Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Attack, but skillfully?

Peter Roebuck presents a fairly detailed account of the development of bowling tactics as a result of limited overs cricket. Amazingly for a former cricketer (and captain), he leaves out the most crucial part of the story - the length of the contest. What does it mean for a bowler to be attacking in a 20 over game? What is this bowler attacking when faced with a batsman who is willing to leave his stumps and take a chance as frequently as every ball? Roebuck's recounting of the facts is fine, but his analysis based on those facts is bizarre. He writes:

If the strategy is clear and attractive, the execution is often ordinary. An awful lot of tripe is sent down in Twenty20 matches. The craftsmen of yesterday must blanch at the number of full-tosses delivered. Tom Cartwright, Derek Underwood and their contemporaries could go an entire season without producing a single full-toss. Far more modest practitioners could say the same. Now highly regarded bowlers can send down three in an over, as Rory Kleinveldt did the other day against India. It was money for old rope, and it happens an awful lot. Bowlers get away with it because almost everyone suffers and it is only a question of degree.

Plain as day, panic is the problem. Everyone is scared about enduring the terrible over, costing 20 runs and changing the course of the match. Desperation sets in and they forget the lessons learnt over the years, concentrating instead upon pitching the perfect ball. Usually it goes wrong and a boundary results, whereupon the bowler is under intense pressure for the rest of the over.

Obviously another development awaits. The tactic of pressing for wickets is correct. The need to vary the length, pace, angle and movement of deliveries has been proven. But it all goes to nothing unless the strategy is skilfully carried out. Nothing is simpler than to hit a bad slow ball, unless it is a full-toss or long hop pretending to be a bouncer. Last night's leftovers and beef stroganoff are both stews but they don't taste the same.

Bowlers can escape serious punishment in two circumstances. When the pitch is grumpy or grassy they can take wickets simply by performing as normal. When the pitch is firm, though, and the boundaries are short, as if often the case, their success depends on calm thinking and precise execution. At present the batsmen are ruling the roost and it's up to the bowlers to stop making life easy for them and to start turning the screws on them. The bowlers are right to attack, but it's no use charging wildly towards the guns. Scorning defeatist sentiment, leather flingers need to stop offering rubbish and start making life harder in the enemy camp. Cricket is a game of pressure. All too often in the IPL and other Twenty20, bowlers are providing the release valve.
The obvious question for Roebuck would be, why are bowlers not bowling three full tosses per over in Tests? Why are batsmen not running at bowlers in Tests? The answer is obvious - because Tests pose different challenges for bowlers and batsmen - the price of a wicket is much higher in Tests, while in T20 it is trivialized. The whole contest between bat and ball rests on one fact - that the batsman can be dismissed by the bowler. Obviously, this means that if that wicket is worth a lot to the batting side, then the bowler will be treated with greater circumspection by the batsman.

Panic is clearly not the problem. After all, it's not just full-tosses that get high for six. Pretty much any line and length gets hit for six. Big surprise! Batsmen who play serious cricket with good quality equipment can hit a ball 80 yards. What ODIs and to an even greater extent T20 cricket are doing is skewing the contest in favor of the bat - only marginally through the use of fielding restrictions, over quotas for bowlers, stricter interpretations of wides, but mainly by making wickets cheap.

The last thing the "leather flingers" need is pompous claptrap from a former County captain. They don't need arguments that build on meaningless statements like "Cricket is a game of pressure". They need a shift in the contest where by the cost of a wicket is high enough so for a batsman, the price of his wicket will be slightly greater than the benefit of taking a reckless chance for a reasonable period of time. The only place this is so, is in Test Cricket and 4 day cricket, and to some extent, in certain specific situations in an ODI. In a T20 game, such a situation, if it is at all possible, doesn't last longer than an over or two. Even Courtney Walsh survived on average 2 overs per dismissal in a Test!

I'm very surprised that Roebuck finds it possible to advice bowlers about their "plight" without commenting on the basic structure of the contest and the limitations that this creates for bowlers. The problem is obviously not just that batsmen have been innovating while bowlers have not. Neither is it the case that batsmen are inherently superior at executing their skills than bowlers. Batsmen are not inherently superior human beings compared to bowlers. The problem is that they have been provided with a situation in which throwing caution to the wind is not only possible, but required.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant KD. Funny thing is that full-tosses seem to be getting as many wickets (or even more) in T20 as other balls do.

    Funny that Roebuck does not touch upon the crucial fact that boundary ropes are shorter in T20 allowing even mishits to go to 6s. Why don't teams that chase down 60 in 5 overs with 7-8 wickets in hand in T20s do the same in ODIs? Cos mishits don't carry to the boundary.

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