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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on August 13, 2014, 16:32 GMT

    @Nampally.............I thought u had played hard ball but now I figured u too r an arm-chair critic

    1. Pujara's footwork is faulty, his entire body pointing towards covers instead of bowler, also he provides gate b/w bat & pad. He pull technique is faulty too hence gets late on short ball.

    2. Vijay is f9

    3. Yes Ashwin is gd

    4. Kumar???????????r u serious!!!!!!!

    Kallis is model of perfect footwork

    Kohli's problem is that u got to get fully forward with front foot with toe pointing bowler & back foot must go across covering off stump on seaming conditions. This method not too good for bouncing conditions. This is the best footwork against good spinners too.

    For bouncing conditions u should stand beside the ball like Dhawan so that u can choose easily which to play which to leave which to cut & which too hook................never pull on bouncing wickets as ball goes straight up

  • Mann on August 13, 2014, 7:28 GMT

    There is only one problem with the Indian Players. Discipline. They lack the discipline to play test matches. Flamboyancy is allowed to take over in each and every innings. You can check with Vijay, he was disciplined in the early part of the series. The minute he thinks he has done his job in first two tests and puts his head down and tries to be flamboyant. He fails. Kohli, Rohit and all are playing shots like rich people. no discipline and they backtrack their shots after the get out with an expression that they were unlucky.

  • Naresh on August 11, 2014, 22:05 GMT

    Nice article by Crowe and also a good analysis by @nampally in response to the article.

  • Ashok on August 10, 2014, 15:28 GMT

    Martin, the greatest problem with most of the modern Indian batsmen is their batting is based more on hand -eye coordination than footwork. The old school of head over the ball & getting to the pitch of the ball on the front foot defence is history now. Even on the back foot defence they never get behind the ball. Most India batsmen play the ball on the rise with their own footwork but with superb hand -eye coordination. This works well on slow Indian Wkts. but on a faster wicket it is a disaster as proven by India at the Old Trafford. In 50's & 60's most of the state league matches in India were played on matting wkts. where the ball kicked up & wkts. generally fast. Correct footwork was critical to succeed. When the same batsmen played on the slower & less bouncier turf wkts. task became much easier. Kohli, Dhawan, Gambhir, Rohit Sharma All have poor footwork + their bats are slant when they defend. Pujara, Vijay, Kumar & Ashwin have the best footwork. Their scores reflects it!

  • Steve on August 9, 2014, 10:57 GMT

    Best article I have read for a while. Forget Goochie, can't you come and sort our batting out? Would love to hear your opinion on Ballance at 3, Mo against the short ball and others. So much of what we read from 'experts' teaches us fans little we cannot see for ourselves, this article is a breath of fresh air, thank you.

  • Makku on August 9, 2014, 6:34 GMT

    The truth is you don't need the kind of footwork that M Crowe is talking about to bat well in Tests in the subcontinent. Hence, the trouble when these batsmen go to places like England.

  • Philip on August 9, 2014, 4:10 GMT

    Very well said. Although the bit that goes 'Instead he has a stiff, bat up, rigid style that is self-destructive. He won't get a run against Australia..., " could easily have been written thus - "...he has a stiff, bat up, rigid style that is self-destructive. He wouldn't have gotten a run (meaning a go or selection through the youth pathways) in Australia if he hadn't been taught this way". Yes, Australia likes 'em that way from what I've seen. Welcome to the future.

  • Android on August 9, 2014, 4:05 GMT

    I wish you were coaching India

  • S on August 9, 2014, 3:18 GMT

    "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."

    Thank you Martin for stating bluntly what everyone who knows anything about cricket can see for themselves. And when you get an answer to your question, please do enlighten us. Leaving out the likes of Ashwin, and playing Jadeja thru the series and Binny for the first two tests defies all comprehension.

  • TR on August 9, 2014, 1:48 GMT

    These basics should have gotten in to the muscle memory of the batsmen when they were teenagers. I dont believe they can change their technique (=involuntary reaction) at this age. They CAN improve their mental side of it, that is, being more conscious of what is happening. MVijay, when he walked back to the pavilion, seemed to be asking Pujara something like "could I have left it alone at all?". It shows that he is very conscious of what is going on and is in the right mindset to improve. I cant say the same about Kholi who seems to be emotionally not strong. Wish he proves me wrong.

    IMO it is very good bowling at the helping conditions and I think it is too good that it wont repeat. Credit to the bowlers for sure. BKumar is as good a bowler, he produced the same edges - but Dhoni and co stood too much back as usual and the catches were changed to simple edges dropping short. Hope somebody tells Dhoni.

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