England Pays For The Outlawing Of The Conventional Wisdom In Favor Of Divergent Thinking? > Cricket News, cricinfo, mobilecric, cricbuzz, livescore and more
Cricket news - Are England paying for shunning conventional wisdom in favour of divergent thinking?
A quirk of a batting order, one that goes some way to explaining the psychological hold cricket has over its participants, is that it relies on failure to fulfill its true potential. The finite parameters of Twenty20 have accentuated this phenomenon.
While the aim in T20 is to hit every one of the 120 balls for six, certain batsmen are better at doing so at certain times and against certain bowlers. Not only do batsmen need to perform as quickly as possible they also need to get out at the right time to hand over to batsmen better suited to that phase of the innings.
For example, an opener teeing off in the PowerPlay who may not be too adept at dealing with more men outside the ring may waste deliveries outside the first six overs, where a mid-innings manipulator would perform better. The latter, in turn, will need to pass the baton onto the finisher down at No.7 who is more attuned to finding boundaries at will, particularly to death bowling.
In Test cricket rather than passages of play, the way has been to organise batsmen in a specific sequence to best utilise their strengths. Those comfortable against a new ball up top and others better equipped to score runs when the ball is older against a more spread field, further down. It is a wisdom that has stood the test of time, long before your granny started sucking eggs, brought down from the mountain by Moses and set in stone, along with the lunch break having to be 40 minutes.
You may have surmised that over the last nine months England have regarded themselves above this conventional wisdom. It started with allrounders, as coaches and selectors put their stock in multi-faceted cricketers. When runs were scored down the order to bail out the frontline batsmen, it was celebrated as a success of flexibility. National selector Ed Smith has made the point on a number of occasions that it does not matter where the runs come from, just that they come. Yet two dismal Tests into this West Indies series, everyone's still waiting.
The knock-on effect of doubling down on this tactic was the situation in Sri Lanka last November when England had four players penciled in to bat at number three, though only three were called for. It was a weakness spun as a strength: sure, this house with its easily pickable front door and pryable windows is a burglar's dream... but hey, check out these four baseball bats under my pillow!
When Joe Root vacated the position for the sake of his own captaincy, one of the most fundamentally challenging jobs in Test cricket became a hot potato passed among the more established players. Jonny Bairstow, the man now in possession, became the first No.3 in 52 attempts to score a century when he did so during the third Test at Colombo. Yet his dismissal in the second Test at Antigua - driving at a ball that was too short for the stroke - has reinforced concerns that existed before his elevation based on how often he is bowled early in an innings. Since the start of 2018, he has also batted at four, five, six and seven.
This indecision over a number three ultimately led to Joe Denly's selection. Going into the winter, there was a possibility that he could plug the gap. It was a job he had performed for Kent, but to continue the trend of "dynamic selection", his Test bow came as an opener. Unsurprisingly, two failures followed.
Some (Australians, mostly) believe your number three should be your best batsman: a player capable of leading a recovery in the event of early strife or playing shots to build on a platform set by numbers one and two. In England's case, that's Root. But for every Ricky Ponting or Kane Williamson, there is a Jonathan Trott or Cheteshwar Pujara: players set in their conservative ways, acting as a conduit between the top and the middle order. The ones that bat time for the benefit of others, absorbing pressure and frustrating opposition attacks, like Darren Bravo did in the second Test for almost six hours.
At 2-0 down to West Indies, series gone and a bump down to fifth in the rankings to be confirmed regardless of the result in the final Test, the question could be asked - have England tried to be too smart? Among all their reasoning behind the scenes that they can play the game their own way - a success in ODIs - have they simply tried too hard to think too far outside the box and subsequently ignored Test cricket's fundamentals?
In England's defence, their current set-up is a product of circumstance. They possess attacking players who over the last few years, across multiple formats, have shown themselves to be uninhibited by the bright lights of international cricket. They could also argue their hand has been forced by the dearth of specialist options in county cricket, having thumbed through not just the openers but also other batsmen like Gary Ballance, James Vince, Dawid Malan and Ollie Pope all in the last 18 months. To their mind, they have seen what's out there.
Trevor Bayliss may not be freezing his floppy hat off on an April afternoon at Hove, or shuffling into the Ladies Pavilion at New Road for some cake at Tea. But since the start of 2015, he has witnessed 15 pure batsmen - discounting allrounders - come into the England Test squad and none have secured a place. He has also heard reports about how the generation coming through with the Lions lack some of the key skills that Test players need, such as playing pace or spin. It's not that Bayliss does not want to watch county players, he just doesn't feel compelled to.
Ironically, the laissez-faire approach to selection and batting orders at the top is having a peculiar effect in the County Championship. Domestic cricketers are acutely aware of what positions are up for grabs, and while the never-ending merry-go-round of openers plays out every summer, middle-order batsmen have tried to second-guess where other opportunities may lie. Last summer, with Root at three, it was the spot Malan was struggling to hold down at four.
Yet, when the Middlesex skipper was replaced, it was by Ollie Pope, a young batsman who had scored all his four-day runs that year at No. 6. By the end of the summer, when Root had given up on three, Jason Roy was granted a go there by Surrey for the final game against Essex. A hundred led to a spot on the Lions tour, where he batted at three once more. Now, he is being touted as the next in line to... open.
Already, domestic batsmen such as Roy, Vince, Ballance Joe Clarke, Ben Duckett, Sam Northeast, Liam Livingstone, Alex Davies, perennial bridesmaid James Hildreth and others are plotting a possible late charge into plans for the Ireland and Australia Tests. They will weigh up the gamble of putting their hand up for a spot in the top three of their sides against the unforgiving Dukes in early season conditions. Given the stock placed in the volume of runs instead of maybe where they are scored, they may be better served to churn lower down.
Whatever comes of that scrap, the system as a whole needs clarity. If England are serious about creating a robust Test side with sustainable plans, they need to return to the old ways of specialisation. That starts with a number three. Either Root, England's best player, must suck it up and give it another go, or together national coaches and selectors need to find their inglorious conduit. They have six months to work it out.
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