September 11, 2011

Michael Hussey, role model

He's got the shots, and he can grind when needed. Cricket needs more old-school batsmen like him, not the Suresh Rainas, bred on Twenty20

One of the more intriguing aspects of the drastic changes in cricket in the last five years is the ongoing effect that the Twenty20 explosion has had on batting. There's also no doubt that, and the huge increase in the number of 50-over matches since the beginning of the nineties, has had a flow-on effect of speeding up scoring in Test cricket. This in turn - along with other factors, like making up lost time - has led to a welcome spike in the number of results achieved in Test cricket.

While this makes Test cricket more marketable, an obsession with quicker scoring could obliterate the desire for technical efficiency. Taken to its logical conclusion this imbalance would have a detrimental effect on not only the aesthetics of the longer game but also on the thrill of the contest.

The bowlers have always been the more efficient innovators and boundary-obsessed batsmen play right into their hands. Suicidal strokeplay and the increased instances of lbw, facilitated by the DRS, would put the balance firmly in favour of the ball on all but the flattest of pitches. No one wants to endure the tedium of five-day cricket on flat pitches. Therefore the balance between bat and ball will only remain a reality through even-handed law-making, rational scheduling and common-sense coaching.

While we haven't yet seen a batsman bred on a diet of T20 cricket reach the Test arena, it's interesting to compare the careers of India's Suresh Raina with Australia's Michael Hussey.

Raina is a left-hander of the modern generation, while Hussey is one from the old school. Raina has played a role in India's success in the shorter versions of the game, but was also part of the problem in their recent abject failure in the Test series in England. He can thrash an attack when the field is spread and the bowling restricted, but crowd him and apply the threat of short-pitched bowling and it brings a reaction similar to that of Superman exposed to Kryptonite.

Hussey can survive and then prosper in alien conditions, as he showed on a difficult pitch in Galle. His disciplined innings helped Australia take a series lead. Contrast that knock with his whirlwind strokeplay that helped Australia snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the World T20 semi-final against Pakistan in 2010.

Hussey is a complete batsman, one who can easily adapt to the game situation; Raina is a talented batsman with a fatal flaw that wasn't addressed in his formative years. Hussey did benefit from starting out in an era where the system provided an opportunity for the vigilant batsman to fully develop; Raina is maturing in a cricket world where the ethos seems to be "more haste, less care".

Now is the time for good cricket minds to invest some thought in the way young batsmen are prepared in the future. The aim should be to produce players with Hussey's assets: the ability to preserve one's wicket when needed and dash a bowler's hopes when the situation demands. That coaching aim, allied with the vision to let batsmen retain their natural tendencies, would be a good starting point.

It's crucial for a batsman with international ambitions to be able to play all the shots. What then separates the successful players from those who fade quickly is the knowledge of when to utilise the different weapons in one's armoury. A wise army general doesn't order machine-gun fire when the situation calls for heavy artillery.

A batsman's duty is to score runs quickly in order to allow the bowlers sufficient time to take the 20 wickets required for victory. There's no doubt the more time you allow batsmen, the longer they'll take to score their runs.

Who knows, with judicious law-making and a sensible advancement of scoring rates, the game could take a step forward by recalling the past. Test cricket started out as a three- and four-day game, and a reduction in the time taken to play the modern game would make it more palatable in a fast-moving world.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist

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