The former world number one squash player, Peter Nicol, tells an interesting story about the first couple of times he played the great Jansher Khan.
The first time they played, Jansher constantly tried for winners, aiming to finish every point as quickly as possible. Nicol won the match and so understandably felt pretty confident the next time they faced each other.
Unfortunately for Nicol, it turned out Jansher hadn’t practised for months leading up to their previous meeting and hadn’t really been fit. This time he was.
“He was so much better than me it felt embarrassing,” recalled Nicol, adding that Jansher had shaken his hand for “an overly sincere length of time” afterwards. Point made.
The “flair” approach – going for the spectacular winner – is one way to try and win, but it’s not nearly so reliable as wearing your opponent down when you know that you’ll endure better than they will. The greatest squash player of all, Jansher’s fellow Pakistani Jahangir Khan, built his game around this. He knew he was fitter than his rivals and that he would play fewer false shots, so he forced them into long rallies of such high intensity that eventually they’d break.
As approaches go, it proved fairly successful. Jahangir won – get this – 555 matches on the bounce. In 1982, he won the International Squash Players Association Championship without losing a single point. Jahangir had heard of losing at squash, but didn’t especially care for it. When he finally did lose to someone – after five years – he then went another nine months before losing again.
But this is an approach that’s built on knowing you’ll endure better than your opponent. If you suspect such an approach will see you beaten – as Jansher did in that first Nicol match – what else can you do but play a few shots, take a few risks and try and do maximum damage in the minimum time?
It might be unlikely that you’ll win playing that way, but it’s the only sensible thing to do if you’ve judged that the disciplined approach amounts to a slow march to inevitable defeat.
You get where we’re going with this, don’t you?
Bairstow v Bravo
In a low-scoring second Test, two contrasting fifties seemed to sum up the respective approaches of the two teams. Jonny Bairstow made a very fine, boundary-heavy 52 off 64 balls. Darren Bravo faced 216 balls to make just 50.
To a greater or lesser extent, most of the England batsmen attempted something similar to Bairstow and failed, while most of the West Indies batsmen attempted something similar to Bravo and made a few runs.
It’s easy to ask why the England batsmen didn’t ‘dig in‘ and try and ride things out, but maybe they felt that trading blows in that fashion would have guaranteed defeat and so took another tack.
Scoring at two an over is a very hard thing to maintain psychologically. If you’re trying to bat time, you have to be confident that it’ll work; that you’ll survive long enough to make a decent total – because if you don’t believe that, how can you possibly commit to that gameplan?
Is this West Indies team an unusually disciplined side?
Far, far, far too often, people talk about the great West Indies sides of the past, and they tend to get misty-eyed about the flair of those players, as if that was the secret of their success. But the West Indies sides of old were underpinned by pragmatism. They weren’t wafty, whimsical and mercurial. They were brutal, efficient machines.
Jason Holder’s West Indies team doesn’t have enormous panache, but like the great West Indies teams of old the players seem cold, organised and committed.
Against England, the batsmen have inched to supremacy and the bowlers have peppered the top of off stump. Yesterday, after the drinks break, Holder and Alzarri Joseph bowled a spell where they varied their angles and lengths, but maintained a line that was just impeccable.
Whether batting or bowling, the West Indies feel they can outlast England. And England seem to agree.
What does this mean for the future?
There’s a question here, which is how the West Indies’ will would hold under greater pressure.
It’s all well and good grinding out the singles when the opposition have been bowled out for 77 or 187. You can be pretty confident that you’ll get a lead in those circumstances. But what if England had made more in their respective first innings? Would the West Indies have felt as confident about playing a disciplined game in that situation, or would they have been tempted to make the rallies short by going for quick winners?
One thing we would say in their favour is that as a side they have been tempered. If you can manage to play patiently in defeat – as they have done at times in recent years – then you will certainly be better able to do the same when a match is in the balance.
And they do seem a committed bunch. Jason Holder appears to have assembled a bunch of players who take cricket very seriously.
As just one example, consider the impact of Alzarri Joseph’s appearance yesterday. Joseph’s mother had died and that day he came out to play cricket.
Joseph clearly subscribes to the ‘get on with everyday life’ approach to dealing with such a monumental loss, but his presence also meant that everything that followed seemed shot-through with huge significance. Imagine playing alongside him. If a grieving team-mate chooses to play cricket the day his mother dies then you’d better make damn certain that you take that cricket really, really fucking seriously.
There was one moment where John Campbell dropped Ben Stokes off Joseph’s bowling and we just instantly felt for the fielder so, so much. Dropping a catch is a hideous thing at the best of times, but letting Joseph down at a time like this? Campbell’s heart and soul must have instantly dropped out of his arse when that happened.
It is easier to be disciplined when you’re confident you’ll outlast your opponent. England’s occasionally wayward, freewheeling play may not be the inevitable byproduct of playing loads of limited overs cricket so much as a fundamental lack of belief that they can outlast opponents.
For his part, the hugely-impressive Jason Holder appears to be leading an improving side, but whether the disciplined approach they’ve employed so successfully in this series will be as easy to deliver against tougher opposition remains to be seen. One source of optimism that they might be able to do so comes from the simple fact that the more it works, the more they will gain in belief, and the more they gain in belief, the less likely they are to stray from their method.