We’re a day late with this really, but maybe it’s taken that long to fully sink in. Gary Ballance is our new favourite batsman.
We know Sam Robson scored a hundred, but we’ve not yet warmed to him in quite the same way. There were too many edges. Ballance, despite scoring fewer runs, seems infinitely more reassuring.
He just has a doughy tenacity about him and an expressionless way of going about things that makes you think he has absolutely no perspective in life; that everything’s about scoring runs. Clearly, that’s massively unhealthy and probably sets him up for a massive fall later in his career, but as a fan, sitting at home, willing your team to do well, it’s clearly a positive.
Cricketers have too much fun these days. If they’re not joking around in the field, grinning at each other, they’re laughing with their batting partner about the outrageous four they just hit. But Test cricket seems a serious business for Gary Ballance and that’s excellent to see, because Test cricket is a serious business. When everyone’s stony-faced and earnest, acting like it’s a life or death situation, watching at home, the game seems more important.
Yesterday, the ball found the edge but went wide of Gary Ballance. He made much the same face as he ever does, but his body language said: “That could have been a catch. That could have been a Test catch. Someone could have been out in Test match cricket.”
Everything suddenly seems very, very important when Gary Ballance is involved. It’s the way Test cricket should be.12 Appeals
There was a period, just after tea, when England started looking decidedly fast-medium. Fortunately for Alastair Cook, it was a day when persisting with right-arm fast-medium wasn’t actually the worst ploy imaginable and Kumar Sangakkara’s wicket precipitated a sudden flow of wickets that gushed so strongly that most people didn’t even notice Stuart Broad’s hat-trick.
The hat-trick was spread over two overs with a Liam Plunkett wicket tucked away inside it – but you should always notice three in three. A hat trick ball is one of the great panto moments in cricket and it only really works with the proper comedy build-up. Sadly, Broad’s third will look like just another wicket on the highlights.
Plunkett bowled well. It seems he had been given the famously unproductive ‘enforcer’ role at Lord’s simply because he is the fastest of the four right-arm fast-medium bowlers England have fielded in these two Tests. He probably would have bowled more like he did today if left to his own devices. This raises the possibility that England’s bowlers will all be striving to become second-fastest so that they get to bowl how they want to and aren’t just a forlorn stab at ‘variety’.5 Appeals
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.
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.18 Appeals
Dandy Dan writes:
I recently met Price for a few beers for the first time since my rather glorious night of drinking with the England cricket team. The glory has somewhat been tainted by the events in the winter, but hey ho.
Anyway, I obviously wanted to talk about it again. I said to him my only regret was not actually having a chat with Cook instead of just sharing a nod at the urinals. Price wanted to know why I didn’t even say hello. I told him that there was loud music in the toilet and that he had come in and gone to the end urinal.
This displeased Price. He is firmly of the view that the England cricket captain should have enough alpha-male confidence to stride into any toilet situation and take the urinal closest to the middle, not one at the end.
Now I’m not sure I agree with him 100 per cent, but I can certainly see where he is coming from. There have been a couple of moments recently where Alastair has not demonstrated ‘pissing in the middle urinal’ captaincy. For example, in the first Test, he should have said: ‘Sorry Gary, I know it’s a ton at Lords but I’m going to declare and have a few overs at them tonight’. But he didn’t. He didn’t piss in the middle urinal.
We’re certainly going to be looking for examples of pissing in the middle urinal captaincy for the rest of our lives, and examples of where it should have been applied too. If I ever have the chance to meet Mike Brearley, I’ll mention it to him. He might want to include it in a revised edition of The Art of Captaincy.15 Appeals
They don’t really have a spinner, most of their bowlers can bat, their batsmen are stodgy and they’re conservative when it comes to declarations.
It’s clear that England’s new era is merely South Africa’s old one – and this despite fielding far fewer South Africans than usual.
Honestly, they’re this far away from fielding a Klusener.17 Appeals
That’s a reference to something Shane Warne said late on day five.
“59 cherries left. Four poles to get.”
Okay, you’re Australian, we get it. Just speak normally, okay.
The cherry shortfall
Following the nine wickets down draw between England and Sri Lanka, it’s hard to avoid pointing to the overs lost due to slow over rates. We have two points to make about that.
Firstly, an over in the middle doesn’t exactly equate to an extra over at the end. Sometimes it’s the escalating tension that comes with the countdown that leads to mistakes. You still only get the same number of closing overs. It’s the flat, lifeless ones England could have had more of.
Our second point is that the flat, lifeless ones might have been enough. Shitloads of overs were lost in this Test. Okay, we just said that earlier overs are perhaps less likely to result in wickets – but not by that much. Another 10 or 15 overs is a hell of a number when you finish one wicket shy of victory.
Plus there was the declaration thing.
The pole shortfall
This was a very good draw in that there were a couple of chances in the final over, but we’d have to say it fell down in one key respect. If you want real tension, it needs to be protracted.
That’s what Test cricket can give you – the one-ball-away final hour with two incompetent dingbatsmen at the crease, edging and missing and cowering and surviving. This wasn’t quite like that in that the action came in an accelerating rush towards the end. It was exciting in a different way, but it didn’t really wring your innards like the very best finishes can.
Great draw though. In no other sport does that make sense.
Cook’s exciting field settings
We were going to give Alastair Cook a bit of credit for some nicely creative field settings on the final day. It’s easier to dick about when you’ve a stack of runs in the bank, but even so there was some real weirdness going on and it was most welcome. Sadly, he revealed in his post-match interview that they were all Jimmy’s doing.
Anderson of course cannot become England captain on account of his being a Northern bowler.19 Appeals
We spend about 40 per cent of our waking hours trying to work out which attributes we’d include were we to develop a stats-based cricket management computer game. For batsmen, there’d be things like patience and shot selection; for bowlers, there’d be fitness and accuracy. We’d also include ‘unarsedness’.
The key passage of play today was the partnership between Gary Ballance and Chris Jordan. One’s a debutant, the other’s a two-Test veteran and yet both seemed entirely unarsed by England’s eye-rollworthy position.
It wasn’t that the home team were throwing it away. They were just making a very poor fist of things. In fact it wasn’t even a fist. It was more like a limp claw. They seemed to be making a very concerted effort to entirely undo the few repairs they’d made during the first innings, during which the middle order had managed to emit a faint whiff of solidity.
Imagine Gary Ballance had scored 4 instead of 104 and that Chris Jordan had made 5 instead of 35 and now look at the scorecard again. That would have been a fairly normal outcome by recent standards and we probably wouldn’t have judged that pair too harshly either. The cricket watching public would have pointed their vast collective finger at Cook and Bell instead.
Ballance in particular has brought us back to a world where it’s not so ludicrous to assume that at least one of the batsmen might make a few runs in any given innings. He achieved this, at least in part, through having a very high unarsedness rating.17 Appeals
This latest England team is a stumpy. It’s not completely without tail – there’s an Anderson-shaped nub there – but there really isn’t much. Presumably, should he return, Ben Stokes would replace Liam Plunkett, which would only strengthen the main spine further.
Lower order batsmen rarely contribute on tougher days – when runs are more valuable – but they can definitely make the difference between decent scores and intimidating ones.
But if there’s any side unlikely to succumb to that modern panacea, scoreboard pressure, it’s Sri Lanka. They play most of their cricket in Colombo and have therefore been tempered to withstand far greater run pressure than any other team.
To Sri Lanka 575-9 is nothing to write home about. Whereas to most of us, anything over 500 is simply ‘loads’, the Sri Lankans probably distinguish between a 575 pitch and a 650 pitch. We’re not sure which they think this is.17 Appeals
Let’s just go with that, eh? Let’s just go with ‘everything’s rosy’. They’ve even addressed our concern that Gary Ballance bats too low for Yorkshire by making him go in first drop for England.
Speaking of the batting order, Joe Root clearly benefited from getting one innings in a row in the same slot. Do they call it ‘role clarity’? If he’s clear that his role is to score hundreds, all’s well.
And Matt Prior’s back! As in ‘returned’. He hasn’t got ankylosing spondylitis or anything. He does have a longstanding Achilles problem of course, but that didn’t seem to be unduly troubling him.16 Appeals
Twice last May, we wrote about England’s overwhelmingly reactive batting approach. First we described Kevin Pietersen as being England’s only proactive top order batsman; the only one prone to trying to set the field while at the crease. A week later, Pietersen wasn’t playing and Jonny Bairstow took on the role.
Even then, we were concerned that the batting was a bit one-dimensional. If that was the case, what do we have now? Sam Robson’s another steady opener and Gary Ballance is pretty meat-and-potatoes, three-an-over as well. Cook, Root, Bell – all are more likely to respond to what they’re confronted with than to really try and take the initative.
This isn’t about one approach being better than another and nor is it about having some lunatic coming in to try and hit sixes. It’s about having a balanced batting line-up. There’s a simple reason why teams look to field a balanced bowling attack and batting is no different. There are times when one approach doesn’t work, in which case it’s good to have summat else up your sleeve.
All the best sides have had batsmen who complement each other. We worry that England’s Test batsmen are all a bit samey and that the side’s still courting one-dimensionality.34 Appeals