August 10, 2014

Poor basics have brought down the standard of cricket

Test teams are more competitive these days, but it's probably because the fundamentals of backing up, running between the wickets and catching are being ignored

Are pre-game routines designed to build on cricket's fundamental skills? © Getty Images

The wildly fluctuating series between India and England reflects Test cricket in the last decade. Where there was once domination by West Indies and then Australia, we now have parity, at least among the top five or six teams. Certainly there's a tendency towards home advantage, but as we've seen with India and England, there's very little standing between the top teams.

Is parity better for the game than dominance?

There's no doubt cricket is a more interesting spectacle when there's a genuine tussle, as witnessed in the contrasting Tests played at Trent Bridge and Lord's. Give bowlers some encouragement and the contest can be compulsive viewing.

Unfortunately, parity has come about because the standard of the better sides has slipped a little rather than it being a case of the lesser teams raising the bar. Still, it's preferable having a logjam at the top of the table rather than one standout team followed in the distance by a bunch of also-rans.

Why has parity only been achieved through a dip in standards?

We are constantly told that batsmen are more dominant these days and that fielding standards are better than ever, but the information doesn't match reality. Batting survival techniques have deteriorated. It's power-hitting that has dramatically improved. And while some amazing catches and saves are enacted near the boundary, in the crucial area of the close cordon, chances are too often spilt because simple but critical footwork is lacking. The pursuit of the spectacular has outstripped the desire to master basics.

Much of the pre-game routines are fairy-floss rather than the meat and potatoes that help win cricket matches. One of my main concerns when the idea of international coaches was first mooted was that decisions would be taken to justify a large contract rather than be in the best interests of the player. It seems that many coaches want to leave a monument behind, and consequently there are numerous theories in existence replacing good old-fashioned tried and tested techniques.

It's interesting to reflect on the thoughts of two great practitioners of their art, Australia's Bill O'Reilly and West Indies' Sir Garfield Sobers. O'Reilly once advised a young cricketing hopeful: "If you see a coach coming, son, run a mile." Sobers was even less subtle. When some ill-informed official had the temerity to suggest he didn't have the required qualifications to coach, Garry exploded: "What do you think I got my f#@%&*! knighthood for, singing?"

Sobers deplored the fact that "great cricketers are treated as freaks; admired for their feats but ignored for the way in which they achieved them".

The basics of backing up, running between wickets, catching in the slips, and some to do with ground fielding, are being ignored. There's a tendency to salivate over the latest fashionable theory but gag on tried and tested techniques.

Two classic examples are slip catching and running between wickets. Many chances go down in the cordon because of the failure to initiate the slight turn of the foot that balances a fielder before attempting a catch away from the body. The tendency is to attempt a spectacular catch by simply falling sideways - at the risk of spilling the chance.

Why do batsmen turn blind, not watch the ball leave the bowler's hand when backing up, and insist on running down the on side of the pitch after playing a stroke when that greatly increases the chance of a collision with a partner?

These are violations of simple basics that have brought good results. They should be learnt before a budding cricketer reaches teenage years, and be ingrained in him by the time he reaches voting age.

While many coaches seek fame, players tend to concentrate on methods most likely to earn their fortune. While the former is lamentable, the latter approach is understandable.

No other sport has three vastly different forms of competition, and this complicates the issue of technique, especially in batting. However, Kumar Sangakkara is a classic example of how you don't have to sacrifice the basics in order to succeed in all three forms.

The aim should be to achieve parity by raising the overall standard.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator for Channel 9, and a columnist