January 25, 2015

What do we talk about when we talk about aggression?

Why do people seem to think players who get up in the opposition's faces also have aggressive approaches in their cricket?

Batting aggressively does not have to go hand in hand with mouthing off at opponents © Getty Images

I can't say I feel terribly affected by the moral panic that has welled up in the wake of David Warner's latest misdemeanour, but I am interested in the way his behaviour is perceived by a lot of his supporters.

Ricky Ponting summed up a common view. In a recent column on this website, he wrote: "Darren Lehmann has said publicly that David is an aggressive character, and the Australian public love the way he bats, which goes hand in hand with the sort of confrontational approach he sometimes takes in the field."

What's interesting there is the assumption that Warner's "confrontational approach" is somehow linked to his batting, even though the incident that gave rise to all of this took place while he was fielding. This is a common theme.

People with a vested interest in Warner's performance seem to worry that he'll lose his "edge" if they try and rein in his combative tendencies, as if needlessly piling into opposition batsmen on the flimsiest of pretexts is his equivalent of Samson's hair.

Is that really the case? For a start, there seems to be a conflation of two separate concepts here (which is perhaps unsurprising, considering they relate to the same word). We often talk of a batsman playing aggressively, but that isn't the same as having an aggressive attitude in the sense of being hostile to others.

The two things aren't the same and we don't need to think too hard to find examples that prove this. Virender Sehwag is most certainly an aggressive batsman, but he has always struck me as being a placid sort of individual in the broader sense. Nor will you see Chris Gayle charge at opposition batsmen should they have the temerity to steal a single off an overthrow. Quite possibly he raises an eyebrow at them, but we wouldn't even see that behind the sunglasses.

"The word aggression was probably the thing for me today," said AB de Villiers after recently recording the fastest hundred in one-day internationals. He also said of his batting partner that day: "I love batting with Hash, he calms me down a lot at the crease."

So which is it, AB? Aggression or calmness? That's the thing - they are not mutually exclusive when batting. Furthermore, if it's possible to be both calm and aggressive simultaneously, surely it's possible to combine the former with your batting and the latter with your fielding. The two activities may well be separated by several hours, after all.

But it's also true that not all batsmen are the same. While I drew attention to Sehwag and Gayle above, these are perhaps more self-contained individuals for whom the opposition can almost seem like an irrelevance; mere mannequins in their own private drama. At the other end of the spectrum there are players for whom it seems crucial to be in a battle against someone. They need an enemy and that enemy needs a face.

Virat Kohli is another obvious example of this sort of player. When he reaches a landmark, his celebrations are usually full of anger before there's any hint of happiness. "I don't mind an argument on the field," he said recently. "It really excites me and brings the best out of me."

It's often said that this need for competition can grow into a desire to seek out conflict, and like Warner, Kohli too can be guilty of ugly behaviour while he's in the field. But even if these players seem to feed on the tension of a personal battle, do they really need to get stuck into the opposition while they are fielding?

Kevin Pietersen might at first appear to be the sort of guy who prefers his conflicts internecine, but he is also someone who has always been energised by the very personal battle between batsman and bowler. Brett Lee at The Oval in 2005 and Dale Steyn in the World T20 in 2010: on both occasions it was personal - not to mention his battles with Shane Warne or his switch-hit six off Muttiah Muralitharan. Nor is he afraid of sharing a few words while at the crease.

And what of his behaviour in the field? Does the lust for conflict that appears to fuel his batting spill over to when his side is bowling? "I've never seen a player more disinterested or distracted on the field," was Paul Downton's infamous verdict.

While that particular comment may have referred to a particular tour and unusual circumstances, I've been to enough England games since Pietersen made his debut to know that he has never been an in-your-face type fielder. He paces, he claps, he has a languid throw, but he is surprisingly anonymous.

So does the confrontational approach Warner sometimes takes in the field really go hand in hand with the way he bats, as Ponting asserts? I don't see why it should be any more beneficial to his batting than the confrontational approach he sometimes takes in the Birmingham branch of Walkabout.

Alex Bowden blogs at King Cricket

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