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Mark Nicholas

To be decisive and confident as a batsman, you don't need to always be attacking

Joe Root prefers his players express themselves rather than retreat into their shells; the interpretation of how to do so is critical

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
"England are not a bad team but in Barbados and Antigua they played bad cricket. Here in St Lucia, England have played good cricket and thoroughly deserved to win," said Matt Prior on TalkSport radio soon after Keemo Paul was caught and bowled by Ben Stokes to end the Test match. Sounds simple, which it kind of is. And isn't.
Undoubtedly it is a mistake to begin an overseas tour without any competitive first-class matches. The longer this continues - and it will, because the hectic schedule of the soon-to-be-launched World Test Championship has stretched everyone from pillar to post - the more likely it is that home advantage will determine outcomes. With that will come predictable results and an inevitable indifference from fans who see the unpredictability of sport as it most appealing attraction. One day down the track it will be obvious enough that the game became careless with its most precious asset. Test cricket needs time and patience, preparation, application and commitment. The minute Test cricket is taken for granted is the minute that it disappears from our grasp.
England did not come to the Caribbean with a deliberate plan to regard the three-match Test series against West Indies lightly but neither did the players arrive in Barbados ready for the hard yakka that would have allowed them to adjust from surprising success in Sri Lanka to stiff competition at the Kensington Oval. They could have played a four-day warm-up match but instead the management chose two two-day knockabouts to "give everyone a hit". What they needed was one four-day match against the full Barbados team and another against a West Indies A team or the equivalent. That way, many of the mistakes made in the first two Tests would already have been made far from the madding crowd. Shocked by the capability and grit in Jason Holder's team, England were playing catch-up from the outset and never caught up.
The corollary of a decisive and confident mindset is that more things are possible - it's the glass-half-full principle, as against the glass-half-empty approach that has lingered around English cricket for so long
Most of the criticism has been fired at the batsmen, who, until Joe Root's well organised hundred in St Lucia on Monday, have been unable to stay at the crease long enough to ask any challenging questions of the West Indian attack. First on the list of requirements for a batsman is to stay in; to preserve his wicket so that runs will come of it. The very best players put a price on this, one so high that when that wicket is taken, bowlers and fielders wildly celebrate.
Succeeding at Test cricket over any period is not a thing you can fluke. At various stages in just about everyone's career, the challenges set by mind and body will become overwhelming. Like nothing else in sport, the journey of batting - a journey that can be scuppered in one single, wretched ball - can all too easily toy with clear thinking and therefore mess with competent responses, the result of which is sure to be failure. Dealing with failure is complicated and needs a deeper understanding of the root problem than is usually applied. Why? Because there is no time. A few days after humiliation in Barbados, England were losing the toss in Antigua. It was a difficult pitch. Put in to bat, the resulting total of 187 was almost inevitable.
English batting is on this journey. Once the domain of doughty, if often dull, professionals, it is now the home of adventure. This began with Eoin Morgan's recalibration of the one-day team's ambition after the disastrous 2015 World Cup campaign and reached a jaw-dropping level of expectation with Root's throw-off-the-shackles Test match approach in Sri Lanka late last year. The thing is, Root knew what he was looking for and had the mind and body to pull it off. Others, less secure and less gifted, were stuck between that rock and the hard place. From hugely vulnerable positions in both Galle (103 for 5) and Kandy (94 for 4) wonderful batting by Ben Foakes and Sam Curran in Galle and then Jos Buttler and Curran, again, in Kandy saved the day. It is no coincidence that Foakes and Curran have the freshest minds and Buttler the freest spirit. In the second innings in Kandy, Root made the exquisite hundred that set up victory and secured the series win, but deep down he must have known he had sailed close to the wind on both occasions.
What he wants, one imagines, is a group of players who bat without the weight of public expectation and media analysis hanging over them. He is not so much advocating gung-ho as he is free spirit. Obviously enough, the method of all-out attack used so successfully by the one-day team cannot be replicated in Test matches but his point that batting time doesn't win Test matches is a message that Test matches are set up by the amount of runs on the scoreboard not the time it takes to put them there. In other words, he would prefer his players to express themselves rather than retreat into their shells. The interpretation of how to do so is critical. The corollary of a decisive and confident mindset is that more things are possible - it's the glass-half-full principle, as against the glass-half-empty approach that has lingered around English cricket for so long.
In the 1950s, Denis Compton and then Fred Trueman brought this attitude to the England team without ever advocating it publicly. In the 1960s it was Ted Dexter and, to a degree, John Snow, who refused to revert to type. Tony Greig was pretty much single-handed in his brave vision and inspirational leadership during the 1970s, and come the 1980s, Ian Botham led the way with an almost wild abandon (remember Mike Brearley on the balcony at Headingley in 1981, urging him to hit it harder and further) while David Gower was not so far behind Botham's carefree exploits. As the names suggest, you have to be a pretty sensational cricketer to pull this off. The introspection that gripped the team in the 1990s - notwithstanding Darren Gough's admirable efforts to break it down - hung around until Michael Vaughan's imaginative captaincy allowed Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen to take us on a fantastical ride.
Of course, England have won many Test matches and series with a more conservative approach than the one pursued by the players referred to above. Micky Stewart and Graham Gooch, for example, came together as coach and captain to bring discipline and clear thinking of a different kind to the England team. Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss were not so different 20 years later.
Root was quick to point out that four Test matches out of six had been won this winter - "a big improvement on last winter", he said. True, but not winning in the Caribbean will hurt for a while yet. Good as the West Indians have been, it is a series Root will have fancied.
By the law of unintended consequences, England's batting came together with greater conviction in St Lucia and gave the bowlers something from which to feed - so much so that on the fourth morning Jimmy Anderson was close to animalistic in his pursuit of the West Indian top order. Consecutive defeats motivated the batsmen to revise their approach, which led to some interesting responses. Put in to bat on the first morning, Rory Burns, Keaton Jennings and Joe Denly fought to occupy the crease, and in so doing, created breathing space for the middle order. They were lucky that West Indies bowled so wide of the stumps but are to be credited for their bloody-mindedness. In total, the three of them made 57 runs, hitting just four boundaries: it wasn't much but it wasn't easy. By the time Stokes and Buttler were in partnership, the hardness had gone from the ball and a little of the sting had been removed from the West Indian attack. They added 125 together with a beautifully simple arrangement of the myriad skills that make up the art of batting.
A man scores a hundred one day and nought the next. This is wicked, it is unkind, but it is tempting and it is exhilarating. Raise your bat once and you will ache to do so again
Stokes said he had wound the clock back to the innings of his early days as an England cricketer and resolved to feel that freedom of expression again; Buttler played the ball on it merit. Yes, the meltdown reared its ugly head again after Buttler lost his hobs to Shannon Gabriel and six were sent packing for 45, but it was a pitch on which wickets could fall suddenly and quickly, and did. In the second innings, Denly proved the worth of his selection with some lovely driving and cutting, Root crafted a fine hundred, Buttler passed fifty with more of the first-innings method, and Stokes thumped the tired bowlers with relish. Though this was not revenge - not close - there was an element of redemption in it all.
England are not alone in the meltdown effect. Ask Australia. The age of T20 has changed attitudes and levels of concentration, whether consciously or subconsciously. It remains a fact that batting is fragile. One minute you have it, the next it is gone. That single ball will undo hours, days, weeks of preparation. For sure, batting is not to be trusted. It is played out on the edge of nerves, examining character, exploring personality and exposing vulnerability. A man scores a hundred one day and nought the next. This is wicked, it is unkind, but it is tempting and it is exhilarating. Raise your bat once and you will ache to do so again.
Of course batting is craft that has evolved over a couple of centuries. Film of WG Grace in the nets does not tell us much, other than how different the game was back then. The same can be said about grainy footage of Jack Hobbs, although 199 first-class hundreds must count for something. Photographs at the MCG of Walter Hammond and Bill Ponsford remind us that many of the pitches of the day were barely identifiable from the outfields, and therefore the balance between bat and ball was far less weighted in favour of batsmen than it is today. In 1937 the lbw law changed so that bowlers could trap a batsman in front by pitching the ball outside off stump and bringing it back into his pads. Previously the ball had to pitch on the stumps and be going on to hit them, which takes some bowling. Imagine the hurried changes to technique upon the introduction of that new law.
This evolution has been slow and precise. Batsmen have responded to the equipment, conditions, formats and public demand with rhythms of their own. Only of late has the evolution become revolution. In T20 cricket, sixes are like confetti. In Test matches, hundreds are sometimes scored at better than a run a ball. At Newlands three years ago, Stokes and Jonny Bairstow put on 399 at nearly seven an over. A few days later, a 15-year-old Indian made 1009 in one innings over two afternoons. Not even Sachin Tendulkar did that.
Here are some words I wrote soon after that extraordinary assault in Cape Town, though not relating directly to it...
"The bats are bigger and better, the men using them are stronger, the pitches are flatter, the balls do precious little, the boundaries are shorter and the coaches and captains grant a licence as never before. It is a wonderful time to bat.
While Test cricket maintains its place at the top table, we can be reasonably assured of an ongoing reference to the techniques that have made batting an art form. A good, relatively orthodox method is adaptable for all forms of the game and is a reason why cricket remains aesthetically appealing, even as we have moved from touch and timing into this era of brutality. Kohli and de Villiers have crossed this divide with élan. Others, such as Joe Root, are not far behind.
But batting is moving so fast it is hard to predict what will come next. The nature of cricket has always led to one inherent fear: the fear of failure. T20 all but eliminates this for batsmen. It is near impossible to be bowled out in 20 overs and therefore the currency of wickets has lost value.
A couple of years back Kevin Pietersen and I were talking about risk. Well, I was. He just laughed. He said I was missing the point and that he didn't care about getting out, only that he had given himself the chance to do something different. He added: "As long as I prepare well and play to my ability, everything will take care of itself. Either way, the sun will come up in the morning." Such an attitude is incomprehensible to players brought up in an age when the preservation of your wicket was a life-long pursuit."
The key phrase here is "pitches are flatter'. They were then, they aren't now. How quickly the game changes. I haven't seen a flat Test match pitch since Melbourne on Boxing Day 2017. The livelier pitches are making for tremendously entertaining Test match cricket, as bowlers are back on level terms and batsmen have been caught napping. In both the recent South Africa-Pakistan series and this one here in the Caribbean, the ball has swung too, allowing old and alluring skills to re-engage with the game.
If batting is to remain artistic, it cannot become easy and neither should it be reduced to the lowest common denominator. Artists make their achievements look easy but it is the thousands of hours of exploration, experimentation, practice and rehearsal that make perfect. Not even in batting is there pleasure without pain. The art of batting is a beautiful journey and, when clearly thought through, can lead to a beautiful result. This beauty holds its place in our heart even at a time when all roads point to change. It is why there is an immense responsibility as we search to modernise a game that has its roots in the past. After all, it is the roots that define it.
Granted, a mighty question mark remains over England's front three but from four to eight in the order, and including Foakes and Curran, there is an array of exceptional talent that has only to think clearly and honestly in adapting to both circumstances and conditions. Individually they should be less worried about where they bat than how they bat, and a long look in the mirror would solve many of the problems encountered here in the Caribbean. Ultimately, buying into Root's ideology is about self-appraisal and selflessness. Everyone has their limitations, understanding them is the trick. It is just possible that St Lucia came in the nick of time to influence this. Time will tell.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK