February 9, 2016

Why T20 batting needn't be all about on-side power-hitting

George Bailey's technique shows that an alternative set of solutions is evolving, which are less derivative of baseball

George Bailey felt better about his T20 batting when he looked to primarily target the off side © Getty Images

If you aren't interested in batting technique, look away now. For this column will try to do three things. First, it will reassess a common cliché about "good technique" - the widely held fear about being "closed off" with your feet. Secondly, it will argue that many great players have benefited from this technique, even as coaches have been scaring people away from it. Thirdly, being relatively closed off can prove useful in the T20 era as an alternative to baseball-style power-hitting (usually assumed to rely on opening up and "clearing the front leg").

I'm always intrigued when theory is sharply misaligned with practice. Batsmanship is a classic example. One of the prompts for thinking about batsmanship and alignment is George Bailey's new(ish) stance and address to the ball. He's had a couple of failures recently, but the stance seemed to help Bailey enjoy a fine run of scores in the Big Bash League and in ODIs in January. His recent 112 against India is worth watching again for a demonstration of clean, fluent striking on both sides of the wicket.

Bailey's stance has been much analysed because his feet are so closed off when he begins his preliminary movements. It does indeed look unusual. But some crucial points can easily be missed. First, Bailey's actual trigger movement is a small back-and-across with his back (right) foot, reducing the extent to which he is closed off when it matters. So when he is ready to hit the ball, he has resumed a more conventional stance. (This is often also the case with the opposite arrangement: Shivnarine Chanderpaul, for example, started very open, but was much more conventionally positioned when the ball was delivered.)

Let's consider the question of how much Bailey's technique is really a radical departure. I think it is a myth that "classic" or "traditional" technique has been founded on having the feet lined up "sideways" to the bowler. I think being slightly closed off - beyond sideways, if you like - has been the default position of many great players, whatever coaches may believe.

It is often assumed that T20 batting technique will evolve in one direction alone - baseball-style, clearing the front leg, upright stance, set up for on-side power-hitting

I've gathered some batting techniques to consider. Don't worry too much about the starting position of the various players, focus more on where they are as the ball begins its journey down the pitch.

Here is Mark Waugh, one of my favourite technicians, getting off the mark in a Test against England. Try to pause the shot with the ball about a third of the way down the pitch - around 16 seconds into the clip. His front foot is just off the ground, as though he has the intention of walking slightly towards the bowler/mid-off. This preliminary mini-stride is a fine example of what Greg Chappell calls "unweighting". Secondly, the toe of Waugh's bat is still close to the ground - he hasn't even picked the bat up yet, let alone begun his downswing. This really is playing the ball late. Thirdly, and most relevant to the subject under review, look at the alignment of Waugh's feet. Draw an imaginary line from his back foot to his front foot and take the line out into the infield. His feet are "lined up" not towards the bowler (as coaches normally demand) but towards extra cover, perhaps even slightly square of extra cover.

According to how batting is usually taught, Waugh is too closed off. And yet he was among the finest and most natural technicians of his era.

Now check alignment in all these cases.

Here's Rahul Dravid (even more closed off than Waugh). And David Gower

My favourite example of a finishing position: check Tom Graveney here (14 seconds in), remembering that the camera is positioned from mid-off. In other words, he is even more closed off than he looks, with his feet aligned towards square cover.

In the days before people talked about "trigger movements", most batsmen, as they prepared to move their feet, did a small shuffle as the bowler bowled - trigger movements without a title. And it often left top players slightly closed off, with the front foot more to the off side than the back foot. It wasn't taught, but it happened anyway. So Bailey's finish position, after his little back-and-across - note, not his starting position - belongs to the historical mainstream far more than you might assume.

I have personal experience of this issue. When I was young, I was thought to have an orthodox batting technique - perhaps too orthodox. In fact, though I didn't know it at the time, I had always finished my trigger movements in a slightly closed off position. This happened naturally and without me thinking about it. Then, when I was 21, a coach insisted I changed and focused on never being closed off. Those two seasons were the worst of my career by some distance. My career basically had three phases: natural, unnatural, natural (with the results you would expect).

Mark Waugh, here facing Andrew Caddick in 1997, used to take a very small stride across the crease as the bowler delivered © PA Photos

Now let's turn to T20. In 2001, I joined up with New York Mets for Spring Training in Port St Lucie in Florida. This formed part of my book Playing Hard Ball, comparing cricket and baseball. A central strand of the book was exploring points of similarity and difference between batsmanship in the two sports.

One difference is that baseball has always advocated rotation - the hips opening out as an intrinsic part of the swing. This creates what physicists call torque. As a batter's hips rapidly rotate, the body's movement extenuates the speed of the swing of the arms (a bit on the science here). The effect is like a catapult at the end of a sling. The final speed of the bat is far greater when the body and the arms rotate in tandem. In fact, the effect is multiplicative.

Obviously, when English county cricket introduced T20 in 2003, I was intrigued about how baseball would influence batting technique. And of course it has. Jonny Bairstow, when he is in fifth gear, is a good example. He stands very still and upright, with no hint of tapping the bat on the ground, preferring a rhythmic waggle of the bat - classic baseball style. And he is terrific at it.

It is often assumed that T20 batting technique will evolve in one direction alone - baseball-style, clearing the front leg, upright stance, set up for on-side power-hitting.

Certainly that method is here to stay. But it is not the only way to respond to the demands of scoring quickly. Bailey's technique, I think, shows how an alternative set of solutions is evolving, more distinctively "crickety" and less derivative of baseball. After all, most deliveries in cricket still bounce - a massive point of difference from baseball. Besides, technique rarely evolves in one direction alone; there is usually a counter-rhythm as well as a herd movement.

In short, I think there is still a huge place for off side, traditional cricket shots in T20. Was Bailey, I wondered, trying to develop just such a competitive advantage with his new stance?

In a long email discussion I had with Bailey, he confirmed exactly that. He stumbled on a possible solution when he found he was doffing a lot of shots on slow pitches at the end of the innings: "On reflection I realised that my best innings in T20 were when I was trying to hit through the off side (which kept me side on) and the leg-side shots came naturally. So I started closing myself off and batting on leg stump, effectively tricking myself into thinking I was hitting everything through the off side. And I hit the ball much harder, cleaner and further."

Any technical adjustment, of course, brings new disadvantages and well as new gains. But Bailey found that his new technique, which he had developed for late-innings power-hitting, was worth the trade-off: "Through trial and error and practice I found the limitations were outweighed by the fact that I was simply hitting the ball better. The next step was thinking, well if I do that at the end of the innings, and it results in a better outcome (ball-striking), then I may as well do it from ball one."

Bailey also understands that every technique has limitations and that a new stance will not resolve all those limitations. But he used to get out in the same ways he gets out now - so the crucial question becomes how well he plays when he is at the crease.

"I realised that my best innings in T20 were when I was trying to hit through the off side. So I started closing myself off, effectively tricking myself into thinking I was hitting everything through the off side"
George Bailey

I have a small point to add from my own playing career. I am the last person to lecture anyone about how to play T20 - I was never a power-hitter, and I hit very few sixes in any format of the game. T20 was far removed from my default mindset and temperament. But I did want to make a contribution in T20 and I ended up with the surprisingly decent strike rate of 132.

I found that one solution was to bat very side-on in T20 - to trick myself, as Bailey says, into thinking that I was intending to hit through the off side, even if I ended up hitting to the on side anyway. Though I was never as closed off as Bailey, the intention was the same. I would try to hit extra cover, with a very side-on stance, and then fall back on the on side if the ball demanded it. That technique gave me two bites at the cherry. Whereas when I set up to hit the on side, I had no off-side option, and I tended to over-hit and mistime the ball anyway - exactly as Bailey says in his email.

In effect, when I played well in T20, I batted with a set-up much closer to Graveney's in that clip than to that of a baseball slugger. Instead of moving towards baseball, I moved towards 1950s cricket! I think there is potential for much better players than me to exploit scoring opportunities in T20 in the same way - not just to rely on heaving the ball into the on side.

The point is absolutely not that I was a top T20 player. I was not at all. The point is that I was scoring faster than my first-class game suggested I would, and faster than people who could hit the ball much further than me. And this was due to technique, not strength.

Finally, I'd ask all batsmen to consider the days when they hit the ball most sweetly (and hence scored fastest). I'll tell you what it felt like for me:

1. I didn't swing so hard at the ball that I lost shape, but kept the speed of my swing within a range that suited me.

2. I didn't allow myself to get through the swing too early, ending up dragging the ball to the leg side all the time.

3. As a connected point: I tried to swing as late as possible, almost languidly, as though the only intent was to make good contact, rather than hitting the ball a long way.

4. In my head, I had a snapshot of the toe of the bat still quite close to the ground pretty far through the delivery, my right hand close to my right pad flap, with my body lined up as though I was going to play a conventional off-side shot.

In summary, when it was all in sync (not always the case!), I tried to take steps towards the position that Mark Waugh achieved so effortlessly and naturally. It was when I diverted from side-on technique - over-hitting, becoming one-dimensionally leg-sided and swinging too early - that I scored more slowly. One of my limitations as a one-day player was losing rhythm and effectiveness as I tried to hit harder later in the innings.

Bailey's new stance may look strange. But the strategy behind it is perfectly rational. As batting evolves, some batsmen will continue to open up and clear the front leg. But others (like Bailey) should follow the more sideways tradition of batsmanship. There is always more than one solution to the problems posed by cricket.

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

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