September 8, 2014

Does pure talent matter more in ODIs than in Tests?

It's one way to explain India's turnaround in the 50-over games in England

Eoin Morgan is a highly rated white-ball player, but he isn't necessarily a prolific batsman © AFP

I begin, unusually, with some financial advice. Bet on India to win every international competition played with a white ball for the next few years. You won't always win. But you'll make money over the long term. You'd certainly be comfortably in the money if you'd gambled along those principles in recent years.

This column is really footnotes to that practical advice. They begin with a question: how could England dominate the Test series so completely, only to be trounced by India in the ODIs?

The superficial answer is easy. The English traditionally revere Test cricket over ODIs. India, with perfect symmetry, love ODIs more than Tests. In fact, if you were trying to design a summer of cricket according to utilitarian principles - bringing the greatest happiness to the greatest number - then this summer was strangely optimal. Everyone got what they wanted.

Several theories are currently circulating trying to explain the gulf in class between the two ODI teams. One argument holds that the English mindset is too defensive and risk-averse. They need a whole new road map for ODI cricket, with boldness and conviction replacing meek attempts at avoiding mistakes and hoping for the best. A second explanation is that England are unprepared to blood young talent and to embrace a new, devil-may-care approach. Thirdly, it is argued that England don't have sufficient experience in white-ball formats. As Duncan Fletcher used to point out when he was England coach, opposition players usually have vastly more ODI experience. Look at the two captains now: MS Dhoni has played 88 Tests and 247 ODIs. Alastair Cook, in contrast, has 109 Test caps and only 86 in ODIs.

My conjecture is that it is far harder to make yourself a top-flight batsman in ODIs. This is especially true at the top of the order, where most matches are won and lost

There is something to be said for all these theories. I wonder, however, if we aren't missing something more fundamental. Might it be the case that pure talent plays a greater role in ODIs than Tests? If so - and I hope to convince you that this is the case - then having a wider talent pool plays a more central role in ODI success than in Test cricket.

Test cricket, of course, relies on a certain amount of natural ability. But think of the words typically used to describe it: a test of character, resilience, fortitude, bravery and so on. And it's true. There is a great tradition of Test cricketers who, through relentless determination and commitment to self-improvement, have ended up outperforming more talented peers. Mark Richardson finished his Test career averaging nearly 45. Which balls to leave, which ones to play, which are the lowest-risk scoring options, how to switch on and off between balls - these are the ways that the tortoises can ultimately outrun the hares in Test-match conditions.

My conjecture is that it is far harder to make yourself a top-flight batsman in ODIs. This is especially true at the top of the order, where most matches are won and lost. (I concede that savviness and game-awareness play a greater role in the middle overs, where players such as Paul Collingwood thrived.) But the ability consistently to hit a new white ball bowled at 90mph over the ropes? I wouldn't recommend that anyone attempt to base a career around that skill set unless he had first won the genetic lottery for natural talent.

This point was driven home to me in Cardiff, as I watched Suresh Raina smash the ball. While he undoubtedly had a positive mindset and a great experience, he could draw on something else too: vast innate talent. The same applies to India's other stellar ODI performers - Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and, of course, Dhoni.

What about the argument that England are also blessed with a rare crop of outstandingly talented ODI batsmen right now if only they would pick them? It is true that James Vince, Jason Roy and Sam Billings (among others) have huge potential.

But the crucial point is often missed. India's so-called "ODI specialists", in fact, tend to possess formidable all-round track records - against the red ball as well as the white. Rohit averages 59 in first-class cricket, Ambati Rayudu 46, and Raina 44. Between them, they have deep experience of making first-class hundreds, even if they are better known for achievements in other formats. India's leading ODI players - let's include Ajinkya Rahane (first-class average 58) and Kohli (47) - are very distinctly not one-trick ponies. Kohli's wretched Test series notwithstanding, they are multi-dimensional performers.

Compare England's highly regarded white-ball batsmen: Eoin Morgan averages 36 in first-class cricket, Alex Hales 37, and Roy 33. They are all magnificent strikers of a cricket ball. None, if we are honest, is a genuinely prolific batsman.

This should be remembered when we hear about the urgent need for England to take on "an entirely new approach to ODIs". In fact, strategy never exists in a vacuum. You have to design tactics to fit your capabilities. For that reason, I'm not sure India is the right model for England to copy. After all, one reason - not the only reason but certainly one - that India can play such a thrilling brand of ODI cricket is that they are exceptionally gifted. This fact, logically, is not unconnected with having a population of 1.2 billion people from among whom to choose from.

Which brings me back to the beginning. India is currently ranked No. 1 in ODI cricket. Given their passion and the depth of their talent pool, that situation is unlikely to change much. I'm not a betting man, but I'd bet on that.

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

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