiden first-class century. In the next breath, though, he was excusing such self-indulgence: “The thrill stayed with me for a long time – there is a touch of it now when I think of the shot – but the hit was one I should not have attempted had there not been a race with Percy for the pleasure of scoring the first hundred for the county.”

The six was transgressive not only because cricket was conservative. It was also risky. Bats were slim and light. Boundaries hugged fences. At lower levels there was even the inhibition of six and out, lest a precious ball be lost. So for a long time batting’s most rewarding stroke was not identified with its foremost exponents. There was attacking batsmanship, of course. But six-hitting tended to be a facility of specialist practitioners, usually down the order: West Indies’ Learie Constantine, South Africa’s Jimmy Sinclair, Somerset’s Arthur Wellard, Middlesex’s Jim Smith.

The pre-war batsman of stature most notable for hitting was an outsider. C. K. Nayudu was a straight hitter of withering force. A six out of Chepauk in December 1920 ended up near a coconut tree 50 yards beyond the ground. Six years later, 11 sixes in a two-hour 153 against MCC at Bombay Gymkhana advanced India’s case for Test recognition. And one of Nayudu’s 32 sixes on India’s 1932 tour of England, at Edgbaston, was said to have cleared the county, crossing the River Rea, which then formed the boundary between Warwickshire and Worcestershire. Including Nayudu among the Five Cricketers of the Year, Wisden reported: “Possessed of supple and powerful wrists and a very good eye, he hit the ball tremendously hard but, unlike the modern Australian batsmen, he lifted it a fair amount.” Most did not: Hobbs hit eight sixes in 61 Tests, Bradman six in 52, Walter Hammond 27 in 85, with the boost of ten in one innings against New Zealand. Nayudu was even an outlier among his countrymen: Vijay Merchant’s best first-class score, an unbeaten 359, was unaided by a single six; B. B. Nimbalkar’s record-breaking unbeaten 443 included just one.

Vijay Merchant’s best first-class score, an unbeaten 359, was unaided by a single six. © Getty Images

Vijay Merchant’s best first-class score, an unbeaten 359, was unaided by a single six. © Getty Images

If sixes grew more regular after the Second World War, one thing did not change: the conviction that they should be spontaneous. “It is unwise for a batsman specifically to make up his mind before the ball is bowled where he will hit it,” counselled Bradman. “The really fast scorer over a period is not the wild slogger.” Even the free-swinging Australian Alan Davidson, who hit two sixes in a famous over during the tight 1961 Old Trafford Test, insisted it must “be an instinctive thing”, that “the best shots are rarely premeditated”. When Garfield Sobers hit his fabled six sixes at Swansea in 1968, he formed the ambition only after four deliveries: “I thought I should give it a go; there was nothing to lose.”

The taboo was loosened at last by Sobers’s West Indian heirs, licensed by limited-over incentives, empowered by ever-heavier bats. In the course of an 85-ball 102 in the 1975 World Cup final at Lord’s, Clive Lloyd deployed a 3lb Duncan Fearnley to hit Dennis Lillee into the top tier of the Tavern Stand and flail Max Walker into the Grand Stand. In the final against England four years later, Viv Richards used a hump-backed Stuart Surridge Jumbo to hit the last ball of his undefeated 138, a near-yorker from Mike Hendrick, into the Mound Stand. Seeing mid-off and mid-on back, he anticipated a full delivery, stepped to off and aimed to leg. “I left the field thinking: ‘That shot is my invention’,” he wrote in Sir Vivian. “I was very proud of the option I had taken. It wasn’t arrogance. It was pure one-day cricket.” It was also pure Richards, who bestowed his gifts, and sixes, liberally: six of them in his record-breaking 56-ball Test hundred in Antigua in April 1986, including one, off John Emburey, with one hand.

In the same week, fastidious premeditation informed perhaps the most reverberating six of all. Footage of Javed Miandad awaiting the last ball of the Austral-Asia Cup final in Sharjah shows him standing a full minute, scanning the field, weighing his options and calling on his deity, with four needed to win. Like Richards at Lord’s, he anticipated the pitched-up delivery, and stepped forward, nailing a full toss from India’s luckless Chetan Sharma into the stands. It remains the maximum of maximums: the luxury Mercedes Miandad was given, and the umrah he was enabled to perform at the Holy Kaaba in Mecca, are a unique temporal and spiritual double.

Thus, perhaps, the beginnings of cricket’s genuflection to the six: Miandad scored an unbeaten 116 that day, though few remember any detail of the first 110. Certainly the six suited the priorities of a game increasingly preoccupied with television. The slow-motion replay broke it down for delectation; the umpire’s ceremonial raise of the arms provided an interlude of celebration; the commentator revelled in descriptive possibilities. Ian Botham’s straight-drive beyond the Headingley boundary during his 1981 command performance will for ever be associated with Richie Benaud’s call: “Don’t bother looking for that, let alone chasing it – that’s gone straight into the confectionery stall and out again.”

Yet the rise and rise of the six is not just about power. It is also about time, urgency, gratification. Who can wait for centuries? Who can wait for fame? © Getty Images

A first generation of sponsors embraced the big blow: National Power in England with its Six Award for the first-class season, Mercantile Mutual in Australia with its Six Targets in domestic one-day cricket – for hitting one of them, at the River End of the WACA in October 1995, Steve Waugh won $A140,000. And when Waugh slog-swept Steve Elworthy into the Headingley bleachers during the 1999 World Cup, he foretold how batting’s frontiers would move in the search for extra heft and leverage.

Slog-sweeps and reverse sweeps appear in Bob Woolmer’s magnum opus, Art and Science of Cricket (2008) – perhaps the first instructional book to give them their due. Yet so profuse have been batting’s Twenty20-inspired innovations since then that much else about the book’s stroke catalogue, demonstrated by a sombre Jacques Kallis, now appears rather staid. Certainly there are no elucidations of how best to set oneself to hit a six when it is needed – a skill that since the advent of the IPL has been worth ever more, and proved transferable. The sixes that crowned Virender Sehwag’s first Test triple-century and M. S. Dhoni’s match-winning World Cup innings were batting’s new age incarnate.

Some have raised alarms about the spirit of this age, and in December 2016 MCC’s world cricket committee recommended a limit on the dimensions of the modern bat, a miracle of balance, mass and rebound. In the Australian summer of 2015-16, a photograph circulated of that beau idéal of 1970s batting, Barry Richards, holding up one of his own bats alongside one of David Warner’s, wand versus claymore. Into the Big Bash League, Gayle then flourished a gleaming gold bat, almost the perfect fetish object and symbol of cricket’s six-propelled bling economy.

Yet the rise and rise of the six is not just about power. It is also about time, urgency, gratification. Who can wait for centuries? Who can wait for fame? It took Darren Lehmann 30 first-class hundreds over a decade to secure a Test cap. It took his son Jake one ball – sliced inside-out for six to win a BBL game for Adelaide Strikers in January 2016 – to become an instant celebrity.

Curiously, the junior Lehmann didn’t even seem to hit it that well: the ball fell just the right side of an alluring rope. But perhaps that is another dimension of the phenomenon. The hit for six has been less the characteristic shot of the last decade than the mis-hit. Certainly the days when six implied perfect connection, complete mastery, are past. So excellent are bats, so conducive are conditions and so lush are incentives that it hardly matters how – it is how much. Size matters. As Gayle is also bound to have said at some point.