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January 21, 2013

Where have all the 'thinking batsmen' gone?

Michael Jeh
Nuwan Kulasekara celebrates after bowling Michael Clarke, Australia v Sri Lanka, 3rd ODI, Brisbane, January 18, 2013
Batsmen these days seemingly feel the need to stick to the preordained game plan regardless of circumstance  © Getty Images
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Just a theory at this stage, unproven but gathering evidence. Watching one-day cricket these days, especially with the new rule changes, I'm starting to form the view that when the pitch is a bit lively with two new balls, modern batsmen have stopped thinking for themselves.

The emphasis on preconceived game plans set by the coaching staff, aided by statistical predictions on average scores at a certain venue, married to the T20 mind-set (see ball, hit ball) is leading to a situation where teams batting first are showing a marked inability to think on their feet. I reckon they go into the innings with a set target in mind and come hell or high water, that target is fixed in their minds. The coaching staff have probably played their part in determining that target, perhaps even as early as the pre-match team meeting the night before so the batsmen feel the need to stick to that game plan regardless of circumstance.

Watching Australia's stuttering batting performances in Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney recently allowed me the opportunity to contemplate this theory. In Adelaide, the pitch was certainly helping the seam bowlers after some time under the covers (without being unplayable) and it appeared that the batsmen made relatively little allowance for the fact that the 260+ target that is usually associated with batting first at Adelaide might have to be revised. Aaron Finch caught at cover, George Bailey on the pull shot, Steve Smith driving expansively away from his body and Glenn Maxwell nicking behind to a ball that probably should have been let through to the keeper. All of them looking for run-scoring opportunities that were simply too ambitious at that stage of the game.

Brisbane was an absolute case study in that respect. Perhaps fuelled by the captain's bullish statement at the toss that it was a "great batting wicket" and that the Gabba was one of the best batting tracks in the country, it appeared that the target was always set at 260+ as a bare minimum. The pitch itself wasn't that bad, certainly not worthy of the 16 wickets for 150 runs sort of score line. It was just that Nuwan Kulasekara started swinging the ball with great control and after David Warner holed out to mid-off (which can happen for a player who lives by the sword), batting became progressively more difficult. Okay, it's probably fair enough to lose a couple of early wickets in the Powerplay - that can sometimes happen. What surprised me then was that the incoming batsmen showed no apparent intent to re-calibrate the target score and settle for a much more modest total that would probably have won the game. In hindsight, 130 runs may have been enough at the Gabba last Friday. Perhaps even 100 might have proved sufficient, although it's hard to predict how Sri Lanka would have approached a bigger target, had it not been the 75 that was always going to be enough if someone got away with a few belligerent hits.

Australia's middle order batting that day seemed to lack any sense of perspective, based on the match situation. David Hussey played an extravagant cut at his first delivery when Australia were already two down for bugger-all. His eventual dismissal a few balls later was not a defensive prod so much as a flat-footed swish, hardly the best shot for that situation against a swinging ball. George Bailey could hardly have been accused of playing too many shots! His dismissal, padding up to an inswinger was just one of those things I suppose. It then came as a surprise when Michael Clarke continued to try to hit through the ball and was eventually (inevitably) cleaned up, driving airily at Kulasekara. Matthew Wade was similarly profligate, caught at cover point. I wonder if there was any discussion when they were two or three down, something along the lines of "look, we made this mistake in Adelaide a few days ago, too. We might just have to treat this like a Test Match and bat the next 20 overs, even if we only score 3 runs per over. (A score of) 150 might win this game".

Perhaps I am being unfair. Maybe they had exactly this sort of conversation and things didn't quite go according to plan. It just didn't look that way, judging by the shots played. It's almost as if modern batsmen are a bit one-dimensional. They know how to score at an 80+ strike rate, they know how to go up the gears but do they have the skills, both mental and technical, to go down the gears and adopt a Boycott-esque attitude? I think it's partly down to the T20 mind-set that simply doesn't allow players to sit tight for too long. In T20, no matter how many wickets are falling, you keep playing shots, especially when batting first.

The magnificent, impossible run chases we've seen recently might also have left a legacy that occasionally becomes a millstone around the necks of these batsmen when bowling conditions are favourable. The famous Johannesburg game in 2006, England and Ireland chasing 320+ targets in the last World Cup, Australia's successful 300+ chase against England at the SCG a few years ago and India's stunning batting in Hobart last season, when they had to get to the target in less than 40 overs, might just be playing on the minds of batsmen these days. Anything is possible; if in doubt, keep going hard. It's almost a gambler's mentality. If the roulette wheel doesn't throw up your number, double your money and spin again. In that frame of mind, thoughts of slowly trying to rebuild your dwindling fortune just seems too laborious. It's easier to keep taking chances and hitting your way out of trouble. It has paid off enough times to make these young batsmen believe that anything is possible.

Even in Sydney last night, that same mentality was evident. Bailey's shot, holing out at mid-on when they were already three down with 30 overs left was symptomatic of that mind-set. Matthew Wade uppercutting to third-man when there was still plenty of time left in the innings again smacked of a bloke with a lot of self-confidence (good thing) but with perhaps a slight naivety regarding game sense (not so clever perhaps). Even Hussey, who was roughed up by Lasith Malinga, was playing away from his body, looking to run one down backward of point at a time when he might have been better off just seeing off Malinga, even if it meant 20 dot balls. It will be interesting to watch teams from around the world confronting this situation when batting first in bowler-friendly conditions. Will they start re-assessing likely targets at the end of the first Powerplay and downscale their ambitions? Will we see the re-emergence of a more traditional middle order batsman, batting at 5 or 6, someone with the defensive technique capable of switching down a gear? Maybe an Allan Border sort of player, capable of a late burst if batting conditions are good but invaluable and rock-solid if you're 3 for 40 and looking to scramble to a score in the 220 sort of range.

I suppose there's a slight danger that we might see teams who go too far in the opposite direction, settling for a pre-conceived target of say 275 when they should have realised after a few overs that it will take a score of 300+ to win this game. The two new balls might mean different things in different parts of the world. In the subcontinent, it might be the time to go really hard, regardless of how many risks you have to take and then nurdle your way through the late overs when the ball gets soft and starts to grip. Perhaps that sort of scenario might require teams to change their batting order to the extent that the hitters might go in early doors, leaving a technically sound batsmen up their sleeve to bat at six or seven and finish off a blistering start with soft hands and good footwork.

I don't think the same concerns face the team batting second. They tend to play the scoreboard, having already seen what the batting conditions are like. No total is now considered impossible, especially now that there are only 4 fielders allowed outside the circle in the last 10 overs. Even 12 runs per over is achievable in good conditions. It may well be that winning the toss and batting second might now become the favoured route. Scoreboard pressure no longer holds that same fear, not when big bats, small boundaries, a plethora of full-tosses and the ability to play reverse sweeps, lap shots and 'Dilscoops' makes it very difficult to defend boundaries.

Back to my original question though - are modern batsmen losing the ability to think for themselves when they're out in the middle? Are the instructions still being sent from the dressing-room during those regular glove changes and Gatorade top-ups? On the evidence in the last week or so, I reckon they set their eyes on a target and just keep shooting for the stars. Better to burn out than fade away!

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane

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Posted by mpcaccko on (January 26, 2013, 4:52 GMT)

I do not agree fully .When comparisons are made u have to take in to account the era they are playing.Can't count gavaskar,boycot etc as one day players at all. Those will be ;Richards,lara,lloyd,haynes,greenidge,the giant garny, richardson,hooper,gomes etc from windies Dad mian,rajawasim,salam malik,inzy,waqar,wasim,akthar,anwaretc pak The great Crowe,hadlee,cairns,harris,fleming,greatbatchetc of NZ, Haydo,mark,ponting,mike the hussy of criccket,warney,glennMcgr, andrew the simmonds,marsh&boon etc of aus Kapil,Ganguly,tondul,Dravid,Dhoni,Kholis,Mohinder,etc from india Jayasuria,mahela,sanga,desilva,rana toonga,Vaas,angelo Mathews Marvelouspatu ,Murali etc of Lanka Kp ,Boths,vaugan,Goochy,willis,butchers,gowersetc of england They are class apart.So simply for the sake one can write lots .

Posted by Karthik on (January 24, 2013, 9:49 GMT)

The analysis was spot-on Michael. Kudos. One day cricket is always a darling for viewers. The caution and clever batting is no where to be found these days. Hit out or get out policy. These youngsters are quite talented, but, given a situation, they should be able to bat accordingly. Few players like Kane Will & Joe Root - these are almost like the future stars. Wish that atleast they catch the essence of the game.

Posted by BIshop on (January 23, 2013, 2:44 GMT)

Kane Williamson last night...perfect example of how to adjust. Because of the early wickets, he allowed the run rate to crawl for the first 10 overs before rebuilding through the middle, and exploding at the end. Bravo.

Posted by Harlequin on (January 22, 2013, 22:25 GMT)

I think players having a fear of being blamed would also have something to do with it. If a player bats for 50 balls and only scores 20, then he becomes an easy target for criticism if the team fails to post a score. players coming in after him are relieved of some of the blame for failing because they were under pressure to make up for lost time. Whereas if the same player gets out early on and the team fails, then he won't be singled out, and as improvements in communication have increased the impact of criticism, this problem is more relevant today than it was 10-20 years ago.

Posted by David Bofinger on (January 22, 2013, 12:35 GMT)

"In hindsight, 130 runs may have been enough at the Gabba last Friday." That's true. But being true in hindsight isn't much use to players during the game. At the time the batsmen would have been thinking, "Unless we turn this around and one of us gets a big score, we're stuffed." They might have been wrong this time but they'd be right nine times out of ten so it's hard to argue with their tactics.

In any case the Australian shot selection might have been a bit sub-standard but to me it didn't look awful. Rather, Kulasekara's bowling was astonishing. It was like the Sri Lankans had smuggled in a different ball. Malinga's bowling, which would have been thought excellent under normal circumstances, got completely eclipsed. Clarke was dismissed by a freakishly good delivery that passed through a gap inaccessible under normal conditions.

As for putting an Allan Border equivalent in the team, well, yes, we'd all like a few of those. Know where we could find them?

Posted by Jomesh George on (January 22, 2013, 8:14 GMT)

Chris Gayle is an extremely talented batsman.But he is always desperately need some boundaries to get a momentum.I remember watching his first triple century against SA.He was in a T20 mood upto his hundred off around 70 balls and hitting some big sixes.But after that he calmed down and became extremely cautious and scored at a SR of 50 only to reach 300.Most of the stroke players are like that.They have to play some shots early and once get a going they can settle.Another thing an approach like Gavaskar or Boycott is not always beneficial to ODI cricket.That's why they couldn't transform their test form into ODIs.Best remember Gavaskar's 36 vs ENG and Boycott's 57 vs WI in world cups.

Posted by unar on (January 22, 2013, 6:56 GMT)

Why can't you simply ask if that is the case? There are only 10 or so cricket teams, and you can ask their coaches and their staff if that is the case, instead of just guessing something. If a person like me guesses this, it is probably justifiable since I dont have access to the cricket coaching staff and all, but you have that access, so why guess when you can ask and then write a more informed article?

Posted by DanTas on (January 22, 2013, 6:45 GMT)

Good article. A finite number of wickets in a 50 over game requires that a side, and its individual players, have tactics and cricketing nous. With the imminent demise of one day cricket because of the public's insatiable desire for lusty T20 style action, how's this for a left of field suggestion. One day cricket shall be contested between two batting sides each of 20 players, 40 overs per innings maximum. Only eleven of them may field. Of those eleven, one is the designated wicketkeeper. Of the remaining ten players 4 are designated bowlers who may bowl no more than 7 overs each. The remaining 6 must each bowl a minimum of 2 overs. T20 style cricket over a longer format!!

Posted by Harsh on (January 22, 2013, 6:21 GMT)

Well thought and written article. I think this has been apparent for the last 10 years or so, when some smart fellow thought it'd be better to appease the crowd more. Boundaries were shortened, pitches made more batsman friendly and even rules were invented to bend the game in favour of the batsmen. This was even before the introduction of T20's. I think ODI's changed after the WC'99, when suddenly there were lots of 300+ totals being posted and chased too. T20's have further exacerbated the conditions.

Posted by Ujjwal on (January 22, 2013, 6:17 GMT)

Good article, though would like to add here that for majority of the last couple of decades, the Australians always had the attacking instincts, no matter what the situation is. Perhaps the Waugh/Ponting generation players were a lot more talented and thus their self confidence was understandable. But as you correctly pointed out, the modern day captains has lost the logic of revising the targets based on current situation, while the batsman have lost the art of adapting to the situation. Probably with experience or with better match situation grasp the players would improve in future and this applies to all the teams

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Jeh
Born in Colombo, educated at Oxford and now living in Brisbane, Michael Jeh (Fox) is a cricket lover with a global perspective on the game. An Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, he is a Playing Member of the MCC and still plays grade cricket. Michael now works closely with elite athletes, and is passionate about youth intervention programmes. He still chases his boyhood dream of running a wildlife safari operation called Barefoot in Africa.

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