May 12, 2014

The truth about Australia's exciting brand of cricket

Why does the type of cricket Darren Lehmann wants to play suddenly seem very important to England?

Australia are winning, but their style of play is being sold as "attacking", which may not be completely accurate © Getty Images

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.

Alex Bowden blogs at King Cricket

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