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Geoff Boycott on the key to the opener's success, India's spin combination, and what makes Alastair Cook tick
November 23, 2012
Siddhartha Talya: Hello and welcome to a special edition of Bowl at Boycs, and I say it's special because Geoffrey Boycott is in Mumbai, and we're speaking face to face. Geoffrey, you've been to Mumbai on several occasions after your retirement but you played your first Test here, didn't you, back in 1980?
Geoffrey Boycott: A memorable Test match. It was the Jubilee Test to celebrate 50 years of Indian cricket. I met the president of the cricket board, Mr Wankhede himself, I liked him. Surprise, surprise, you were so kind to us - which normally you're not - you gave us a lovely pitch that seamed and swung. We were a bit better than you at that. We proved when you came to England and we beat you 4-0, and you're much better when it turns.
Ian Botham, you were up against one of the great allrounders, and he got 13 wickets and a hundred. We won by ten wickets, and all the time I've been coming here as a commentator, I've never seen one like it since. So it was a rare pitch, lovely moment and we played that on our way back from a series in Australia, three Tests and plenty of one-dayers.
ST: And then you came back again a few years later…
GB: I did, and you won the series then 1-0. So, you're very tough to beat in India, very, very tough indeed. It was a one-off Test [in 1980] and anything could happen, but you gave us a pitch that was quite extraordinary.
ST: We'll come to the questions now. The first one comes from Anshul in India. He says this is probably the first time you've had a good look at India's spin combination of R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha. What's been your first impression, given they've had wickets come easy in the first innings, but had to work hard for them in the next?
GB: First of all, Ojha is an old-fashioned slow bowler. By that I mean, he tosses the ball up, he gives it air, with spin, but he's the old-fashioned type of flight and guile. He's not turned to the modern way - despite Twenty20 cricket - of firing it in because people are going to slog him out of the park. The ball is up in the air so long, he actually gives the impression that it should be easy to hit, but he isn't. He's got a simple, orthodox, textbook action. He's a nice bowler and I have no reason to think he won't get wickets, not at all. Everything looks nice and smooth in his action, he does spin it and he looks a good bowler.
Ashwin is a bit different. His action is all arms, a bit all over the place. Quite frankly, after seeing him get 50 wickets, quicker than any other Indian bowler, I was disappointed. I really was. Why? Because his line and length was all over the place. For example, for too long he attacked Alastair Cook, bowling over the wicket aiming at Cook's leg stump. There were a lot of the bowlers' footmarks, rough, outside the left-hander's off stump, which would have afforded him unpredictable spin, maybe some unusual bounce, the odd ball stopping and lifting and maybe the odd ball keeping low. If he'd bowled around the wicket and aimed there, consistently, often with patience, I think it would have been a much better plan to get Cook out. If you remember, he got Cook out driving off the front foot exactly that way [in the first innings]. If you got the guy out in the first innings like that, why the hell do you want to go over the wicket and bowl at his leg stump. Cook is much better at leg stump. The pitch [there] is not going to turn as much, it is much more pristine. And he hardly bowled there [outside the left-hander's off stump] in the second innings.
Even to the England right-handers, his line and length was all over the place. I don't think his strategy and planning was good enough. He didn't have enough patience. Every spinner should have a stock ball he can bowl pretty much at will on a good length and a good line, and he can do it time after time. An offspinner should be able to bowl an offspin ball to right-handed batsmen just outside off stump, pitching it up, on a pretty good length. He didn't seem to have any consistency or patience. If you saw a map of his bowling, the ball was all over the place, different lengths, different lines. I thought, on a pitch which had such slow turn, that wasn't the best way to go, so it was a disappointment. Let's see how he bowls in Mumbai. But what I saw there, I wasn't impressed.
In fact, I think Harbhajan Singh at his best was, for me, a better bowler. But he lost form a little bit, bowling so flat in one-day cricket, which, I'm saying, could happen. It mentally makes the spinners bowl flatter, because if you toss it up, they're going to hit you out for a six and you can't afford that too often. Apparently Harbhajan's coming back a bit. I don't know. Ashwin's got wickets so he must be a decent bowler. But, if you ask me, I give you the truth. What I saw was disappointing. That doesn't mean he's a bad bowler. There's another three Tests so we'll see what happens. Ask me then at the end.
ST: Is this where someone like MS Dhoni comes into the picture as well. He's the captain, he's standing right behind the stumps. Given that Cook was playing Ashwin so well for such a long period of time, is this where Dhoni could have stepped in and told Ashwin to change his strategy a bit?
GB: Yes, he could have. I don't know what went on and I don't want to guess what was said. Dhoni's a good captain. He handles the players and the team and the situations pretty good, so I don't know. But the bowler in Test match cricket ought to know. He's been around the park a bit. He's played IPL for a few years. He's won two trophies and lost to Kolkata last year, so it's not like he doesn't know what he's doing. Some young kid, playing his first Test, two or three, then maybe a player, ex-player or captain could say, "Hey, maybe you should do this." But, he's not exactly a young kid of 20, is he? How old is he?
ST: He's 26, he'll be turning 26 this year.
GB: Yeah, and he's had a few years playing, so he ought to have been able to sort that out himself. And tell me, you bowl somebody out one way in the first innings, don't you do that again? The batsman's already thinking, "I don't want it there, I've got out there."
ST: The Mumbai Test will be of special significance for another Indian player and that's Virender Sehwag. He is playing his 100th Test overall. Related to that is a question from Srikkanth in the United States. He says: I don't mean to compare Sehwag to Viv Richards, who was…
GB:: No, don't, There's no comparison…
ST: … and he elaborates, saying, Richards was destructive against superior bowling attacks at a time when helmets were not around. But what has been the key to Sehwag sustaining such a remarkable strike-rate of 82, especially with a consistency that's given him an average of over 50 in Test cricket, and for such a long period of time?
GB: Let's take the average first. I don't think we should get too carried away with averages or statistics. They don't tell you everything about a player. They don't tell you the type of pitches or the quality of opposition, you've already mentioned that. No helmets, fast bowlers, etc.
All modern-day players have higher averages than they did 20 years ago. I don't know what the total answer to that is but there are heavier bats, shorter boundaries, pitches are flatter and prepared better, certainly in England. They're miles better, as are all over the world. They are a yardstick to measure the quality of a cricketer against other players of that era. In the era he's played, he has been superb.
Virender has been a superb player. From my point of view, watching him, oh, he's fun. He's an entertainer, a guy who keeps people on the edge of their seats, because in a blink of an eye you could miss him, or miss some fantastic shots. For me, it's a lack of fear in his batting. He plays by instinct, with superb timing. He is inventive with his strokeplay. And in his best period, he was blessed with great eyesight. That's important because it means you pick up the line and the length slightly quicker than most people. To play all those shots he plays, he's got to pick up the length very quickly. He's always had an uncomplicated, free-flowing bat speed. He picks it up and he hits at the ball and it's always a free flow. It's a gift, which, together with his instinct to take on bowlers, particularly on subcontinent pitches, it's worked brilliantly. He's mesmerised bowlers in the subcontinent.
It's not so easy for him to play that way on some pitches abroad. That's why his record is better in the subcontinent. He's still done well, at times, abroad, but he's also been shown up at times, like in England. And in his favourite environment where he grew up, which is India, he's used to the pitches and they tend to have a low bounce that gets lower. And there is hardly any movement with the new ball. So he can hit through the line of the ball. It's not going to move on him, and he does take the ball on the up, which is chancy. If anything, the pace of the ball is much slower in India and gets slower and slower as the matches go on.
In England, that's totally different. The normal pace is quicker than India and, many times, it will seam, it will swing. If you were playing on the up and extravagant shots and your technique isn't pretty good - he's never been a technical player, he's been an expressive player - then that's fraught with danger. In South Africa and Australia, some pitches aren't quick, like Port Elizabeth, but there are others like Cape Town, you've got a Johannesburg, you've got a Pretoria, and much high above, sometimes in Durban you're never quite sure what you're going to get. Australia has bouncier pitches, they are faster and bouncier. All these conditions help the bowlers a little bit more, which give problems to the batsmen. Then it's not so easy to play these risky shots on the up, over the top, with limited footwork. That's the key, early on with limited footwork. We're all playing much better when we've got runs, 30, 40, 50, then the footwork is brilliant. It's early on, they get you out before you go in.
It's difficult for bowlers to bounce him in India. When they bang it in, it takes the sting out of the ball so it sits up nicely to hit. When he goes abroad they can bang it in with more pace and he does get into trouble a lot more. It gets high on the chest and it's more difficult to handle. So I've tried to put the plusses and the minuses and to explain to you, not be detrimental or be highly critical. I love his batting, he's been wonderful for the game, but when there's been awkward bounce, and awkward movement, it makes his job or the way he plays much more difficult.
He's always had this quick eye to make up for his technique which isn't special. And technique is much more vital when there's pace and bounce and movement.
|"There'll be people with a wider range of shots, there's Bell, Clarke, Kallis and Amla. But I don't think they'll be more effective than Cook. He's just as effective as them and he'll keep going on and on and on"|
As he gets older, which he is beginning to, he'll still be able to play, but maybe his eyesight and reactions might just slow down a little bit. It happens to all of us, not just him, and so he should find it a little more difficult to play that way when the ball moves around, bounces and so forth. But, when he's on song, particularly going well on these slower pitches, going after bowlers in the subcontinent or the odd pitch abroad where it doesn't move too much, he is exciting and absolutely impossible to bowl at.
ST: He's had a few big scores overseas but, as you said, there are certain technical aspects of his game that may not necessarily help him get more big scores outside of India. But have you noticed any technical adjustments he's made to his game when he's gone overseas? Or is the technique so firmly entrenched in his game that, subconsciously, even when you're playing abroad, knowing that the pitches are much more difficult, it's still difficult to change your game?
GB: I don't think he really wants to change. He's got such a phlegmatic temperament. Nothing seems to bother him much. He'll sing tunes and everything in the dressing room, he takes everything in his stride. That's a wonderful asset. That's not a criticism. If you've been so successful in a particular way, I think he just thinks, "Well, I've done pretty good, why should I change," and I think he's going to play that way till the end of his career. I don't think he's going to change very much.
As you get older, you may lose a little bit of reaction time, a little bit of eyesight, it's not quite the same, but you should have learnt and gained maturity from playing a lot of cricket around the world. You should have gained experience, you should have gained knowledge, shouldn't you? So where you lose a little bit on one side, you should have gained something to a kid when you start. If you're clever, you use one to offset the other, you may play slightly a different way. For instance, Sachin Tendulkar may have to do that, one of the all-time greats. I don't see Viru doing that. He's an uncomplicated individual. He's comfortable in his own skin, comfortable with his own way of playing and, I think, he'll go out the same way as he came in. And he'll be remembered and loved.
ST: Geoffrey's favourite question for this show is related to technique as well. It comes from Prajot in India. He says: Alastair Cook has a better average in Australia, Sri Lanka and India than he does in England, showing he has an ability to adapt to conditions quicker than most. What is it about his technique that has brought him so much success? And have you noticed any adjustments he makes when he plays outside of England?
GB: I don't think he changes his technique, wherever he is. He has a very good technique but England is probably the most difficult place to be an opener, because the English climate of rain, cooler weather with small amounts of sunshine, leaves even well-prepared pitches open to more seam and swing. The new-ball bowlers exploit that and opening the batting is always going to be a bit harder in England, just the nature of the country.
Cook's technique is very simple. It's to get as far forward as he can, whether he is playing spin or seam, so that the ball, after pitching, has the smallest distance to travel after hitting the pitch to him meeting it with his bat. And when it's short of a length, he uses the crease and gets deep into it, and get as high as he can, to give himself more time to watch the ball spin or seam. That way, he can play pretty late, close to his body, and he is, sort of, over the top of the ball. He has a strong mind, always has had. Every cricket he's played , every time he's gone up a notch, he's played well. He's got a strong mind, patience, concentration, a good temperament that is unflappable, he is not really fazed by anything. He's a tough, determined kid under that really nice mild manner. He's always had a nice, mild manner.
And he doesn't sweat, which has been talked about recently, which helps him when he's playing in the heat abroad. While playing long innings, you need to change your gloves which get wet. You're sweating such a lot, you need to get towelled down a bit, it gets you a bit flustered. It doesn't bother him that way, so that is a help.
Apart from this excellent defence and determined strong mind, he does have certain areas or shots that he feels comfortable in. He uses them. Others, that are not his favourite areas, he doesn't try early on. Some batsmen will have a much wider range of strokes than him. For instance, Bell and Pietersen, in the England side. But he's clever. He sticks to what he knows he can play or he's comfortable with. And he only plays the other shots when he's in, when he's getting runs, confidence, feet are moving well, and it's very difficult to get him out of his comfort zone. So that makes a tough cookie to bowl at.
Once he's in, he will expand his range of shots a bit more. But there are certain shots... you don't see him hooking, he'll pull. He's not really an on-driver through the on side, he'll hit it off his hip on the back foot. I could go through his batting. He's a very smart cookie. I'm not dissecting him out for criticism, I'm giving you a constructive appraisal where I think he's a very, very fine player. Let me tell you.
If he does have a problem, sometimes early on, he doesn't get right forward. He gets half a stride, so he's quite a long way from the ball. And if he's ever out of form, his footwork's not great, he will get out putting his front foot on the wrong side of the ball. In other words, if you're playing as a left-hander, your right foot, the front foot, should be on the leg side of the ball so the bat can come down straight and hit the ball. He will sometimes get his foot on the off side of the ball, then he can't get at the ball with a straight bat, he has to go round his pad going towards midwicket. And as he's going around, he tends to fall over with his balance. His head falls over because his foot's in the wrong place. He had that trouble before we went to the last Ashes in Australia. There was talk about him: Would he get a run? Would they drop him? He played at The Oval, got a hundred then went to Australia and played unbelievably well, didn't he? So, once he gets in good form, he doesn't give it way, he tends to do pretty well.
He's fairly unflappable, he doesn't get upset one way or the other. He's pretty determined. And as batsmen go, there'll be people more pleasing on the eye, like Sehwag, Pietersen when he's going. There'll be people with a wider range of shots, there's Bell, Clarke, Kallis and Amla. But I don't think they'll be more effective than Cook. He's just as effective as them and he'll keep going on and on and on. So you better get him out early.
ST: Did you see anything similar with Cheteshwar Pujara when he got that double-century? These are players who are in the age of Twenty20 but just seem to be made for Test cricket.
GB: He's not dissimilar. He has a good technique, strong mind, temperament, concentration, just the same and he didn't change his game. He kept on going. And that's the secret of making big scores. Just keep going. Why change? There's an old saying: If it's not broken, why fix it? So if you've got a good technique to get a hundred, why would you change and do something different? Go and get another one. It's quite simple really. In the end, people talk to me about this shot and that shot, I say: Look it's simple. It's cricket. If you're a batsman, I judge you on how many runs you make. If you're a bowler, I judge you on how many wickets you take. I don't judge you on what you talk about, or what you say you might do. I'm not interested in how unlucky you are because that swings on roundabouts. Just tell me how many runs are you going to make for the team, and how many wickets you're going to get as a bowler. To me, that's a very, very fine player. And he is.
ST: And finally, before we go into the Bombay Test match which starts tomorrow, Stuart Broad missed a training session today, India are without Umesh Yadav, there's no Steven Finn for the second Test. Not asking you to make a prediction or anything, but how do you see both teams in terms of their balance?
GB: If you were to tell me one of the spinners has broken his finger or broken his foot, then that's a big factor. But if I were a betting man and I was batting tomorrow, I won't be bothered which seamer was bowling at me.
ST: Let's see how it goes. Thanks for that Geoffrey, we've come to the end of this show. We'll speak to Geoffrey once again in a couple of weeks from now but do remember to send us your questions using our feedback form, and Geoffrey will be joining in from Kolkata.
GB: Could be 1-1 then.
ST: That will spice up the series but there'll be a lot who would think otherwise.
GB: [Laughs], I'm teasing you.
ST: Thanks for that, Geoffrey.
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