October 11, 2018

England have ability. Do they have adaptability?

The next four matches in Sri Lanka will tell if they have a capacity for considered expression and the skill to thoughtfully adapt to the circumstances and conditions

"I'd rather we were bowled out for 200 with a positive mindset than scraped to nearer 300 with a negative mindset." So said Eoin Morgan in the dark of the damp Dambulla night. Alongside him was Jonny Bairstow, whose enthusiasm for Morgan's free-spirited approach was loud and clear. "It's down to the captain, and then the management - the coaches really. They all take the credit for the way we are playing. There is no fear, only encouragement to express ourselves, which is why we are playing with a smile on our face." Bairstow had almost passed 1000 one-day runs for the calendar year, an achievement brightly acknowledged by his captain.

"He's got a tremendously positive attitude to the game and his opening partnership with Jason [Roy] is a strong reason for our recent success. We're playing good cricket overall and have most bases covered," added Morgan. "To win the World Cup we need 16 or 17 players at the same level, not just 11, and we're getting there now. We can improve, of course we can, but most of what we are doing is on track."

These words came after a little piece of the monsoon that continues to hammer Sri Lanka. Valiant as the army of ground staff was, the hard rains had the better of them, and England's impressive start to the match could not be built upon. Every day counts when a World Cup looms.

The remaining four matches are valuable for Morgan's team. As are those that follow in the West Indies early next year. It is flexibility that the batsmen most need to acquire - both of thought and shot. At home, on England's green fields and mainly pleasant pitches, they have become a powerful force, skilful and intimidating. Only when the ball behaves unpredictably have they been undone. In last year's Champions Trophy semi-final, they were outfoxed by a previously used dry and slow Cardiff pitch every bit as much as by the Pakistan bowlers. They crashed out of the tournament, tails between their legs, but was the lesson learned?

Last night in Dambulla, in the car back to the hotel after the match had been abandoned, Mark Butcher suggested that prior to the advent of T20 cricket, batsmen were using, say, 60% of their brain. Not all batsmen, he pointed out - not Viv Richards or Javed Miandad, for example - but most. Limited-overs cricket began with three or four per over as an acceptable run rate; steadily that number became five and then six, before settling awhile around seven. This reflected changes in the format - the first short-form matches were played over 65 overs per side; then 60, 55, 50, and in the English Sunday League, 40. T20 changed all that, throwing perception out of the window and empowering the mind with its carefree options, wild ambition and utter lack of concern for the preservation of wickets. The mind had moved from 60% to around 90, reckoned Butcher.

What had once seemed unlikely - eight or nine an over - became the norm. What had once been all but impossible - 12 or 13 an over - became doable and not especially extreme. In the final over of the World T20 in India, Carlos Brathwaite needed 19 from Ben Stokes and won the trophy with two balls to spare! England were shocked by the defeat but no one was surprised by the number of runs in the over - 24 from four balls - because such hitting, especially over shortish boundaries, has become part and parcel of T20 cricket. (Allan Lamb famously took 18 from Bruce Reid's final over of a Benson and Hedges series match at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1987, but that was a monumental surprise - to everyone except Lamb, who one might put in the Richards-Miandad bracket of self-belief.)

The signs of a more flexible attitude have been encouraging but the evidence is by no means concrete. There was a serenity to Roy's brief innings in Dambulla but its end asked the old question: why perish thus?

In the case of the World T20 final, the batsmen had nothing to lose, the bowler everything. It gave Brathwaite a massive advantage that he took to stunning effect. Usually, courage is required to bat without even a hint of caution, and this is where Morgan has been so effective in his leadership: he has convinced his team to play without caution. England's batting is gifted and it is long, but best of all, it is free of inhibition and of blame. Each one of 11 has licence, and given their confidence to use it, all things are in reach.

So was the lesson learnt? The signs of a more flexible attitude have been encouraging but the evidence is by no means concrete. There was a serenity to Roy's brief innings in Dambulla but its end asked the old question: why perish thus? He had a heave at Akila Dananjaya and miscued to mid-off prompting the follow-up question: why? Not why did he get out playing a big shot - there can be no criticism of an approach that has become the template for a team - but why that shot then, against a spin bowler he had not seen before and who is known for a variety of different deliveries? For Roy to give himself the best chance of pulling off a shot, he must know first what the bowler has in his bag; or in another circumstance, what the conditions allow and what they make difficult. This is the weight of risk, and it needs examination. There is no shame in a quiet over. Roy can make up a quiet over in half of the next over.

In conditions that help spin, batsmen who are set will score more easily than when they first come in. This is the thinking England must adapt and apply. From it will come better shot selection. Would Morgan - or any of the coaches, Trevor Bayliss, Paul Farbrace or Graham Thorpe - quietly suggest this to Roy? Almost certainly, for no one is above clearer thinking and better application. To have a talent is one thing, to make the most of it is another. This is why the matches in the build-up to the World Cup in England next May matter so much. If Roy turns 20 or 30 into 150, England will win 9.5 times out of 10. It's that simple. And that difficult.

Also in the car on the way back to the hotel was Darren Gough, who talked about the pressure that modern batting had heaped upon bowlers. The few good ones in short-form cricket are gold, he said; the others must react sooner or later or the balance between bat and ball will remain unsatisfactory. He talked about training the mind and told us about the traffic-light system that Steve Oldham had taught him at Yorkshire.

Essentially this was repetitive practice in a net that had three lights positioned above the stumps, each colour representing a type of delivery - say yorker, bouncer, slower ball in this example. As the bowler jumped into the coil of his action, one of the lights would flash its instruction and the bowler had to react with the delivery it demanded. Gough said, "We couldn't believe how often we got it wrong - particularly when the guys started with preconceived ideas of what they were going to bowl." The slower ball was the trickiest to deliver if one of the others had been planned but it was doable after enough practice, which meant many hours. Gough said he spent days, weeks, months on this until he was comfortable enough to pull it off in a match situation against a batsmen who moved into position for a specific shot before he released the ball. It is, then, no surprise he became such a brilliant "death" bowler and one of the game's very best in the history of one-day cricket. Such attention to detail gave him a small but crucial advantage.

It is this detail that will decide England's fate next summer. The players are so good that winning the World Cup is in their gift. But cutting the margins, adapting to the moment and fine-tuning the detail are essential to the achievement of the endgame. Watching them play is a joy, but watching them over the next four matches will tell us much about their capacity for thoughtful adaptation and just a soupçon of more considered expression.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

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