Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Slinging Goliath

Oh, the press are full of it this morning.

Gussy Fraser, as always, has produced an interesting article on England’s chances against Sri Lanka.His argument is that the Sri Lankan’s unorthodox method endows a flamboyance that provides the team with an edge in ODIs. Whereas England’s players are “over-coached”, making them too rigid and uncreative to excel at limited overs cricket.

“English cricket is continuously attempting to find reasons why the national side is not competitive in the one-day game. The quality of pitches and the scheduling of limited-over matches in domestic cricket are cited as reasons, but another widely held view is that it is a result of batsman being over-coached. Facing thousands of balls from a bowling machine and being told to play with a straight bat will tighten up a batsman’s technique, but there is a real danger that it turns him into a robot, possessing neither the flair nor the instinct to perform the unpredictable.”

I have spoken previously on this issue: I argued, and still believe, that talk of “England’s natural game” is nonsense. Technique applies to any version of the game. England are rubbish at all forms of cricket at the moment. That's why they're losing ODIs.

However, this issue of “unpredictability” is interesting. It stems, in the main, from bowling at the death. A bowler must surprise the batsman in the closing overs, as consistency can allow the batsman to get into position early. This issue was made more obvious with the advent of twenty20. Every ball, every stroke and every fielding position had to have some innovative element if you wanted to exert control. The MCC manual limited the realm of run-scoring opportunities, so had to be ditched for pressing expediency.

This slightly panicked attitude has, through osmosis, transferred into 50-over cricket. The mantra is now “runs anyway, anyhow and now”, and consequently fielding teams respond by also moving to the unorthodox to jar a batsman’s concentration and drag them out of their comfort zone. Yet, this is not a sustainable strategy over the longer period; unusual bowlers like John Iverson, Paul Adams and even Lasith Malinga eventually lose their novelty and therefore their impact. Once they are “found out” a key part of their threat is diffused, as Michael Vaughan stated today:

“Not many of us have faced [Malinga] but they tell me the first few deliveries are a little bit strange and if you get over them there are plenty of scoring opportunities.”

If bowlers are putting their energies into originality, once this has worn off, what do they have left? Darren Gough, in today’s Metro, says Malinga is:

“exciting to watch purely because he is very different. But I think he’s nothing for our boys to really worry about. I’m sure there are a lot better bowlers in the world than Malinga. In fact there are a lot better bowlers in Sri Lanka than Malinga. Chaminda Vass for one.”

The same Vaas who bowls orthodox and consistent medium-fast stuff for years and still takes wickets.

Those names that survive are those with the quality techniques. Sanath Jayasuriya, for all his panache, has a Test average of over 40, with a top score of 340. You don’t hit 14 Test hundreds by reverse sweeping all day.

I have already told the ECB how they can win, but I feel that England should have the confidence to stick to their game plan, and not become bededazzled by the ephemeral charms of the unconventional. Talk of pinch-hitters up the order, altering tested techniques is distracting and potentially destabilising to an already dubious outfit. But, by the very fact that such fundamental restructurings are being discussed at this juncture does not bode well. Gussy to finish:

“These plans should have been thought through months ago but, as is the case with England and one-day cricket, they appear to be winging it.”

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