Mind Games

It has been a bit of a surreal few days. England’s ODI series in Asia’s favourite waterpark (otherwise known as Sri Lanka in monsoon season) continued with another washout. And then we had more accusations of spot fixing involving England and Australia players.

I don’t know about you but I reckon Al Jazeera should put up or shut up now. The ICC have asked them to hand over the evidence but thus far they’ve refused to comply. This makes we wonder why? Call me naive but I just don’t see why any England players would get involved in corruption. They’re so well paid these days. Unless they’re being blackmailed or threatened (in which case they can’t be blamed) I just don’t see a motive.

In better news – for England’s batsmen anyway – it has emerged that Rangana Herath is only going to play the first test in the upcoming series. Again this is a tad surreal. I can’t recall another cricketer playing a single test and then retiring mid-series. There have been retirements due to injury and poor form (Graeme Tango Man Swann springs to mind) but these weren’t predetermined decisions.

Apparently Herath is ‘reluctant’ to play in all three tests, and because he’s such a legend the Sri Lankan board don’t mind him bowing out after a farewell appearance at Galle. It’s a special venue for Herath because that’s where he made his debut. It’s also where he’s taken almost a quarter of his test wickets – a remarkable statistic.

I don’t know about you but I reckon this news gives England a much better chance in the series. Herath is Sri Lanka’s best bowler by some distance, and I’m sure that much our pre-tour planning would’ve involved finding strategies to counter him. This plan won’t be needed after Galle.

Instead the pressure will be on Sri Lanka’s other spinners who don’t have such impressive records. Dilruwan Perera is a tidy bowler, and I’m sure he’ll cause a few problems, but he’s not in Herath’s class. Hearth was very much the host’s banker, and it should be a lot easier for our attacking players to get after the other bowlers.

The key to success in this series, of course, will be England’s fragile batting line-up. There’s so much inexperience (at least in international terms) in the side. Burns will be making his debut, Jennings is still wet behind the ears too, and England will have to decide if Joe Denly is going to bat at 3.

Personally I would like to see Denly play because I don’t see Moeen Ali as a viable 3 in next summer’s Ashes; therefore there’s no point in using him as a stopgap this winter. I’d much rather we bed someone in for the longer term.

England will also have to decide if there’s room for another very young player in Ollie Pope. However, I’m not sure there will be a vacancy for the Surrey youngster because no doubt we’ll pick our usual plethora of all-rounders.

The success of our batsmen will depend very much on their mindset. We have to put this ‘live by the sword’ mentality to one side and play with grit and intelligence instead. I might very well spontaneously combust if I see a batsman throw his wicket away and then use the phrase “that’s the way I play”.

The problem is that batsmen simply can’t afford to make any mistakes whatsoever. Shot selection is absolutely key, and I’m not sure any of our players (Joe Root included in recent times) get that all important balance between playing positively but intelligently right.

There’s an interesting interview over at Betway Insider with Steve Bull, who was England’s psychologist between 1997 and 2014. England’s batsmen have definitely been more gung-ho since he’s left.

Bull makes some interesting points about the small margins between success and failure and how, if one does make a mistake, it’s easy to get into negative spirals:

“A slight error of technique and you are out. One mistake. The margin is so ridiculously small, and the consequences of a mistake are so huge. The knock-on effect is that after two or three low scores, the rest of the mechanisms kick in and the confidence starts to go. It can take you into the abyss.”

I often think that England’s batting collapses are partly caused by a weak mental approach. Whenever we’re under pressure our batsmen seem to lash out, which inevitably leads to more poor dismissals, and even more pressure. A vicious cycle is therefore created.

Playing in the subcontinent, and especially in Sri Lanka where it’s often incredible hot, requires immense self-discipline. The heats makes it even more difficult to concentrate; therefore I really think England’s task will be a physical one as well as a mental one. It’s hard to focus if one is exhausted.

I recommend giving that aforementioned article a read. It also includes an interview with Shiv Chanderpaul, who was obviously a master at digging in and playing long innings. One of the problems Shiv raises is that it’s hard to relax and feel confident when you’re new to the side. England’s rookies don’t have career runs in the bank so they’ll be extra nervous.

There are obviously some interesting parallels between Shiv and Rory Burns too. Both have somewhat ungainly (or perhaps I should say ‘unorthodox’) techniques. Players like James Vince are lucky because they look so stylish at the crease. And this can often win them more time to cement their place. When slightly awkward looking players struggle observers tend to write them off more quickly. It’s therefore really important that Burns starts well.

I’m looking forward to seeing how England’s batsmen approach this tour – both as a unit and as individuals. It should be fascinating to watch. That’s if the weather behaves itself.

James Morgan


  • In my experience when you get stressed it’s always easier to cope if you have access to a comfort zone. In the case of the modern day international cricketer this seems to involve playing more freely rather than going into your shell, like some sort of latter day Tavare. Ironically the only England batsman to make an effort to adapt his approach has been Mr ‘Hothead’ Stokes, whose innings this summer may not have been spectacular but have shown more maturity than any specialist batsman we’ve tried. I guess the question is if a temperament like his can adapt to match conditions why can’t the other more mild mannered types do likewise. I wonder what our psychologist would have made of that?

    • Stokes did manage to play a few nuggety innings this summer. It was impressive. But I wonder if it’s one extreme or the other with him. He’s either attack, attack, attack or defend, defend, defend.

      I haven’t looked back at the stats, so I could be wrong about this, but I recall that when he went into his shell he generally stayed there. And he didn’t go on to make a century either. I think perhaps that he needs to work out a way to find a balance. He’s certainly got both the talent and the technique to be a very good batsman.

      • I think it’s almost impossible to switch your natural instincts on and off like a tap. Most of Stoke’s back to the wall innings this season came when the established batsmen had failed and he was the last of the line. To me his approach was the right one as those below him looked to score the runs. It’s fair to say that Butler rode his luck to a far greater degree in making his scores and certainly didn’t restrain himself much, playing and missing regularly, yet he seemed to get all the plaudits.
        Just a comment on the debacle in Sri Lanka today. Stokes seemed to be the only one caring much and under Butler’s captaincy the team looked distinctly lack lustre. A mistake to rest Morgan me thinks. His captaincy is as important as his batting. I can’t imagine under his captaincy a game drifting like this. Give Stokes the job if Morgan isn’t going to play. Don’t understand the obsession with Butler. To me he’s a chancer as a batsman with little evidence to suggest he’s captaincy material.

  • Ah Lord Messiah Stokes..

    In fairness he did look to be trying so fair play. Sadly, I still don’t think we have enough batsmen with test match techniques or mentalities. Still too many one day stroke makers.

    Eng will beat SL as SL are so crap… especially without Herath.

  • I would be a bit cautious about attacking Al Jazeera. Their record of breaking news stories rivals the best of western outlets and the guts shown by their journalists in the face of existential dangers from the corrupt despots of the Middle East deserves much credit. I tend to think that a channel banned in Egypt and Israel must be doing something right. Bear in mind that the ICC knew about the alleged ‘fixer’ (Aneel Munawar) for years and did nothing about him – so you can understand journalists doubt about the integrity of the ICC (and that is without bringing in the allegations against various past senior officials in the ICC such as Srinivasan).

  • The trouble with the “put up or shut up” argument is it assumes there is somebody to “put up to”. Boards aren’t interested in catching fixers – they’re interested in protecting their assets. The ACU exists IMO as a cover. Giving them your sources would be used to find out where the story is coming from and shut it down, not investigate the truth of the allegations.

    I’ll be as sorry as anyone to see Herath go – but his retirement plan does rather fit the “bunsen in Galle followed by a series of roads for a nice home 1-0” model…. which does in turn rather follow what Al Jazeera alleged in their first programme…

    • ‘Boards aren’t interested in catching fixer’ or the players/administrators


  • Thus far the consensus seems to be that the ECB has no desire to root out any corruption in English cricket or the England team. I just don’t believe that. Sorry. The ECB are guilty of a lot (lack of vision, bizarre ideas, incompetence etc) but I don’t see them as corrupt or wilfully turning a blind eye. And I don’t believe that England players would willingly / knowingly get embroiled in corruption. The penalties are too severe and our players are too well paid to be tempted. Obviously this is what I want to believe, so my view might be biased, but I’d be flabbergasted if a top English player has been tempted to take illegal cash, especially after seeing that Amir and Asif went to prison.

    • If I am not mistaken, NONE of the corruption scandals uncovered in the last decade have been uncovered by the ACU.

      It is not like English athletes never cheat. Or Americans. Or Russians. Or Indians. Or Australians. Or whomever. Sometimes they are / were protected by their national governing agency. Not just dope, but also other methods. And these were not poorly paid athletes. Besides, not every English player that tours is necessarily on a central contract, so they might barely make a fraction of their more established team mates.

      As for the ICC / ECB, they simply don’t care about corruption in the game. If they did, they would not do everything in their power to make corruption more likely. And they simply have (from the Big 3 power grab, to starving Associates from funding, to extremely skewed payment for services rendered (most notably in the IPL, where a player like AB de Villiers makes in 6 weeks what he makes in six years for playing for South Africa). Never mind that the ICC, and by extension are only too happy when for instance Zimbabwean players are not paid for months on end, making corruption the only way to actually make money for these players (and they have families to support). And if they are not happy, they do a really good job of not showing any displeasure with it. And they are certainly NOT supporting the players who are / were being screwed over by the officials in ZC.

      But maybe I am just too cynical, and it is just ECB-approved ploy so that they can get the best talent from Zimbabwe to represent England, or at least play in England. Or from the West Indies. Or from South Africa.

    • The problem is less the ECB and more the ICC. I tend to agree that the ECB is relatively straight. However, Al Jazeera is based in Qatar and the ICC is based in Dubai, which has been allying with Saudi Arabia in an attempt to shut down Al Jazeera due to its embarrassing tendency to expose corruption and general wrongdoing in the Middle East (and elsewhere). Consequently Al Jazeera are bound to see cricket through the prism of that existential threat and look with suspicion on any organisation allied with the Dubai authorities. They will also see the ICC as the relevant body in this case. The allegations about English players have emerged in the context of a wider investigation which includes various countries. So it is reasonable to ignore the ECB as only one player in a matter which should be an ICC concern. Here endeth the lesson on regional politics. :)

      On the specific issue of whether it is credible that English players are involved…..the answer can only be yes. But being credible does not make it true. Why would it be credible? Well, no one would have thought the likes of Cronje would be bent, or that Warne would be stupid enough to get caught on the fringes (actually I have just realised how unlikely is that comment about Warne). And top English sportsmen have been found doing similar things in other sports, from snooker to horse racing to football and other sports. And in recent years top sportsmen in other countries, including New Zealand cricket and Serie A and Bundesliga football have been found with their hands in the till. It would be a bit Little Englander to think we are immune to temptation – but that only establishes credibility, not proof.

      • Investigative journalism is about investigation, not publish or be damned. Al Jazeera, I guess partly due to its recent ‘successes’, seems to have developed a ‘paparazzi’ mentality where if it can’t find any concrete evidence it just publishes what suspicions it has in the hope this will precipitate something to crawl out of the woodwork. This is not the responsible journalism it wants to be respected for.
        Being guilty by association is not the basis for legal prosecution.


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