There are just a few things that can quell the competitive drive of adults attending junior cricket matches. An injury quickly draws the antagonists together. A sharply taken catch will elicit applause before the mum, dad or coach has had time to process that one of their own batsmen has been dismissed.
And then there is the young batsman stretching forward, front-leg bent, and stroking a ball through the off-side, with bat not deviating from the vertical plane. That sight obliterates all partiality. We all love to see an off-drive. It represents the grace and elegance we want from cricket and when we see a young player manage to play the stroke, it elevates the contest for all (the adults) involved.
Last season, the under 16s team that I organised, chased down a total, thanks largely to our opener. A strong, sporty lad, he stood tall at the crease and swung powerfully through the line of the ball, sending it with a mighty crack hurtling away between long-off and mid-wicket. He reached his retirement score and was cheered off by his teammates and generously applauded by the opposition. Our middle-order then chipped away at the remainder of the target.
At the game’s conclusion, as I thanked the neutral umpire, this wise old observer of the game began to wax lyrical about ‘some of those shots’. I was about to comment about the lad’s strength, when I realised he was talking about our number four – a shorter, compact and very conventionally correct batsman. He had batted circumspectly, playing out a few maidens, pushing singles off his pads and also stroking three delightful cover drives. Those were the shots the old umpire meant, the images of the game that he was so keen to share at its conclusion.
The majority of volunteer club coaches, junior organisers, cricket savvy mums and dads are of a generation whose cricket education and experience was untouched by the fabulous crisis in coaching batting described by Rick Walton in his recent blog post. They may promote the more contemporary priorities of enjoyment and participation for all, but technically their bias is traditional. Can they be shifted? Should they be shifted?
Rick’s fabulous crisis refers to the success of unconventional players (for example, Pietersen and McCullum) and more than that, to the fast-evolving demands of short-form cricket for surprising and improvised shot-making. My contribution to the debate that Rick has prompted is to consider what the response should be at the entry level to the game – for both players and coaches.
Boys and girls starting their club cricket lives present with a wonderful variety of batting techniques. Some crouch over their bats; others would topple over if you removed the bat from their hands; a few hold the bat away from themselves with an apparent aversion to willow; many stand rigidly, elbows locked. Grips can be anywhere along the length of the often too long handle, even with fingers resting on the back of the bat’s blade. They stand at all points along a 90 degree arc of orientation towards the bowler. There is less diversity of foot movement – either none or clearing the front-leg to the on-side. Bat paths are also less varied: a swing across the line, or a poke forward without backswing.
Coaches, through the gentle tools of our trade, nudge towards a monoculture. But we live (for now) in liberal times and diversity persists. The girl who can reliably clear mid-wicket will be challenged to hit the ball straight between the cones either side of the coach, but we’re pretty pleased to see a ball hit cleanly in any direction.
A year-or-two on and natural selection will have eliminated some of the more extreme natural techniques and the unsubtle reinforcement of straight-hitting will have grooved many youngsters – certainly during those oft-repeated straight-hitting drills, but maintained by fewer in the wild moments of a ‘real game’ with its 360 degree hitting zone.
The coaches at this stage start to see opportunities to ‘improve’ a player’s technique. Take the example of a boy who is progressing keenly, but continues to show a vulnerability to the full, straight ball, which he carves at, bat arriving from the direction of fourth slip, often passing without intercepting the ball. “Play straight,” we could advise, demonstrate and drill in conventional fashion. If, on the other hand, we tried to base our coaching intervention on the ECB’s core batting principles, we might emphasise the need to present the full face of the bat.
In most cases, use of either of those examples of technical terminology is unlikely to engage the young lad (and I doubt the ECB’s coaching gurus would expect its principles to be applied so drily). In my (pre-core principles) ECB coaching education, an early lesson was to identify and then prioritise the objectives of the coach. With ‘safety’ a clear front-runner, well ahead of the rest of the pack was ‘motivate’.
The coach achieves most when able to understand what would motivate this particular lad, with this particular batting vulnerability, to improve. Does he know he’s been getting out that way? Does he care? If he does, why? To bat longer, to score faster? He might already have his sights set on opening the batting for the 1st XI at some point in the future. Some discussion of the value of ‘playing straight’ might then be relevant. If he wants an attacking response to that full, straight ball, then a chat about where he might hit it, and then how, would follow.
I need to pull myself back as I’m starting to present an ideal response. Situations are rarely so clear-cut in terms of a youngster expressing their requirement, the diagnosis and options for prognosis, particularly when you’re running a session for a dozen eleven year-olds, while a parent is trying to catch your eye with a question about getting a new club shirt, and you’re distracted by a nagging feeling that you can’t raise a team for next week’s game because the local school is running an outward bounds course.
The point I want to make from my idealised situation is simply that softer coaching skills precede the harder technical ones. If our young batsman tells you his preferred resolution to his weakness with full, straight balls would be to ramp them over the keeper’s head, then the coach should wrestle with Rick’s fabulous crisis, not because the ramp is a shot a la mode, but because the motivation of a young player is at stake.
Coaches should avoid imposing solutions – that’s not really coaching, after all – even if, to be frank, it’s what most of us try (unsuccessfully) to do most of the time. The erosion of the certainties of technique – their McCullumisation – demonstrates that insisting there is one way to bat is not merely poor coaching process, but is empirically, as shown on (subscription) TV by today’s professionals, wrong.
In practice, for the coach, saturated in years of a conventional appreciation of batting, who is rushing from a work meeting, through heavy traffic, to run a batting training session with a diverse group of pre-teens, none of whom made it to double-figures in last week’s match, we can only expect so much flexible thinking. Coaches of junior club players will continue to need a simple framework with which to assess their players, and to suggest and shape meaningful practice activities.
This reflection on Rick’s fabulous crisis – or, to repeat my coining, the McCullumisation – has prompted me to recognise I should be offering and talking options when coaching batting: options for playing particular deliveries, options to achieve identified objectives, options to manage situations during innings.
I also have a suggestion for the framers of the syllabus for coaching batting. It is relatively superficial and draws on something I have observed with my sons’ football. It addresses a separate concern that I have about cricket, which is that youngsters play the game without gaining any connection to its history and culture. In small sided football games across the land, primary school aged children know and attempt ‘Maradonas’ and ‘Cruyff turns’. Naming specific skills after the game’s greats can inspire curiosity, YouTube searches and an awareness of the sport outside of this weekend’s Super Sunday. Shouldn’t we be introducing the Sanga off-drive, the King Viv on-drive, the Ponting pull and, of course, the Boycott block?
Returning to my earlier description of the two junior batsmen. The tall, powerful striker of the ball has not played this season and may be lost to the sport. The shorter, conventionally correct batsman plays senior cricket every weekend his studies allow and will complete the ECB Level 1 coaching course this winter as preparation for helping run training for younger players next season. He will fit right in with the rest of the coaching team at our club with our preference, above all else, for the off-drive.
This post was written in response to Rick Walton’s ‘Coaching – A Fabulous Crisis’ found on his blog cricketmanwales, where Rick writes about community cricket coaching, the changing game of cricket and the amazing potential of sport to improve lives. He’s on twitter: @cricketmanwales
He clasps the ball in both hands beneath his chin. It’s a devotional gesture from an often profane, exultant cricketer. A step forward, left arm swings down then back up again, briefly into his meditative pose. Then a transformation: his left hand close to his mouth, head turned with eyes following his right hand as it stretches out in front of him. The archer’s stance, the bow at maximum tension, an arrow about to be loosed with the deft flick of his fingers. But this archer is not still. The left arm drops, before being drawn back and up and over in an effortless swing, propelling the ball at the target fixed by his stare.
Watching England fall to defeat after defeat against India in late 2016, I became mesmerised by Ravindra Jadeja’s bowling. Gentle bobbing to the crease, the bowman’s coil, and best of all the fluid sweep of the left-arm. Time and time again, that easeful swing of the arm sending deliveries that zeroed in on pads, the stumps, the edges of bats. When Jadeja is to be memorialised it should be as a fountain. A tight, twisting jet of water flowing from the statue’s high left arm, landing hour after hour, day after day on a length, eroding the hardest of stone surfaces, with its insistent, repetitive delivery.
The gentle, economical back and forward of Jadeja’s bowling, tracing the same path through the air, again and again, lulled me and stole my consciousness. Hypnotised by its simplicity, an action shorn of any extraneous motion, I began to tell myself that I could bowl like that. A little forward motion, feet providing balance, a turn of the arm – each could be imitated, albeit in mirror image. Jadeja had crept inside my head, where he had occluded my great cricketing anxiety: bowling in the nets. Forty-five minutes of purgatory is the deal I must strike in every net session for eight minutes of release spent batting. Jadeja had shown me the way to fulfilment. I would be like him.
The days between Christmas and New Year were dry and bright. I committed to visit the nets each day the weather allowed, having leafed through Amol Rajan’s Twirlymen to remind myself of the required grip and practised around the house, whenever there was nobody watching, my Jadeja-inspired pure delivery.
I was alone on my first net trip. I channeled Jadeja, but found the connection to be poor. Rather than delivering jets that honed in on the crease, I sprayed it around, most humiliatingly sending the ball looping into the netting roof. Briefly I abjured Jadeja and tried seam-up, but found control, when holding the ball conventionally with fingers either side of the seam, impossible. Returning to the true and right way, I tossed out a couple of half-decent overs of finger-spin, enough to encourage me to return.
My second trip was with no.2 son. My dreadful, looping lobs had done nothing in the past to develop his batting as the slow and high bounce confounded him and discouraged him from playing forward. Here was the incentive to send darts down. Success, if measured by my son’s pleasing strokes into the off-side, was mine. A dewy track and sopping balls may also have played a part.
On venture three, I was accompanied by both sons. No.1 hadn’t touched a ball since September, yet when encouraged to try his arm at spin, put my efforts in their place. I asked him for some feedback. “Well,” he said, “your action is fine, it’s just so slow that imperfections have time to creep in.”
I had my inspiration, but realised that autodidacticism (even when leavened with no.1 son’s observations) had very severe limits. I needed a coach. The Old Trafford Indoor School provided one. I was hoping he’d find all the fundamentals in place and with a couple of expert biomechanical tweaks show me how to fire in a good offie.
Coach Andy watched me bowl a few deliveries. He talked me through the mechanics of the off-break then for 15 minutes we chucked balls at each other, all snapping wrists and illegal elbow straightening. Every one of Andy’s flew with red and white hemispheres distinct and jagged nastily on bouncing. Mine were a blur of pink and offered the subtle movement of my hero bowling on a day 1 track.
I tried to put the lesson into practice and Andy made some encouraging noises about my progress. Satisfied that he had identified a fault and a method, through extensive repetition, to address it, he suggested I have a bat. Twenty-five minutes of floaty bowling machine deliveries were enough to undermine my confidence in what should be my stronger suit.
Coach Andy repeated his advice as we left the net, but he asked, was there anything else he could help with? Jadeja’s sumptuous darts that I so coveted flickered in my mind’s eye and prompted a smile and a burst of confidence. “Yes, what can I do to get a bit more pace, more oomph into my bowling?” It was, surely, within touching distance.
Andy chuckled. “One thing at a time. Just work on that release. Keep practising the basics. It won’t happen in a hurry.”
Deceived. Made to look foolish. Just another victim in these last few months of Ravindra Jadeja.
It’s the most disdainful insult (short of cursing) used by the youngsters I know.
It’s the term they most fear being attached to themselves.
Mitchell Johnson was weird.
For all but a minority of extrovert youngsters, fitting in is the state they ardently seek, through the games they play, the clothes they wear, the way they speak, the company they keep.
Mitchell Johnson came to cricket late. Drawn away from tennis in his late teens, he would have shown up at nets attended by a tight group of young cricketers with a background of seasons together, nicknames and shared stories. The quiet teen Johnson would have waited his turn to bowl, standing 5 metres to the right of the knot of right-armers. Reaching the crease, without an athletic bound, arm swinging through far from the purist 12 o’clock, Johnson probably flung a few of his early deliveries into the side netting.
Weird is how his new teammates, apprentice bullies for careers in the tough world of grade cricket, would have viewed him. They probably stifled laughs and nudged each other when he bowled wide – maybe nervously, though, given the speed he could already attain. While he had his back turned, padding up, they may have dared each other to impersonate his run up and action.
Whether his peers accepted him, coaches did, including Dennis Lillee. Not committing to the game until his late teens, he was playing for his country before twenty. But like his mentor his progress was slowed by back injuries.
Johnson’s emergence as a senior international cricketer came when we might have expected a lull in Australia’s fortunes following the retirements of many of the team that white-washed England in 2006/07. Johnson seemed to bring to the team something that none of his eminent predecessors offered – a dynamic all-rounder. But it was what happened in the second phase of his Test career that renews my interest in him as a role model.
On the 2009 Ashes tour, Johnson’s pre-series billing as Australia’s spearhead was quickly quashed. As he struggled to bowl straight, expert opinion moved swiftly from the vulnerability of his slingy action to the fragility of his confidence. He was an introvert experiencing intense public scrutiny of his shortcomings. By the second Test, he was spared the pressure of opening the bowling. As each underwhelming, wayward spell passed, the thought occurred that dropping Johnson from the team might be an act of mercy, but also an exit without prospect of return. If only his rhythm could return.
Johnson’s rhythm was weird. At his best, bowling looked effort-ful. His run-up, as his career progressed, became less like the series of movements one would choose to proceed rapidly over grass. It looked like an action adopted from overuse of a cross-trainer gym machine, modelled on Nordic skiing. Johnson’s delivery was force, unembellished by grace. Javelin throwers, belted and bandaged around waist and knee, pour it all into six or eight throws each competition. Johnson flung, with no less commitment, more than 70 of his spears each day spent in the field.
Johnson battled through the tour, and back in the southern summer again took wickets with pace. But a year later, facing England again, Johnson’s bowling deteriorated. The undulations of his career were becoming more abrupt. He was dropped after one Test, returned for the third Test where he bowled Australia to victory, then lost whatever it was he needed for the rest of the series.
And this loss of form had its own musical accompaniment. An Australian quick, on home turf, had the unique humiliation of being sung about in a derogatory, gloating fashion by visiting spectators. Johnson later acknowledged that the “swings to the left, swings to the right” choruses got to him, which is an unusual, but honest admission for an active sportsman. He also said he felt it was a compliment that he was targeted. It’s probably better that he is allowed to think this, although I find it unlikely: he was targeted because he was vulnerable, not because he was feared.
Injury followed and Johnson had a slew of young, quick bowlers whom he would have to displace to get back in the Australian Test team; as well as having to convince that it would be correct to give him a place alongside another bowler much closer to the end than the beginning of his career: Ryan Harris. Johnson did play, but not regularly.
Intimations of what would follow came at the end of the English summer of 2013, when Johnson appeared as a limited overs specialist. While many extrapolated from England’s 3-0 Ashes victory that summer to an easy victory for the visitors in the return series, those who watched the discomfort with which the England players faced his bowling in the one-day series, must have begun to consider how secure England’s hold on the Ashes really was.
That Australian summer Johnson soared. Used by Michael Clarke inflexibly in four over spells, time and again that was time enough to puncture a hole in England’s batting order. Johnson conquered injury, self-doubt and public ridicule. Sporting an extravagant moustache he bristled and attempted to intimidate the England batsmen in his follow through – his least role model-worthy behaviour and entirely superfluous given the grip his bowling had on the opposition.
Johnson is not a cricketer I have enjoyed watching. He has made too many of the batsmen I want to see succeed flinch and duck and succumb. The deepest pleasure I get from watching cricket is see batsman score runs. I have loved to see Johnson hit for runs – the ball tears to the boundary. The camera focuses on his face. The defiant glare doesn’t look genuine. There’s perhaps bemusement, helplessness. Johnson knows what it is like when his form deserts mid-match and that doubt, the potential for another low, is humming quietly.
It is for his weirdness, for not fitting in with our aesthetic expectations of the fast bowler, for being a quiet man performing and flopping on centre stage, for his prevailing over public humiliation, for his return from injury to bowl his arm almost out of its socket for 24 balls at a time that I commend him as a role model. He has shown as much courage as any of the batsmen that have faced him, kept in line, ducked the bouncer and attacked anything loose. And, as we know, he bowled frighteningly fast.
Picking players in form is one of the national selectors’ least important duties. Far more significant to identify the player with the talent and technique to thrive at international level, than to pluck the name from the top of the county (state, province, etc) averages.
Sometimes, though, with a cricketer who might, just might, have the right stuff for the international game, the timing of their selection can have a long-lasting impact. Jonny Bairstow, in mid-summer 2015, is in the form of his life. He has a three-figure average in the County Championship with hundreds scored in three of his last fiur innings. In the last but one match, he was joined in the middle by Tim Bresnan, with the score 191-6. The pair added 366 together (the third highest partnership for the seventh wicket in first class history), with Bairstow 219* at the declaration. The week before, replacing Jos Butler in the England limited overs squad, his innings of 83* won the deciding match in the series against New Zealand.
Bairstow isn’t in the England squad for the first Ashes Test and is playing again for Yorkshire this week at Edgbaston.
The highlight of his 14 Test matches came at Lord’s in 2012 with two belligerent and brave innings against South Africa, which took England close to a victory against the team that replaced them as the number 1 ranked Test team. The stronger impression created by Bairstow’s Test batting career to date is of a player hampered by technical flaws. Initially, during his debut series against the West Indies, it was his ability to play the short-ball that concerned. Dismissals (bowled, lbw and caught off a leading edge) playing across the line of full, straight deliveries became the focus of doubts about Bairstow’s suitability for Test cricket. 28 was Bairstow’s highest score in his last 8 Test innings (preceded by 64), the most recent of which was in the final Test of the 2013/14 Ashes whitewash.
How should the England selectors weigh up Jonny Bairstow’s current run of good form with the evidence of his early experiences of Test cricket? In one sense, the existence of clear flaws in his batting in 2012-14 clarifies the matter as the selectors should be looking for assurance that those issues have been resolved. That, however, assumes that problems exposed at Test level would be apparent in the county game, where the bowling subjects techniques to less strict examination.
That Bairstow favoured the legside was well known when he made his England debut and is far from a unique preference – witness Cook, Trott, etc. But was he falling to straight deliveries in Test cricket because, starved of balls directed at his pads, Bairstow was forced to find runs somewhere? Playing for Yorkshire, Bairstow may have defended those balls safely, knowing that juicier morsels would arrive soon.
It seems probable that, facing Australia’s strong and deep pace bowling attack, England’s middle order will need reinforcement with new players, by the second half of the Ashes series. If Jonny Bairstow remains in the form he has shown for the past six weeks, his case will be persuasive. It will come though with some unease about frailties that division one county championship attacks lack the expertise to probe. The selectors will, I believe, have to accept that we won’t know if Bairstow is ready for the rigours of Test cricket, without trying him out there again. Weighing on their minds may be a similar calculation, albeit featuring different variables, that was made when Jonathan Trott was reintroduced to Test cricket in April.
Steven Finn, part of England’s successful ODI side in the series against New Zealand, has today been restored to the England Test squad. Finn’s career has followed the contours of an Alpine Tour de France stage. He is now perhaps, on the steep incline towards one of those mountain passes.
With Finn’s prospects again looking positive, I can, guilt-free, explain why I remain a sceptic.
The first thing most of us knew about Finn when he was initially identified as a potential England fast bowler was his height: 6 foot 7 inches. An England bowler on the scale of Joel Garner (6ft 8in) or Curtley Ambrose (6ft 7in) fostered thoughts of a loping stride and long, sweeping swing of his right arm, propelling balls into the pitch and rising past the batsman and being taken head high by the keeper.
When I did see footage of Finn on his international debut, something didn’t look right. The more I watched him the odder his action appeared – or further from my preconception about how a very tall man would bowl. Garner, Ambrose, Bruce Reid (6ft 8in) all seemed to move more slowly than other fast bowlers. The pace they attained came from getting maximum benefit from the rotation of their long levers. In particular, their bowling arms started low to their rear and were pulled through a lengthy arc, with the ball released at the apex of that curve.
Finn, on the other hand, had the rushed action of a shorter bowler, not the measured swing of a man delivering the ball from more than 10 feet above ground level. For a while, I convinced myself that Finn resembled, not Ambrose, but Robin Jackman, the five foot six inch tall Surrey bowler. But that was as much of an illusion as my expectation that he would bound to the crease like Garner. The batsman’s eye view of Finn confirms that he is an intimidating sight.
Years and many fluctuations in Finn’s career later and I have pinpointed what to my eye is so unsatisfying about his bowling action. Finn’s bowling arm straightens and begins its sweep towards the point of delivery with his arm close to perpendicular to his body. The actions of the tall bowlers that excited me all have the arm straightening much earlier with the arm pointing down to the ground.
I don’t believe this is an aesthetic matter. Finn, by straightening his arm later in the delivery action, loses the catapult force of pulling his arm and the ball through a full arc. In place of the long, strong pull, Finn pushes the ball at the batsman. An action that I suggest is both less efficient and reliable.
Finn may have the advantage of long limbs, but his bowling action doesn’t make full use of those natural attributes. I doubt that a cricketer who isn’t fully utilising his physical assets can achieve enduring international success.
Fifteen overs into Australia’s second innings in the 2nd Test at Kingston, David Warner was on ten, scored off 39 balls, with a single boundary – and that from a false shot, edged through the slips. Warner was struggling with his timing, scratchy and jumpy. Three low scores in the series behind him, the opener’s high-paced start to an innings was in check.
Warner should not have become a very successful Test cricketer. He probably shouldn’t have even become a Test cricketer, picked as a selectors’ hunch. So much of a limited overs specialist, that Warner made his T20 and ODI debut for Australia two months before playing in the Sheffield Shield for New South Wales in 2011.
Yet Warner is compelling viewing on a Test field. He’s nimbler at point, or elsewhere in the in-field, than his stocky frame would suggest, making full length diving stops and whipping off-balance throws over the stumps. Batting, there’s no more exciting prospect than Warner taking strike on a pristine wicket against fresh fast bowlers on the first morning of a Test. Four times he has lit up the opening phase of a match with a run-a-ball (or thereabouts) hundred.
- Australia v South Africa, Adelaide, 22 November 2012. Warner 50 off 47 balls; dismissed mid-afternoon for 119 with 16 fours and 4 6s.
- Australia v South Africa, Cape Town, 1 March 2014. Warner 50 off 50 balls and 100 off 104 balls.
- Australia v India, Adelaide, 9 December 2014, Warner 50 off 45 balls (nine 4s) and 100 off 106 balls
- Australia v India, Sydney, 6 January 2015, Warner 50 off 45 balls and 100 off 108 balls.
Since Warner’s debut, I have found myself staying up for the result of the toss in a Test in Australia and delaying bed further if the home team are to bat first.
This short-form specialist now has a better Test than ODI record. He has been converted into a Test cricketer and I’m a convert, too. Partly it’s his evident embrace of Test cricket. More though, it’s how Warner puts to use his simple, orthodox batting technique. His record – average 47, strike rate 75 – compares well to that of Virender Sehwag, the top right dot on the graph below (taken from my post, What is an opening batsman?). But where Sehwag stood and waved his bat like a heavy duty wand at the ball, Warner plays forward and back, near enough in line with the ball – unless he’s giving himself a bit of extra space to flex his forearms. His footwork is sharp and his bat swing uninhibited by the situation or opponents’ reputation. He shouldn’t have played Test cricket and shouldn’t be playing it like that. But it’s wonderful that he does.
Three years ago, Toby of Reverse Swept Radio interviewed me. He asked what I thought would be remembered in ten years time of the Ashes summer that was soon due to start. I said I thought David Warner would, in a single session, take control of a game for Australia. Within days, Warner had been sent away from the touring team as punishment for the incident involving Joe Root. Although he was back in England for the 3rd Test, he didn’t fulfil my prediction. This year, I think he will.
At Sabina Park, Warner has battled into the 16th over. Permaul flights a ball outside Warner’s off-stump. With a confident chassé, Warner is within reach of the pitch of the ball and drives it along the ground between cover and mid-off and out to the boundary. His timing returns and he bats smoothly until misjudging a pull on 62. It’s not a crushing hundred today, but there’s one on its way.
Mominul Haque, the young Bangladeshi batsman who has made such a fine start to his Test career, told a cricinfo reporter this week that his favourite shot is the square-cut. My interest was piqued, because if I interviewed professional cricketers, that’s exactly the question I would ask (and feel a bit foolish for doing so). Mominul went on to say something that I strongly identified with, “Well [my favourite shot] changes from time to time..”
My favourite shot journey has gone something like this.
I started with the hook. This was before I played cricket and was based on watching batsman in the 1970s flaying their bats around their heads at fast, short bowling. It was the only shot, it seemed, that ever scored a six in cricket of that era.
My first favourite shot based on my own batting was the pull. Age 11, it was the shot that brought me most runs, so it made sense to cherish it. But soon, as my own game developed, and cricket’s cliche about elegant left-handed batsmen filled my head, a long-lasting preference for the off-drive took hold. It says more about their rarity than their perfection, but I have precise memories of three specific drives hit all along the ground, wide of mid-off in June 1993, August 1994 and April 2008.
The off-drive retained my principal affection, despite challenges from the on-drive – “the most difficult shot to play” the school 2nd XI master said by way of a compliment – and the straight drive hit back past the fast bowler. It’s hard not to be seduced by that abrupt reversal of force of a ball struck back in exactly the direction it came from, “with interest” as we learn to say.
The off-drive was finally toppled, seven or eight years ago. But the rise of its successor I can trace back twenty years to an afternoon at Lord’s spent watching Mark Waugh bat. Time and again deliveries would be, it seemed, drawn into his pads. With a flick of his bat, balls were sent bounding down the hill past mid-wicket. Its appeal was part mystery: with all my other favourite shots, it was easy to relate the batsman’s action to the outcome. With this shot, consequence seemed out of proportion to cause. The other draw I found was that, as a batsman, I had a vulnerability to the same ball (delivered at considerably less speed) that Waugh feasted on. A ball pitched up in line with middle and leg would, far too often, go on to break the stumps. My inability to play the shot (in fact any shot to that sort of delivery) held it back from becoming my favourite shot.
Years later, my comeback to club cricket threatened by a string of low scores, I bought some coaching sessions. In the second of those sessions, the coach showed me how to stay balanced when the ball was in line with my pads. Suddenly, I was playing (allow me some latitude) left-handed Waugh-like flicks through mid-wicket. And it was my favourite stroke.
More recent contenders have been the slog-sweep – but only when played by Marcus Trescothick as a expression of audacity in the midst of a tense passage of Test cricket – and the upper-cut. The latter only appeals when played with full follow-through that sends the bat scything through the air like a scimitar. But as I can perform neither of these shots, they could never become the favourite. Now into my fourth decade of playing cricket, I find much less pleasure than ever in playing cross-batted shots. They simply require too much energy.
There is one other shot that quietly retains a favourite status. Out in the middle, no shot gives me as much comfort and security as a forward defensive. As a junior coach, I have endured a few too many matches where all I wanted to see was one judicious, respectful forward defensive.
One of the features of Jonathan Trott’s admirable England career has been his mobility at the crease. Nine times out of ten, that has been a couple of short, quick steps in front of his stumps against seam bowlers, welcoming the ball towards his pads or thigh, from where a confident punch, push or glance sends the ball into the legside for safe, reassuring runs.
Trott used his confidence moving along the crease against slow bowlers. On turning pitches, some of his England colleagues have looked stranded on leg-stump, pushing forward and back, as if the game was played in two dimensions. Trott’s lateral movement brought in new angles and ways to divert the turning ball into gaps in the field.
Trott has been enterprising, creating scoring opportunities from good deliveries, unsettling bowlers’ lines of attack. I was very fortunate to see in the flesh an innings when Trott went beyond enterprise, firmly into courage, in how he adjusted his stance. At Lord’s in 2010, Mohammed Amir was delivering a thrilling spell of quick swing bowling. Three of Trott’s batting partners fell. His response, to negate the swing, was to take guard at least five feet out of his crease. Against a bowler sustaining speeds of 90mph, it was brave and tremendously effective.
Nearly five years and a couple of comebacks later, that shuffle across the crease is likely to be associated with Trott’s exit from the international game. It’s brought not calm, reassurring leg-side runs, but cramped, aerial shovel shots, diagonal-bat defensive prods and pads caught in front of stumps.
The issue may be one of technique. From a distance, though, it does feel, by bringing Trott back into the team as an opener, the England management does not know its man. If that is the case, both player and management bear responsibility.
One of my favourite sights in cricket is Ian Bell rising to his toes, even airborne, as he glides a lifting delivery outside his off-stump through point for four. The shot appears to be no more than a push; its outcome is a ball racing past a cover point who has barely begun to adjust his position. It’s not one of the classic canon of off-side strokes – front, back foot drive, square or late cut – but a fusion that in foot movement, head and hand position remains splendidly orthodox. It’s a sharp riposte to the bowler who had delivered a potentially wicket-taking, lifting delivery outside off-stump with slips and gulley primed. Above all it’s a kinetic burst from simple, easeful movement.
At Manchester in 2006, I was in the crowd that saw Pietersen edge to slip in the first over of the second day. Collingwood and Cook ground away until afternoon when Bell brought the entertainment with a thrilling display of the shot that is even more commonly associated with him: the off drive. The Pakistani pace bowlers, seeking movement, bowled full. Bell stepped forward and with a crisp, truncated swing drilled half-volleys wide of mid-off. As he became more comfortable, he moved into good length balls with an intent that gave the bowlers hope of misjudgement, but as their hands raised he met the ball with a bat pitched perfectly to redirect the ball down and fast out and through the covers or straight.
At Lord’s in 2008 I had plenty of time to appreciate Bell’s batsmanship, watching him build a lengthy innings against South Africa. His partner in a stand of nearly 300, Pietersen, was taken aback by the range of his stroke-play from the start of his innings, from a point when England had lost three quick wickets. Into the evening session of day two, after eight hours, Bell lost his fluency. I left for an appointment while he was struggling to make headway through the 190s and heard the groan of the crowd from the St John’s Wood Road when he made a dash for his double-ton and fell caught and bowled. That evening, I walked into the pub where Bell, red-faced and proud, relaxed with a group of friends and team-mates.
Failing to convert a double-ton isn’t the strongest basis for criticism of a batsman. But Bell’s sudden impotence near the end of that day seems all of a piece with other petrifications and panics in his career. He suffered a pair at the Oval in 2005, when the proud efforts of the England team that summer were on the line. While Bell prodded from his crease and edged to slip in the second innings, Pietersen counter-attacked and led England to the draw they sought. Most recently, Bell’s charge at his first ball of the series in India to be caught at mid-off cemented doubts about his ability on turning pitches and more importantly provided evidence that he was conscious of this critique.
Nine of Bell’s 13 test hundreds have come in innings where a teammate has made a ton. Of his four stand-alone centuries, two were against Bangladesh and one in an innings with four half-centuries. The slight against Bell, implied in these numbers and stated outright by many, is that he is not the player for a tight situation – he doesn’t perform ‘in the clutch’.
Cape Town in January 2010 was supposed to be the occasion when Bell showed he could tough it out. For the second time in the series, England had to bat out more than a day to draw. Bell came in fifth down around half-way to England’s destination. He hung on for 68 overs and England clung on nine wickets down. But unlike other celebrated rear-guards – Collingwood at Centurion a month earlier and Atherton at Johannesburg in 1994 – Bell wasn’t there at the end. He fell three overs from the close, giving the tenth wicket pair, Swann and Onions, the task of seeing England to safety.
Bell’s international future was foretold in his teens. Indeed, he was still a teenager when called up as a replacement for England’s 2001/02 tour of New Zealand, although his debut waited another two years. His well anticipated excellence and pristine technique provide a template that has never quite coincided with his batting achievement. And then there’s the chap at number four (or in the 2005 Ashes, five, a place behind Bell). Pietersen the warrior batsman, taking on the world, including his own dressing room, scoring runs when they most matter, in the most eye-catching fashion. The enemy of our appreciation of Ian Bell, is the batsman we think he might have been and a batsman who is so different to him.
Questioning of Bell’s place in the Test team waxed again during England’s recent tour of India. Before the first test there were, quite reasonably, queries whether a player scheduled to miss the second test for paternity leave should be picked for the opening match. Either side of that return home, Bell had three cheap dismissals, including the self-inflected first baller at Ahmedabad. He coaxed England home to a small target in Kolkata before the lamest of dismissals pushing at Chawla the leg-spinner at Nagpur. But in the second innings, his partnership with Trott took England from a vulnerable 90-3 with one day and several hours left in the game to 302-4 with less than half a day to go. Bell remained not out with six hours 42 minutes of careful batting.
Bell’s century at Nagpur was crucial for the match and England’s series victory, but I do not believe it was a turning point for the player. I have reconciled myself to Bell as a very good international (Test and ODI) batsman. I believe he has peaked, or reached the plateau of his level of accomplishment. He’s a pleasure to watch and regularly capitalises on favourable situations from the late middle-order. I don’t expect him to dominate a major series or change the flow of too many contests and I know from time-to-time he’ll be flakey when what the team needs is grit. He would get a place at number five in almost all of the England teams I have watched in the last three decades. Bell is really very good, and that’s good enough.
There is an intriguing possibility that could, however, demand a thorough re-evaluation of Bell’s contribution. My recall of the situation is poor, but a few years ago Bell was captain of either Warwickshire or the England Lions, or possibly both. A cricket correspondent (not sure who) reported that Bell had led his team in the field and throughout the match in the most imaginative way – and successfully – quite at odds with England’s drilled approach. I am not sure where Bell currently is in the England captaincy succession. Alastair Cook, Bell’s junior, has begun his captaincy with notable success. Joe Root has been given princely duties as Lions Captain. But Andrew Strauss was never England’s first choice captain. It was events that had him elevated. Allying Bell’s batting record with a leadership role, however unlikely the latter, would make him bullet proof.
So I am comfortable with the Ian Bell of now having a continuing role in the England side. I think that’s the trick to enjoying his contribution and not being seduced by notions of what he might, but never really could, be. But in settling for this, we open up the possibility that the arrival of a steely middle-order finisher could force the selectors to decide whether the very good Bell is better for the team than a quite different alternative. The Australian selectors made just that kind of decision in 1992 when they stood down a player aged 31 with eleven test centuries and an average of 46. Dean Jones didn’t play Test cricket again.
I have never watched a Steven Spielberg movie. Certainly, I have seen excerpts, the plastic fin in Jaws, ET advertising BT. I know Spielberg’s oeuvre is there. I’m aware when he adds to it. But I have never felt the need to immerse myself in it. I have found that any conversation about one of his movies can be very effectively halted by pointing out what I’ve just explained: my not watching his films seems to trump, conversationally, the films themselves.
For Spielberg in cricket, read T20. I have never watched a professional T20 game from start to finish – domestic or international, in the flesh or on screen (although, I did see 21 overs of an Eleven11 contest last week). Recently, however, I’ve found the self-disclosure isn’t as effective socially – people don’t care if I haven’t watched it, and navigate around my conversational ice-berg (I’ve not seen Titanic either… not that Spielberg directed it) with references to the dynamic fielding, awesome striking, etc. Moreover, the cricket I do love now seems to have some reliance upon T20 in a way that US indie films never had a financial or artistic debt to Spielberg.
I have some catching up to do. As part of my preparation for the T20 WC, I have been researching some of the features that make T20 a unique cricket format. This is what I have discovered:
The name: we all know that T20 is the creation of marketeers, but did you know that it was initiated by a firm of opticians keen to shift its reputation for providing products for bookish, sedentary types? The plan was for a multi-sport campaign, but a poor choice of pilot – boxing – led to its abandonment and the company remains mired in legal action after its hard wear frames couldn’t withstand a super flyweight’s jab. That left the coast clear for cricket.
Those rankings: Australia are placed 10th in the ICC’s T20 rankings. Rather than probe the calculations behind the rankings, I’d suggest supporters of Australia’s adversaries screen print and keep for posterity the page on the ICC website. England fans can tuck the sheet alongside the famous photo of the Munich scoreboard from the 2001 Football World Cup qualifier:
They should also remember that Germany were finalists one year later and England lost in the quarter-finals.
Music and dancing girls: this is an innovation insisted upon by cricket tradionalists. The aim is, immediately a wicket falls, to divert attention from the ugly, sub-baseball swipe that occasions a high proportion of T20 dismissals. In a charming, artistic way, it succeeds.
Slower-ball bouncers: the cricket equivalent of plastic. Invented through a combination of clumsiness and inquisitiveness, it has been lifted from the laboratory waste pipe to become an essential part of modern bowling. Some of these deliveries are so slow that the dancing girls are up and jiving before the batsman’s sucker punch dismissal is complete.
Change-up: fancy name for the medium pace stock ball delivered after serving up a meze of slow-ball bouncers, scrambled seam Yorkers and filthy full-tosses.
The scoop: a triumph of capitalism. T20 was quickly saturated with commercial messages. Advertisers looking for more ad space were forced to think outside of the box – but when that idea was shelved as too risqué for any of cricket’s traditional markets – other niche areas of the player’s kit were colonised. The under-side of the toe of the bat came under scrutiny. All that was needed was a shot that would expose it as a medium to the masses. Enter the scoop.
My slow adoption of cricket’s fastest growing format may have you label me a dinosaur – fine, just don’t make me watch Jurassic Park.