January 5, 2012

Why newcomers steal the show

Debutants seem likelier to succeed these days than their established team-mates. It wasn't always this way

Military historians have a saying about how we cling to widely held beliefs even though they are badly out of date. "Generals are always fighting the previous war - 30 years too late."

It is time cricket reassessed a favourite cliché that is no longer true. For years we have heard about the brutally intimidating "step up" to Test cricket, the "pressure cooker" of the Test arena. As a result, it has been blithely assumed that debutants are unlikely to succeed when they pull on the national jersey for the first time.

But the evidence no longer fits the theory. Far from being doomed to nerve-ridden failure, debutants outperform their peers. And that is especially true for batsmen, who are supposed to suffer from crippling nerves.

In fact, if you want a good bet in modern cricket, have a punt on the debutant stealing the show. They usually do. We saw it again in the first innings of Australia's Boxing Day victory over India - when ESPNcricinfo columnist Ed Cowan top-scored with 68.

Look at the current England squad. Almost every batsman top-scored on debut or made a century. In 2004, Andrew Strauss made a century, and 83 in the second dig. Kevin Pietersen top-scored in both innings against Australia in 2005. In 2006, Alastair Cook cruised to 60 and 104 not out. In 2007, it was the turn of Matt Prior, who smashed a run-a-ball 126 not out. In comparison, Ian Bell's assured 70 on debut almost qualifies as a failure.

My personal favourite is the success of Jonathan Trott. In 2009, when England needed an extra batsman for the deciding Test of the Ashes series, many pundits advocated persuading Marcus Trescothick out of retirement, or even recalling the 40-year-old Mark Ramprakash. Leading commentators agreed that it was far too great a risk to elevate "a mere county player" into such a big game, the assumption being that the gulf between first-class cricket and Tests would "find him out".

Indeed, when Duncan Fletcher was England coach, he used to talk about "knocking the county out" of new players, as though they could never be proper Test cricketers until they had first unlearnt the habits they had acquired en route to the Test arena. No one told Trott, who helped England win the Ashes with 41 and 119. The trend holds for players who are no longer in the England team. Marcus Trescothick made 66 and 38 not out on debut, in 2000. Anthony McGrath chalked up 69 in 2003. Owais Shah made 88 during a tense Test in Mumbai in 2006. Wicketkeeper-batsman Tim Ambrose scored 55.

The instant success of Test cricketers is not just an English phenomenon. Consider the batsmen in the current India-Australia series. Rahul Dravid made 95 on debut, Virender Sehwag 105, Michael Clarke 151, Shaun Marsh 141, VVS Laxman top-scored for India with 51, and Ricky Ponting just missed a debut century by four runs. (Incidentally, in the same match, in 1995, Stuart Law made 54 not out on debut - and was never selected again.)

Early success in Tests is broader than just debuts. New players tend to have outstanding first seasons in international cricket. If anything, their performances slightly deteriorate when they get used to playing Test cricket. In his first calendar year, Cook averaged 46, better than he managed in any of the following three seasons. Strauss has never enjoyed as good a season as 2004, his first.

Many of the current opinion-makers in cricket - the most distinguished broadcasters and pundits - played much of their own Test cricket in the '80s. They made their debuts against Malcolm Marshall and Michael Holding, or perhaps Patrick Patterson and Courtney Walsh

The evidence suggests the hard thing is not making the step up to Test cricket. No, arguably the hardest challenge is retaining hunger and ambition once the novelty has worn off.

These counter-intuitive facts lead us to two further - and interconnected - questions. First, why has the idea endured that is so hard to succeed immediately in Test cricket? Secondly, what has changed; why do today's newcomers emerge into the Test arena all guns blazing?

The first question takes us back to the glory years of terrifying fast bowling: the 1980s. Many of the current opinion-makers in cricket - the most distinguished broadcasters and pundits - played much of their own Test cricket in the '80s. They made their debuts against Malcolm Marshall and Michael Holding, or perhaps Patrick Patterson and Courtney Walsh.

The legacy of that era lives on. If I had to nominate one season for scarring English cricketing consciousness, it would be 1984. West Indies whitewashed England 5-0. But the perception was even more powerful than the scoreline. Opening batsman Andy Lloyd was half an hour into his debut when he was taken to hospital after being hit on the head by Marshall. Paul Terry was drafted into the side, and promptly had his arm broken by Winston Davis. It wasn't so much a "revolving door" selection policy as a revolving ambulance. The fearsome brutality of going out to bat in an international jersey was seared into everyone's mind.

But that was then, this is now. First-class cricketers prepare more professionally than ever - wherever possible, they prepare just like Test players. Satellite television has demystified Test cricket by bringing it into everyone's living rooms. Helmets offer far more complete protection. Perhaps fast bowling had a dip after the decline of the famous West Indian quartet (though it is looking distinctly exciting again now).

There may be deeper social reasons for the ascent of the newcomer. When cricket was considered a craft, players talked of learning their trade and earning a spot in the dressing room. Today's iPod generation has no qualms about shooting straight to the top.

Andrew Strauss recently said that getting into the England side should be "damned hard". Just as well, from a selector's point of view. Once, the risk of picking new players was that they were likely to fail abjectly. Now the risk is that debutants are so likely to succeed that it will confuse your existing pecking order.

Well, it's a much nicer kind of headache than getting knocked out by a Malcolm Marshall bouncer.

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith is a writer with the Times. His Twitter feed is here