June 29, 2014

Why so passive, England?

England have become a reactive batting side, content to respond to given field settings than to manipulate them

When in strife, don't get bogged down: Mike Atherton looked to improve the odds stacked against him in Johannesburg in 1995 by hooking short balls © Getty Images

There are many crimes that can be committed by an England cricketer, and I'm not talking about Chris Lewis here - I'm referring specifically to cricketing crimes. Perhaps the most heinous of all is to fail to "dig in" when the batting line-up is under pressure. It's one thing to lose your wicket while playing a defensive stroke in these situations, but woe betide the England batsman dismissed trying to score a run - or worse, looking to find the boundary. Couldn't he have left that? Why didn't he leave it?

"Thou must not give it away" seems to be a commandment that is not applied in other nations to quite the same extent. Clearly there are times when discretion is the better part of valour, but it seems to me that the team I support is especially prone to getting the balance wrong. Batsmen grinding to a halt in their efforts to be seen to be doing the right thing are often doing the opposition's work for them.

This particular malaise has been especially apparent over the last six months or so. Think back to the Ashes and Mitchell Johnson-induced destruction will doubtless figure heavily. It's easy to recall the series as being one where England's batsmen were simply blown away because those were the headlines at the time and that's what fills the highlights reels.

However, the reality is that most of the tourists' collapses were weirdly slow. In fact they weren't really collapses at all. It was death by slow, sequential organ failure, with each component of the body grinding to a halt before finally shutting off for good. Watching at home, the more clearly you could see it happening, the more inevitable it seemed.

Why was this? Was England's predilection for "digging in" perhaps fuelling the subsidence? Look at the scorecards and there are an awful lot of low double-figure scores attached to ponderous strike rates. They were trying to play responsibly. They were playing each ball on its merits.

Playing the ball on its merits is almost universally regarded to be a good thing, but there are times when it's far more important to play the situation on its merits. You'd think England of all teams would appreciate the dangers presented by a dry bowling tactic, such as the one so expertly delivered by the Australians.

Play each ball on its merits when each ball merits a leave or a defensive stroke and you play into the opposition's hands. This kind of passive, reactive approach looks determined and gritty in the short term, but it doesn't change anything. If you're pinned down, not scoring, why would the opposition change their approach? They are playing a numbers game and they know that eventually you will miss or edge one without having added to the score.

Tthis isn't about fielding T20 style boundary hitters. It's about having batsmen who look to change the situation they are confronted with. This might involve big shots, but more likely it will involve an attempt to manipulate the field

There have, of course, been some great strokeless rearguards, but there have been far more where the batsman has looked to improve odds that have been stacked against them. In Mike Atherton's epic 185 not out in Johannesburg in 1995, he hooked the short balls. More recently Moeen Ali lubricated a partnership with Joe Root that was in severe danger of seizing up against Sri Lanka.

But this is not really about backs-to-the-wall defensive play. It's about when the batsmen find themselves going nowhere earlier in the match and, more specifically, it's about the dangers of fielding a batting line-up dominated by reactive batsmen.

England are currently an unusually passive batting side. This is understandable because this is, for the most part, the best way to go about Test-match batting. The issue is that they have all their eggs in one basket, so when the reactive approach is not working, there isn't really anyone to bail them out (although Moeen Ali did show promise in this regard).

To be clear, this isn't about fielding T20 style boundary hitters. It's about having batsmen who look to change the situation they are confronted with. This might involve big shots, but more likely it will involve an attempt to manipulate the field.

It's a name I'm loath to use because of what else it brings with it, but Kevin Pietersen was very obviously a proactive batsman for England in recent times.

Pietersen's switch hits and reverse sweeps weren't about showing off (well, okay, maybe they were a bit). They were about finding gaps to counteract bowling plans. When bowlers say Pietersen was hard to bowl to, they don't mean because he was always looking to wallop them for six. They mean that whatever combination of field setting and delivery they adopted, he always had an answer. For example, his ability to work balls bowled wide of off stump into the leg side was a far more workaday example of this methodology.

There are, of course, many other examples. Viv Richards' default approach was to spread the field before settling into a more conventional style of play. Graham Thorpe would often react to restrictive fields in a similar way, or he would find the single, wherever it was hidden - anything to keep from being stymied.

Often proactive batsmen will take more risks, but in so doing they are looking to reduce the risk for both themselves and their batting partners further down the line. There are many times when this is unnecessary, but if the batsmen are stalling, wickets are falling and no one looks to change the situation, what else can a side expect but more of the same until all ten wickets have fallen?

Alex Bowden blogs at King Cricket

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