June 17, 2012

A short-ball exam that young batsmen are failing

Jonny Bairstow and Suresh Raina are talented players who Test cricket shouldn't lose; they lack a skill that can be easily taught

Watching the trials and tribulations of Jonny Bairstow as he faced a short-pitched onslaught from the West Indies pace bowlers took my mind back 12 months to when Suresh Raina faced a similar assault by the England attack.

I was also reminded of what that excellent England paceman and part-time poet John Snow said in the sixties: "The bouncer is a short and emphatic examination paper that you put to the batsman." Both the on-field actions of pace bowlers and Snow's comment are ample reason for coaches of talented young batsmen to think carefully about the way they prepare players for the future. Any coach fortunate enough to have a young batsman who he thinks is skilled enough to reach the international level should automatically have his pupil learn the full repertoire of shots. If that mission is accomplished, the player, on reaching the international level, will have the option of deciding which shots he employs on the day, depending on the opposition bowlers and the prevailing conditions.

If the young batsman isn't fully prepared, he faces the daunting prospect of trying to survive at the highest level while fighting with one hand tied behind his back.

My South Australian captain, Les Favell, a fierce proponent of the horizontal bat shots, often said: "At international level you must be able to hook or cut to succeed and it's better if you can play both." This is wise counsel for the simple reason that Test fast bowlers tend to take a quick look at a young player's technique and if that appears to be in order, they apply Snow's examination paper. This approach is designed to find out if the young batsman is really determined to have a long stay in the middle or if he'd rather be back by the hotel swimming pool, sipping on a piña colada.

It's imperative that batsmen not only survive but prosper against the short ball. It's possible for a batsman to take a boxer's approach of bobbing and weaving for a while but against better attacks that method has a limited life span. Raina found this out in the series against England.

Cricketers have a saying: "There are two types of hook. The one played out of fright and the other played by choice." The former is easy to spot because it ends up resembling a "get away from me" shot. After being constantly badgered by the English quick bowlers, Raina eventually lashed out like that at Trent Bridge, only to be caught off a top-edged hook.

Both Bairstow and Raina are talented players with the skill to make big scores in the Test arena. The game needs young players like them to succeed, because they are extremely entertaining cricketers. If they fall short of expectations, it could be the result of inadequate preparation for a future at Test level. This failure could either be because of not being taught the full repertoire of shots at a young age, or some poor advice to shelve the hook or pull at an early stage in their career.

Cricket has made some tremendous advances in the process of becoming fully professional at international level. However, I'm not sure enough thought has been given to the preparation of young players for a possible international future. Putting the best coaches in charge of the most talented young cricketers would be a good start.

Cricket can't afford to have talented individuals fall short of the international level purely because their technique failed. Temperament can be a matter of fortune but skill can be honed.

Hopefully Bairstow and Raina will get their games sorted out and go on to have successful Test careers. If they don't, it will most likely be because they failed the John Snow examination.

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