February 2, 2011

Go back to the basics

The reason Australian batsmen are struggling to bat through a session is because they are caught up in the nonsensical new notions of Twenty20 technique

To talk to an Australia coach and to a 30-year-old former Shield player recently was to understand the challenges currently faced by those responsible for directing the game in this country. As in other arenas, a battle is on between the classical and the contemporary. Suffice to say the classical is in retreat. Wise nations and activities seek to strike a balance between the eternal and the present, seek to take the best from both.

The coach spends his time instructing selected youngsters in the techniques of the game. Except that those skills seem to have changed. Coaches chide any batsman allowing a ball to pass, and teach them to use the bottom hand not as an assistant but as the driving force. Youngsters are taught to open their hips and lift the ball.

Ignoring the traditions of local batsmanship, they are told to go forwards, anticipate and punish full deliveries. Is it any wonder that Australians keep hooking off the front foot or that the captain keeps losing his wicket to the shot?

Spinners are to be played from the crease. Hardly any of the younger brigade and previous few of the seniors can step down the pitch to dictate length to the tweakers. Most sit back and search for anything off line. Some of the batting against spin seen in local Twenty20 tournaments has been embarrassing, and the new Test men were often the worst offenders. Michael Clarke has dancing feet but the rest seem to be bogged in mud. Meanwhile the Poms use their feet confidently.

In the past English coaches tended to look at shoulders, head and grips. Australian counterparts always looked at the feet. They pointed out to their charges that the word footwork was well chosen, that the pegs were supposed to get to the pitch of the ball. Doug Walters was in many ways the archetypal Australian batsman, using his crease to cut and pull and going forwards only to drive.

As a result the coach says that batting in the country has never been in a worse state. Recently the national coaching staff asked him to identify and direct the next Test batsman. No one can name him with any certainty. Old hands glumly described this year's Under-16 competition as the worst they have seen, and did not think a single cricketer stood out from the pack.

Naturally the coach is downcast. Nor is he an old-timer inclined to grumble about modern youth and convinced the game reached its zenith 50 years ago. To the contrary he is a current cricketer. Now he has decided to go back to the basics, to tell his youngsters about leaving the ball, to teach them about using their feet against spinners but not to plunge forwards, and to never mind what higher authority instructs. All of these things can be practised in the nets. Has the game changed so much to render them irrelevant? Ask Alastair Cook.

Of course the IPL has been the cause of all these changes. Youngsters and their agents notice the money made by 21-year-olds in the auction and decide to follow in their footsteps. Accordingly they focus on aggressive skills, clouting yorkers, improvising flicks, developing various slower balls and delivering slower bumpers and so forth, never mind that it is really a load of hoo-ha, as is the IPL.

Never mind either the saying that the wise man builds his house on strong foundations. Years ago your scribe was advised by one of these new-fangled types intent on defying the principles of physics and rewriting the coaching manual to stop telling batsmen to practise with the top hand and instead to exhort them to hit with the bottom. By way of reply I pointed out that Sachin Tendulkar, Steve Waugh and Jacques Kallis constantly practised this way at the crease and in the nets and that the day they changed, the rest ought to follow, and not a moment before.

Suddenly Shield cricket is part of an efficient production line constructed to produce not a steady supply of battle-hardened and highly skilled players but a collection of frisky lightweights

Apparently it was all old hat. Kallis and Tendulkar batted superbly in last year's IPL. Proper batsmen master a method and then adapt to conditions. Moreover it is much easier to go down than up, to go from five days to 20 overs. The recent Ashes series was fought between a team with solid batting techniques and a bunch of fly-by nights masquerading as Australian batsmen. It was not the fault of the newcomers. What other world do they know?

The conversation with the current cricketer was no less disconcerting. A reliable and respected Shield player, he had been pushed out of cricket because his game was unsuited to Twenty20. A specialist pace bowler with a good record, he did not offer much value in the field or with the willow and so was considered surplus to requirements. According to him Shield cricket has in some states become little more than a rehearsal for the potentially lucrative Big Bash Twenty20 campaign.

It is an alarming notion. Long regarded as the toughest domestic competition in the cricketing world, the Sheffield Shield has been reduced in some eyes to little more than an opportunity to get players in form for Twenty20. It's a dangerous notion. Suddenly accurate but defensive spinners are of more use than risky wrist spinners who might one day become something. In a trice the handy allrounder holds his place in the four-day side. Suddenly Shield cricket is part of an efficient production line constructed to produce not a steady supply of battle-hardened and highly skilled players but a collection of frisky lightweights. Further down the line it is the same. Youth is glorified. Attack is everything.

Defensive skills don't matter. Leaving the ball alone, keeping it on the ground, countering the swinging or turning ball, building an innings, gradually getting on top of an attack, using feet to spinners and so forth has in many places been discarded. The rock-star lifestyle seems to have turned heads.

And Australia wonders why it cannot produce any batsmen capable of lasting a session let alone an entire day. India, the other nation affected by the new batting brought by Twenty20, will soon be suffering from the same blight. South Africa and England will top the Test rankings because that is their focal point in the middle and in the nets.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Martin on February 5, 2011, 23:21 GMT

    This is all very well, but Roebuck is largeing it a bit. It is generally true that batting technique is nowhere near what it was in the 60's & 70's. Now that may be due to T20 or it may be due to 21st century people having short attention spans not being prepared to put in the practice. Back then pitches were uncovered and there were no helmets - you needed good technique, or you'd end up in hospital. Nowadays wearing a few is common at any level of cricket. It's easier to be attacking these days - the pitches are sweet and bats are heavy. However I do agree that Test cricket is being wrecked by T20. Test cricket should drive all the other forms, but T20 $ are moving the game in the direction of short attention span and poor technique as a result. Aussie batting was shockingly bad in The Ashes - but as @hyclass points out many top Aus players don't do T20. Most of Englands top guys don't do T20 either - but the gap was vast. The problem seems to be an Australian one.

  • Philip on February 5, 2011, 22:21 GMT

    I have a confession. I can't bat in any orthodox fashion. My best "scoring shot" would be the reverse sweep. Judge me on that alone and I'm okay. But you can't just do one thing and be any good. Sure, Bradman pulled off the front foot - but mostly, he pulled off the back. Boycott wrote of general front-foot play but played a lot off the back foot. But then, Boycott was really saying that you shouldn't get stuck on the back foot. In other words, if you can only play one way you'll get found out in tough cricket. And the toughest cricket is long-form. This is what Roebuck is on about. Of course, playing in modern unorthodox fashion, you'll get runs, sometimes big runs. But you won't do it often enough to win a Test series. And sure, orthodox players have form slumps, but that doesn't mean over the long haul they won't do better in Tests than T20 types who can only pull off the front foot. T20 types have no choice how they play on any given day and neither would I. That's why I'm rubbish.

  • shafeen on February 5, 2011, 18:19 GMT

    @Hyclass - thanks for sharing that video, its very good. Very few batsmen pull of the front foot - Viv did occasionally, can't think of anyone else. Every picture/video I've seen of Bradman pulling has him on the back foot (even one where he finishes behind the stumps after the shot - i think its in the book we were talking about, too). he wasn't the best judge of his own batting. in Art of Cricket, he talked a lot about getting forward, but everyone who saw him play talked about his back play as his great strength, and how he never came forward if he could help it (Boycott is another who goes on about "getting forward", which he rarely did himself) I agree with you completely about Roebuck's article - sweeping generalizations sums it up. Not really interested in that - more on the nuances of Bradman's play. I also agree that being "attacking" is not a fault - just have brains while your doing it and you'll do fine. (or your Sehwag, and do fine anyway)

    good talking to you, Cheers,

  • vathsalya on February 5, 2011, 7:17 GMT

    Mr.Peter is so sad that aussies are not producing cricketers with good techniques. The fact is, India who produced Vengsarkar,Manjrekar and Tendukar has also produced Srikkanth, Sewhag and others who have been successful in both forms of the game. The fact is mental strength matters a lot than useless technique. Can peter say that watson needs to be removed and ponting should lead aussies with clarke? Useless... Absolutely useless article

  • Christopher on February 5, 2011, 6:41 GMT

    To those who doubt that Bradman played it,and in rebuttal to Peter Roebucks' assertion that the front foot pull is a product of 20/20 cricket, rather than a legitimate test scoring stroke, please refer to the youtube video of 6 minutes duration(deveshone) on Bradman by putting 'Bradman batting' into your search engine.At the 4 minute and 7 second mark, while demonstrating a basic selection of his strokes,the man himself clearly instructs a front footed pull in which his only movement is forward and across.It is the only pullshot he uses for the camera suggesting that it is his favoured stroke and at least a common part of his repertoire.Peter Roebuck provides no supporting evidence for any of his views.He merely alludes conspiratorily to unknown parties,coaches and countries whom he claims represent his point of view.It should be clear by now, that when australia was freed up to attack in the one day game,they once again became a force as mental clarity returned over coaching insanity

  • Christopher on February 5, 2011, 5:51 GMT

    Bradmans philosophy in his,Farewell to Cricket,was to score runs as quickly as possible to allow his bowlers time to bowl the opposition out.His stated preference was for bowlers with a high strike rate rather than containment value.Quick wickets and quick runs.Bradman never defended in a match unless there was no possiblity of winning and never advocated defence as a policy.While it is true that well considered defence is a vital tool of batting,great batsmanship has always relied upon seizing the initiative as quickly as possible.Bradmans pull without getting into line(right foot back,pivot,weight transferred well forward-p58/59)is for balls on the line of the stumps-a high risk shot.He also used the front foot cut-P46/47.Bradman stated that he was known more for his pull stroke than any other P56,"...but then who wants to play cricket at all if not prepared to take a chance occasionally?"P59.3-4 years of appalling coaching and selection is at fault-not attack,not defence,not 20/20.

  • shafeen on February 4, 2011, 16:17 GMT

    @hyclass - In the Art of Cricket, Bradman emphasizes that the hallmark of batsmanship is a strong defense, and O'Reilly plus everyone else noted how strong Bradman's defense was. (he also does not demonstrate a front foot pull shot - he shows two pull shots, one where you go back and across and then pull, the other where you just pull without moving into line). There's nothing wrong with being aggressive, but you have to know how to defend too.

  • Christopher on February 4, 2011, 10:50 GMT

    If anyone has read Bradmans',Art of Cricket,they will see him demonstrating the front foot pull shot.Bill O'Reilly who knew him well, described him as having the widest range of attacking strokes of any batsman ever.The idea that lack of footwork or overattacking is to blame for australias woes is absurd.Hussey failed for years until he remembered to attack and was again, a great player.Watson lacked endurance as a test player and was always at his best when attacking.Hughes technique was natural,not contrived for 20/20 and good enough at 20 to flay the Sth Africans.The australian team failed this ashes because of appalling selection and worse coaching.Someone had told them to let balls go.Why.If your natural game is to hit that ball then do so.Not doing so creates doubt and hands the advantage to the bowling side.It was awful to watch.Clarke insisted as captain that everyone should play their own game in the second innings.It was an undoubted rebuke of the shameful coaching staff.

  • Merv on February 4, 2011, 10:26 GMT

    Pretty accurate stuff. I think we need to start recruiting from South Africa too.

  • Christopher on February 4, 2011, 10:14 GMT

    Typical Peter Roebuck hyperbole. Wise nations, he says-which wise nations?Coaches teaching unorthodox techniques-which coaches?sweeping generalisations without foundation.20/20 is not the cause of australias trouble. Ponting was out of form for 4 years without being dropped.The two tasmanian selectors and Hilditch allowed it to become Pontings personal vendetta when his form should have seen him dropped 2 years ago.This excused Hussey being retained while totally out of form for 3 years and allowed the Doherty farce.It also saw North retained on the weakest excuse-all older players.Hodge was dropped with an average of 55. Hughes was dropped with an average of 58 and then twice more.The coaches ruined his batting.At 20, a world beater,he is only 22 and a strokeless shadow. David Hussey with an amazing record couldnt get a game.Hauritz was dropped. O'Keefe couldnt get a game.Australia failed because of appalling selection and terrible coaching that mired the team in doubt. Sack them.

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