August 17, 2011

England take the old-fashioned route to the top

On their way to No. 1 they revived swing bowling, didn't let Twenty20 affect their batting, and showed that execution matters more than content

England have risen to the top by playing old-fashioned cricket. Everyone talks about the game changing with all sorts of new-fangled shots and deliveries, but these things exist only on the fringes. Cricket remains a battle between bat and ball, a tussle for supremacy that works at two levels: between batsmen and bowlers, and between the collectives they represent.

England are notable not so much for secret ingredients but by their absence. As far as can be told, the line-up does not contain a single baffling bowler or magician armed with a willow. In some opinions it does not contain any great player. Its captain, too, does not play any tricks with the mind, unless remaining constant can be so considered (as every cricket captain could confirm, it's certainly an achievement).

England's strength lies not in content but in execution. Andrew Strauss has under his command a team constructed along traditional lines. As far as batting is concerned, they have a pair of imperturbable openers, a first-drop loath to give his wicket away, a volatile second-drop capable of tearing an attack apart, and failing that, of causing mayhem in his own ranks, a skilful middle, and a long list of lower-order players able to belt away the blues.

England's bowling relies on a mixture of old-fashioned swingers and orthodox spin. Admittedly Chris Tremlett can make batsmen hop about, but the attack does not depend on him. More often it is sustained by Jimmy Anderson, a sumptuous operator who confirms Mike Selvey's observation that genuine swing bowlers are not to be mistaken for bowlers able to swing the ball in favourable conditions; rather they use finger and wrist to make the ball move through the air.

Besides Anderson, England field Tim Bresnan, the sort of speedster often seen in county cricket, except that he is brighter and more aggressive. Stuart Broad, wisely retained, has improved immensely since his coach reminded him that enforcers exist in movies and bowlers are required to take wickets, and that most wickets are taken by balls directed at the stumps or at the outside edge.

Graeme Swann has been another vital member of the side (actually they are all important; the blend is as superb as mother's Christmas pudding). Swann has not taken many wickets in this series, but even on his worst days he takes catches in the cordon, belts a few runs and cheers up his comrades. Strong teams are driven by distinctive players. Watch them walk on the field and know them instantly. Strauss's players have that characteristic. Each player's personality emerges in all its aspects, and so the same applies to their games.

Those seeking clues to England's rise might consider the quality of the decisions taken at the low point, amidst the arranged declarations, lob bowling and worse, that blighted the county game in the 1980s. The introduction of central contracts, two divisions, and four-day matches changed the way the game was played domestically. These decisions were taken despite strong resistance from counties, entities owned by members inclined to focus on their team.

England have been lucky in another respect. Ten years ago I predicted they would reach the top ranking within a decade or so, and the reason was simple. An erstwhile empire meant that many of England's immigrant families came from cricket-playing countries. And it is never wise to underestimate the hunger of the settler family. Due to the seismic changes in South Africa, that country has been another rich source of committed sportsmen. As much can be told from the current rugby and cricket squads.

But that is not to deny England its glory. Strauss's side has set the benchmark, and opponents need to study their strategy. After all it has been the most methodical of rises, block by block, run by run, hour by hour, match by match, series by series. Two qualities deserve particular attention: the existence in the top order of batsmen prepared to occupy the crease for long periods, and an attack able to pitch a fuller length than any opponent, and move the ball later. Both assets go against the contemporary grain.

Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott might not have secured selection in less patient countries, inclined as they are to focus on scoring rate as opposed to productivity. Ostensibly Cook belongs to the previous generations of openers, who wear down the attack, soften the new ball, build the innings and perform all sorts of other important duties. He knows his game and remains within its confines. In that regard he resembles the Duke of Wellington, a leader known not so much for the extent of his abilities as for the use made of them. That he comes from farming stock also helps. Farmers are a phlegmatic lot and it takes more than a couple of ducks or remarks or bumpers to unsettle them. Cook bats in the manner of a farmer collecting eggs in a barn.

It has been the most methodical of rises, block by block, run by run, hour by hour, match by match, series by series. Two qualities deserve particular attention; the existence in the top order of batsmen prepared to occupy the crease for long periods, and an attack able to pitch a fuller length than any opponent, and move the ball later

Trott also soaks up a lot of effort from the opposing bowlers. He too bats in a cocoon, albeit a more evidently anxious one than his genial colleague. His batting is built around care and determination. But he is no stylist nor yet a basher, and might easily have been ignored. Fortunately the selectors were focusing on efficiency. Australia should be so lucky.

The revival of swing bowling has been England's greatest service to the game. Convinced that swing was old hat, a generation of batsmen has been raised, in the words of Mr Ant, to "stand and deliver". Rather than waiting for the ball to change direction and adjusting at the last instant, they hit fearlessly through the line, often taking the ball on the rise. Skills such as letting pass and playing late fell into disuse, and players of that ilk tended to be dismissed as dull. Anderson, Bresnan, and Tremlett especially, have pounced on that largesse.

Nor can the IPL entirely be blamed for this looseness. Techniques had become frayed before it was introduced. Curiously English batting has been least affected, though Twenty20 was their creation. Perhaps it is that their younger players do not look towards the IPL for fame and fortune. Australia and India, especially, are trying to develop batsmen in a community convinced that the old rules no longer apply. They are mistaken. Cricket is like education. In the end it's all about reading, writing and arithmetic.

In part swing has succeeded because the basics have been ignored. But it goes deeper. Except for veterans like Rahul Dravid, batsmen are not used to dealing with late swing. People often claim that sport is cyclical. It is no such thing. England rose because it decided to rise and found the right men for the job. In one respect, though, the game does go round in circles. Legspin revived in part because it had fallen away for so long and batsmen had forgotten how to counter it. Finger-spin, so long scorned unless accompanied by a doosra or carrom ball or whatever, has returned partly because it stopped being the bread and butter of batting life. Now swing too has preyed upon deficiencies in batting techniques.

Overall it has been a pleasure to watch England dismantle opponents in these last few months. They have batted, bowled and often fielded better than any opponent. Throughout, too, they have retained a high level of intensity. Whether or not Strauss's side deserves the plaudits bestowed by a giddy press corps remains to be seen. It's a bit early to put them alongside the mighty West Indians of the 1970s and '80s, or the ruthless Australian teams who followed. Both sides held the top ranking for 15 or so years. England have been top for a week.

It is also premature to argue that Strauss is the finest of England captains. No day can be judged until night has fallen. But the English can be forgiven their relish. It's been a long time - 55 years by my unreliable reckoning. If the locals have ditched their stiff upper lips it's hardly surprising. Happily the response has been patriotic as opposed to nationalistic (the trait observed in 2005).

England have been superb. Strauss's side combines skill, commitment, intelligence and confidence. It's been a job right well done.

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