June 2, 2014

Is cricket ripe for a tactical overhaul?

Like football, can it be reinvented by master tacticians, or is it too individual to be shaped?

The Dilscoop: a mandatory skill for all top-order batsmen in limited-overs cricket © Getty Images

What have been the great tactical innovations of modern cricket? How has the game been reimagined and reinvented? The prompt comes from reading Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson's excellent history of football tactics. How, I've been wondering, would an author go about describing cricket's parallel development? Here is my tentative list:

Ironically, one of the greatest tactical innovations was short-lived in practice and eternally infamous. Douglas Jardine's leg theory demanded that England's bowlers aim at the bodies of Australian batsmen, with fielders clustered behind square on the leg side. Developed to marginalise one man, Don Bradman, Bodyline is almost unique in cricket's history. Bradman averaged "only" 56, England won the series - at a high cost, in terms of reputation. But the moral furore obscured the tactical ingenuity. As a challenge to readers, can anyone think of a more decisive example of top-down thinking in the history of cricket? Leg theory, of course, was promptly banned - a signal fate, perhaps, for the influence of abstract thinking on the cricket pitch.

Four quick bowlers
Fast bowling inspired another terrifying innovation. We are now used to the idea of picking the four best bowlers, whatever their actions, but it was once revolutionary. In backing his four quick men to dominate any opposition, whatever the surface, Clive Lloyd was breaking with an accepted (albeit wrong) tenet of conventional wisdom: that all bowling attacks must have variety. Not when they are as good as my guys, answered Lloyd. He was right, of course. Lloyd cemented the idea that the structure of a team ought to change to accommodate the talent available.

Aggressive fielding
Just as football has gradually kicked out the "playmaker" who refuses to track back and join the defensive alignment, so cricket has lost patience with great batsmen and bowlers who decline to field. Fielding, once merely a defensive mode, has become a weapon of attack, a way of making batsmen feel hemmed in, surrounded, under pressure.

Hence the expectations facing a typical fielding side have been inverted. It used to be that one brilliant fielder stood out from all the rest - Colin Bland, for example. Now one poor fielder stands out from all the good ones. We notice the donkey, not the gazelle. Outfield catching, for example, is almost unrecognisable; what would once have been termed a "good effort" is now regarded as a lamentable failure of athleticism.

Pinch-hitting and spinners as opening bowlers
Martin Crowe pioneered two great tactical innovations at the 1992 World Cup. First, Mark Greatbatch opened the batting, with a licence to attack from the first ball. Secondly, offspinner Dipak Patel took the new ball. The impact was immediate. Pinch-hitting had become a permanent feature by the time Sri Lanka won the following World Cup. And the advent of T20, which has proved the value of slow bowling against aggressive batting, confirmed that Crowe's fundamental insight was correct: taking pace off the ball often makes it harder for batsmen to add pace to the ball.

Cricket is made up of discrete, isolated duels. At the moment the ball is bowled, the rest of the batting side is essentially irrelevant: only one man counts

Four runs an over
Steve Waugh's commitment to scoring four runs an over in Test cricket was a rare example of a captain going public about his principles. So there was a double aspect to his confidence - first, the conviction that his batsmen were good enough to do it; second, the confidence that he could announce the tactic before the game began.

The slower ball
In the 1990s, Franklyn Stephenson became famous for his celebrated back-of-the-hand slower ball. Now, a slower ball - more accurately, a range of slower balls - is a required skill for any fast bowler who wants to play ODI and T20 cricket. Rarity has become necessity.

The Dilscoop
Two innovations led to a third. First, the helmet allowed batsmen to become far less concerned about the risk of getting hit; second, the need for batsmen to maximise boundary opportunities during fielding restrictions. Solution: the Dilscoop. A shot of breathtaking daring, until recently unimaginable, is now an essential skill for a modern top-order batsman in white-ball cricket.

The doosra
Where the law was changed to stop Bodyline, the law was changed to keep the doosra. The legality of some doosras remains controversial, but it is a central weapon in today's game. If your team can't bowl doosras, at least make sure you can pick them.

Shane Warne rescues legspin
Here things become tricky. By reviving a dying art, Warne certainly revolutionised the sport. But should that be classed as a tactical innovation? In the same way, it is hard to know how to categorise Adam Gilchrist's role in the development of the wicketkeeper-batsman. Both Warne and Gilchrist changed and profoundly enhanced the history of cricket. But they did it just by being themselves. So was their greatness personal rather than theoretical?

There have been other sources of innovation: the DRS has changed batting techniques and breathed further life into spin bowling. Sledging has become commonplace. But we are moving away from specific tactical innovation and towards general cultural change.

So here is my central point. The list above, though doubtless incomplete and open to improvement, is unavoidably concise. I did not find it easy to discern waves of tactical innovation, still less innovations inspired by one individual thinker. This is in stark contrast to football, with its great theoretical revolutions. To name just a few: the Italian catenaccio, the defensive "chain", was mastered by Helenio Herrera; Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff pioneered "total football"; Valeriy Lobanovskyi introduced a systematic approach to defensive "pressing"; Arrigo Sacchi engineered a system of attacking football based around team structure rather than individualist brilliance; Pep Guardiola took the passing game to new, thrilling extremes.

Yes, some of these innovations built on existing trends while others grew organically from a whole sporting culture. But there is no escaping the centrality of theory: individual thinkers, usually managers, reshaped how the game should be played.

This tradition does not exist in cricket. A cricketing version of Inverting the Pyramid would be very short - too short, in fact, to be a book at all. Why? Partly because, as I have explored in this column before, cricket does not have a long history of powerful coaches - England's first coach was appointed in 1986. Secondly, the structure of the game is unusual. Football is holistic - any action anywhere on the pitch influences the whole. A shaping mind can recast the whole team by aligning his players differently; hence football's obsession with "systems", really just another word for "tactics".

Cricket, on the other hand, is made up of discrete, isolated duels. At the moment the ball is bowled, the rest of the batting side is essentially irrelevant: only one man counts. It is hard for a tactician, no matter how brilliant, to influence that duel.

Which leads me to my final question: Is cricket ripe for fundamental philosophical revision? Not just tinkering at the edges but for a whole new way of doing things? Or does that concept simply not apply to such an individual sport? I don't know the answer. But I'd love to see someone try to find it.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. @edsmithwriter

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Rajesh on June 7, 2014, 7:30 GMT

    Interesting train of thoughts and excellent read as always from this author.

    One point in my view, which seems to be missed out is the innovation of Analytics.

    Increasingly, coaches and players have a vast amount of data from which to learn what went right and what could be improved. Bowling, batting and fielding, all have been improved with the advent of video, laptops and software being used real-time to produce relevant statistics and insights.

    Good players and managers continue to use these to improve their game or at least think about areas they would like to improve on.

  • Alan on June 4, 2014, 19:18 GMT

    Ed, I think you're starting too recently in history. Cricket started as a very different game. How about how overarm bowling developed? What about WG Grace's invention of modern batting footwork? And the changes in play as covered pitches became the norm? I think there's a lot more you could explore here by going further back in time.

  • adeel on June 4, 2014, 4:19 GMT

    @ IndianInnerEdge - spot on mate. this one innovation will truly transform test cricket as we know it. ICC take note !!!

  • T G on June 3, 2014, 23:09 GMT

    It is a myth Shane Warne revolutionised cricket. How many leg-spin bowlers are playing T20, ODI or test cricket today, as a result of Warne? Virtually none. Warne was simply a great bowler who happened to bowl leg-spin, but he was not revolutionary.

  • Dummy4 on June 3, 2014, 16:14 GMT

    There are skills, there are tactics and there are strategies. Skills are constantly getting changed, tactics are beginning to emerge strongly, but the rules of cricket need some more tweaking to really allow playing with strategies.

  • Rav on June 3, 2014, 14:23 GMT

    Each era of cricket has different characteristics. One era is not 'better' than the other, the type of cricket player in each era and the conditions of the game are simply different. The nature of the game itself has changed, and thus it appeals to a slightly different kind of crowd now. Whether or not that's a good thing depends a lot on which crowd one belongs to.

  • s on June 3, 2014, 10:28 GMT

    I don't agree that many of these are tactical changes at all: for example, the doosra and dilscoop are new technicalities brought to the game (another case in point is the switch hit). They are no more new tactically than the leg glance introduced by Ranjitsinjhi (?) all those years ago.

  • Philip on June 3, 2014, 9:55 GMT

    I was a bit surprised, knowing that the erudite Smith is someone who takes history seriously, not to find a disclaimer at the bottom of his article saying "all innovations mentioned may well have been first used by someone else!" Leg-theory wasn't Jardine's alone - he was the first to add a Larwood to it. Four real fast bowlers didn't entirely ruin diversity - the quartet Lloyd had were all different. And so on. Tactics rely on what players, pitches, rules and equipment are available. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka will want spin. Australia wants bounce and pace bowlers - although I wonder if their pace bowlers' fielding expectations may be costing them in the longevity of their spells and even careers - once upon a time a paceman didn't fling himself around the outfield but saved up for his next spell - but then once upon a time up-and-coming quicks didn't go to an Academy or sweat on grading for fielding standards, just as up-and-coming spinners didn't sweat over their batting ability.

  • Dru on June 3, 2014, 9:22 GMT

    Most interesting read and I think cricket must think about the "super sub" like soccer and rugby. This brings in all sorts of possibilities. For example you could go in with 4 seam bowlers and sub two for spinners in the second innings. A meaningless push for a drawn test could be livened up by "subbing" in a pinch hitter (say Glen Maxwell for Ed Cowan, sorry cant think of the current Aus opener). This would also allow for injuries picked up during the game not have a major impact on the outcome. Basically it could spice up what could otherwise be a drawn test match and force captains to employ tactics outside the current imagination. For example on a 1st day English wicket you may open with Cook and say Root but on the 4th day chase, you could sub Root with say Butler - yes unlikely but it does offer some crazy options to liven up the game. It will also hold fans interest, especially for test matches that could be ambling to a draw.

  • Jai on June 3, 2014, 6:15 GMT

    Ronald Myers:

    You are dead-right about power hitters at 4 to 7. From a theoretical perspective it makes no sense. Assuming you have batsmen capable of batting out at least 20 overs at 5 or 6 an over (a trivial task), it makes a lot more sense to send out hitters to play maximally aggressive and leave technically sound players to rebuild if that goes wrong, rather than send out anchors, with a mixed agenda, and then expect bashers to rebuild when wickets fall.

    It's pretty obvious why KXIP's rudimentary attack everything strat took them so far (ironic that they lost because they abandoned it in the final, and even 14 RPO in the back half got them only 200 that was easily chased down).