January 21, 2013

Where have all the 'thinking batsmen' gone?

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

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