Today we welcome new writer Steve Baggaley to TFT. He has some strong views on what white ball cricket is doing to the traditional skills of the game. Anyone who’s watched England’s Test team bat in recent times will appreciate exactly where he’s coming from…
Poor batsmanship is threatening the true nature of the game of test cricket – and the game’s shorter formats are not helping.
At its most exciting, cricket is not only a celebration of the various skills of the players: the swing, seam, and spin of bowlers; and the back foot, front foot, soft hands, and hard hands of batsmen. It is also critically reliant on testing these skills in a variety of conditions, over five days: climate and humidity, outfield and dew, ball and shine, pitch and soil. This combination of factors creates the endlessly fascinating nuances of the sport.
When these conditions become challenging, today’s batsmen are all too often flailing and failing. Given a grassy green wicket or raging turner, batsmen do not then have the skill to defend or attack against the moving ball. The feet go nowhere, the head is off kilter, balance is lost, and wickets tumble. Matches last three days (sometimes less), and most significantly, cricket boards lose money.
Quality batting gives curators the confidence to prepare cricket pitches that promote the skills of the game. The swing and seam of a fast bowler on the first morning, the guile and field placements needed as the pitch flattens and dries on day two and three, and the challenge of spin on day four and five showcase the game’s demands. Batsmen must adapt to the swinging and seaming ball through swift footwork. Focus and concentration are key when the pitch loses life. Attack and defence are paramount when facing the turning ball.
Time allocated to test cricket is key. Time for the pitch to change in color and character: green tinged on the first day, and grey, scuffed, and cracked on the last. Time for the ball to be polished, scuffed (legally we hope), and seam flattened. All these factors influence the aerodynamics and movement of the ball. The game is nuanced, testing a range of skills that other shorter formats of the game forego.
The shorter formats of the game have aggravated batsmen’s deficiencies. After all, the fewer the variables, the more homogenised the product – pitches so true as if made of glass, batsmen blasting the ball to all quarters, bowlers attaining no movement; resorting to circus tricks including knuckle balls and fast leg-spinners: at best, entertainment for a new generation of follower; at worst, dumbing down the sport to a series of cheap thrills for short attention spans.
This immediate form of gratification should not surprise in today’s world of texts and tweets. Communicating over distance used to be a process of writing, sending, receiving, and responding – all on paper – creating a sense of anticipation. This is analogous to test cricket over 5 days. How much grass is on the pitch? Will the field rough up the ball for reverse swing? How far will the cracks open up? There is a sense of time and space in which the mind can slow down and analyse.
Of course there are many constraints to this ideal. The very popularity of T20 and its predecessor, 50-over cricket, are predicated on the family friendly entertainment of explosive strokes of the batsmen, providing the instant gratification of fours being smashed and sixes clubbed. After all, this is a game for spoilt batsmen playing outlandish shots with the confidence that the bounce of the ball is true. Sure, paddles over keepers and baseball slugs over ropes have their own challenges, but this bears little resemblance to the fundamentals of the game.
More money and marketing needs to support the longer form of the game. Recognising and promoting cricket as a game played in a variety of conditions will motivate coaches and players to teach skillsets that are the very essence of cricket. Better quality batting will give curators more confidence to prepare the ideal pitch which seams, flattens, and then spins. Matches will last longer, benefiting both crowds and administrators while promoting the skills of the game.
Or we can continue down this same lifeless flat road, watching tens of short-form matches that all meld into one another, watching batmen’s techniques deteriorate, and ignoring the true essence of cricket: a test of time, space, and the ever-changing conditions.