You can't manufacture presence on demand
The Australian coach Mickey Arthur had a few choice words for his team after they fell behind 3-0 to England in their recent ODI series. The question is, were they well-chosen words?
Arthur called for his batsmen to establish a "presence" at the crease. Presence on a cricket field is like respect - it's earned. It's not something that suddenly materialises at the behest of a coach.
Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting all established a presence in the middle via their deeds with the bat. The opposition feared them because all three could make a big score quickly. Players who do that can change the course of a game in one session of bold strokeplay.
Viv Richards used to saunter to the crease masticating a stick of gum and delivering the occasional hefty thump to the end of his rubber handle grip. However, it wasn't the aggressive mannerisms that worried the opposition. The devastation he might cause with the bat was the major concern.
If George Bailey or Peter Forrest suddenly start swaggering to the crease whistling "Advance Australia Fair", the opposition will probably rub their hands with glee and proceed to go about their business with renewed vigour. Coming from Bailey or Forrest, it would be obvious false bravado and the opposition would know as much. While the two think about how they should act, they won't be fully focused on their batting.
There's no shortcut to establishing a presence on the field - it can only be earned by weight and class of performance.
At around the same time that Arthur was reading the riot act to his team in the UK, the former Indian run machine Rahul Dravid was carefully choosing his words during an interview. Among his answers was the admission: "There were times when I thought too much about technique."
Maybe so, but that was Dravid. His belief in himself derived from the fact that he didn't feel bowlers could break down his impenetrable barrier. Dravid had a presence in the middle because the opposition knew they would have to work awfully hard to dismiss him, and that meant less energy to expend on the dangerous strokemakers around him. Aggression isn't the only weapon in the fight to establish a "presence" in the middle.
While he was at it, Arthur exhorted the Australian team to display more "mongrel" in the final match at Old Trafford. Nothing changed, as Australia responded with another lacklustre performance. Once again, was it the right choice of word? The word "mongrel" can easily be misconstrued as a need to display overt aggression.
A couple of seasons ago when Mitchell Johnson was told to be more aggressive, he started goading opposition batsmen. This clearly wasn't the "real" Johnson, and many batsmen looked bemused rather than bothered when he commenced a tirade.
The two best opposition fast bowlers I faced were John Snow of England and Andy Roberts of West Indies. I played a lot of innings against both and never once did any words pass between us. Mind you, I was never in any doubt both were annoyed by my presence in the middle and were hell-bent on bringing an abrupt end to it. The bowling of both Snow and Roberts spoke volumes. They didn't need a soliloquy to get their message across.
Australia are currently struggling because two of their batsmen who maintain a presence are nearing the age of retirement. Despite his skills being eroded by age, Ponting is still a dangerous player, as he showed last summer against India. He can still make a big score; he just doesn't do it as often or in such dominating fashion.
Michael Hussey makes his presence felt on arrival at the crease. He hustles runs via sharp singles and shrewdly judged sprints, and then once his confidence is up he produces exquisite cover drives and strong-arm pull shots. Hussey is a more aggressive left-hand version of Dravid - he sells his wicket at well above market rate.
Australia can win with their strong pace attack. However, they won't win as often as they would like to unless they can unearth some young batsmen whose presence in the middle is a long and fruitful one.
Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist