Saturday, 21 June 2014

Sam Robson and the rush to judgment

Geoffrey Boycott was on radio commentary when Sam Robson went to his first Test match hundred. It was an interesting moment because Boycott, in common with almost every expert pundit, had been dubious of Robson's credentials at Lord's. In fairness it was hard not to be: the lad had a horror of a match with the bat, and looked almost as adrift as Simon Kerrigan had with the ball at the Oval last Summer.

Before the applause for Robson had died down, Boycott was asked about his grip, left hand high on the handle, right hand low.

'I don't look at all that, how he holds the bat, whether he picks it up over gully, I just watch his feet, his head and where the ball goes.'

Geoffrey went into a long reverie about technique, taking in Bradman, who had brought the bat down to the ball in a semi-circle - 'no-one's done it since, but he did alright' - and then George Hirst, who had arrived at the Headingley nets from Kirkheaton and immediately started slogging the ball into the rugby club grand stand.

'Now then lad, tha better stop that...' said the coach.

'Look where the ball is...' replied Hirst.

'Everyone's different aren't they,' Boycott went on. 'The good players find their own way.'

It tied in with something I've been thinking about for a while, probably since I blogged this about the golf coach John Jacobs, and the wisdom of sixty years that he had distilled into a single sentence: 'you can tell everything you need to know about the golf swing from watching where the ball goes'.

This, especially in batting's new age, is surely becoming the defining criteria in coaching. The game and its methods are now too diverse to begin from anywhere else. Yesterday, West Indies needed to chase 93 in the fourth innings of their Test against New Zealand and Chris Gayle scored 80 of them from 46 deliveries, walking at the bowlers and baseball-batting consecutive sixes out of the ground from somewhere near the middle of the pitch. 'Look where the ball is,' you could almost hear him say.

England's new intake are symptomatic. Robson has a laundry-list of quirks from a low crouch and heavy head to that odd grip; Gary Ballance plays from so deep in his ground he's often driving with his front foot just past the popping crease; Chris Jordan's decelerating run-up is one of the great mysteries of modern times. Plunkett, who is almost new, has had to reinvent himself having been ruined by the era of bio-mechanics. Only Moeen Ali wears the air of a classicist.

As a credo, 'look where the ball is' means something else too, and that's not to rush to judgment. As poor as Robson appeared at Lord's, he has a Test hundred a few days later. Neither should have too much weight attached to them. Robson hasn't yet offered enough for there to be certainty as to whether he'll make it as a Test opener. If I had to, I would guess that he'll fall short against better bowlers than Sri Lanka's, when his methods get pushed out to their limits, but then I might well have been one of the idiots telling Bradman to bring his bat down straight too. For a while, we'll just look at where the ball ends up.

There is a wider point to be made about the mixed bag that is the nation's top five, and it it comes down to watchability. Cook, Robson, Ballance and Root are an offbeat combo of unspectacular grinders and/or accumulators, with only Bell to break them up. They won't empty bars, and they won't necessarily sell tickets either. It seems odd to say so, but there may be a commercial dimension to their future prospects.

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