Batting at the top

There has been a lot of scrutiny (again) this year of Somerset's top order. Julian Wyatt returns for his first piece of the year to look at how batting techniques and mindsets have changed and explain what we are seeing in red ball cricket.

It goes without saying that facing the new ball is the hardest role any batsman can be asked to play in cricket. Yes, we witnessed ‘trial by spin’ this winter and of course, that is a huge challenge. However, such challenges are periodic and generally only required on trips to India and Taunton (but probably not any more because the opposition didn’t like it)!

To make the challenge greater, the ECB have chosen to subject opening batters and top order batters in general to juicy early April / May playing surfaces. It’s a hard life for bowlers. This would be okay if the mid-summer batsman friendly pitches were reserved for more four-day cricket. Sadly not as T20 and The Hundred will take centre stage in the prime batting months. Therefore, through this phase, the top order batter either a) invents new strokes and goes boundary seeking, b) plays some mildly challenging twos cricket or c) works on their golf. 

In late August and early September the top order batter returns to the four-day game to seek an end of season flurry of runs to compensate for their early season frustrations. Only, they find the pace has been exhausted from the pitches and their mid-season second eleven haul is long forgotten. Does this seem fair? The poor bowlers…

No of course it isn’t that bad and in the midst of April we have seen many a batter compile outstanding scores. Good players with decent techniques and an approach where time in the middle is accepted and respected, will always score runs. The sad thing is that these attributes are becoming ever more rare. The game of cricket is slowly (well not all that slowly) moving towards an attitude where run rates are all that matters, not how many, but how quick. This mindset filters down into junior development cricket, where players and coaches expect batters to clatter along at a run a ball (minimum) irrespective of the situation, state of the pitch, quality of the bowlers or conditions. Coaches run sessions where the batter has to retire if they fail to score off of three consecutive deliveries. When did that become a rule? I have genuinely known players score single figures in an innings yet be happy with their contribution because their strike rate was above 100! 

And this is all a result of the game that is being sold to us now. The money is in the short formats and therefore the focus of technique is bound to be on the short format. Some coaches will still target the county championship separately, as Somerset have done. They will identify players who appreciate time to bat, to supplement a strong bowling attack. After all, no matter how good your batters are, you won’t win the championship without quality bowlers. But your batters must take greater responsibility to give their bowlers the luxury of runs to apply the relevant pressure on their opponent.

We have seen great teams over the years exercise this approach – the 1980s West Indians and 2000s Australians have been better than most in my time. Bat long, bat big, be greedy and give your bowlers time to exploit weaknesses in their opposition. The top order should be selected to score the bulk of the team’s runs. If they don’t, why don’t they? The team should have a collective plan. Bat long, bat big, be greedy! Roles should be discussed and understood. It really is that simple. If the top order don’t understand the plan, or fail to apply themselves to it, then the top order has to change, not the plan!  

The short format has filtered down the age groups and as I have mentioned manifests itself in the problems I witness in junior development. It takes a very strong coach to stick to the values they grew up with. However, at the top end there is so much short form cricket, something has to give. I played in an era where we played a one-day game in the middle of a championship game. It may sound odd, but technically it wasn’t easy adapting from one form to another from one day to the next. But, more than technically, it was harder tactically, having to apply your skills in a totally different manner. In fairness, the one-day game was different then. We still used a red ball, you might still have seen slips and many batters still considered a time phase to ‘get their eye in’. We didn’t have so many fielding restrictions, with so many early innings run scoring carrots and boundaries were genuinely boundaries, so, therefore lower scores were more common, but as in any era, par was par and great games were still evident. They were just different. Most importantly, they were still a decent contest between bat and ball more often than not.

The modern one-day game is very different. Flat wickets, balls without gloss and small seams. Fielding restrictions that benefit the batter, laws that doubly penalise the bowler. Yes, the poor bowler indeed has an axe to grind now. The excitement factor now is geared towards a ball landing in a group of people stood fifty to sixty meters away. And it doesn’t matter how the ball arrives there.

Th effect of all this is that something has to give. Do batters pursue a majority skill set that is suited to the one-day game, or longer form? Let me think? TV coverage, more money, crowds (when allowed), coloured clothing, glitz, glamour or …? Young developing batters with a natural aptitude for the long form of the game are finding it harder to break through. What is their choice? Players develop at differing rates. How many small, but technically sound players are excluded years before their time? A young player that can clear a boundary has much greater value, irrespective of whether they can bat or not. I’ve watched many young players score runs in T20 style games and yet I leave the game still wondering if they can bat. I know they can ‘hit the ball’, but there’s a difference. 

So, if the conditions favour the bowler just slightly in long form cricket, it’s rare to see a battling innings. It’s rare to see players adapt to the conditions. It’s rare to see batters adapt their range of stroke options. I listened to a game last season (Warwickshire v Gloucestershire I think) where one side was seven wickets down and playing for a draw. The number eight slog swept to deep mid-wicket and was caught – playing for a draw? I imagined the scenario if I or any other player had done that several years ago. I wondered what the reception in the dressing room may have been? I won’t use expletives! 

For me there were two things that summed up the modern game in that one dismissal. 1. What sort of shot is that to play when you are trying to save a game? Yes, try to score runs, but use some brain power whilst trying to achieve that and 2. Why did the opposition even have a deep mid-wicket? Because they expect stupidity? And, my guess is that when the player re-entered the dressing room, rather than “what the….”, they were probably told, “bad luck, you nearly cleared him”!

Yes, times change, but we don’t have to be lazy and loaded with excuses whilst its happening do we? 

I played with top order batters whose first mindset was ‘value your wicket’ and if batters don’t, then don’t expect them to apply themselves to challenging situations. I asked Steve Waugh once what his key approaches to batting were and he replied that he had two. 1. Never give your wicket away in training and 2. The only ball that matters is the next one. 

It really is that simple. If you train to get out, don’t be disappointed when that eventuality is achieved…