Batting to order
Drafted in for the Final, I was to open the batting. We bowled first and as we left the field, having conceded the highest score of the five innings played that day, the Skip said, “I want Dav to open, you’ll be three.” Dav’s opening partner, our Mr October, set off at a gallop, putting us ahead of the asking rate. As he neared his retirement – on scoring 30 – the Skip turned to me: “I want to keep this momentum up. Briggsy’s in next.” Briggsy delivered and the Skip tapped our opening bowler, cricketer of pedigree, on the shoulder and said, “Get your skins on GB.” Out GB strode when Briggsy topped 30. Dav fell with the target in sight. The Skip stood up. This was a chance to wipe out the memory of his final over in last year’s semi-final – 13 runs conceded and a final ball defeat. “You’re next whatever happens,” he said before marching onto the field.
What did happen was two very fine cricketers eased us home with two overs to spare, the Skip making the winning run. He apologised to me – I hadn’t had a knock that day.
After two league title winning seasons, juggling a team of very uneven talents, the Skip had seen a chance to win something meaningful. Five batsmen, all my superiors, were our best chance of chasing down the total and were sent in ahead of me, with several cannier operators following. I backed the Skip’s decision not only because it brought us the trophy – the only cricket trophy some of us have had a sniff at – but because it showed the agile thinking that eludes cricket teams. That day I raced in earnest the hobby horse that I so often ride for leisure. Where Benaud had his front-foot no-ball law, Boycs has covered pitches, the subject I bang on about is: why are teams so inflexible with their batting order, in innnings, matches and even whole series?
Above all, it’s the England cricket team who have seemed afraid of upsetting the scorecard printers by sending in their batsmen out of order. There is an exception, itself controversial, the nightwatchman. But even that tactic appears to be employed inflexibly.
For long periods of the last thirty years, England have found the number three spot problematic. Pundits have explained the difficulty of finding a player who is equally able to take strike to the second ball of the game or after a double century opening stand. The real problem lies not in finding a player to fit this bill, but in making this the person specification. The England of 2011, best Test side in the world, have Trott at three, with Pieterson and Bell to follow. Trott, recently named ICC player of the year, is the ideal candidate for the early loss of an opener. In his current form, he thrives whenever he comes to the wicket, but is it in the team’s best interests for him to bat if the openers have lasted a session and the opponents are deploying their third and fourth change bowlers? Another player is more likely to capitalise on the situation and turn an advantage into control of the game.
A defence of the inflexible batting order is that batsmen need to know their role. Ok: “Trotters, overs 1-25, you’re in three. KP, you’re the man if Chef and Levi are still there at over 26 onwards.” In fact, the inflexible batting order can lead to batsmen being less able to play a role suited to their strengths. I suspect, this whole argument is fallacious. What we are really dealing with is individual pride and prestige. Why else was Collingwood persisted with at five in the Ashes, when Bell’s fluent innings kept getting cut short batting with the tail at six?
How far could this approach of a flexible batting order be taken? I had my first taste of club cricket, playing for a hard-drinking village Sunday XI under the captaincy of Gill, a Popeye-shaped builder, and unorthodox leader. One month he got into his head that we should capitalise on having two left-handed batsmen, one of who was me, in the top-order. Gill sent a lefty and righty out to open and said to a right-handed colleague and me that the former was to go in at three if the righty was out and me if the lefty fell first. What happens, I asked, if my fellow southpaw bats through? Am I at number eleven? Gill said he’d get back to me on that.
There are limits to how flexible the batting order should be. The potential is found in scenarios that are forseeable, of which I list a few below. First though, a danger. In baseball, when I last followed the sport closely in the early 1990s, the following often happened. In the late innings, a right-handed starting pitcher, beginning to tire and due to be facing one of the opponent’s most effective right-handed batters would be replaced by a left-handed relief pitcher. Once this pitcher had warmed up, the batting side would counter by pulling their batter from the game and sending in a left-handed pinch hitter. What seemed to drive this series of moves was ‘the numbers’: lefty batters have better stats against lefty pitchers, similarly righty batters prosper against righty pitchers. Probability, dressed up as flexibility, isn’t the answer (however, I have enjoyed international teams bringing on their slow left-arm bowlers the minute Pieterson appears at the wicket.)
Taking the current England team as the example, here are three Test match scenarios, to add to the first wicket down situation, where some flexible thinking could make (even) better use of the available talents.
- England lose their sixth wicket to a swinging delivery in the third over of the second new ball. Instead of bringing in Broad or Bresnan to partner the last front-line batsman, send out Anderson, England’s nightwatchman, to see the shine off the new ball and holding back the more attacking lower order batsmen until the bowling is less of a threat.
- A slow left-armer or leg-spinner has cut through the England middle-order, turning the ball away from the bat. Instead of exposing Prior and Bresnan, who would be vulnerable to the same kind of dismissal as their teammates, send out the left-handed Broad to disturb the bowler’s rhythm and attempt to shift the momentum of the innings.
- A long partnership, in place since the start of play, is progressing deep into its fourth hour. The next batsman in will have been sat, padded up, concentrating and burning nervous energy. Why not stand him down for half an hour to freshen up, with the next but one batsman moved up one place until the scorecard order can be reinstated?
Cricket is a unique blend of individual endeavour in a team environment. Loosening the grip of the scorecard batting order may strike at the pride of some batsmen in the interests of the team, yet also allow more individuals to play the game in situations to which their strengths are best fitted.