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
14

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • on July 2, 2014, 13:50 GMT

    John Biddle, I think your point to some extent reinforces what Alex says. If something bad (in this case, batting collapses) keeps happening, you need to find a way out, probably by doing something different. I take your point on scoring rates, but it would be interesting to know if England had ground to a halt in (say) the previous 10 overs

  • on July 2, 2014, 6:39 GMT

    While I think the author's main point is right, I don't agree that the strange thing about the collapses in the last Ashes was their speed - more how many of them there were.

    Brisbane, first innings 6 for 9 (from 2/82 to 8/91) in 9.4 overs. Sure one run per over is slow scoring but not anything strange when you have wickets going at that rate. 2nd inn 4/9 (from 4/142 to 8/151) in 3.2 overs. Not slow.

    Adelaide, 1st inn - 4/6 (3/111 to 7/117) in 5 overs. Not slow considering the number of wickets.

    Perth, 2nd inn - 4/17 (6/336 to 10/353) in 5 overs (not slow and may not even count as a real collapse given it was the last few wickets of the innings).

    Melbourne, 2nd inn - 3/1 in 6 balls (1/86 to 4/87) and 5/6 (5/173 to 10/179) in 6.4 overs. Again, very poor, but not slow.

    Sydney, 1st inn - 5/17 (0/6 to 5/23) in 14.2 overs. Fair enough, that one had a distinct deer in the headlights waiting to be run over feel to it. 2nd inn 4/8 (3/87 to 7/95) in 1.5 overs - back to not slow.

  • PrasPunter on July 2, 2014, 4:44 GMT

    @Steve48, spot-on. Dont think anyone else other than KP would set bells ringing for the opposite captains !! KP is a very very destructive batsman and his wicket is always celebrated !!! Think teams have had a measure of the Eng team !! They are predictable, doesn't have a plan B and never going to score quicker. Easy to buckle them very quickly !! In a way, SL and india must be thankful to us for what we did to Eng last summer !!

  • Sexysteven on July 1, 2014, 8:02 GMT

    Ok there's nothing wrong with grafting or taking it to the opposition but abit of both get the balance would be ideal u got to look for the singles in between the boundary ball that u don't get carried away at hitting the boundaries and you also don't get bogged down trapped at one end so the singles are important they keep you at the wicket longer so you can hit the boundaries when abad ball comes along England do have batsman who can do this bell and prior when in form and Morgan should be in the team he's probably the next closest to a kp type player and should be given a chance to prove this at test level plus stokes is another one who is capable of doing that's he's agood Christchurch boy that's agood enough reason to put him in there lol so England do have options and players who can do the job it's just getting the right mix and combining well together is the challenge for the slelectors

  • steve48 on June 30, 2014, 13:37 GMT

    Good article, notwithstanding land47's accurate comment. Read KP explaining some of his rash dismissals down under, and the key point he made, regarding not simply taking one to long on vs. Lyon at Perth was 'what would it have changed?' Almost to prove the point, he played well, slowly and responsibly in the 4th test, and we we still got thrashed! Remember also Dermot Reeve explanation of Warwickshire's success under him as due to preferring batsmen to get out taking CALCULATED risks than limply defending until getting a good ball! Have said all along, we will miss KP terribly until we find an 'impact' player to replace him, for these reasons. Anyone doubt we would have lost to SA at Headingly without him, for one example of many; when he succeeded, the whole match was changed. Such players will make mistakes, and look careless, but watch the opposition celebrate when they are out!

  • fkhawaja on June 30, 2014, 11:32 GMT

    lets call a spade a spade . this english team is pretty mediocre. the batsmen are out of form , the bowlers look tired or even exhausted and the captain lacks imagination and leadership at present. their fielding has taken a nosedive too with tons of dropped catches.. so all in all a complete slump of fortunes. that is why they lost even at home to srilanka. fortunately for england the indian team is also not in great test form. here they have a chance to get some good results if they put up a good show.t20 and ODIs India has a clear advantage. england is not likely to win those.

  • Greatest_Game on June 30, 2014, 4:04 GMT

    @ Adway Lelewrote "I remember a Ind Vs SA test match when Kallis Reverse Swept Harbhajan & Dhoni straight away added a Third man."

    I was thinking about the same thing - Cape Town, Jan 2-6, 2011! Kallis was happy to grind down bowlers, but careful not to let the bowler dictate terms. He would subtly adjust his stance, move a little forward or back, luring bowlers into repeating deliveries, & when they did, he knew what was coming, & where to hit them.

    In that match he hit numerous sweeps off Harbhajan. His ribs had been broken by Sreesanth, so in his 2nd knock - his 2nd ton of the match - he also swept to rotate strike!

    From cricinfo commentary, at lunch: "(Kallis) started by sweeping- both conventional and reverse- and Harbhajan removed the backward short-leg fielder and placed him at backward square-leg. Kallis, then, reverted to what he did in India: he started to shuffle towards off and work the offbreaks to the on side.

    He was a very very astute batsman.

  • landl47 on June 30, 2014, 3:11 GMT

    England scored faster than Sri Lanka in both innings at Lord's and their scoring rate was appropriate at Headingly, too. There are lots of deficiencies in the England side- no test-class spinner, Cook's problems, Prior's inconsistency, Broad's lack of penetration- but batting too slowly wasn't an issue in the Sri Lankan series.

  • dunger.bob on June 30, 2014, 1:05 GMT

    A batsman's job is to score runs and when the bowling is right on top he should be concerned with survival first and foremost. You can't score runs if you're back in the shed. There comes a time though when survival isn't enough and scoring runs takes over as the primary goal. Runs are like money in the bank to a cricket team so the more you've got the more choices become available to you. .. This is where England struggled in Australia. They just couldn't turn their defence into attack and press home any advantage they prised out of us. On the other side of the coin, if England gave Brad Haddin or Steve Smith an inch they ended up taking a mile nearly every time. .. Having the nerve and the freedom to take on the bowling went a long way towards Aus. winning and England suffocating.

  • on June 29, 2014, 23:27 GMT

    Thoughtful piece and I think it makes an important point. England didn't win in 2011 by dropping anchor and not scoring they run it by making mountains of runs and dismissing the opposition cheaply.

  • on July 2, 2014, 13:50 GMT

    John Biddle, I think your point to some extent reinforces what Alex says. If something bad (in this case, batting collapses) keeps happening, you need to find a way out, probably by doing something different. I take your point on scoring rates, but it would be interesting to know if England had ground to a halt in (say) the previous 10 overs

  • on July 2, 2014, 6:39 GMT

    While I think the author's main point is right, I don't agree that the strange thing about the collapses in the last Ashes was their speed - more how many of them there were.

    Brisbane, first innings 6 for 9 (from 2/82 to 8/91) in 9.4 overs. Sure one run per over is slow scoring but not anything strange when you have wickets going at that rate. 2nd inn 4/9 (from 4/142 to 8/151) in 3.2 overs. Not slow.

    Adelaide, 1st inn - 4/6 (3/111 to 7/117) in 5 overs. Not slow considering the number of wickets.

    Perth, 2nd inn - 4/17 (6/336 to 10/353) in 5 overs (not slow and may not even count as a real collapse given it was the last few wickets of the innings).

    Melbourne, 2nd inn - 3/1 in 6 balls (1/86 to 4/87) and 5/6 (5/173 to 10/179) in 6.4 overs. Again, very poor, but not slow.

    Sydney, 1st inn - 5/17 (0/6 to 5/23) in 14.2 overs. Fair enough, that one had a distinct deer in the headlights waiting to be run over feel to it. 2nd inn 4/8 (3/87 to 7/95) in 1.5 overs - back to not slow.

  • PrasPunter on July 2, 2014, 4:44 GMT

    @Steve48, spot-on. Dont think anyone else other than KP would set bells ringing for the opposite captains !! KP is a very very destructive batsman and his wicket is always celebrated !!! Think teams have had a measure of the Eng team !! They are predictable, doesn't have a plan B and never going to score quicker. Easy to buckle them very quickly !! In a way, SL and india must be thankful to us for what we did to Eng last summer !!

  • Sexysteven on July 1, 2014, 8:02 GMT

    Ok there's nothing wrong with grafting or taking it to the opposition but abit of both get the balance would be ideal u got to look for the singles in between the boundary ball that u don't get carried away at hitting the boundaries and you also don't get bogged down trapped at one end so the singles are important they keep you at the wicket longer so you can hit the boundaries when abad ball comes along England do have batsman who can do this bell and prior when in form and Morgan should be in the team he's probably the next closest to a kp type player and should be given a chance to prove this at test level plus stokes is another one who is capable of doing that's he's agood Christchurch boy that's agood enough reason to put him in there lol so England do have options and players who can do the job it's just getting the right mix and combining well together is the challenge for the slelectors

  • steve48 on June 30, 2014, 13:37 GMT

    Good article, notwithstanding land47's accurate comment. Read KP explaining some of his rash dismissals down under, and the key point he made, regarding not simply taking one to long on vs. Lyon at Perth was 'what would it have changed?' Almost to prove the point, he played well, slowly and responsibly in the 4th test, and we we still got thrashed! Remember also Dermot Reeve explanation of Warwickshire's success under him as due to preferring batsmen to get out taking CALCULATED risks than limply defending until getting a good ball! Have said all along, we will miss KP terribly until we find an 'impact' player to replace him, for these reasons. Anyone doubt we would have lost to SA at Headingly without him, for one example of many; when he succeeded, the whole match was changed. Such players will make mistakes, and look careless, but watch the opposition celebrate when they are out!

  • fkhawaja on June 30, 2014, 11:32 GMT

    lets call a spade a spade . this english team is pretty mediocre. the batsmen are out of form , the bowlers look tired or even exhausted and the captain lacks imagination and leadership at present. their fielding has taken a nosedive too with tons of dropped catches.. so all in all a complete slump of fortunes. that is why they lost even at home to srilanka. fortunately for england the indian team is also not in great test form. here they have a chance to get some good results if they put up a good show.t20 and ODIs India has a clear advantage. england is not likely to win those.

  • Greatest_Game on June 30, 2014, 4:04 GMT

    @ Adway Lelewrote "I remember a Ind Vs SA test match when Kallis Reverse Swept Harbhajan & Dhoni straight away added a Third man."

    I was thinking about the same thing - Cape Town, Jan 2-6, 2011! Kallis was happy to grind down bowlers, but careful not to let the bowler dictate terms. He would subtly adjust his stance, move a little forward or back, luring bowlers into repeating deliveries, & when they did, he knew what was coming, & where to hit them.

    In that match he hit numerous sweeps off Harbhajan. His ribs had been broken by Sreesanth, so in his 2nd knock - his 2nd ton of the match - he also swept to rotate strike!

    From cricinfo commentary, at lunch: "(Kallis) started by sweeping- both conventional and reverse- and Harbhajan removed the backward short-leg fielder and placed him at backward square-leg. Kallis, then, reverted to what he did in India: he started to shuffle towards off and work the offbreaks to the on side.

    He was a very very astute batsman.

  • landl47 on June 30, 2014, 3:11 GMT

    England scored faster than Sri Lanka in both innings at Lord's and their scoring rate was appropriate at Headingly, too. There are lots of deficiencies in the England side- no test-class spinner, Cook's problems, Prior's inconsistency, Broad's lack of penetration- but batting too slowly wasn't an issue in the Sri Lankan series.

  • dunger.bob on June 30, 2014, 1:05 GMT

    A batsman's job is to score runs and when the bowling is right on top he should be concerned with survival first and foremost. You can't score runs if you're back in the shed. There comes a time though when survival isn't enough and scoring runs takes over as the primary goal. Runs are like money in the bank to a cricket team so the more you've got the more choices become available to you. .. This is where England struggled in Australia. They just couldn't turn their defence into attack and press home any advantage they prised out of us. On the other side of the coin, if England gave Brad Haddin or Steve Smith an inch they ended up taking a mile nearly every time. .. Having the nerve and the freedom to take on the bowling went a long way towards Aus. winning and England suffocating.

  • on June 29, 2014, 23:27 GMT

    Thoughtful piece and I think it makes an important point. England didn't win in 2011 by dropping anchor and not scoring they run it by making mountains of runs and dismissing the opposition cheaply.

  • on June 29, 2014, 15:53 GMT

    As to playing each ball "on its merits", I remember the great Keith Miller being asked by a Lancashire journalist, what advice he would give to youngsters on how to play the 'turning' ball:

    Miller: 'Simple, it can't turn if it's in the car park'. I do believe there was an expletive inserted between the words 'the' and 'car park', but I have left it out in the interests of being published!

  • on June 29, 2014, 13:03 GMT

    I think this article makes a great point. The essence of great teams was that their best batsmen were capable of taking the game away from the opposition. Ponting, Hayden, Tendulkar, Lara,Sehwag, Pietersen were all batsmen that were aggressive, scored quickly and batted their teams into winning positions. The current English squad does not have that sort of player. Most of them are grafters and probably Bell should take up that role. They need their batting to have Buttler, Stokes for a bit more punch.

  • on June 29, 2014, 8:41 GMT

    I remember a Ind Vs SA test match when Kallis Reverse Swept Harbhajan & Dhoni straight away added a Third man.

  • ThinkingCricket on June 29, 2014, 8:11 GMT

    This article is excellent and getting very close to the point. Instead of judging players on long-term results, there is a clear double-standard where a good innings that ends with an attacking stroke gone wrong is to be criticized (even in T20 and 50 over cricket), whereas a slow failure innings isn't. Pietersen was lambasted for holing out, but others who would have needed 200 balls to reach the score he did were not criticized when they scored much lower.

    This is allied to the fact that 'playing ball on merit' is seen as being the same as a defensive shot (even by the author) it's not. Playing the ball on merit actually looks a bit more like Suresh Raina batting in the IPL. In fact, England batsmen ARE playing the situation (which needs caution) and hence refusing to hit any ball whatsoever. If players were judged on what they achieved rather than how they did it, this wouldn't happen, but can you blame them, after seeing what happened to Pietersen?

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  • ThinkingCricket on June 29, 2014, 8:11 GMT

    This article is excellent and getting very close to the point. Instead of judging players on long-term results, there is a clear double-standard where a good innings that ends with an attacking stroke gone wrong is to be criticized (even in T20 and 50 over cricket), whereas a slow failure innings isn't. Pietersen was lambasted for holing out, but others who would have needed 200 balls to reach the score he did were not criticized when they scored much lower.

    This is allied to the fact that 'playing ball on merit' is seen as being the same as a defensive shot (even by the author) it's not. Playing the ball on merit actually looks a bit more like Suresh Raina batting in the IPL. In fact, England batsmen ARE playing the situation (which needs caution) and hence refusing to hit any ball whatsoever. If players were judged on what they achieved rather than how they did it, this wouldn't happen, but can you blame them, after seeing what happened to Pietersen?

  • on June 29, 2014, 8:41 GMT

    I remember a Ind Vs SA test match when Kallis Reverse Swept Harbhajan & Dhoni straight away added a Third man.

  • on June 29, 2014, 13:03 GMT

    I think this article makes a great point. The essence of great teams was that their best batsmen were capable of taking the game away from the opposition. Ponting, Hayden, Tendulkar, Lara,Sehwag, Pietersen were all batsmen that were aggressive, scored quickly and batted their teams into winning positions. The current English squad does not have that sort of player. Most of them are grafters and probably Bell should take up that role. They need their batting to have Buttler, Stokes for a bit more punch.

  • on June 29, 2014, 15:53 GMT

    As to playing each ball "on its merits", I remember the great Keith Miller being asked by a Lancashire journalist, what advice he would give to youngsters on how to play the 'turning' ball:

    Miller: 'Simple, it can't turn if it's in the car park'. I do believe there was an expletive inserted between the words 'the' and 'car park', but I have left it out in the interests of being published!

  • on June 29, 2014, 23:27 GMT

    Thoughtful piece and I think it makes an important point. England didn't win in 2011 by dropping anchor and not scoring they run it by making mountains of runs and dismissing the opposition cheaply.

  • dunger.bob on June 30, 2014, 1:05 GMT

    A batsman's job is to score runs and when the bowling is right on top he should be concerned with survival first and foremost. You can't score runs if you're back in the shed. There comes a time though when survival isn't enough and scoring runs takes over as the primary goal. Runs are like money in the bank to a cricket team so the more you've got the more choices become available to you. .. This is where England struggled in Australia. They just couldn't turn their defence into attack and press home any advantage they prised out of us. On the other side of the coin, if England gave Brad Haddin or Steve Smith an inch they ended up taking a mile nearly every time. .. Having the nerve and the freedom to take on the bowling went a long way towards Aus. winning and England suffocating.

  • landl47 on June 30, 2014, 3:11 GMT

    England scored faster than Sri Lanka in both innings at Lord's and their scoring rate was appropriate at Headingly, too. There are lots of deficiencies in the England side- no test-class spinner, Cook's problems, Prior's inconsistency, Broad's lack of penetration- but batting too slowly wasn't an issue in the Sri Lankan series.

  • Greatest_Game on June 30, 2014, 4:04 GMT

    @ Adway Lelewrote "I remember a Ind Vs SA test match when Kallis Reverse Swept Harbhajan & Dhoni straight away added a Third man."

    I was thinking about the same thing - Cape Town, Jan 2-6, 2011! Kallis was happy to grind down bowlers, but careful not to let the bowler dictate terms. He would subtly adjust his stance, move a little forward or back, luring bowlers into repeating deliveries, & when they did, he knew what was coming, & where to hit them.

    In that match he hit numerous sweeps off Harbhajan. His ribs had been broken by Sreesanth, so in his 2nd knock - his 2nd ton of the match - he also swept to rotate strike!

    From cricinfo commentary, at lunch: "(Kallis) started by sweeping- both conventional and reverse- and Harbhajan removed the backward short-leg fielder and placed him at backward square-leg. Kallis, then, reverted to what he did in India: he started to shuffle towards off and work the offbreaks to the on side.

    He was a very very astute batsman.

  • fkhawaja on June 30, 2014, 11:32 GMT

    lets call a spade a spade . this english team is pretty mediocre. the batsmen are out of form , the bowlers look tired or even exhausted and the captain lacks imagination and leadership at present. their fielding has taken a nosedive too with tons of dropped catches.. so all in all a complete slump of fortunes. that is why they lost even at home to srilanka. fortunately for england the indian team is also not in great test form. here they have a chance to get some good results if they put up a good show.t20 and ODIs India has a clear advantage. england is not likely to win those.

  • steve48 on June 30, 2014, 13:37 GMT

    Good article, notwithstanding land47's accurate comment. Read KP explaining some of his rash dismissals down under, and the key point he made, regarding not simply taking one to long on vs. Lyon at Perth was 'what would it have changed?' Almost to prove the point, he played well, slowly and responsibly in the 4th test, and we we still got thrashed! Remember also Dermot Reeve explanation of Warwickshire's success under him as due to preferring batsmen to get out taking CALCULATED risks than limply defending until getting a good ball! Have said all along, we will miss KP terribly until we find an 'impact' player to replace him, for these reasons. Anyone doubt we would have lost to SA at Headingly without him, for one example of many; when he succeeded, the whole match was changed. Such players will make mistakes, and look careless, but watch the opposition celebrate when they are out!