Monday, 2 September 2013

Not knowing how: Batting's emerging question

Here is a group of players: Chris Rogers, Ian Bell, Michael Clarke, Alastair Cook, David Warner.

And another: Jonny Bairstow, Phil Hughes, Joe Root, Jonathan Trott.

And a third: Kevin Pietersen, Chris Gayle, Virender Sehwag.

And finally: Sachin Tendulkar, Kumar Sangakkara, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Mahala Jayawardene.


There is a humming undercurrent to the critique of modern batting, that increasingly idiosyncratic and macho pursuit. You hear it on commentary and in analysis, and while it's hazily defined, it's usually expressed in one of two ways: 'He wasn't sure how to bat' or 'He didn't know how to play'.

They're phrases that need a little context, because they're obviously not literal. Any batsman who has made it as far as the international game clearly knows how to bat. Any player playing at the top level evidently knows how to play.

Instead, it's to do with circumstance, the demands of format, the ebb and flow of the red ball game. The longer the batsman is asked to bat, the more nuanced his batting must become. The task in 50-over cricket is almost rote now, its formula exhausted by repetition, while the blunt challenge of T20 remains brutally simple to compute. By contrast the challenge of the five day game shifts under the batsman's feet even as he is at the crease.

Not knowing how to bat, in context, is not knowing how to tune yourself into the fluid set of circumstances that the game produces. Here, self-knowledge is everything.

The first two groups of players above competed with varying levels of success in the Ashes series. The difference between them is that group one essentially batted the way that they always bat. They lived or died by the quotidian fluctuations of form and luck, the natural run of good days and bad. Chris Rogers, for example, with the benefit of 20,000 first class runs behind him, battered a quick 80-odd at Old Trafford and accumulated a careful hundred in Durham. Both innings fitted with the rhythm of the match they were played in. Aside from the pressure of Test cricket, there was nothing new about any of it for Rogers. Both were innings of a type regularly required of an opening batsman, and he responded with the touch of a craftsman.

Bell had the series of his life and Warner one that he'll never forget, but both did what they always do. Clarke fought his stiff back and Cook battled a technical fault but neither panicked nor changed their method. They stuck it out, because experience tells them that they will come good again soon.

The second group are (pretty obviously) the batsmen that didn't know how to bat, the players who weren't sure how to play. Phil Hughes*, the Australian among them, is a talent betrayed, first dropped from the side when his Test average was above 50, then thrown up and down the order, his method questioned and ridiculed. No wonder the light has gone from his eyes.

Joe Root and Jonathan Trott demonstrate how delicate the equilibrium of a batting order can be. Sometimes absence becomes a player like nothing else, and Andrew Strauss already has a post-retirement glow about him. At his best, Strauss was the most bullish of the triumverate he formed with Cook and Trott. His solidity and tempo let the others be themselves.

Root allowed himself to be lulled into periods of stasis, an understandable reaction to the match stretching out before him, and yet also the response of a young man who felt that his natural game may equal irresponsibility (here he can be contrasted with Rogers, a less talented player, but one who has spent years doing the job).

The knock-on effect on Jonathan Trott was less predictable. He had built his reputation on being impervious to external forces, yet his crease rituals always hinted at his need for certainty. With Cook and Root at sea, Trott played a series of uncharacteristic innings, quick forties studded with boundaries that built a discomforting momentum he didn't seem able to halt.

Jonny Bairstow didn't know whether to stick or twist and it showed. Playing his natural game kept getting him out, and yet he didn't seem to have another beyond the same glacial slowness that descended on Root. 

The third and fourth groups are rarely unsure how to play, of course. Pietersen, Gayle and Sehwag have controlled every format with the same unorthodox force. They are outliers blessed with a freakish talent that can be expressed any way - devastating in a single over or a day and a half of batting. Their method is uncompromising.

And the final group are the last generation to have grown up without T20 cricket, whose path to the Test game was always clear and rising before them. It was their ultimate aim, their career peak, and they spent their early lives preparing for it. The way they bat actually reflects that: their skill sets were honed for Test match play, their mental strength built by its adversity.

Last week Aaron Finch played an extraordinary innings at the Ageas Bowl. Could he be a Test match batsman? That's a well-intentioned question anyone who doesn't really follow the game may ask. Well he's 26 years old and has played 33 first class matches. In those, he averages 29. He debuted in 2007, and in 2009-10 had his best season in the Shield, with 416 runs at 37.81. That same year, he became a star in the Big Bash and that is where he has stayed, typecast as a talented slugger. He doesn't have to worry about 'how to bat'. In fact, he doesn't really have to worry about first-class cricket at all, unless Australia decide he's worth a punt.

In Finch's brutality, in Bairstow and Root's uncertainty, in Australia's bare cupboard and England's wavering second string (what awaits Buttler and Hales and Ballance and Morgan and the rest?) lays the conundrum facing the modern batsman. How do you play?

It's interesting to note that some of India's finest young blades - Kohli, Pujara, Dhawan - are less afflicted. What is different about their thinking? Now there's a question.

NB: I blogged about Phil Hughes for the Cordon here.


Chappers said...

Great, thought provoking article. I think this represents a challenge for batsmen at any level - to have the confidence to force your personality and style on to the match situation.

But also the confidence to play yourself in at your own pace (unless you are on the charge for quick runs)

Not many young players (Hughes, Root et all) have the experience to be able to deliver where as when you have been around for a while more is expected - which is where Trott and Cook struggled - their efforts to impose themselves on the game - but before they were really ready to - or in both their - with the realisation that batting for hours on end is how they do that - they are not players like Prior or KP (and hopefully Bairstow one day) who can take the game away from a team in a session.

Having the experience to recognise the moment and the confidence and ability to exploit it defines the great players.

Cricket Khelamrt said...

Great and must awaited article.
You have very nicely present the information and elaborated the batsman playing style. Four categories of Batman's concept is very nice however you can add 1 more category for players like Rahul Dravid , VVS Laxman and Marvan Atapattu. This category will be dedicated to some of finest Asian Cricketers with extraordinary playing style and dedication towards real cricket.
I like your 3rd category which include the Videnrda Shevag ,Gyle . Yes these players are orthodox and don’t belief in limitations. I remember the 300 run of Viranda Shevag which he had completed with super six.
Thanks for the Article.

Freyalyn said...

Really well-thought-out and clearly written article. Thank you for posting it.

Mr.Crickwt said...

informatve post you have made about cricket

Graeme said...

good post...I worry at the way that Root seemed so prepared to go into stasis when his previous Test innings showed his ability to play to tempo and take singles. I am worried that Strauss would take it upon himself to force the tempo when Cook was becalmed and he was captain so his "failures" were excused. root does not have that luxury.

Cook seems unable to pace an innings.

thepoetseye said...

Very thoughtful article and much needed at the current time. I was thinking about Dravid's batting the other day and how he was admired for the very qualities which seem in so little favour at the moment.

I think 'reading the game' is what is missing. So many times teams and players are encouraged to play in a manner decided before the game unfolds. Over coached has become a criticism. Over prepared might be another. Generalisations such as dominate the bowling or impose from the first ball etc. should be adapted as soon as the batsman is out there assessing the pitch, conditions and match situation. Our commentators don't help. They seem very impatient when a batsman takes time to get in and this puts pressure on players especially young batsmen. The art of batting seems to have taken a back seat perhaps due to the pressure of t20 cricket. So your article is very timely.

Ahmed Khan said...

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