The batting of the 2015 Australian side on anything other than a featherbed pitch has been shockingly inept, not least because for twenty years or so from the late 1980s Australia had top class batsmen coming out of their ears. Some, like Darren Lehmann, played much less Test cricket than their talent deserved and others like poor Stuart Law managed but one game wearing the baggy green cap. The lack of proper practice games on tours
But the current Australians are not alone in their ineptitude whenever a ball swings, seams or spins. There is a growing propensity for Test sides to collapse whenever faced with a large opposing total – England are a good example of this. Specialist batsmen playing at the highest level are increasingly showing that they have neither the technique nor the mentality to play not just Test cricket but first class cricket.
No country has any room for complacency because as older players with good techniques retire there are few plausible replacements. Look at Sri Lanka without Dilshan, Jayawardene and Sangakkara or imagine Australia minus Clarke, Rogers, Watson and Voges. Take Bell and Cook away from England’s top order and what is left but Root of proven Test batsmen? How many really reliable day-in-day-out Test batsmen are there today? Precious few and almost all of them are players nearer the end of their Test careers than the beginning.
The batting averages of the 2015 Ashes tell their own story of ever diminishing batting technique. England had only one player Root (57 ) averaging over 40 with the rest of the specialist batsmen turning in 36 (Cook), 29 (Bairstow), 26 (Bell), 14 (Lyth), and 24 (Balance) . Australia had three players (Smith, Rogers and Warner) averaging over 40, which looks respectable but disguises the fact that Smith and Rogers alternated big scores with runs of small scores, while Warner repeatedly failed to make a big score in the first innings. They also had their captain Clarke averaging 16 and Voges 28. Nor did the often pivotal batting spots of six and seven do much, with no player who regularly appeared for either side in those positions managing an average of better than 25 (Stokes).
It might be thought from those statistics that the bowling on both sides was of high quality. Well, compare the bowling attacks of 2005 Ashes series with those today. In 2005 there were Flintoff, Harmison, Jones, Hoggard and Giles (England); Mcgrath, Lee, Gillespie, Warne (Australia). Today we have Anderson, Broad, Wood, Finn, Stokes and Ali (England) and Johnson, Starc, Hazlewood, Marsh and Lyon (Australia).
I doubt whether there would be much dissension from the claim that the 2005 bowling was decidedly superior to that of the 2015 series . Apart from two all time greats in Warne and Mcgrath, England’s four pronged pace attack with three genuinely fast bowlers in Flintoff, Harmison and Jones was formidable. Yet the scoring of top six batsmen in 2005 was heavier on the England side than that of the 2015 team with four of the top six averaging 39 or better with Pietersen, Trescothick, Strauss and Flintoff scoring 393 runs or better. The 2005 Australians did not score more heavily than the present day side overall but they scored much more consistently, with four of their top six (Ponting, Langer, Clarke, Hayden) scoring over 300 runs in the series. Given the superiority of the 2005 bowling, it would have been reasonable to expect the 2015 sides to score more heavily than those 2005 if the quality of batting was as good as that of 2005. Patently it was not as both the averages and the frequency of collapses by both sides shows. .
Another good example of how batting technique has declined is the inability of present day Indian batsmen to play spin. This is a startling change because Indians have always been the batsmen noted for being expert in dealing with spinners. Yet now that the old guard of Tendulkar, Dravid and Sewag have departed the Test scene India are suddenly all at sea against spinners . In England in 2014 they allowed Mooen Ali to take 19 wickets in four Tests despite the fact that he is not and never has been considered a serious spin bowler. More recently in Sri Lanka India were shot out for 112 when chasing a target of 175 with the main damage being done by the slow left armer Herath (7-48) and the offspinner Kaushal (3-47). Watching those ten dismissals it is astonishing how uncertain the batsmen’s footwork was and how often they went hard at the ball early despite the fact that it was turning and bouncing.
What has caused this decline in batting technique?
It has been suggested that the Australian batting failure was down to a lack of experience of English conditions, both because the lure of T20 cricket has meant Australian players have not spent seasons with county clubs as they often did before the India Premier League began and the attenuated nature of tours these days.
These arguments will not stand up to close scrutiny. Before the relaxation of county qualification rules in 1968 Australian Test players did not have the experience of playing in county cricket. As a consequence Australian teams would arrive in England with many players without any experience of first class cricket in English conditions and those with experience would be players who had toured England before so they would probably have only a single season’s experience. Yet they still managed to make a fist of things. As for the short tours, this is not a new circumstance. On the 2015 tour Australia also had four first class matches outside of the Test against Kent , Essex, Northants and Derbyshire. In 2005 Australia played only four first class matches outside the Tests against Leicestershire, Essex, Worcestershire and Northants. It is worth adding that Australians still play plenty of county cricket and most of their specialist batsmen had with experience of English conditions either from playing for counties or from having previously toured England.
A much more likely cause of the decline in Australian batsmanship is T20. It is surely no coincidence that the decline in technique is most marked amongst batsmen who have played all or most of their careers after T20 had gained a real hold. Batsmen are conditioned by T20 to go hard at the ball . Playing with soft hands is seemingly unknown to them, and the idea of building an innings completely alien. Bowl a couple of maidens in succession at players in a first class match and their anxiety to score becomes palpable.
Other aspects of T20 play to the changes in technique and mentality. Benign T20 pitches with white balls used play to rarely provide much of an examination of technique. As the batsman has only a short time to play in T20 – 90 minutes at best if they bat through the innings- batsmen have not only an urge to score quickly but no incentive to build an innings. As T20 is where the big money is these days, batsmen will naturally enough increasingly think that a cameo innings of 30 or most of the time with a fifty now or then and an occasional century in T20 is to be preferred to heavy scoring in the first class game.
There is also the absence of close catchers in T20 breeding bad habits. Players get away with risky stroke play in T20 because there are few if any close fielders, then find when they return to first class cricket that they cannot stop themselves playing the same strokes which have them regularly caught close to the wicket.
Bowling in T20 also has its part to play. As bowlers have only four overs to each bowl batsmen never have to come to terms with a bowler as such. At most they can only face twenty four balls and will be unlikely to face more than a dozen. If a bowler is causing them serious difficulties they have a good chance of surviving an over or two whereas in a first class match they would probably get out.
When batsmen return to first class cricket from T20 because their techniques are faulty they find it difficult to adjust to cricket which is played on pitches which are normally more difficult to play on than those used for T20, not least because the games last for days. In addition, first class cricket is a much more fluid game than T20 with no limits, other than the time available, on how many overs a bowler may bowl or a team may bat and no fielding restrictions. The best bowlers can bowl as long as their captain wants. The batsman must live with an uncertainty which does not exist in T20 where a batsman knows that he will only have to bat for quite a short time even if he bats through the innings and because of the restriction of four overs per bowler a batsman will be able to structure their approach to an innings around the knowledge that a bowler has only so many overs to bowl and have a good idea when a bowler will bowl. In short, in a first class game the batsman has to think for themselves far more than they do in T20.
It might be objected that limited over cricket has been widely played since the mid 1960s without having the same effect as that of T20. There are two answers to that. Limited overs cricket longer than T20 has been played over 65 over, 55 overs, 50 overs and 40 overs. The longer the limited overs game the nearer it will correspond to first class cricket simply because duration alone necessitates a difference in approach to the game..
The other major difference between the T20 period and what went before is that before T20 limited overs cricket loomed much less large than first class cricket and especially Test cricket which was the main revenue source. Since the advent of T20 in England in 2003 and the creation of the Indian Premier League in 2008, T20 has become the main cash cow for cricketers with T20 competitions around the world. Professional cricketers increasingly see their careers in terms of what T20 will bring them and concentrate on excelling at that variety of the game to the detriment of acquiring the skills naturally learnt by playing first class cricket.
The batting stance
T20 is also probably driving the adoption of increasingly odd stances in the professional game. Watch a first class game in England today and almost all the specialist batsmen (and most of the allrounders and lower order) have foresworn the traditional stance. Instead of standing still with, at most, the bat thumping the ground a few times as the bowler moves in, batsmen adopt a variety of stances which place the batsman in an awkward position. Quite a few batsmen look more like a baseball hitter than a batsman as they wait for the bowler to deliver.
The most common oddities are where the batsman holds the bat raised in a locked position. This hich looks both awkward and traps the player in a position which delays his movement to play the ball. Some combine the raised bat with bat waving. A few mix the fixed bat raised stance with leaning forward in the stance which means they are committed to the front foot and a sucker for the short fast ball.
Locking the bat in a raised position or waving it about must both distract the batsman from concentrating on the bowler and the ball after it is delivered. The stance with the bat raised in a set position must also be tiring in an innings of any length. A batsman making a century will probably face 200+ balls so that is 200+ holding the bat in an awkward and tense position whilst supporting its full weight. Batting for a full day would probably mean 400-500 times of doing this tiring action.
Then there are the extraordinary movements around the crease of some batsmen, for example, Steve Smith, before the ball is bowled. This leaves them vulnerable to any ball which moves in the air or off the pitch because it will take a fraction of a second longer to move to the correct position to play the ball than it would in an orthodox stance. Movement about the crease before the bowler bowls must also distract the batsman from concentrating wholeheartedly on the bowler. Movement of the head is also common, which again must distract the batsman from concentrating on the ball.
The orthodox stance is the best technical stance because it has the batsman with their weight evenly distributed so the batsman can play back or forward with equal physical ease, the batsman does not have to support the full weight of the bat , the batsman is in a relaxed and comfortable position and, most important, has nothing to stop him giving his full attention to the bowler and the ball.
Helmets and batsmen who look like Michelin men
Since the adoption of helmets batsmen are regularly hit on the head. Before helmets it was very rare to see a batsman struck on the head. I began regularly watching first class cricket in England in the nineteen fifties. Between then and the routine adoption of helmets around 1980 I saw only two batsmen hit on the head: Jim Parks by Don Bennett in a Middlesex/Sussex county game at Lords (Parks was knocked out when a ball jumped from a length and hit him flush on the chin), and Denis Amiss who walked into the line of a Holding bouncer playing for the MCC against the 1976 West Indies.
It was not that bouncers were bowled infrequently before helmets. Throughout cricket history there have been complaints about the overuse of the bouncer: Macdonald and Gregory just after the Great War, the Bodyline tour of 1932/3, Miller and Lindwall immediately after WW2, Thomson and Lillee in the 1970s and Holding, Roberts and Daniel on the 1976 West Indies tour of England all produced vociferous complaints. Nor were bouncers reserved only for those who could bat. It is true that that there was a supposedly gentleman’s agreement not to bowl bouncers at tail enders, but that did not prevent Lindwall hitting Tyson on the head during the 1954/5 Ashes tour or Charlie Griffith bouncing Underwood during the 1966 West Indies tour of England when he lingered too long at the crease for Griffith’s liking. Batsmen were rarely hit on the head because they were skilled at getting out of the way by swaying or ducking.
The most plausible reason for why batsmen are regularly hit today is that helmets have made them careless in their treatment of the bouncer, either through not watching the ball or a too ready willingness to hook and pull regardless of their technical command of the shots. Before helmets, batsmen only hooked or pulled bowlers of any pace if they were competent players of the shot. Fine opening batsmen such as John Edrich and Bobbie Simpson rarely if ever hooked. Moreover, even the competent players were very selective in what they hooked and pulled. Today every Tom, Dick and Harry in the first class game feels they should hook and pull, with even undisputed rabbits indulging themselves on occasion.
The false sense of security which helmets bring is heightened by the extraordinary extra protective paraphernalia with which batsmen equip themselves today: bumper bras, arm guards, massive thigh pads which go round both thighs. The result is batsmen routinely get to the wicket looking like Michelin men. This must impede their movement. In the past batsmen had at most pads, rudimentary gloves, a box and an inadequate thigh pad or a towel shoved down the trousers on the leading thigh for protection. Some, like Trevor Bailey, dispensed with thigh protection altogether believing it made them less agile.
There are two main worries about bowling: inaccuracy and the decline in spin bowling. I can vouch for the fact that bowlers in the past were much more accurate than they are today. Those of a younger generation who doubt this should go and view a few clips of extended play from the fifties and sixties to see the difference. Bowlers in the past knew how to bowl to their field in a way which bowlers today all too often do not.
Bowlers today experiment too much, but they also are conditioned by T20 (and to a lesser degree in the longer limited formats) to bowl to contain rather than take wickets. This has a particularly unfortunate effect on spin bowlers. It makes them bowl flat and fast. The England and Middlesex offspinner John Emburey who started his career in the 1970s bowling an attacking line outside the offstump with plenty of spin and ended it bowling middle and off after spending a good deal of time bowling in limited overs games.
Spinners are used freely in T20 and longer form limited overs games. Indeed, in England you are more likely to see spin bowlers in those forms of cricket than in first class games where it is rare to see two frontline spinners in a team and even when there are two captains never seem to keep them bowling in tandem, the most effective tactic for spinners on most pitches. As for the idea that spinners can be attacking bowlers on any pitch, through flight and disguised changes of pace where a pitch is benign, this has gone completely out of the English game.
Not only does accuracy and bowling to a field make life more difficult for the batsmen, it also helps the fielding because, guess what, batsmen play the ball to the set field more often. This means that less spectacular fielding is required.
Modern fielding is often lauded as being vastly better than it was in the past. It is certainly true that the sliding tackle stop looks spectacular and some of the catches in the outfield are spectacular, but I would question whether the fielding is superior overall. In particular, close catching has declined. This I suspect is due to the movement away from specialist fielders as limited overs cricket and particularly T20 has expanded its importance. The fact that limited overs cricket constitutes so much of the modern player’s career also means that the opportunities to be a close catcher are much reduced.
Modern wicket keeping is much inferior to that of the past. That is partly a consequence of the universal fashion for selecting wicket keepers who can bat well enough to at least qualify as genuine allrounders (ideally well enough to score like specialist batsman) and partly the decline in spin bowling which robs them of the experience of keeping whilst standing up.
The aesthetic side of cricket
Cricket has become much uglier since the 1970s when helmets came in. Instead of watching a batsman with bare head or a cap or sunhat on it batsmen now look out for bars covering their face. Nor is it only batsmen because it has become routine to see wicket keepers and fielders such as short leg wearing helmets with grills. The bulkiness of the other new protective I have already remarked on but they also make batsmen look both un-athletic and less agile and natural in their movements.
Then there are the weird modern stances and the dancing around the crease instead of standing still as the bowler runs in. These are both ugly to watch and irritating to watch.
Watch extended recordings of batsmen from the fifties and sixties and you will see that they looked better, adopted neat orthodox stances which left them balanced to go back or forward with equal ease and were readily recognisable.
First class cricket is in danger of dying
First class cricket is the form of cricket which develops and maintains the fullest range of skills. It needs to be played regularly to both develop the skills and maintain them. Someone playing little first class cricket outside of Tests, as many established Test players do these days, will find flaws enter their techniques that go uncorrected because of their lack of regular first class play. To be a young international batsman with a central contract from their national cricket authority means that the normal development of technique through playing regular first class cricket does not happen.
First class cricket will die if the skills needed to play it are lost or so reduced that the idea of playing a three day game let alone a five day Test match simply becomes impractical because the players will be unable to play a match which lasts so much longer than limed overs cricket. Batsmen will lack the technique to handle pitches and climatic conditions where red balls spin, seam and swing; bowlers will be conditioned to bowling defensively and will probably lack the fitness to bowl twenty overs or more in a day; fielders will be unused to fielding for day after day and all players will simply be mentally unprepared for the much greater and more varied demands first class cricket poses.
If first class cricket does die or even becomes a very poor relation of T20, cricket as a serious professional sport could be finished. Limited overs cricket whether it is 50 overs or 20 overs is formulaic and one dimensional compared with first class cricket which has an extended and varied narrative that limited overs cricket can never begin to match. That is why limited overs matches are rarely remembered while Test matches and Test series have a resonance which often lasts a cricket lover for a lifetime. The danger is that eventually T20 is all pervasive and cricket becomes less and less popular as the stereotyped and predicable nature of T20 begins to bore people.