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Middle-and-off guards: ace or fad?

Adam Hollioake, Mark Butcher, Graham Gooch and Rikki Clarke weigh in

Cameron Ponsonby
Graham Gooch chats with Alastair Cook in the nets, England v Australia, 5th Investec Test, The Oval, August 20, 2013

Graham Gooch: "The trick is to take the good information and discard the rest"  •  Gareth Copley/Getty Images

This summer a debate broke out in English cricket over the trend for players to increasingly take guard on off stump - as opposed to the more traditional middle stump. It has been a changing of the guard literally and figuratively. Players from yesteryear scratched their heads in informed disagreement or out-of-touch bemusement (delete as applicable).
As broadcasters, Michael Atherton, Nasser Hussain and Mark Butcher have come to be known for their praise of the modern game. There's something wonderful about seeing players we idolised very recently sharing our marvel and astonishment at the feats of modern cricketers.
Which is why their recent segment on Sky discussing the technical shift was surprising. "I couldn't do that" had been replaced with "I wouldn't do that", sparking a discussion over the validity of the technique, and also highlighting cricket's complicated relationship with change.
We glorify and idolise the past through nostalgia-tinted glasses, and yet, in a sport that has accelerated so dramatically over the past 20 years with the advent of T20, what room is there, really, for former players in modern-day debates? You wouldn't ask Gramps to help you set up your iPhone, so why ask him how to bat?
"It is in stark contrast to what we were taught," says a former team-mate of the three, and current Queensland batting coach Adam Hollioake, "so it is very hard to understand. And when I first saw it, I thought, 'That's absolute nonsense.' And it was only when I actually went down and had a go on the bowling machine that I thought - holy s**t, this is the answer."
A technique for England?
"Because of the career I've had," says Surrey allrounder Rikki Clarke, "21 years in the game, I've seen both sides of it."
Clarke started his career batting on leg stump and is now over on middle and off. In his opinion, wickets are livelier than they were previously, with more grass being left on them. "Because it's doing a little bit more, I'll go over [towards off]," he says. "Then leave outside the line of off stump and trust your defence."
"If you go onto leg stump, you're vulnerable to playing at balls you don't need to play at, which brings in the caught-behind, and also because the ball is doing so much, you're also going to potentially get bowled through the gate."
It's a strategy that not everyone agrees with.
"The reason the guys are doing it in England," says Mark Butcher, "is because they think it's a solution to the moving ball. And I say it's the entire opposite."
Butcher's argument is that if the ball is swinging and seaming all over the place, the "last thing you want to be doing is standing in front of all three sticks". He references the number of times that a batter who uses a regular guard will curse themselves for missing out on a ball that just clips their pads and goes down the leg side as a missed opportunity for runs. However, if you're batting on off stump and that same ball just clips your pad? "Well, now you're standing in front of the stumps. And that's called lbw." Another factor in the debate is that the bowler in England is able to bowl the ball behind you. "They can start the ball off on leg stump and also start the ball a foot outside off stump and still be accurate. Now that can't be right."
It also stands in direct contrast to the approach 20 years ago of covering for excessive movement. Butcher says that in his time, batters when confronted with a particularly difficult wicket would take guard further towards leg stump as opposed to off stump. This way you'd keep your pads out of the way and then throw your hands at anything with width.
It's a solution that Azhar Ali, who just played his third season for Somerset as an overseas player, is familiar with. Ali says that the two main lessons he has learnt from batting in England are about scoring quickly and keeping the pads out of the way.
"It just nibbles a bit. In Pakistan and the subcontinent we like to get the front foot out early because the bounce is very low. But in England you need to make sure you don't commit too early and don't get across too much."
Ali too doesn't mind where a player starts from. But if that front pad gets out in front of you too early, you're in trouble.
And players have been getting in trouble. Lbws have been on the rise, up to 20.8% in 2021 (at the time of writing) from a low of 15.9% in 2013. And while that is to be expected, as being out lbw is the greatest risk associated with the technique, you would also expect (or hope) to see the percentage of bowleds and caught-behinds going down, given they are the modes of dismissal the technique is designed to protect against.
But this hasn't been the case. Ball-by-ball data for the County Championship exists from 2010 and since then, the proportion of caught-behinds has remained stable at 17%, while that of bowleds has fluctuated slightly but for the most part has remained at around 16%. The glimmer of hope for batters using the new technique is that "caught others" has gone down. From a peak in 2014 of 35.17% in 2013 to 29.24% in 2021 (the average since 2010 is 33.06%). That statistic doesn't distinguish between people being caught in slips or at midwicket. But it could, could, mean fewer people are nicking off to the slips while using the technique.
An elite technique
Listening to Graham Gooch talk about batting is how I imagine a Portuguese person feels listening to a conversation in Spanish. It sounds familiar but it's ultimately still a different language. The points he makes differ slightly from those in the conversations you'd have with your team-mate or club coach.
On the topic of changes in technique, Gooch is perceptive in more ways than you might expect a scorer of 9000 Test runs and one-time England lead batting coach to be. This is because Gooch was an early adopter of a once maligned but now common batting technique, where you'd hold your bat in the air as the bowler ran in - as opposed to the traditional method of resting it on the ground. The stories go that people scoffed that he was playing baseball rather than cricket. Not that Gooch remembers.
"They may have made a comment, but they didn't make too much of a comment because instantly I was hitting the ball straighter and having more success."
Which is, in and of itself, the point here. The current debate around off-stump guards is continuing because the season averages for top-seven batters in the last three years of the County Championship have been among the four lowest-averaging years since 2010. Had the technique opened the floodgates for thousands of runs being scored, we'd be heralding the irresistible evolution of the game, but as it happens, we're sitting here arguing about it instead.
As Jos Buttler and others have pointed out, some players are scoring runs using the technique. Namely, some of the best in the world, such as Kane Williamson, Steven Smith and Marnus Labuschagne.
However, is that warrant enough for other people to attempt to emulate them, saying, if it's good enough for them, it's good enough for me? Or is it rather that the technique isn't, in fact, good enough for those top players, they are just good enough for it? As Hollioake says: "The technique's an excellent one if you do it well. But it's a horrible one if you do it wrong."
He emphasises that as a strategy, standing on middle and off fine-tunes both the batter's and the bowler's margin for error. If the batter is on top of the world, as the very best almost always seem to be, the bowler's margin for error is just a single stump. Fourth stump and away is an easy leave, middle stump and in and it's straying into the pads for four runs. That said, for the batter, the margin for error is so slender that you simply can't miss the ball - which the likes of Smith and Williamson very rarely do.
"It's Tyson Fury saying that Deontay Wilder is a one-trick pony," explains Hollioake. "He's got one shot and if I avoid that, he can't beat me. I tend to suggest that being able to knock someone out with one punch is a bloody good trick, but when you're that elite, you have to approach that fight with that mentality of saying, 'He just won't hit me and I've just to look out for that one thing.' It's kind of the same with this technique. You've got to have an eye like a dead fish, and you've got to say, 'If they bowl the ball at the stumps, well... I won't miss it.'"
This might feel unjust: the best batters, who already have an advantage over the rest of us, also have access to this magical technique, and it turns out only they are good enough to use it well, which then improves their game even further.
Less is more
Jacob Collier is a 27-year-old musician, the first British artist to have received a Grammy Award for each of their first four albums. The New York Times described him as a "staggering musical prodigy", and "wizardly". On YouTube there is a video of Collier discussing the idea of "less is more".
He recalls playing the drums in his school concert band and overcomplicating the part to the detriment of everyone else.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, everyone stop," says the teacher. "Jacob. Less is more."
"Less is only more once you know what more is," Collier said. "And then you can make a conscious decision to step back from that."
In much the same vein, Clarke's one regret over the course of his career was that he tinkered too much and didn't keep it simple. Gooch hammered home the notion that when it comes to technique, the simpler the better. Azhar's main desire from a coach is that their advice should be simple. Butcher found success by going back to basics.
These are the cries of men who know what more is, and that less is superior. But they are also the words of men who have the privilege of hindsight.
"It's interesting because I look at players," says Hollioake, "and when I'm talking to them, I feel like sometimes they think that I'm talking to them because I think I'm so knowledgeable and that I think I was amazing. Well, no, I'm doing it because when I look back at myself, I was like, 'Oh my god, that's horrible, how did I ever allow myself to bat like that? I didn't have the knowledge that I have now. I guess with coaching, that comes with getting older and wiser."
Both Hollioake and Butcher agree that batters face a mental challenge with coming to terms with never being able to be perfect. There is always something they can be working on. What if your back foot pointed towards point instead of cover point? If you cocked your wrists at the moment of delivery? If you went back and across rather than using a forward press? If you had your hands that bit higher, your weight that bit lower, your stance that bit wider…
With all this potential for change, how do you maintain a commitment to simplicity?
"The trick is," says Gooch, "to take the good information. And discard the rest." While this may seem elementary, the ability to choose when to listen and what to listen to is, perhaps, not even a trick, but the crucial skill.
Old equals wise? Not always
For current players, there are numerous reasons why you might not consider former generations as the best source of information for your game. Thirty years ago David Lloyd, who is by no means a po-faced traditionalist, described the reverse sweep as, "like Manchester United getting a penalty and Bryan Robson taking it with his head."
The game has improved rapidly across the board, nowhere more than in white-ball batting, where there are many examples of why current players could be within their rights to turn to past generations and say, "Tell you what, mate, if I ever want to know how to pat back Mark Ealham for an afternoon whilst on a hangover, then I'll give you a bell."
But taking an off-stump guard in longer-form cricket is different. For all that cricket and batting have changed, red-ball batting is an area where things have not changed as much as elsewhere. That still requires some old-school skills. Yes, Hussain never scooped 90mph, Butcher never struck at 180, Atherton never put the ball 100m back over the bowler's head. But they all played county cricket, excelled at it, and ended up captaining the Test side.
"There's not a single one of us in that conversation who does not marvel at the extraordinary ball-striking and strike rates of the modern players," says Butcher. "However, Test match cricket is still the same game; it really hasn't moved on that much. If you're going to go out there and score a hundred or take wickets, the basics of holding a line and length for a long time, or being able to concentrate and play straight and keep out the moving ball - all of those things are the same as they were 20 years ago and the same as they were 40 years ago. People might score quicker, but other than that, it's the same."
The technique is a plan, as much as anything
Overall, there are two things here when it comes to middle-and-off guards. The technique as it is suited to playing in England. And the technique as it is suited to the elite performer. And it's entirely possible that it can be the latter without being the former.
Hollioake's general impression is that it's a technique to be approached with caution, but if you're good enough, go for it. For Butcher, it's a technique to be avoided in England, but if you're playing abroad and good enough, go for it. Gooch and Azhar were ambivalent, leaving it to the individual. Clarke is currently using it.
The key thing mentioned by all was having the ability to adapt, and to think of the technique as a plan as much as anything. The way you bat is your technique, where you bat is your plan. And the best in the game can change the latter to best suit conditions while keeping the former the same or as simple as possible.
At the time of the Sky broadcast earlier in the summer, it looked like Atherton and Co were out of touch. But what seemed like out-of-touch bemusement came to look like informed disagreement. Yes, when analysing the white-ball game, former players are almost fans in the same way we are, but when it comes to the red ball, their achievements and insights are undeniably relevant to modern cricket. The challenge for current players when listening to those from a previous generation is to take the good information and discard the rest.

Cameron Ponsonby is a freelance cricket writer in London. @cameronponsonby