May 10, 2009

The meaning of pressure

Why the ability to contain batsmen is an overrated virtue for a spin bowler

"Attack is the best form of defence," is an adage I heard often while growing up. I was reminded of this sage piece of cricketing advice when I recently read two conflicting opinions on the advantages of adopting an attacking approach.

First, England's century-maker in the Lord's Test, Ravi Bopara, gave us a clue to why he's likely to be a successful international cricketer: he's smart as well as talented. When asked about whether playing the IPL was an appropriate preparation for Test cricket, he replied; "I think it worked to my advantage coming from the IPL, because as a batter, when you're trying to play positive, your instincts work a lot better. You get into better positions and you want to hit the ball."

Not only does a batsman get into good position to play attacking shots when he's in a positive frame of mind, he's also more alert in defence. Hence the adage about attack being the best form of defence.

Then Australia's chairman of selectors, Andrew Hilditch, was asked whether Australia would use attacking spin in England or rely more on containment to create wickets. His response was curious to say the least; "The word attacking is a bit overrated really," he said. To which I'd say that the day attacking cricket is overrated, the game will be in its death throes.

Hilditch then went on to elaborate: "Some spinners you regard as more attacking might spin the ball a bit more; they might be a bit more erratic, but really it's about asserting pressure and performing the role the captain wants." He then lauded Nathan Hauritz, a spin bowler who doesn't extract a lot of turn, as such a player. "Certainly Nathan did that very well in the times he's played, because we wanted to tie up an end, assert pressure from that end, keep pressure on batsmen and relieve the fast bowlers."

"Pressure" has to be the most overused word in the cricket dictionary. Not scoring for a while doesn't worry a good batsman too much because he has confidence in his ability to collect runs. What does bother even the best of players is the inkling that a bowler might have his measure. That he's just sizing him up for the pine box, or in this case the dressing room. The thought of being dismissed is what really worries a batsman.

Not scoring for a while doesn't worry a good batsman too much because he has confidence in his ability to collect runs. What does bother even the best of players is the inkling that a bowler might have his measure

And anyway if selectors are so interested in putting pressure on batsmen by containment, why do they keep choosing captains who mindlessly place men on the boundary at point and backward square-leg? There's no greater joy for a batsman, especially one new to the crease, than to see a big gap in the field where a single can be collected easily, even from a good ball. Anyone in two minds about choosing an attacking bowler or one whose specialty is containment, should ponder this. I'll use the example of Hauritz and Jason Krejza, because Hilditch mentioned one and was probably making an oblique reference to the other.

Consider that 540 balls are supposed to be bowled in a Test match day. At his present strike-rate Krejza would bowl the opposition out in virtually one day, while Hauritz would take an extra 180 balls. What captain in his right mind would want to spend an extra third of a day in the field? Put another way, if you lose the toss and field, you're going to be batting from virtually the start of the second day with Krejza's strike-rate, while at Hauritz's pace it'll be just after lunch.

The really good spinners can tie a batsman down while putting his wicket in danger. It's only the reluctance of many modern batsmen to use their feet that has made spinners who contain a valued item.

Any captain who doesn't have as his main priority taking wickets is delusional. If you want to see the effect of real pressure, take three wickets in the first session of a Test and then have a close look at the next batsman's eyes as he shuffles to the crease.

It'll be an interesting duel in the Ashes if Hauritz bowls to Bopara: a clash of opposing philosophies. My money is on the man who seizes the opportunity to attack.