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

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