July 14, 2008

Mike Holmans

Yesterday is not today

Mike Holmans
Andrew Strauss watches James Marshall pull off a diving save, England v New Zealand, 1st Test, Lord's, 2nd day, May 16, 2008
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In a recent article in Cricinfo Magazine, Christopher Martin-Jenkins lamented the performances of the England top-order Test batsmen in their county championship games, comparing them unfavourably to those of Len Hutton, Denis Compton, Geoff Boycott, Graham Gooch and Bill and John Edrich. Those past batsmen stood out a long way from the pack and were clearly a class above their contemporaries. Since today’s don’t, they aren’t, is the conclusion we are invited to draw.

But that relies on the baselines being the same, on the pack staying where it was – and that is manifestly not the case.

I was sitting with a friend of mine (who, unlike CMJ, has first-hand memory of Bill and Denis in their pomp) the other day when a batsman aimed a meaty biff through extra cover. A couple of the one-saving fielders set off in pursuit, overhauled it and threw the ball in quickly enough to pressure the batsmen on their second run.

“You’d never have seen that in the old days,” exclaimed my friend. "That would have been four runs every time!” Half the old-timers’ fours would now be cut off for one or two, and a healthy amount of their twos would be ones, and so forth. And then there’s the bowling. Where are the 65mph medium-pacers who used to fill in while we waited for the new ball thirty years ago? The people who come on second change these days would have been serious candidates to open the bowling when an Edrich was batting, at least in terms of pace. Good batsmen get far less opportunity to milk utterly innocuous bowling than they used to.

When the tall trees of English batting were felled by Lindwall and Miller or Lillee and Thomson and the team struggled to pass 200, part of the explanation was that county batsmen never experienced anyone who bowled as fast as that.

On the television last week, Joe Denly and Robert Key of Kent dealt reasonably comfortably with Steve Harmison and Liam Plunkett of Durham, who were being clocked at 91 and 88mph respectively. In the televised championship match CMJ referred to in his piece, Andrew Flintoff and Sajid Mahmood were bowling well within themselves on a sluggish pitch, but they’ve both been clocked at 90+ in Tests before now. Today’s batsmen might find a Lindwall, Lillee or Roberts difficult to play because of their command of length and direction, but their pace would now be business as usual for a county cricketer.

And these are home-grown bowlers who are currently surplus to the Test team’s requirements, not the Caribbean imports who used to provide the only serious pace in the county cricket of the 80s.

Whether Bill Edrich was a better batsman than Paul Collingwood might make an interesting debate, but citing their county records on the assumption that they provide a fair comparison is like treating Test performances against the strong India of today and the weak India of fifty years ago as equivalent.

If the Test stars of today do not seem to shine as brightly in county cricket as their predecessors, it may be because they are intrinsically less bright, but it is at least as possible that it is because the background is so much lighter than it was.

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Posted by Beanos on (July 16, 2008, 2:49 GMT)

I must say I agree that the next tier (first class) of players has definitely become much stronger. From an Australian point of view where only 66 players can compete in each round of the first class season, it leaves a great number of very talented players at the club level. When test players are able to play at first class or club level all others lift their standard to show how capable they are of progressing to the next level. The point made by Gizza is also very true. Batting averages over the last ten years have definitely been inflated by the introduction of boundary ropes at all Australian grounds. Often the ball will just beat a fieldsman to the boundary that would have been stopped before the fence and hits that just cleat the boundary for six would have made comfortable catches for previous generations of cricketers. This coupled with bat technologies and protective equipment has made batting "easier" for all.

Posted by Dave on (July 15, 2008, 3:57 GMT)

I have always felt that comparisons between eras also often fail to take in the fact that the greats from a previous era if given the training facilities, equipment and coaching that modern players get might be a good deal better than they were even then. Imagine Bradman or Hutton with a modern bat and protective equipment. Awesome. Imagine Larwood or Spofforth with modern coaching and fitness regimes. Frightening.

On the flip side, would any of the modern batsmen manage with no helmet, arm guards and numerous pads on uncovered pitches be as good as they are? Who knows. And fast bowlers nowadays benefit from physio's, fitness work, full time coaching and analysis of opposition, all of which would have to make life easier.

I think a great player would be a great player regardless of their era, but comparing them is always going to be guess work. You can only really compare them to their contemppories, and if they stand out, it will show.

Posted by Mike Holmans on (July 15, 2008, 1:48 GMT)

Arun has grasped my point exactly. It's not that the top of the mountain has changed in height very much, but it looks an awful lot less spectacular when the surrounding hills have risen a lot higher.

The overall standard in county cricket has risen, and I just wish some of the elder statesmen would recognise it.

Posted by Samir Chopra on (July 14, 2008, 19:43 GMT)

I agree comparisons between different eras don't work for a variety of reasons (some of which Mike has alluded to above). I do think that the mental qualities that made a player stand out in a particular era would stand him in good stead in any other. Furthermore, I think its also true that the introduction of the helmet has certainly made it possible for some folks to survive in higher forms of cricket that wouldn't have done so against older pace attacks.

Posted by Dave Gibbard on (July 14, 2008, 19:06 GMT)

Would just like to comment on the shorter boundaries we hear so much about. Although this may be true in some instances am I dreaming when I recall rows of spectators on the grass at Lords and other grounds? All in all the older players would not compete with todays mainly because of fitness etc.

Posted by Arun on (July 14, 2008, 18:31 GMT)

There are more people playing competitive cricket these days. More professionals around. Better technology, better equipments, more emphasis on fitness etc. Given all this, I bet the quality of players these days is much better than those of say 30-40 years ago. Now a Sobers or a Hutton would have done equally well today were he playing. And similarly Mcgrath, Donald or Akram would have troubled the best of batsmen in any era. The best of a generation can stand comparison against the best of a different generation. But the overall quality of the mediocre players is definitely better now than before for all the reasons outliined by me ad several others.

Posted by Pratik on (July 14, 2008, 15:33 GMT)

Agree with the heading entirely. However, a Superfight style (Muhammad Ali-Rocky Marciano, or the fictional Rocky Balboa-Mason Dixon) comparison would sure be fun.

Posted by Gizza on (July 14, 2008, 9:07 GMT)

I agree with you that different eras cannot be compared with each other. However, in my opinion batting has become easier all the world over the past 10 years. Yes fielding standards have probably improved and new types of deliveries have been developed (doosra, slow bouncer) but ask any batsman in the modern game and they will tell you that the bats continue to become stronger year-by-year. As Ian Chappell always mentions, the boundary are also becoming shorter and the pitches are becoming less conducive to bowling. Were pitches as flat as they are now in the 60's, 70's and 80's? The interesting thing about this blog is that if it were written by someone from Australia or India , where the batsmens' averages are slowly but surely approaching Bradman's, the argument would have been in the exact opposite direction.

Posted by Rosh on (July 14, 2008, 8:51 GMT)

Agree with the heading "Yesterday is not Today" but not with the argument line. Yesterdays' batsmen had a really tougher time than today's due to (1) pitches were not covered unlike today making life more difficult to batsmen then

(2) the batsmen-bowler equation was more balanced eg. bouncers were allowed more frequently

(3) today's pace bowling standards are at the lowest since the late 60s & early 70s.

(4) today's boundary lines are shorter

But yes, today's fielders are certainly more agile and committed. However it is known that fielding alone does not put pressure on batsmen; you need quality bowlers. While the depth in bowling is higher today than Edrich's time, the first line of attack is not; neither are the spinners.

Posted by Darryll Le Geyt on (July 14, 2008, 7:30 GMT)

I utterly agree with this comment. Conditions, fitness, techniques etc have changed so much - for both bowlers and batsmen, of course - that comparison can often be ridiculous, let alone unfair.

What does strike me, though, is that older batsmen (many of whom I have - sadly - only seen on film) seem to have had a much more solid technical grounding so that when awkward conditions - or bowlers - were encountered they were more able to adapt and deal.

As a result of the less well conditioned pitches, batsmen were more prepared to deal with lateral movement and seem to have had much much better foot movements than today's.

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