What ails Australia's best and brightest?
There have been an alarming number of Test and Sheffield Shield batting collapses of late. From Australia's calamitous 47, to India's frequent capitulations, New Zealand's recent dramatic middle-order loss of 5 for 0, and Queensland almost surrendering the Sheffield Shield final - batting performances in the longer versions seem to have dropped off dramatically.
Perhaps we can blame the wickets. Groundsmen have seemingly been less inclined to roll out flat, docile pitches. James Sutherland's pleas last summer for better Shield pitches have fallen on deaf ears. Or maybe the new breed of bowling coach has stolen a march on his batting counterparts. Certainly Craig McDermott seems to have found the right ingredient for Australia's young band of quicks.
Or are batting techniques in a downward spiral? Perhaps the T20 catch-cry, "Clear the front foot and swing as hard as possible", is playing havoc with the techniques of young batsmen.
During another highly enjoyable summer in the Sheffield Shield, I had lots of chances to get up close and personal with several fringe Test batsmen. The struggles with technique of most were noticeable. For years as Australia ruled the cricket world, we were blessed with champions who churned out thousands of first-class runs before being selected - Mike Hussey passed 10,000 before his ascendency, and before that, Matthew Hayden must have despaired of ever getting a decent go at Test level.
Now as the guard changes, opportunities arrive for the new generation sooner than they did in the past - David Warner was around the 1000-run first-class mark when he got his baggy green. It has underlined the indifferent seasons the likes of Phil Hughes, Usman Khawaja, Shaun Marsh and Callum Ferguson have had.
The cricket public expects these young batsmen to have everything mentally and technically figured out when they are chosen, and that they should be the finished article, with complete understanding of their own games. Some, like Steve Smith, seem to be sorting things out, but others appear to have a fair way to go.
Perhaps my most fascinating time on the cricket field this year was stationed at mid-off while Andrew McDonald went to work on each of these young batsmen with his exceptionally intelligent medium-pacers - and talked me through his tactics. Without the gift of pace, "Ronnie" has had to learn the skill of bowling inside and out, and his mastery on a helpful pitch is comparable to any I've seen.
I'd reckon quite a few young hopefuls on Shield wickets this summer found batting against his crafty medium pace far tougher technically than fending off Brett Lee at the WACA ground. In the last round of Shield fixtures, Victoria overcame a disappointing New South Wales, with Ronnie bagging amazing match figures of 6 for 50 from 34 overs. In the process he passed the bats of Hughes and Khawaja with alarming regularity.
Hughes' shortcomings have been widely critiqued; less so Khawaja's. I first noticed his difficulty against the away-swinging ball in county cricket last year. In overcast conditions against a Tiflex ball that seemed to go around corners, Khawaja's open blade and front-on position had the slips cordon licking their lips - and sure enough, he obliged twice. In that game against Victoria he was twice out caught behind - a notable penchant that oppositions are sure to be pencilling into their black books.
In conversation with Ronnie and coach Greg Shipperd afterwards, it was commented on how far around Khawaja was turning his back foot during shots. The textbook says the back foot should be pointing towards point, not the bowler. That's causing his back hip and shoulder to swivel around, so that he is "squaring up". Often he seemed to be missing Ronnie's deliveries by six inches. It would seem to be a problem that can be solved, but the question is, does he know he is doing it? And if so, does he know how to fix it?
Swivelling into a front-on position is a left-hander's curse. Hughes also suffers from it, as Chris Martin managed to expose. The difficulty is that these two exceptionally gifted players are trying to fix things under the glare of an impatient media and public, and are feeling the pressure of expectation. The question for each is: when and how to fix it?
I've never believed in the notion of not working on technique because a match is pending. Should we take note of the fact that the top golf pros always have swing coaches on hand? To be the best you can be, you have to keep adjusting until most avenues are exhausted and discarded - even if that means doing it on match eve. Many will argue otherwise, and they will have valid points, but to get closer to the end of the road, experimentation needs to be continual. Sometimes it will be one step forward and two steps back, but that is the nature of the beast of batting.
Marsh is a southpaw with problems different from those of his NSW counterparts. His stem from his trigger movements - he doesn't have any. That's not to say that kind of technique hasn't been extremely effective for others. Hayden stood still and moved just once in his strokeplay - forward to full balls and back to shorter ones; but Hayden is a monster of a man who used his height to sublime and brutish effectiveness - often employing it to lean into wide balls as his foot went straight down the wicket.
Early in his innings, especially, Marsh often moves across very late, presenting his pad as a target and causing his swing to not come down in a straight line. When in form it all works like clockwork and he is imperious. When lacking form, it looks robotic and static.
Ferguson is another who could perhaps think about operating more in straight lines. He is a very clean hitter of the ball, but with a backswing heading towards gully it's almost impossible to be consistently meeting the ball with the full face of the bat. His line of swing is nice and straight when he drives half volleys, but when he has to defend he sometimes chops down on balls as his bat heads in the direction of midwicket.
Ronnie picked up on it and sent one straight through a gap between bat and pad. He then nicked Ferguson out in the return fixture. It is a curious technical dilemma, which might explain why Ferguson's one-day record is so good and his four-day one disappointing. In the shorter formats there is less defending and therefore his problem is less exposed. He is perhaps very much aware of it, but the skill is to fix it.
While no doubt all four are admirers of Simon Katich's toughness and resilience, I sometimes wonder if they have considered the merits of the somewhat ungainly Katich method of moving across and standing in the so-called corridor of uncertainty. Ugly as he might look to many, Katich is perfectly upright and balanced, his head is over the line of the ball, he knows exactly where his stumps are, and he plays in straight lines. Once he's settled, the bowlers are forced to bowl something other than line and length in the corridor, and Katich has been able to cash in, particularly when they try to hit his exposed leg stump.
Smith played McDonald best of all at the SCG. He was much more selective of the wide ones he loves to thrash through the covers, and there were fewer hoicks over cow corner, yet he didn't lose his ability to despatch bad balls to the fence.
All the five batsmen mentioned are naturally talented players and have been singled out by the national selectors. All have good records in T20 but have some difficulty adapting to the different demands of each form of the game.
Just about any top-class batsman will be able to reel off the mentors who have had the most influence on him. Whether it is fathers or coaches or team-mates or even opposition players, these people are vital in spotting problems and helping fix them. But the demands of T20 have added a new dimension to batting techniques. Teams everywhere are splashing out on full-time bowling coaches, but seem less inclined to recruit batting coaches.
Perhaps a new type of batting coach is needed - a coach who has played T20 and is skilled in converting players back into the techniques of the first-class game rather than the other way round. When that happens, the batting collapses that are causing such consternation in cricket circles may become a thing of the past.
Victoria and Middlesex opener Chris Rogers played one Test match for Australia