Defining the proactive batsman

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It can be hard to read your own words. We don’t mean because of the quality of your handwriting (our penmanship has atrophied to the point that we’re reduced to using block capitals now). We mean that it’s impossible to read something you’ve written for meaning; to see the words with fresh eyes, without being aware of all the invisible thoughts that weren’t expressed.

This is why we have editors. They keep you honest. They point stuff out. This site doesn’t have an editor, of course. Instead, the role’s kind of fulfilled by those who leave comments. This is actually hugely useful in helping us clarify ideas which we may then use for pieces written as ‘work’, so thank you.

Lack of clarity

As a rule of thumb, if absolutely no-one know what the hell you’re going on about – that’s your fault, not theirs. Such was the case with our recent post about England’s reactive batting.

With hindsight, we made two major mistakes in that article. We described Gary Ballance as being “pretty meat-and-potatoes, three-an-over” and we also referred to Kevin Pietersen. Combined, these probably gave the impression that we wanted some reverse-sweeping six-hitter in the middle order, but that isn’t really the case.

Reacting to restrictive bowling

The thing we’re concerned about with England’s current batting line-up is that almost all of them are predisposed to playing the ball on its merits. This is almost universally regarded to be ‘a good thing’ when it comes to Test batsmanship, but it also results in passive, reactive batting.

This is okay, up to a point, but if the opposition adopt a restrictive bowling approach, it can lead to the kind of stagnation we frequently saw over the winter. Every ball is played on its merits and every ball merits either a leave or an honest, respectful defensive stroke.

Memories of the winter revolve around Mitchell Johnson’s assaults, but that’s largely because Mitch is a lot more fun to talk and write about. The rest of the time, Peter Siddle, Ryan Harris, Shane Watson and Nathan Lyon all adopted an essentially restrictive approach. It takes a very good attack to deliver such a thing properly, but when achieved, it ties a passive, reactive batsman down and, being as he is reactive, he will remain tied down until the bowlers change tack. If few runs are being scored, this might never happen.

Taking the initiative

This stagnation doesn’t happen against all sides, because more often than not, the opposition can’t rely on every single one of its bowlers – there’s usually a weak link. In such times, you can field 11 passive batsmen and still make a score. However, against better bowling attacks or against mediocre attacks on good days, every partnership can seem like a dead end.

The problem is that the only kind of counterattacking people seem to understand these days is the kind that involves huge swings of the bat. Against tight bowling, that’s a terrible approach. The runs are drying up precisely because these sorts of shots are high risk. What you need is a batsman who can find a way of scoring that is unlikely to result in the loss of their wicket. It still involves playing the ball on its merits, but with just a little bit less respect.

Some examples

Sticking with the Ashes, Brad Haddin tends to play proactively when wickets had fallen. However, Haddin’s approach is far more weighted towards chancing his arm for a period before settling down once the field is spread.

Ordinarily, his English counterpart, Matt Prior, is a proactive batsman. However, his approach is perhaps better suited to upping the run-rate, turning ones into twos and so forth.

Paul Collingwood fits the bill to some extent. He would often continue scoring singles even when supposedly better batsmen were struggling to get the ball off the square. However, he also become synonymous with the non-scoring rearguard for many people and so isn’t perhaps the best example.

The best example

That’s when we thought of Graham Thorpe. To us, he epitomised the proactive batsman. Crucially, he was not a slogger, so there can be no misconceptions that we mean ‘counterattacking’ in the narrow, modern sense.

Instead, when a partnership showed signs of stagnating, Thorpe would look to take the initiative using one of the approaches outlined above. He would seek out scoring areas, he would run hard and, if he thought it made sense, he could also spread the field with some big hits. The bowlers would be forced to change their approach and the partnership between Thorpe and his more passive partner would emerge from the cul-de-sac unscathed.

When we criticise England’s current batting line-up, these are the qualities we feel it is lacking. It’s not a weakness that will always be apparent (and perhaps one of the players will yet show that they have it in them to play proactively). However, when these shortcomings do become apparent, you can bank on a collapse.


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  1. I think Gary Ballance is quite proactive using your new definition. As is Joe Root. And Ben Stokes.

    They are all young, still honing their craft and (in one case) still learning that immovable objects can cause damage to fleshy unstoppable forces.

    1. Gary Ballance might be; Joe Root can be, but not necessarily when you need him to be; and Stokes isn’t playing.

    2. In fact an outright no to Root. When he was batting at three in the Ashes and England lost an early wicket, he was utterly passive. 15 off 80 balls in the second Test and 19 off 88 in the third.

      He does appear to have the wherewithal to play proactively, however. Hopefully this is something he’ll learn. He’s nobbut a bairn, after all.

    3. Joe Root will be too busy being captain to concentrate on his batting, the way Cook is going.

    4. I’ve moved on from the 2013/14 Ashes, KC. As has Team England, so we are told.

      I liked the look of Root and Ballance last week and believe, from what I have seen so far, that Stokes has got what it takes.

  2. This is what I like about this site. One moment it’s doing a comical article about the English captain’s urinating habits, and the next it’s doing a hard-hitting piece of analysis that the English management should probably read.

    Great stuff, KC. Some excellent points there. I look forward to your follow-up piece on the assumed size of Sam Robson’s genitals.

  3. I admire the way you’re trying to get ‘-manship’ to become a more popular suffix. Penmanship, batsmanship… That’s good, er, blogsmanship, that is.

  4. I always love being reminded of Graham Thorpe. Its too early for me to come up with anything intelligent to add to that really.

  5. I thought Root was pretty proactive during his 200 at Lord’s, particularly in picking up ones and twos. Don’t underestimate how much young players can learn and change their game within the space of a few months.

    1. Yep. Absolutely. We hope it happens.

      The only thing we’d say about the 200 is that England weren’t stalling when he came in. Bell was at the other end playing smoothly, so it’s not the same sort of a situation. What we’re talking about is when the opposition try and exploit the English reflex to try and ‘dig in’ when things are tough.

  6. The criteria for your “pro-active” batsman can often be met by the “unorthodox” batsman. Essentially the player who, despite good bowling and tight fields, can play a good length ball on off through backward square leg or belt an inswinging yorker through gully. This is how I think of players such as Sehwag, Pietersen or Laxman. Long may we see their unpredictable ilk.

    1. Perhaps as an extension of that: a “proactive” batsman is one who plays the ball on *his own* merits?

    2. We had a sentence in mind when we started writing this which was going to present our central point. We now realise it somehow never made it in.

      It was something along the lines of: Sometimes you want a batsman who plays the ball on its merits, but it’s also important to have at least one batsman who plays the match situation on its merits.

    3. Your Maj, I can think of plenty of batsmen, sadly none currently in England ranks, who have proven worthy of the epithet “proactive” by their refusal to be cowed into submission by the bowlers when everyone else has been forced quiet. They also go, sometimes unfairly, by such synonymous descriptions as: unorthodox, creative, grabber-of-the-game-by-the-scruff-of-the-neck, a getter-on-with-it, “imposing”, often (but not necessarily) “aggressive” or “inventive”, occasionally (when it comes off) “genius”, more-than-occasionally (though so soon we forgive) YOU STUPID *** WHAT THE **** DID YOU DO THAT FOR?!

      Their antonym-players, not mortal enemies but oft-times their great complements and partners in crimemanship, go by such by-words as “cautious”, “watchful”, “stodgy”, “correct”, “responsible” and “consolidator”.

      But what you are requiring now, with a player who responds to each ball in the context of the match situation, is perhaps a higher calling altogether. A foot in both camps, the best of both worlds, a truly *all-round* batsman. You need a talent capable of imposing their creative will upon the game even against quality bowling and fielding; a psyche capable when called upon of drawing deep reserves of patience, restraint and responsibility; a watertight technique when sustained application is required; a cricket-sense that can read a match and express their analysis in their play through the magic balance between internal destructive and defensive forces. (And not, as your Maj has correctly and repeatedly pointed out regarding various England players, a quasi-random oscillation between the two modes, frequently manifested as “defend – defend – self-destruct”.)

      I’m not sure the word “proactive” adequately captures these specifications. I might lean towards “flexible”, “versatile”, “adaptable” or plain old SELECT THAT MAN YOU BOZOS HE’S A GENIUS.

  7. is chris gayle for hire yet, then? … have we got there yet? (-!) he bats pretty proactively *above and before* we even need to do the epoch-defining “w.g. of t20” thing; it’s just the first thing you’d say – SUPER-proactive, *once* he decides to take charge, like. perfect avatar of such an opener, and this in the post-greenidge era of jayasuriya, sehwag, gibbs and that f-t bully, the insufferable fellow from dahnunda that sam limericked (and no i shan’t find the url just right now – sam, you’re the professional here i believe, now there’s a tasty challenge: how fast can you locate one of your own myriad, manifold postcards? 🙂 – anyway, gayle has come to summarise and consummate that ideal into a sort of steel-armed, snake-jointed conjuror persona, with absolutely lethal… argh i’m choking on my own prose here… not often i gush like this these days

    i am aware that christopher henry g. is not the purist’s choice of cricketer full stop, except if you end up discovering a fatal weakness for watching an executioner despatch ball after (tender prey cherry – oh yeah thanks for that shane, nice one dufus) ball and watch bowlers literally get all the piss and vinegar, and ultimately everything else, drained out of them at visible rate from one minute to the next.

    fucking hell sorry guys. er, long time no blog and all that. i’ll get my –

    oops back on the 13 again (‘n off sick… same cause, otherwise unrelated)

    p.s. haven’t read the earlier comments

  8. It might be said that Sangakkara, uncharacteristically, played that proactive, adaptable role for his team yesterday, choosing to ride his luck in aggressive mode in tricky circumstances.

    It might also be argued that he should have adapted back into consolidator mode for the evening session – when his luck ran out the Sri Lanka innings unraveled, just at the point they looked set to push on.

    Still, he’s a batsman with over 11,000 test runs at an average pushing towards 60, so his judgement in such matters must normally be pretty good.

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