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England’s Batsmen in a Spin

by Neil Burns

With one test left to play, India leads England by 2 matches to 1 in the test series. England can still come back and square the series, by winning the fourth and final test but the most likely result would seem to be 3-1 to India based on how the last two test matches have played themselves out – with India’s spinners increasingly to the fore.

To lose the 3rd test by a margin of ten wickets by tea on the second day represents a humiliation for England’s current team. It is shameful to be on the wrong side of the quickest result of a test match since 1935.

The sub-standard England batting against spin bowling, except for Joe Root, has been a recurring theme for a while. And, in their last 5 test match innings, England has scored the following totals – 81, 112, 134, 164, 178.

Without Joe Root, England would have been in dire trouble. He has made scores of 228. 186, and 218 in three individual innings. There is a significant need to find better players of spin to play for England on the sub-continent.

However, the degree of challenge faced by English players is considerable. Raised in conditions which support seam and swing bowling, and in temperatures often requiring thermal underwear as opposed to the heat and humidity which accompanies sub-continent cricket.  India has good spinners, the climatic conditions are challenging to play in, and the pitches suit the Indian spin bowlers.

The Challenge Ahead

England’s cricketers need to sort out their individual method to play on turning pitches on the sub-continent where the pace is slower and the bounce often lower than on other pitches around the world.  The present team seem to be dismissed in a similar way, too often. The best sportspeople learn fast and adapt quickly.

The great players find a way to triumph over adversity. They come back stronger from setbacks and disappointments.

Deep Thinking

The 3rd test match performance and result should provoke deeper thinking at the highest level of England’s cricket administration

Squaring The Test Series

England’s batsmen have an extra few days of preparation for the 4th and final test – but for some, the time may exacerbate their problems and further undermine their confidence as they seek new solutions to a historical problem. Fundamentally, the large majority English batsmen struggle in the sub-continent.

Will the pitch for the 4th test be different and better?

What seemed to make the pitch more difficult to bat on in the 3rd test at Ahmedabad (as opposed to the big-spinning pitch in the 2nd Test at Chennai) was the fact that some balls turned considerably and some did not – there was no obvious way for the batsmen to determine which ball would behave in which way.

Being Fully Present

The best sportspeople can (mentally) get into ‘the now’ and then access their skills intelligently – they do not live in the past. Such a mindset can be learned – it requires discipline and practice. Learning how to ‘catch’ your thoughts when being distracted from a task, and being suitably self-aware to do so, before ‘moving’ them into the present moment  What has gone is gone. Next ball, next over, next hour, next session, next day etc etc is a mantra top cricketers understand.

There is a need to learn from the past but the key is to move forward – not ‘get stuck’ mentally and become ‘fully present’ in the unfolding moment. All a batsman can do is ‘play the next ball as well as possible’.

However, the ‘as well as possible’ part of the saying, is determined by the level of skill, and intelligence about batting (in general), the bowlers (one is due to be facing) and the surface. Quality preparation precedes top performance.

Playing Spin Skillfully

If England need a template for how to approach the pursuit of batting excellence in India, then Kevin Pietersen’s contrasting fortunes in the 1st test and 2nd test on the 2012 tour offer food for thought.

Pietersen is regarded as a genius batsman and this can mean others dis-regard his success as something only achievable by a player with his level of natural ability. But, whilst there is merit in acknowledging the South African’s brilliance and uniqueness, England’s modern batsmen would be wise to study Kevin Pietersen’s approach and dedication to building his range of skills. After a dismal 1st test performance by Kevin and his team, he took to the nets and worked assiduously to ‘groove’ strokes and discipline his mind to commit to changing his gameplan.

The gifted, hard-working and courageous batsman transformed his game in days. He came out to play one of the all-time great innings in the history of English cricket when scoring 186 in Mumbai to set up an extra-ordinary English win and the platform to achieve a memorable series victory.

When I think back to the work I did in helping Nick Compton prepare for his successful tour to India, I remain full of admiration for the amount of time Nick was prepared to put in to his game (which previously had been set up to excel against fast bowling) and I am reminded of the focus we placed on the importance of good footwork. The best players of spin are able to move easily and quickly, remaining well balanced when playing fully forward, half forward (when needed) and down the pitch to unsettle a bowler’s length and attitude to competing with you.

The invaluable skill of being able to ‘shorten’ the pitch by coming a long way down the pitch after a bowler has released the ball is a rare skill. Then, to be able to ‘lengthen’ the pitch by going right back (almost on to one’s stumps) combined with intelligent use of the width  of the batting crease leads to increased dominance for the batsmen. Developing such a broad range of skills offers the batsman more ‘weapons’ to disrupt an opponent. However, these cannot be learned overnight and neither can good concentration. It is a process and it begins in the nets.

The lack of quality footwork among England’s leading batsmen has been exposed in recent tests. So few players seem to have the ability and confidence to glide down the pitch when leaving the crease. And, the default to playing the sweep shot is becoming too common a flaw in whichever batsman gets selected. The sweep shot, and the reverse sweep are welcome options – but there are many others too. A sound defensive technique and the ability to manipulate the ball either side of the close in fielders is also ‘a weapon’ to be used wisely.

Determining whether to play ‘with the spin’ AND/OR ‘play into the spin’ is another important consideration.  Growing up, I was coached to “never play against the spin” for fear of getting a leading edge. In reality, this is negative thinking. Learning to play more skillfully ‘against the spin’ (or as it is sometimes known: ‘hitting into the spin’) would have been a wiser approach. The key is to learn from people who have excelled at skills which appear to be unorthodox.

Learn from The Greats

Kevin Pietersen benefitted from his relationship with the great Indian batsman Rahul Dravid. Following time spent together in the IPL, the two players formed a close bond and Rahul took the time and trouble to write the England batsman a long and detailed letter about HOW he thought KP could play better against left arm spin bowling.

Fundamentally, learning a skill on a deeper level is about understanding what the key details are. Once the clarity is in a person’s mind in regard to where they need to place their attention going forward into their practice sessions. It is then all about developing a trial and error process in practice sessions to refine one’s own way of playing, over time.

I was very fortunate to spend time with Rahul Dravid in England when he was the Overseas professional for Kent and Anil Kumble was my teammate at Leicestershire in 2000. Over dinner one evening in Canterbury, Rahul was fascinating company discussing how he learnt to play all types of bowlers and how he was dealing with the challenge of achieving excellence in county cricket. He took a professor’s approach to the challenge of mastering batsmanship – always tinkering with his grip and adapting his game whilst always being aware of the need to play to his strengths and not lose the identity of his own game when looking to integrate the approach of others into his evolving game.

The Modern Day Problem – The Effect of DRS

There is little doubt in my mind that batting today is a very challenging proposition because of the introduction of the DRS system. Umpires know they have a bigger area to give LBW decisions out and the technology will support their marginal decisions such as when the ball is only just clipping the side of the stumps or the top of the stumps. This makes batsmen understandably nervous of getting hit on the pads. The key is to be able to play the ball with the bat every time – sounds simple I know!

To counter the threat of LBW’s on a turning pitch, the batsman must have a clear plan of how they want to play, and where they are looking to score. For example, when playing the off-spin of Ravi Ashwin, most players will decide whether (or not) they want to be offside of the ball as much as possible and have it to the side of themselves when making contact. This method would benefit from taking a guard on leg stump or outside leg stump, and look to play the ball into the gaps on the offside. By taking the pads (more or less) out of the line of the stumps, it negates the threat of LBW.

Another option would be if  the batsman wanted to have the ball in front of them (thus looking to play pre-dominantly into the legside) they may decide to line up on off stump/middle & off stump guard and by getting well forward on the front foot would reduce LBW’s because many balls would hit the front pad outside the line of off stump. And, if the pitch had good bounce, the distance the ball would have to travel after hitting the front pad of a batsman who is well forward, would mean the ball would most likely bounce over the top of the stumps.

Being Personally Accountable

England’s players have the chance to build on their own skills in collaboration with the experienced coaches present such as Graham Thorpe, himself an excellent test match batsman in all conditions. Jonathan Trott, who enjoyed success in India during 2012 despite getting off to a poor start is also on hand as a batting consultant.

But, it is the individual player himself who walks out to the crease and takes guard. The responsibility and accountability for performance belongs to the player, not the coach.

Returning Stronger from Setbacks

As the saying goes – “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”

The positive side of failure is the opportunity to understand what went wrong – was it a lack of understanding of the challenge or was it a flawed technique that needs to be re-worked, or was it a good technique let down by poor thinking which led to a player’s downfall?   

The key to coming back stronger from a poor team performance is for every player to be brutally honest with themselves. It is essential each batsman understands the present status of their game against spin – kidding oneself that “I’m hitting them well in the nets” and “all will be well if I get a bit of luck at the start of my innings” is counter-productive to achieving medium to long-term progress. With helpful corrective work, the best learners can become the best players. Returning to India in 4 years time as wiser, more experienced and more skilful test match batsmen must be the goal for the batting unit.

The Next Test

When a sporting team receives a heavy defeat, or is on the wrong end of a major upset, the call for Selectors to take ‘the axe’ to the team can be loud. Wise leaders exercise good judgment. In difficult moments, such as the one faced by Chris Silverwood and Joe Root right now, the best leaders find the necessary time and space to remove themselves from the fray and do some clear-headed thinking.

Ignoring the clamour for change isn’t always wise. Perhaps there is merit in giving other players an opportunity to reveal their class? Might Dan Lawrence be the longer-term answer in India? Might Oliie Pope benefit from batting at number 3? Is Jonny Bairstow the possible answer to England’s opening batsman alongside either Dom Sibley or Rory Burns?

Might Dom Bess benefit from another test match and the opportunity to experience bowling in helpful conditions in a match rather than the nets?

As the 4th test is a day match with a red ball, I imagine England will want to play two spinners if they can. I reckon their leadership group may have been slightly ‘duped’ by the possible effect of the pink ball under lights and the effect of overhead conditions as opposed to looking down at the pitch and determining that it would turn square! Will the 4th test be similar? I would be surprised if it were much different – India has found a winning formula and their batsmen will have less mental scarring than England’s top order.

What is a Good Pitch?

A test match pitch is (supposed to be) prepared for a five day contest.

However, whatever is prepared, both teams have to get on with it and do the best they can with their skills and experience. Complaining and excuse-making serves no purpose. To England’s credit, I think they have handled a difficult situation well once they lost the match in Ahmedabad. THEY REALISED THAT COMPLAINING PUBLICLY ABOUT THE PITCH WOULD BE UNWISE AND WOULDN’T CHANGE THE RESULT OF THE MATCH.

Here’s hoping for the best possible pitch to ensure the final test of a gripping series offers a more balanced contest between the bat and the ball.

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