July 25, 2013

A time for some old-fashioned grind

The Australian batting group certainly has the talent but now it's all about mental application

Eight years ago, the Australian squad headed to Manchester for the third Ashes Test, at Old Trafford, on the back of a defeat. We had struggled as a batting unit in the previous Test, at Edgbaston, and for me personally, the Old Trafford Test loomed as a serious mental battle. My approach to batting had been forced away from its natural balance. I was struggling to get my head around Andrew Flintoff bowling from around the wicket, while Simon Jones, Steve Harmison, and Matthew Hoggard were all finding some reverse swing.

In the ten minutes before I went out to bat, I was still juggling whether I would try to defend and bat for two hours, letting the England bowlers slowly come to me, or if I would try to belt them off their plan straight away. My approach had become first gear or sixth gear, with nothing in between. And while your mind is swirling with that uncertainty, the one certainty is that you won't produce your best. You must remember that your skill level won't improve in the short space between Tests: it's all between the ears.

Just like in 2005, the challenge for the Australians as they look toward the third Test at Old Trafford is now a mental one. In finding the best approach, Australia's batsmen could do worse than look to their opponents. England's batsmen are all versatile and play limited-overs cricket as well as Tests, yet they have found a way to manage the different formats effectively. The key in this series has been that the foundation of England's batting has been crease occupation.

Both teams have found themselves at 30-odd for 3 more than once already in this series but the difference has been that England have had batsmen who then resorted to what these days would be called old-fashioned grinding: occupying the crease and forging a partnership. As the Australians have found to their detriment during the first two Tests, every minute that you resurrect your innings it wears down your opponents.

Joe Root was the man who led that response in the second innings at Lord's and he looks like a terrific player with the foundations to develop into a fine cricketer for years to come. But it was Ian Bell who really provided the backbone for England in the first innings, allowing them to push up to 361. Jonathan Trott's half-century did not receive the acknowledgement it deserved either - the partnership between Trott and Bell stopped any momentum Australia had taken from Nottingham and run with during the first hour at Lord's.

Bell and Trott provided a fine example to the Australians. The whole England top order - Root, Alastair Cook, Trott, Bell, Kevin Pietersen and even Jonny Bairstow - have those capabilities. They all feature in limited-overs games as well, but have shown that there is no need to pigeonhole yourself as a certain kind of player. In this era of three formats, the quality players are versatile enough to adjust their games to suit the requirements whether it's T20, 50-over, or Test cricket.

The Australian batting group certainly has the talent but now it's all about mental application, and that is such a difficult part of your game to apply when you feel under siege. That's how the Australians would feel now. Hopefully the batsmen, individually and with the expertise they have around them, will be able to work out their plans for Old Trafford and not lose focus. It is one thing to pounce on loose balls, but quite another to attack without regard for the bowling.

When I started playing for Australia there was an approach of scoring 300 in a day, led by Steve Waugh, and since then scoring rates have gone up significantly. But the best teams always had players who were willing to set the innings up first. Ricky Ponting was the most free-flowing of batsmen, but he would come in at No. 3 and occupy the crease, leave the ball, soak up some deliveries and make sure he was well set to eventually counterattack.

It is one thing to pounce on loose balls, but quite another to attack without regard for the bowling

Of course, if the bowling on offer allows you to play your shots from ball one, then you should take the opportunity. Unfortunately for the Australians, the English bowling unit has been ruthless. At Lord's in particular, they really hunted as a pack and no one gave the batsmen any let-up. That makes it even more a mental battle for the Australian batsmen. It's a fine balance between occupying the crease with no real intent and flaying at everything.

It comes down to the individuals to make those choices out in the middle about shot selection and the ways to approach a bowler. Usman Khawaja is a good example. In the first innings at Lord's he looked tentative in everything that he did, and then he tried to be really positive and aggressive against Graeme Swann and it led to his downfall. Nobody would begrudge him attempting a shot like that, but it seemed a contradiction after the way he had started.

In the second innings, everything Khawaja did looked really positive, from his first ball to his first forward defence, to his first scoring shot. It looked as though he was backing himself. He got to 50 and forged a good partnership with Michael Clarke and it was an example that a positive mindset, even in defence, is of paramount importance.

Developing that approach begins at Sheffield Shield level, and while I haven't seen enough Shield cricket in the last few years to comment on the quality of batting at that level, I hear more and more that the pitches are a concern, that they make things too difficult for batsmen and easy for bowlers, which creates a false sense for both once they reach Test level.

Perhaps the positioning of the Shield needs to be looked at as well. T20 cricket is here to stay and is a valuable part of the cricket calendar, but it needs to be very carefully scheduled and the timing of the BBL well thought out. There are also issues around the salaries paid to players for the different formats. I remember a lot of players being disgruntled when the contracting system was announced and was heavily weighted towards the BBL.

There are many reasons to be positive about T20 and the role it has in taking cricket well into the future in a healthy state, but there may be a need for administrators to have a look at the balance and check if we have it right. Scheduling and dividing up the player payments aren't easy jobs - they are very complex, in fact. However, there needs to be incentive for young players to focus on the Sheffield Shield as well as the BBL, and that will have a natural flow-on effect on Test cricket.

For now, here's hoping Australia's batsmen can do what I personally couldn't in 2005 and get their heads in the right space ahead of the Old Trafford Test. England have shown them how to do it.

Adam Gilchrist was speaking to Brydon Coverdale

Adam Gilchrist played 96 Tests for Australia as a wicketkeeper-batsman and was part of three winning Ashes campaigns

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Android on July 27, 2013, 16:30 GMT

    Somebody In this article pointed Waugh Bros as example against Mighty AMBROSE. Bang On friend. With Respect to Anderson He is no Ambrose. yes he is disciplined. but lacks the hostility of the Smiling Giant. my view ... stop listening to ur famed heros. not because they donot deserve but because aus famed stars have never been in condition their current team is. look for coaches and advisors like Dravid, Kumble, Yusuf, Arvinda, Fleming, Chandrapaul, Andy Flower, Kapil, D Martin etc. Mentioned never where immensely talented but immense hardwork and dedication achieved the distinction of TROUBLE-SHOOTERS. Team Players To Fall Back When Things Have Been Adverse. They Pushed Their Respective Team To Greatness On Sheer Attitude. they all had Greats Like Tendulkar, murli, wasim, waqar, inzamam, lara, astle, bond etc etc on their respwctive playing days. But the attitude to stand tall among the Ruins Made Them Unbreakable. This Team Has To Show Character To Take Fwd The Aus legacy. ATB !!!

  • Alistair on July 27, 2013, 10:28 GMT

    The problem is that there is no-one who can come in with a track record of doing what Gilly is rightly calling for here. The reason the England batsmen's career averages are between 5 and 10 points higher than the Aussies (Clarke, as always, excepted) is because they have learned to adapt to situations and get runs - this is what Gooch teaches them - getting runs, not simply technique. It is a mental battle at the top of every sport and after years of winning it against England, the Aussies are now well on the wrong side of it. So I'm afraid Warner may give an occasional entertaning blitz, but it won't win a 5 match series. And the similarity to calls for Sehwag's return in the 2011 whitewash of India, as has been observed elsewhere, provides interesting parallels to this situation - Sehwag returned as cavalier as ever and failed abjectly. And although I think Sehwag far less than a great, he's better than Warner will ever be...

  • Ash on July 27, 2013, 6:59 GMT

    great insights from gilchrist. warner in for hughes, and we'll be right on track.

  • Denver on July 26, 2013, 20:21 GMT

    Aus batsmen lack savvy . Hayden , langer, Gilly ,Bevan and Waugh brothers are yet to be replaced . True legends. The problem is that Aus cricket did not phase younger generation with experienced players , very shortsighted hence failure in this era.

  • Ross on July 26, 2013, 18:42 GMT

    @PaulRampley no there has never been anyone as good as Gilly and perhaps never will be. Bottom line is that boof is also a player who played with alot of grit and fight and he will bring those qualities to the younger players, watch how in the next year the likes of Khawaja, Smith and other young batsman become fighters and convert their 50s into big scores, boof will bring the best out of them.

  • Mashuq on July 26, 2013, 17:32 GMT

    Watching you play has been the highlight of over 50 years of international cricket watching. On you article, though, you are right about the method to be adopted, I'm not sure about the talent being there. Scoring runs with modern bats isn't difficult if you're a first-class level cricketer, but applying your mind in tests is quite something else. As you yourself concede, Flintoff worked you out and over to my everlasting dismay. Flower and his team have prepared just as meticulously with their disciplined lot. From this inexperienced cohort a few stars may emerge, but I'm not counting on it. Of course, you couldn't write that. I hope I'm wrong, but if we're trusting to the current squad's batting, we'll be very disappointed. Khawaja is no great shakes, but given opportunities he may emerge as a solid option. I'm coming to Australia to watch the 2019 Ashes and hope for a dream team: Silk, Khawaja, Doolan, Burns, A.N Other (capt.) Agar, Paine, Starc, Pattinson, Cummins, Zampa.

  • Allan on July 26, 2013, 16:28 GMT

    Has there been a better keeper batsman then Gilly, i don't think there has, he has made life tough for all future keepers. Edward i remember that innings from the Waugh brothers, it was stuff of legend. Gilly in his analysis is spot on, i loved what I saw from Khawaja in the second innings in Lords and we need more of that in the coming games from the other batsman. I still think we can come back but we need to really put in the hard yards, boof is the right man to bring it out of our guys.

  • Lewis on July 26, 2013, 15:56 GMT

    If you want to watch grit, watch Steve Waugh and Mark Waugh stand up to Ambrose in the West Indies series of 98. Fantastic stuff and something our younger batsma can learn from. From the current lot i do like the look of Khawaja, he has fight about him and also Smith and Warner as well. Watson is due for a big score and if he can show fight at the top of the order it will have a ripple effect on the rest of the batsman.

  • Rahul on July 26, 2013, 15:38 GMT

    No greater batsman with grit then AB and it was interesting hearing him saying the same stuff to our batsman after the lords game, he picked Khawaja as an example of the type of innings needed where he toughened it out at Lords. I know the likes of Rogers, Watson and Haddin can also fight it out but they all need to if we are to come back

  • Brenton on July 26, 2013, 8:22 GMT

    Gilly, with all respect, how many Sheffield Shield games did you play after retiring from test cricket? How about mates Warney, Hayden, Lee, McGrath? These greats of the game have a responsibility to go back and play a season or two of domestic SS to teach young players a thing or two and raise the profile of SS. Instead they go and rake in the big $$$$$$$ in the IPL.

    How about teaching a young batsman some mental skills by seeing off a spell from Warney, McGrath or Brett Lee?

    How about a young bowler trying his guts out to get Gilly's wicket? SS would be on the news every night.