I have been quite frustrated and ultimately critical of the approach to batting in red ball cricket in the modern game. The white ball format is exciting and fearless. Red ball cricket, by virtue of its extended timescales demands a variety of approaches. Sometimes, the white ball skills have their place. There are times when they do not, yet are still applied. I do not believe this is intelligent batting. I believe this is programmed batting and in that case, players are not a) using their brains, b) not reading situations and c) not applying their skills to the demands of the situation facing them.
This past week, it has been an absolute pleasure to witness a batsman play an innings that could have been witnessed in any era. The pitch was challenging, particularly on day one. The ball moved prodigiously for the seamers and turned appreciably for the spinners. When playing forward he clearly presented his front foot and transferred his weight forward to ensure that he covered the line and length of the ball. His forward defensive was exceptional. The bat was presented straight and stopped at the point of contact. When he played back, he moved deep into the crease and played straight. His judgement of line was excellent and he ensured that he played only what he wanted to play.
Singles were accumulated and the strike was rotated. There was no desperation to his stroke play, despite the challenges. He trusted his game and was rewarded accordingly. It appeared that he was fully aware that he could be dismissed at any point, yet, rather than fear the dismissal and search recklessly for scoring options before his time was up, he waited and waited. He defended and played each ball on its merit. An old adage, but one not obvious often enough in red ball cricket.
Two weeks prior to this innings, the same player scored a T20 century off of 47 balls, including three sixes. “What”? I hear you cry, “he’s not a billy blocker”? No, he isn’t. He is an intelligent young batsman that is applying himself to each situation as best he can. His T20 innings was spectacular in his placement rather than his power. He applied another old adage – hit the ball where the fielders aren’t and he did! He didn’t try and clear the boundary fielders. He cleared the inner circle fielders and focused on outfield areas that weren’t protected by waiting catchers.
His championship innings included 66 from 193 balls and 62 from 135 balls. His first innings in the context of the match was nothing less than sensational.
I had the pleasure of working closely with him for three years whilst he was studying and playing cricket at Exeter University. He worried that he might not have the perfect game for the shorter game formats. I always felt his foundation as a batsman would offer him the scope to evolve and learn new skills later. The over-riding aspect that always impressed me the most was his intention to protect his wicket and apply himself to the game situation at hand.
He had a period where we needed to look at a specific area of his game. He was open minded and applied himself to the demands asked of him to work through the issue. He looked at the possibilities and not the problem. He worked his way through it and I am confident that it isn’t something that will ever bother him again.
I have long argued that it is possible for batsmen to be capable of performing in a multitude of formats. I disagree with the “its how I play” excuse. It is nothing more than that. It is an excuse. It is lazy. The game has demands. It is the players responsibility to try and improve their games so that they can meet the demands presented them. Of course, white ball cricket is easier. The ball doesn’t really move much, nor for long. Crowds flock to the ground and there is a sense of razzmatazz. Who
wouldn’t enjoy it? A quick 30 off 20 balls almost merits a standing ovation. Its impact is minor, but the player has ticked their bit-part box. It isn’t wrong. It is what it is and nothing more, nothing less.
My view is that the modern player has skills my era didn’t have. We might have learned them had the game asked us. Some players will have ended up with extended careers as the T20 hit and giggle would have freed the players to be expansive and more open minded. Failure would have been less negative and ultimately feared less. This has to be a good thing.
However, my over-riding view is that the modern player needs to take more responsibility within the red ball format. Alastair Cook received a standing ovation when he left the field at the Oval, roughly a year ago. It was a hard earned and well deserved response to his test career for England. Will anyone ever receive the same again? Marcus Trescothick will be given something similar in two weeks time, whether he plays or not. Again, well deserved for many years hard work as a true batsman who played each innings on its merit.
The point is, the reverse sweep isn’t wrong. The ramp isn’t wrong. The switch-hit isn’t wrong. None of these options are wrong, but in the same way that any stroke should be applied with judgement, clear thought and with a significant amount of pre-game training. In short form games these strokes value are obvious. I would question whether they have the same value in tough situations in red ball games. They are unorthodox strokes suited to gap finding in short form games to keep the scoreboard ticking. In red ball games in tough situations, are they as reliable? Do they detract from simple rotation options that slot easier within a batters technique? Of course, the counter argument is that they answer all of the above questions. I am yet to be convinced though.
Many years ago, three strokes were regarded as all that a batter needed to be successful long term. It is easier to manage three skills than several. The point being that the repetition of those three skills were the life blood of a batter. The old adage, ‘jack of all trades’ seems to fit nicely as perfecting the number of variables some batters seek is almost impossible and possibly illogical?
Graham Gooch regarded an innings as having four quarters. The first quarter was hard work and it was his responsibility to apply a disciplined approach. The second quarter was simply not to waste that hard work. The third quarter was to make sure the team benefited from his efforts to date and the fourth quarter was to have fun. It sometimes seems that there is evidence that ‘having fun’ (the fourth quarter) is a batters starting point.
Jack Leach has shown more grit and determination than any other England cricketer this summer. That’s an awful indictment on the current test batting line up.
The good news is that there are players out there who are intelligent and are capable of applying themselves to any given situation and any format. As a coach, I will continue to attempt to guide players with this approach as my main focus. I will coach the innovative options, but not before a suitable foundation is developed. I will always coach accountability and responsibility to the team and yourself. I knew it was possible and over the last month it has proven to be the case.
Many thanks Tom Abell!