Wow, what a fantastic start to the season for batters. Thirty-six first-class centuries had been made before we began the third round of four-day matches. It looks like the counties have responded to the call to arms from Sir Andrew Strauss following another abysmal batting display from an England touring team over the winter.
With numerous teams scoring in excess of 400 dare we dream that red-ball cricket may become prioritised and respected again? And after day one of round three, only one side has yet to have a centurion, now that Tom Abell has scored his team’s first. With an unbeaten 150 and a second-innings half-century we all hope that Tom will continue this form for the rest of the season forcing England to consider him very seriously.
As far as the overall red ball numbers go, I don’t think we (I) should over-react just yet. On day one of round three, despite there being barely any rain since round two, and with that an assumption (rightly or wrongly) that pitches will be behaving reasonably well, only one team managed a score in excess of 300 on day one. How long will it take for teams to revert to the type of scoreboards we have become used to over the past few (too many) years?
What is most fascinating for me, although it won’t help those who dislike the fact that the county championship all but ‘book-ends’ the English cricket season (me included), is that these runs have been scored in April. Hang on a minute…. what happened to the argument that batters couldn’t possibly score big runs at such a bowler-friendly time of the year? Batters will always give themselves a chance to score runs if their mind is applied to that one task. Not how, but how many.
I met up with Tom Abell for a coffee on his return from Australia. We chatted about numerous things, but one of the key things we focussed on was developing the habit of batting for sixty or seventy overs before worrying about runs on the scoreboard.
My view is that the only relevant part of the scoreboard in a four day game in a team’s first innings, is how many wickets they have lost. The batting line-up is set up with the best batters occupying the top half of the order. So, if these batters are no longer at the crease when the bowlers are beginning to tire, who is maximising the situation? The structure of the modern game is to pick six specialist number six batters and supplement this with some middle and lower order ball strikers. Many of who regularly rescue their teams.
What seems to be overlooked is that, a bowler tires less quickly when wickets are falling (given away) and is encouraged by the sight of new batters (whatever their threat) coming to the crease. Positive motivation is an enormous factor in performance. Taking wickets is an enormously motivating factor in bowlers extending their performance. Have batters forgotten this?
How disheartening is it for a bowler to return for their second or third spell in the knowledge that they are going to bowl to the same batter that they did in their first? Do batters set out with this plan in mind? If not, why not? Is it spoken about in team dressing rooms today? If not, why not? Of course, very few batters will achieve this consistently, we aren’t robots, however, if we don’t set out with this plan in mind, it’s very likely we won’t actually achieve the long innings outcome very often at all.
The white ball (sorry, had to mention it) format has been both criticised and used as an excuse. Fifty (55/60) over cricket has been in the county system for many years and teams/players coped fine. Indeed the structure of county cricket for many years was to play a 40 0ver Sunday League game between the first and second days of a three day County championship game.
Twenty20 was introduced in the early 2000s. It is since then that the demand on skills has become such that game management has increased in difficulty. Habits are exactly that and where players are expected to train innovative skills more often, these skills eventually take precedence over what we may consider more traditional skills. The batters habits will change.
Whatever anybody wishes to argue, white-ball cricket is prioritised by our governing body. Players will understandably react accordingly. What has become created is a new breed of batter that plays cricket with a cluttered mind. Even if we separate red-ball cricket time phases (April / May / late Aug / Sept / Oct – sigh…) from white-ball cricket time phases (late May / June / July / early Aug), players are expected to manage their games in a manner that previous eras didn’t.
Evidence shows us that very few players appear capable of managing these demands effectively – at any level. Kane Williamson and Virat Kholi may be the only two real exceptions. Joe Root’s red ball skills transfer adequately into fifty over games, but less so in T20s. Jos Buttler’s white-ball skills seem to limit his success in red-ball cricket. These guys are outstanding cricketers, yet even they find it incredibly hard translating their skills between different coloured balls. So why should we expect lesser able cricketers to achieve consistency over all formats?
Joe Root and Jos will have been educated on a diet of structure and sound basics. Jos added greater innovation to his game, which he clearly adapted to incredibly well. However, due to the excess white-ball cricket fed to us (rammed down our throats?), player development and education has moved away from that structure and basics. In fact, if there is a sport that focuses less on basics now, I would like to know which sport it is.
Sir Andrew Strauss wants more change. It will take time and if attention isn’t focused on the developing player it won’t make a jot of difference how many county championship runs are scored in April 2022.
If the adult player is finding it difficult to manage their games, then how can we expect the junior player to? The argument that, if they are developed on these skills, they will have a larger toolbox is utter nonsense. There is a sound argument that practice makes perfect. There is a sound argument that ten thousand repetitions will lead to excellence. How much time do we have though? If every skill takes ten thousand repetitions, or needs to be practiced enough to create perfection, how much time do we need?
The old adage, a good player has four trusted strokes, the great player has three, has never been more relevant. The player with three has a less cluttered mind than the player with four. It will have taken the player with three less time to reach excellence. The player with three will have great clarity of understanding of their strengths and how to apply them. The player with three will have a more sound structure on which to add necessary new skills – if they see fit.
The modern batter is tasked with learning many more than three skills. Is this fair? Who fails? The player or the coach? Who has the ‘walk of shame’ every time they are out? The player or the coach? Who takes responsibility? The player or the coach? Who loses their place because they don’t score enough runs? The player or the coach? It’s time for players to take truer responsibility. It’s your innings, it’s your game. As a coach, my advice to players is this – stop listening to your coach if your results aren’t good enough! It’s your game, own it.
If you’re happy being a ‘jack of all trades’ batter who masters nothing, that’s fine and let’s be fair T20 is showing that careers and a lot of money are very possible in this way. I recall a lad I coached for a while return from a stint with Surrey, where he was part of their academy. He wanted to practice power hitting and other T20 related skills. I asked “why”? to which he replied, “it’s what they do in the IPL and if I want to play there, it’s what I need to do”. The lad was talented. He never played a second eleven game, never mind the IPL. And this is the misleading development advice players are receiving. I don’t believe it’s fair and it angers me that the coaches are allowed to coach such failure without any apparent penalties.
So, I’m delighted to see so many runs scored in rounds one and two and I’m even more delighted to see Tom Abell do well this week. I look forward to more of the local lads following suit. However, it’s a long season white ball priorities will take precedence again soon, strike rates will return to the fore and shaping shots targeting three hundred and sixty degrees will clutter the minds again.
It’s not about whether players can play red-ball cricket, the real issue is whether they want to! If the governing body doesn’t want to make it important, why should anyone else? Fair play to Sir Andrew Strauss and good luck to him. The obstacles are many and he may have just found himself batting on a green seamer against Sir Richard Hadlee, Michael Holding and Glenn MacGrath in their pomp, which if he survives will morph into a spin-friendly surface where the late great Shane Warne awaits along with Muttiah Muralitharan. Yes, there’s a long way to go just yet before we can regard red-ball cricket as a success in England.
And as for how far cricket is prepared to go to downgrade its core status, that’s for another day. For now, what other sports bastardise their original version as much as cricket? Yes, sports evolve and of course they change to a degree, but cricket continues to position the original version as an afterthought. I will always recall the 1994 football world cup in the USA. There was a call from the USA to change the size of the goals so more goals will be scored ie more entertaining? Of course, FIFA refused immediately. What would the ICC have done? I dread to think…