August 8, 2014

The perils of ignoring footwork

The secret to consistent Test batting is to play athletically off both feet, a tenet largely ignored on day one at Old Trafford

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An hour prior to Graham Gooch joining Ian Bell for a private batting session in Birmingham, I rang the 61-year-old to congratulate him on his birthday. We spoke for 45 minutes about batting, as we do. I sensed Bell was the one about to get the birthday present - a batting masterclass from someone wanting to prove a point about batting, about run-making. Not surprisingly, to me anyway, Bell delivered days later in Southampton. Gooch the specialist batting coach had passed on the appropriate wisdom once again.

Naturally, I sat back and surveyed the footwork of the specialist batsmen on show in Manchester. They all could have done with an hour with Gooch. All of them succumbed to good bowling by ignoring the fundamental of footwork.

Gautam Gambhir hopped up and stabbed at a back-of-a-length ball on middle and off, easily caught in the gully. Instead, he only needed to press on his front foot and push the body back, landing on his back foot, and as the back foot landed and steadied, the front foot needed to release and get out of the way of a straight defensive shot.

M Vijay has been good this series, with busy feet and calm balance. James Anderson found the perfect corridor of uncertainty, with the right amount of away swing, and the edge was taken at slip. Ideally Vijay needed to load up his back foot more, pushing the body forward, the front foot extending enough to reduce the impact of the swing. As the front foot lands the back foot follows behind, extending to the toe, lining the body up straight. From there he could have left, knowing the off stump was well covered and the ball would swing away to miss comfortably. Or he could have committed to the forward-defensive shot, killing the swing by closing in with complete movement of both feet. His back foot hardly moved, therefore neither did the front foot; the body and bat angled towards cover, and the edge was easily found.

Virat Kohli was identical to Vijay, with a small front stride by a lack of back-foot loading and pushing, resulting in little body position, the feet aiming towards extra cover, and then the bat following that path, nicking off with half a bat. Kohli is not moving as he normally does, especially the way he does so well in one-dayers. His back foot has become redundant. Really it's the back foot that is the most vital in English conditions, due to the need to play well off the front foot to the moving ball. Loading the back foot and then releasing it on to the toe ensures the body is pushed forward with enough energy, the front-foot extension closing in on the ball, shutting down the danger. Kohli's small steps are his undoing. The solution is in firing up his back foot more to get forward enough.

Cheteshwar Pujara is in a similar boat. He is aiming everything, the feet and body, to extra cover and not the bowler. He can't play straight enough, and with enough swing in the air he is not using both feet to shut down the late movement. The feet need to push apart when going forward, and it's the back foot that does the pushing, firstly by loading on to the balls of the feet.

MS Dhoni largely used both feet fairly well, getting quite close to the ball, allowing the bottom hand to shovel the ball away for runs.

Ravindra Jadeja, on the other hand, has no footwork. His back foot is stationary, and he aims to cover and misses straight balls. He isn't a specialist batsman, anyway, nor a specialist bowler, so heaven knows how he gets picked to play Test cricket.

To go forward the back foot does all the work, loading, pushing and releasing, while the front foot simply lands close to the ball, and the hitting through the line follows with ease

Sam Robson is in big trouble with his feet. His back foot is in a concrete boot. For a slight build, he should be electric on his feet, athletic and quick, like Bell. Instead he has a stiff, bat up, rigid style that is self-destructive. He won't get a run against Australia, South Africa or New Zealand's maturing seam attack unless Gooch can get to him and do an overhaul for next year's Test programme. I'm not sure even the great Gooch can fix this one, as Robson looks a man with all the worries in the world.

Alastair Cook has done some impressive work in recent weeks. That he has shortened his back-foot lunge and instead is making a smaller step, loading it up to push out and is finally getting forward, as seen briefly late on day one, is very encouraging. He played some solid straight drives, which is a major improvement. Naturally, while he beds this in, his back-foot game will take a back seat as it did when he hooked down fine leg's throat. Yet those back shots are always there and will return with flourish. Cook has started to resurrect his game and the key is all in his feet.

And that is the secret to consistent Test match batting: playing athletically off both feet, the key is using the opposite foot to the direction one is going. To go forward, - which should be the initial intent until forced back - the back foot does all the work, loading, pushing and releasing, while the front foot simply lands close to the ball, and the hitting through the line follows with ease.

To go back, the front foot drops down once forced back and presses the body backwards, then releases out of the way, while the back foot lands square of the wicket and the hitting comes in late under the eyes. The front-foot release can also be used for height in a shot, lifting up to lever the body higher to get over the ball. In doing so, the power generated is increased, as the front leg tucks up into the midriff, a la Brian Lara, proving balance, swivel and fluency throughout the shot. Overall, the front foot is better used off the ground when playing back.

Batting basics are so often ignored. Footwork is the guts of batting, the ability to move with fluency and consistency is the priority to scoring in all conditions. To ignore this is a recipe for failure. Unless you get an hour with Gooch. Then you are back in the run-making.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s and early '90s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand