Survival Of The Fittest

Five-hour hundred or 20-ball fifty? The very best must be able to achieve both. Lawrence Booth investigates the modern demands of all-round adaptability
Photograph: Munur Az Zaman/ AFP/ Getty Images

In a recent newspaper interview Paul Collingwood bit his lip and faced up to the looming prospect of another three months on the road. Since Collingwood was brooding over the thought of yet more time away from his young family, the interviewer presumably decided it was not the moment to suggest that a different kind of mental examination also lay in wait.

On March 5 Collingwood played in the third of three one-day internationals in Bangladesh. Two days later came a three-day warm-up game in Chittagong, hot on the heels of which was the first of two Tests. And three days after the scheduled finale of the second of them, in Dhaka, he was hoping to be ready for an Indian Premier League Twenty20 match in Bangalore. Three weeks, four tempos: cricketers have never had it so varied.

Cricket’s evolution just about squeezes into the Darwinian template. The introduction of a middle stump, the advent of round-arm bowling, WG Grace playing forward and back, the debut of Don Bradman, the menace of Bodyline, the arrival of one-day internationals, coloured clothing, helmets, floodlights and switch-hits – each development has forced players to evolve or perish. But it may well be the 21st century that has taken the doctrine of survival of the fittest to its most logical extreme.

Some players – Ricky Ponting, Andrew Strauss, VVS Laxman – have accepted either their age or their limitations and opted out of the challenge of competing in all formats for their country. Others – Kieron Pollard, David Warner, Eoin Morgan – are polishing reputations without the help of Tests. But for the majority of the world’s top players the answer is adaptation. Just ask Collingwood … plus Brigadier Block and Sergeant Smash, his two alter egos who emerged on the recent trip to South Africa.

This phenomenon of sporting evolution-on-the-make takes place on an almost daily basis in county cricket, where the defined competition blocks have only partially eased a labyrinthine fixture list. Mark Ramprakash, who averages 54 in first-class cricket, 40 in List A one-day games and 31 – with a strike-rate of 127 – in Twenty20 matches may have made light of the potential confusion, but he says it isn’t the same for everyone.

“One day you might have a four-day game at Bristol, where there’s a bit of swing and seam around and you’re looking to do the basics well, play straight and show the full face of the bat,” he says. “The next day it might be a Twenty20 game at Taunton and you have to have the confidence to hit through the line of the ball.

“Taking the Twenty20 approach into longer forms of the game can liven up the play. But on the negative side I would worry that younger players sometimes get the balance wrong. They say, ‘That’s just the way I play: I try to be aggressive.’ But actually you’re not being tough enough on yourself. You need players to take responsibility to build an innings.”

If the concern seems apt lower down the food chain, then most international cricketers play down the challenge – not surprising, perhaps, now that Twenty20’s money has quelled the uproar over burn-out. Who, since the retirement five years ago of New Zealand opener and perennial self-deprecator Mark Richardson, would cheerfully portray himself these days as a stick-in-the-mud maker of five-hour hundreds?

Instead it seems more acceptable – as well as financially more prudent – to allow Twenty20 to infect your Test-match batting. Richardson’s compatriot Ross Taylor arrived in England in 2008 after an IPL stint with Royal Challengers Bangalore and duly batted like a man in a hurry in the first innings of the first Test at Lord’s. A month earlier India’s batsmen were bundled out for 76 in exactly 20 overs by South Africa on the first morning of the Ahmedabad Test – too precise a demise to resist reference to the IPL, which began a fortnight later.

Then again, such examples possibly stick in the mind because of their rarity, which is why we should possibly take at face value the constant refrain that today’s players are professional enough to cope with the ongoing merry-go-round. But even Mozart had to practise his scales.

This is a truism that coaches, though possessing an agenda of their own, are keen to propagate. Mickey Arthur, who recently stepped down after five years as coach of South Africa, describes the constant realignment of technical and mental skills as “one of my biggest challenges”, and by way of illustration cites a difference in the practice undergone by Test and one-day batsmen.

“For Tests we’d work on going back and across, covering off stump and playing straight down the wicket,” he says. “With the one-day guys we’d look to free them up outside off stump – not covering it, unless the wicket was doing a bit early on. If the wicket was flat, you’d look to stay leg side of the ball. In Test cricket you’d want to stay off side. It’s a different guard.”

Arthur also talks about the one-day players working on one shot on both sides of the wicket, in addition to a release stroke – the one a batsman can play if he feels bogged down. But he insists “class players will adapt anyway” and claims he never needed more than one session with his batsmen to prepare for a change of format.

Ramprakash says Surrey have been working on their own adaptation skills in the indoor nets, where Graham Thorpe, the club’s new batting coach, sets them challenges to replicate match situations. But, like Arthur, he feels the best players will come to the fore in any format. Which raises another question posed by the need to adapt: why are England, a middling-to-good Test team, more or less bottom of the heap in Twenty20?

At the 2009 IPL in South Africa the under-employed Collingwood spoke about the time he tried to pick the brain of Virender Sehwag, a fellow Delhi Daredevil. Collingwood fired a string of technical questions at his team-mate, only for Sehwag to interrupt. “No, no, no. Watch ball, hit ball.”

This is more than the advice of a gifted hitter to a self-confessed grafter: it is a clash of cultures, and the tendency of over-coached Englishmen to fret over their left elbow rather than plonk the ball into the stands was remarked upon by Andrew Strauss in his first autobiography. Eoin Morgan, who was able to hone his hand-eye skills back in Ireland before he entered the English coaching system with Middlesex at the age of 16, may have benefited from his relatively late arrival.

This emphasis on the mental approach is supported by Jeremy Snape, South Africa’s performance coach who has carved out a niche for himself as cricket’s go-to mind doctor.

“Coaching needs to focus more on the mental side of the game as it is more the strategy and risk-taking which changes when players change format than actual batting or bowling mechanics,” he argues. “Yet most of our coaching remains technically based.”

Snape, whose website – thesportingedge.co.uk – has the kind of name that would have been laughed at in cricket circles 15 years ago, says it’s crucial players are “comfortable with a higher risk profile for T20 cricket”. And he believes the next development in mental adaptability will have nothing to do with bowling yorkers or playing scoop shots.

“Everyone talks about what goes on during the ball being ‘in play’ or the highlights, but to me the most crucial part is the ‘low-lights’, which is the time between balls when all the thinking goes on,” he says. “The South African players are very talented and this mental training is the next competitive edge in cricket.”

In the meantime the biggest challenge may be for younger players who come to regard the apprenticeship of the first-class game as an obstacle to stardom. Could it be that a new generation of players will wrestle less and less with the different problems posed by three formats, staking all on the flick over fine leg or the back-of-the-hand slower ball?

“Unfortunately I see it going that way slightly,” says Arthur. “Look at Kieron Pollard. His first one-day fifty was against Australia in Brisbane recently, but he’s been sold to the IPL for $750,000. I have a lot of respect for him, but there’s no track record there as a player. It’s far better to judge a cricketer on a five-hour hundred than a 10-ball 30.”

Arthur may soon begin to sound very quaint indeed.

Lawrence Booth writes for the Daily Mail and is author of the weekly e-mailer The Top Spin

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