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May 12, 2014

The truth about Australia's exciting brand of cricket

Alex Bowden
Australia are winning, but their style of play is being sold as "attacking", which may not be completely accurate  © Getty Images
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You will doubtless be more than familiar with the phrase "brand of cricket", and you will probably feel faintly uncomfortable that neither "attacking" nor "exciting" precede it in this sentence. We've been conditioned to expect those words in this context, because for all the talk of different brands, people invariably want to market their approach as being dashing and initiative-taking.

This seems to mean that "attacking" and "exciting" are pretty much the only adjectives ever used when talking about brands of cricket. At a push, someone might risk an "aggressive" but they would then feel duty-bound to offer all sorts of qualifications about playing hard but fair, emphasising how the team knows where the line is and not to cross it. Most of the time if you start talking about optimal, acceptable levels of aggression, it brings with it the foul stench of hypocrisy, so why not just stick to safer terms that basically describe the same thing?

Attacking, exciting cricket it is, then. I guess it's easier to sell. And what are the alternatives? For several years, England played a brand of cricket which they didn't really market at all and this was because they knew that in many ways it wasn't all that appealing to their target market. They batted steadily and bowled conservatively and they hoped that the product would simply speak for itself. For a long time it did, but accumulated wear and tear eventually led to defects, and when the fans returned to the shop to complain, it seemed they weren't that keen on accepting an exact replacement. They wanted their money back so that they could go and buy a completely different brand of cricket.

This is perhaps why, upon being unveiled as England's new coach, Peter Moores promised "an exciting brand of cricket that will connect with England's supporters". What will this entail? He didn't really give any specifics. People rarely do.

Why this sudden need to rebrand? England were bloody effective until very recently. Is the old brand so heavily tainted that nothing can be salvaged? From the way people are talking, it would seem so.

Like all the most powerful marketing campaigns, there's a discrepancy between what's said about Australian cricket and the "product" itself

You wonder whether they have been stung by defeat or by the words of their conqueror. Between Ashes, when asked to describe England's style of play, Darren Lehmann said: "Dour. It's not the type of cricket I'd play."

The type of cricket "Boof" wants to play suddenly seems very important to England. As was the case for so many years, the Australian approach has again become the template. "Australia connected with their public very well," said Alastair Cook recently. He wants the fans on side; feels that they are the lifeblood of a successful side. Winning is no longer enough. England also have to win in the right way.

But perhaps he should stop and carry out some proper competitor analysis before he sets about his task. Like all the most powerful marketing campaigns, there's a discrepancy between what's said about Australian cricket and the "product" itself.

With a bowling attack headed by Mitchell Johnson and a batting line-up led by David Warner, the current Australian side could never be described as dour, but look beyond that and they are far from being freewheeling funsters from 1 to 11. The batting is built around Chris Rogers, for crying out loud, and the bowling's more calculated than they would like you to believe.

Speaking to the Telegraph's Scyld Berry recently about what Australia's bowlers had done in the Ashes, Peter Siddle said: "The special thing was probably just the patience more than anything. It was bowling to our plans 90% of the time instead of 75% which caused the problems."

Persevering with carefully laid plans doesn't sound too exciting, but I suppose it depends on what those plans are.

"The key stat for us is maidens. The more maidens you bowl, the more pressure builds, and obviously the more back-to-back maidens you can bowl - that plays a massive part. Then they're looking for that quick single or pushing at one they normally wouldn't because they want to get off strike."

So fairly attritional stuff then. Clearly, some aspects of a brand command more attention, while others - which may be equally important to the team's success - remain in the background.

There's an echo of this in how the great West Indian sides of yesteryear are perceived these days. While we miss the great fast bowlers now, read the letters page of an old cricket magazine and you'll find little love was being expressed for them at the time. Many people were tired of the relentlessly effective bowling approach, seeing it as one-dimensional and boring.

It brings to mind Mark E Smith's sage take on nostalgia in The Fall song, "It's A Curse": "Balti and Vimto and Spangles - they were always crap." The Windies weren't crap, but nor were they as thrilling to watch as we might sometimes think.

The same goes for the modern Australian side that Cook and Moores appear to be yearning to become. Australia know how to sell their wares and, currently, they also know how to win. However, the main selling points aren't necessarily the most influential elements in terms of results. Lose sight of that and you end up thinking that it's not what you do, but how you present it that counts. The truth is, you can only sell a bad product for so long before the public catches on. A genuinely effective product, however, retains timeless appeal.

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Posted by balajik1968 on (May 14, 2014, 10:45 GMT)

More than anything, the one thing the Aussies really changed was the running between the wickets. They cut down on the number of dot balls faced and it did wonders to their run rate and helped them score fast. Other teams have generally looked to the boundaries to get a move on, whereas the Aussies scored at a fair clip even when no boundary balls came their way. Rotating the strike also scrambled the opposition plans, so that when they needed to, the Aussies could find the boundaries. That was the real key to Aussie success in batting.

Posted by Biggus on (May 14, 2014, 7:58 GMT)

Yep, as @Speng says we play to win and can't see any point in doing otherwise. Test cricket isn't the Battle of Britain and the consequences of losing while chasing a forbidding total are likely to be, "At least you had a go at it" (at least in Australia) instead of occupation of one's country. That's what we Aussies just don't get about the Poms. It's a game, just a game, and if you're not going to play as if losing is an inevitable, but hopefully rare result, of playing the game with verve then what is the point? England have almost always in my experience played with an overriding fear of losing as if doing so would have catastrophic national consequences. What has happened between the joy of schoolboy cricket and what ends up in the test team where the pervasive mood is, "Just don't lose!"

Posted by Speng on (May 13, 2014, 14:47 GMT)

Reality is Australia play to win not to not loose. Michael Clarke declaring from behind the West Indies in their last tour to give his team time to bowl out the WI and bat to win the match was a risk-taking stroke of genius audacity that Eng/Cook would have never done. Clarke's reckoning was a sure draw vs a win or draw so he took the opportunity to go for the win. Scorecard here http://www.espncricinfo.com/ci/engine/match/540176.html. The two teams had combined to score 850+ in the first innings but Clarke backed his bowlers (and perhaps the WI's batting inconsistency) to get the WI out quickly in the second innings and they did...

And this was the first match in the series!!

Posted by WheresTheEmpire on (May 13, 2014, 12:10 GMT)

The truth is there was some pulsating Test cricket played by SA and Aus recently and by Aus in the recent Ashes. Great for the fans and great for Test cricket.

How any side plays their cricket is a choice for them but why spend an entire article nitpicking and is it really so bad that Moores wants the fans on board?

Posted by andrew-schulz on (May 13, 2014, 9:03 GMT)

How can you say 'attacking' and 'exciting' say the same thing as 'aggressive'? And where would 'attacking' and 'exciting' cross the line? Ridiculous stuff.

Then you talk about the gulf between what Australia say and do based on what Peter Siddle said. Anybody else see the farce here?

Australia are an incredibly exciting team to watch. Siddle isn't even in the side at all, and the 3 quicks in situ are all intent only on taking wickets. To see Smith and Watson force the pace when quick scoring is needed to force a victory was sensational in Cape Town. And Clarke's and Cook's captaincy are at completely opposite ends of the scale in terms of attitude and intent. To see Cook trying to stick up for his delayed declaration at Headingley against New Zealand last year was pathetic.

Posted by JJJake on (May 13, 2014, 9:02 GMT)

Australia's run rate is generally a lot faster than the oppositions. They always keep ticking it over.

Posted by dunger.bob on (May 13, 2014, 8:45 GMT)

As the article points out, the Aussie tactics were the same as they've pretty much always been, it's just that this time they worked so spectacularly well. So well it's all been distorted out of proportion at times in the media.

I see a quite a few people are putting it solely down to Johnson. .. I guess it has neatness on it's side. MJ goes berserk for one freakish summer. Single handedly knocks over England 5-0 with the added benefit of taking out half their coaching staff and 3 or 4 players by the time the dust settles. .. If it's true it has to rate up there as one of the greatest sustained bowling spells of all time. It was good but it wasn't that good. Johnson was mopping up on the back of the work of the other bowlers. Harris and Siddle rattled your batting something fierce. They were already messes by the time Mitch got a crack. Lyon did a great if unspectacular job of holding an end tight while all 3 of the quicks bowled out of their skins. All 4 bowlers did it to you, not 1

Posted by Paulk on (May 13, 2014, 4:06 GMT)

You can only play an "aggressive brand of cricket" if you have attacking batsmen and bowlers. The WI team of the late 70s and 80s had a team full of high class attacking batsmen and bowlers as did the great Australian team of the late 90s and 2000s. Therefore, they were able to consistently play aggressive cricket at a very high level as a team. Lesser teams usually have 1-3 really aggressive players of that caliber and hence they have to fall back to a slightly more defensive game pattern with aggression in patches. In the recent series involving Australia, it was really Mitchell Johnson's outstanding performances and the fear factor he evoked that allowed them to play with aggression. I would be surprised if they were able to play consistently attacking cricket over a period of time. But then, success inspires confidence so the present bunch may be able to take their cricket to another level. After all, the great WI and Aussie teams were not great to begin with but had to work at it

Posted by landl47 on (May 13, 2014, 4:04 GMT)

How any side plays must be based on what their players do well. Sehwag played his best cricket when he went on an all-out rampage. Kallis was very effective as an accumulator. Ask each of them to play like the other and they would have been less successful. Warne was an attacking bowler who turned the ball sideways, Kumble was line and length and subtle variations. Their sides needed them to play to their strengths.

England have got some new faces coming in. The challenge will be to find the right style of play to suit what they do best. The approach I'd caution England not to take is to base anything they do on the last Ashes series. MJ had a dream season for Australia and was just as effective against SA as he was against England. Without him, Australia were neither a very attacking nor a very good side- England won the home Ashes series and SA won the only test in which he didn't bowl well.

Do what you do best is the best way to succeed in any venture.

Posted by Mr.CricketJKNotHussey on (May 13, 2014, 1:21 GMT)

When England did well, they did play dynamic if not attacking cricket. When they white washed India and beat India in their backyard, they came out to attack the spinners and their own spinners bowled attacking lines to outdo India's. In England, they went in for the kill against a weak Indian bowling attack and hounded on the batsmen. Once they went back to their defensive brand of cricket their fortunes changed. They started in the home Ashes which were a lot closer than the 3-0 and people suggest. Even then, they won a really close first test and the other two they won was due to Broad's attacking brilliance. Test cricket is a format where you do best when you go after the opposition with intent and gain a psychological edge, which coupled with the exhaustion and draining nature of the game, gives you a considerable advantage. This is why Australia and WI had their eras of dominance. Attacking cricketers who never gave up.

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