The absurdly early start (the first week in April) to the English first class cricket season has brought a wailing and gnashing of teeth from batsmen. Pace bowlers have been ruling the roost and wickets have been averaging around 24 runs apiece, the sort of figure associated with a wet season in the English county game of the 1950s when all Championship games were of three days duration as opposed to the modern four days..
Batsmen say it is impossible to play so early in the year because the pitches and conditions offer too much help to the bowlers and consequently it is impossible, indeed pointless, to play correct cricket because sooner or later, and most probably sooner, a ball will have your name on it.
The batmen’s complaints look more than a little thin as the wickets continue to tumble as the season progresses into May and past the traditional date for a season to begin. Not only that, but in 2011 when the season started just as early the average runs per wicket at the same stage of the season was around 30. Nor can this year’s low scoring be blamed on the ECB rule banning the use of the heavy roller after a Championship match has started be blamed because that was in place in 2011.
What is going on? The answer is simple enough: a failure of technique and mentality in the modern batsman who has been spoon-fed good batting conditions all too often. This year has been wetter in April and early May and the atmospheric conditions widely conducive to swing. In contrast 2011 had a dry April which meant that both off the pitch and in the air bowlers got less assistance. The more demanding conditions of 2012 have found out those unused and largely incapable of playing the moving ball. The failures stem from at least three general reasons:
1. Lack of patience
2. Playing too much off the back foot. This is particularly dangerous in early season English conditions when the only sane thing to do is play almost everything of the front foot unless it is very short.
3. Not leaving enough
I also have a suspicion that the protective equipment with which modern batsmen lumber themselves has reduced their mobility, flexibility and ability to concentrate because of the extra weight they carry and the discomfort they experience from the equipment. It could also be that the helmets, much improved as they are, affect the way batsmen hold their heads and their sightlines. All of these things could make playing in demanding conditions more difficult.
In terms of playing conditions , batsmen in the 1950s had a much tougher time of it and consequently developed a sound technique which allowed them to play in difficult conditions. Pitches and run-ups were uncovered and counties were allowed to prepare pitches as they liked. This meant that , for example, Derbyshire prepared greentops for Less Jackson and Cliff Gladwin while Gloucester produced pitches which turned on the first morning to accommodate their spinners Mortimer, Wells, Allen and Cook
To deal with such pitches 1950s batsmen had protective equipment which would make a modern batsman scoff or gasp with disbelief: rudimentary gloves, a box probably made of wire mesh, a towel shoved down the leading leg as a thigh pad – no helmets, arm guards, efficient gloves, bumper bras or efficient thigh pads on both legs. With this rudimentary protection they had to face the likes of Jackson, Gladwin, Rhodes, Bailey, Shackleton, Ridgeway, Spencer, Staham, Moss, Tyson, Bedser, Loader, Thompson, Flavell, and Trueman amongst the pacemen and Lock, Wardle, Cook, Illingworth, Tattersall, Titmus, Laker, Appleyard, Hollies, Doug Wright, Dooland, Tribe and Jenkins from the spinners. Batsmen were tested not only by the pitches and conditions but by every variety of bowling, much of it top class. Present day batsmen have neither the pitches to contend with nor the variety of high class bowling available in the 1950s, not least because there are so few good spinners in county cricket today.
In addition to the quality of the pitches and bowling, 1950s batsmen also operated under two different laws from those obtaining now. The back foot law was used for no balls. This meant that bowlers, especially pace bowlers, delivered from anything up to a yard and half closer to the batsman than they do today . (Older readers will recall the notorious draggers). Then there was the absence of restrictions on the number of leg side fielders which meant batsmen had to be very adept at dropping the ball dead and finding ways to score which did not involve the area between forward short leg and leg slip. (The subsequent restriction on leg side fielders was unique in cricket history. It was the only instance of a law being changed simply to remove an attacking option from bowlers, in this instance from the offspinning and inswing exponents. Bodyline is the nearest parallel, but there the law was changed for reasons of safety although the effect was the same, namely removing an attacking option). There was also an important difference in the management of the game’s laws between now and then: spin bowlers were allowed to get rid of the shine from a new ball by rubbing the ball in the dust (honest).
That was not the end of the demands made on batsmen in the 1950s. There was no first and second division in the Championship. All teams had to play the other (then) sixteen teams. This meant the weaker sides were still coming up against the likes of Trueman and Tyson regularly. In addition, unlike today there were no central contracts and England players were expected to turn out whenever they were not playing for England or a match such as MCC versus the tourists or Gentlemen versus Players. As there were at most five Tests in a season, no limited overs internationals and at least 28 Championship games (sometimes there were 32) the England regulars such as May, Cowdrey, Bedser and Trueman often turned out for more than 20 Championship games a season. Finally, over rates in the 1950s were around 20 per hour on average. Today we are lucky to get 15 an hour. 1950s batsmen had to face far more balls per hour at the wicket than their modern counterparts.
The mind struggles to imagine what the result would be if today’s batsmen could be transported back to the 1950s and put into the first class game then. Apart from any deficiencies in technique, I think it improbable that many could bring themselves to play without a helmet and most would flinch at the 1950s equipment they would be expected to use. It would be very interesting to see whether any modern cricket would be willing to play a match today which was restricted to using 1950s equipment.
The 1950s batsmen would be in a completely different situation if they were transported to the present time. They could comfortably play in today’s conditions without using helmet, arm guards and so on. Indeed, those brought up on 1950s pitches would think they were in heaven.
A specialist batsmen in the 1950s would have thought he had done well if he achieved a career average of 30. Even the best players struggled to average 40. (Peter May’s ability to average around 50 in Championship cricket in the 1950s despite playing half his cricket on the then hideously bowler-friendly Oval pitches is a testament to his greatness). Today a specialist county batsman is considered to be a mediocrity if his career average is in the mid-thirties and a top class county player who does not play much or any Test cricket is expected to average in the forties. That is the difference between then and now. Modern batsmen have become pampered. It is unrealistic to imagine the protective equipment being removed but let us hope that the ECB will not weaken on the question of the heavy roller or tighten rules on how pitches should be prepared.