An Abu Dhabi post mortem: How to chase small targets

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Strauss, raus

Yes, I know, I know. It’s old hat, long gone, water under the bridge, the day before the day before yesterday’s chip paper. What’s more,the 3rd Test is only hours away (in fact, has probably started). Therefore,having moved your attention elsewhere, you may well have reason to feel there’s no longer any point in me writing (or you reading) about the whole Abu Dhabi fiasco(for what it’s worth, I feel there’s little point doing anything in a meaningless, Copernican-Darwinian universe, yet here I am, beak t’grindstone). However – and this is the best pseudo-justification: I, an absolute pro, can muster – I believe it is best when analyzing cricket matches to take a leaf out of Andy Flower’s book and avoid overhasty, gunpowder-reactions. Do not knee-jerk. Masticate. Then cogitate, speculate, and formulate.

To wit: our analytical object – which is not, initially, the obvious one of how to play spin, but does touch upon it – is that universal problem, the perennial perplexer : how to go about a dinky little run chase on a slowish turner (ideas that may or may not transfer to similar chases on seaming pitches)? It is undoubtedly a subject worthy of a great military treatise from a philosopher-general: a Napoleon, von der Golz, Schlieffen or John Buchanan, say. Since Carl vonClausewitz died before finishing the first draft of his On Run Chases, you’ll have to make do with me, instead.

The first thing you need, I would suggest, is a liberal spray of WD40 around the sphincter region, for this is most definitely the time when bums will be apt to squeak. After doing that, it would be a very good idea to speak openly and candidly as a group about the individual consequences of succumbing while committed to out-and-out attack – for, going down in flames(regardless of whether it’s a mental cop-out borne of an inability to graft and grind) potentially lays you open to the cold shoulder of teammates and to the furor of a hindsight-laden, perhaps agenda-wielding (or simply Strong Opinion-compelled) media, that diverse soup of voices whose indeterminate relationship with the selection process does not mean it does not exist.

Judgment from on high
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At any rate, this group discussion is not touchy-feely shrink-talk or psychobabble,either. It’s about removing ambiguity. Players need to have the fug of doubt (and the instinct for self-preservation) lifted. If such extrinsic factors as the imagined consensus of an acceptable way to get out impinge on the nuts and bolts of their batting, then the chances of unearthing a solution to the technical/tactical/psychological problems they face all but vanish, sailing off beyond the shrinking purview of anxious introspection.

All good in theory, but does a 10-minute turnaround from third to fourth innings afford the possibility for an open mini-discussion of this ilk? Presumably, these eventualities are discussed at training, overnight, or in some other forum, but then the match situation races along, the equation changes, and such messages could be forgotten, if not actually redundant. And with the team members leaving the field, the dusty afternoon, and seeking out fluids or rest, and thus maybe still properly to weigh up this new configuration in the balance of power, this new state of play, off skips the skipper to open the innings. And the vice-skipper, too. Perhaps there was little time for anything other than a platitudinous “play your own game, lads,” and the coach, steely and implacable though he may be, is most unlikely to wish to be prescriptive in such a scenario. So [masticate] perhaps [cogitate] that’s how it all panned out in Abu Dhabi[speculate]…

Anyway, like all runaway dynamics in which one event compounds another (and there’s nothing Pakistani cricket teams like more than a frenzy),batting collapses are both fun to watch – that salty water slowly rising up one’s nostrils – and to analyse. So, never one to turn down a fatuous exercise,I’m going to give the batsmen marks out of 10 for their culpability [formulate]: a score of 10 is hypothetically punishable by execution, 9 by torture, 8 by prolonged captivity, all the way down to 3 (no pocket money for a week), 2 (standing in the corner facing the wall) and 1, which would be 100 lines. Say: I must not try and cut the ball turning into me, particularly second ball up and outof the rough…

Of course, this scoring system offers an insight into my politics (small ‘p’), a sort of quantification of my tolerance and a glimpse as to the likely punitive regime you would face should the admittedly unlikely scenario of me being installed as dictator arise. Therefore, before we get all high-handed and Willisian, the following caveat should be noted: it is all too easy to criticize players’ execution of plans– “poor shot” – but by far the bigger flaw is poor conception – “what sort of fucking shot do you call that!?!” – be that with tactics or strategy. (For what it’s worth, the openers’ attempt to bat time and try and allow the ball to go soft with as many wickets in the shed was sound.)

Anyway, grab your rotten fruit, for here’s the grisly-parade:

21/1: Cook c&bHafeez 7
To play across the line, and against the spin, would seem a heinous crime, especially on a turning pitch. Even so, it’s important to rotate the strike. Trying to drop the ball into the vacant mid-wicket area was an attempt to do just that by a man who’d made 94, first dig. Legitimate option,poor execution. 3

26/2: Bell b Ajmal 3
Quite unlucky that the ball span back between his feet, but the has had all the air of permanence of a mayfly speed-dating event. He also has wears the angrily bewildered sneer of someone who knows they’ve entered by far the most impressive butternut squash in the Village Fete, but has suddenly realized they’ve made a stupid administrative error on the entry form and are thus about to be disqualified. 4

33/3: Pietersen lbwRehman 1
Serious technical issues: he’s not balanced, his head’s outside the line of the ball, and he’s not hitting the left-armer to extra-cover anywhere near often enough (even the middle-and-leg deliveries, inside-out, should be played this way: better to thick edge to gully than live in fear of lbw). Hard to see a way he can immediately improve. 7

37/4: Morgan b Rehman 0
Whisper it: I’m not 100% sure Morgan watches the ball right onto the bat, you know. Perhaps those gimlet eyes and golem visage mask confusion. Put his and Pietersen’s stances and triggers alongside each other and you’ve got a couple of vaudeville cockney coppers. Anyway, mutatismutandis, I refer old Guten to “Page 1, Paragraph 1” of the ancient text, How to Play Off-Spinners. 9

56/5: Strauss lbwRehman 32
A battling innings. A minor mistake. Probably right to use the review, too, but maybe shouldn’t have done so with KP, whose egotism and possible sulkiness bore too heavily on the decision, I’d suggest. 4

68/6: Trott lbw Rehman 1
Caught on the back foot trying to punch into mid-wicket: a productive shot, but old habits do die hard. Thus, gesturing to the umpire that you’ve tickled the ball and are not as salmon-and-trout as might be thought wasa relic of pre-DRS era, but when skipper and Ego have spunked the reviews it’s perhaps necessary to try and get away with it (if the umpire doesn’t give it, you could just bluff the opposition, too). Anyway, given that he had a dose of his family name, it’s little surprise he was caught between two stools. 2 [stool gag courtesy of @pjmcmahon83]

68/7: Broad b Rehman0
Don’t get me wrong, he bowled to world-class levels in thefirst innings, high-class (if slightly frazzled) in the second, and batted stupendously to give us a 70-run lead, but come the fourth innings he had gone.An utter waft. Towel chucked in. One day he may well go those extra few blister-stepped paces and climb Everest. 5(would be 9 or 10, but for mitigation)

71/8: Swann lbw Ajmal0
Played back. Is wooden. Missed it. Out. The only shot hecould have played was a Federeresque not-quite-half-volley drive-pass, hit on the up and which skims over the net. 3

72/9: Prior c Shafiqb Ajmal 18
No blame attached, but should’ve been trying to slog-sweepit for a big, fuck-off 6, not a check-drive over extra-cover. 3

72/10: Anderson c Gul b Rehman 1
Surprising lack of faith in Monty after their Cardiff heroics, but therecan be zilch blame for Jimmy. 0

KP goes down 
The failure of this run chase has of course highlighted England’s woeful batting against spin – caused, it has been claimed, by everything from complacency to no longer playing on uncovered pitches (Boycs) – andinvariably attempted to construe it as an essential trait or property of English cricket.

However, there is absolutely no point in looking to historyfor explanations. There are no precedents here that would help us analyse the specificfaults that caused this collapse, for the DRS system renders the currentcricketing arena a fundamentally different milieu– to use a term from evolutionary biology and ethology (the science of animal behaviour) – that the contemporary player has to negotiate (except for Indians,of course, who are creating problems for their own back should the ICC everfeel it was strong enough to stand up to the BCCI).

Put simply, the DRS is a rupture in the linear developmentof the game as a series of accumulated skills (or adaptive traits) for combat,an epochal shift, a new era, a line in the sand every bit as clear as JonathanTrott’s guard.

[NOTE: Naming no names, but when ex-Test players of aconservative disposition (and often with healthy statistics and reputation)discuss various innovations being mooted – like day-night Tests, pink balls, orother such attempts to allow cricket-as-a-whole to negotiate its milieu (i.e. competing for the finiteresource of public attention) – and bleat that they are “making a mockery ofthe records”, they are wrong in at least two important ways: (1) through technological,technical, tactical, administrative and physiological changes, the game is,always has been, and always will be subject to continuous variation in the relative value of statistics, aperpetual shift in the equilibrium point in the eternal battle of bat and ball;(2) thus, there is no transparent, univocal meaning to statistics: these haveto be given context, the meaning that is gleaned from them must not be dis-articulated from all the contingent elements that bore upon their original production oremergence. Every innings is irreducibly singular…. But anyway, besides allthis, there’s another reason: (3) surely any threat to the imagined canonical integrity of the statistical record is ofsecondary concern to – and once again drawing on an evolutionary analogy – the continued survival of the Test game, regardless of any diminution of the numerically-derived status of these self-important old reactionaries.]

Man got a beef


Anyway, the DRS… What its introduction means is that batsmencan no longer risk being hit on the front pad, no matter how big their stride.Lo and behold, we have learned that too many balls are hitting the stumps! It is an incontrovertible fact that this absolutely alters the nature of the contest (see how crucial to England’s first innings total in Abu Dhabi was the hasty and injudicious waste of reviews by Pakistan), as Michael Atherton more than anyone else has both expressed and, just as importantly, not forgottenwhen analysing the incidents – many have said it, but then relapse intoexplanations that parenthesise it or fail to bear it on mind at all. Once upona time, a combination of buttering up the umpires and a decent stride mighthave been enough to save you. Middle-and-legplease, Ken. Having shed its autocratic system of justice,cricket now has its court of appeal (which means less appeals, as it were). Modernity beckons.

So, how do you combat the spinning ball in this new milieu?

Forward press? The bedrock of Fletcher’s England’s conquest of South Asia in 2000-01 is, if not obsolete, then fraught with lbw-related risk.Sweeping? Only possible when one could be sure of getting the front pad outside the line (i.e.: left-handers to Rehman bowling over the wicket; not so much right-handers to Ajmal, either over or round. And in any case, the low bounce also makes this risky). In this light, the back-foot shots were to some extent forced. Or were they?

Using your feet could in fact be the best option (when chasing a small total, at least), irrespective of whether you’re picking Ajmal’s variations. The doosra doesn’t go miles, after all (although his ability to add10kph from his delivery means you might get caught between the first and secondstride). However, we Anglos seem to think that stumped is somehow a more shameful mode of dismissal than the others. It seems to carry more stigma, andinvite more opprobrium, than blocking your way into a black hole bereft of ideas then chipping one in the air. The point is surely that batting is notabout right and wrong methods, but always – and perhaps especially so againstspin – about risk and reward, cat and mouse: you are putting pressure on the captain to move fielders, introducing a problem for the bowler…

out is out

But, again, sitting on your shoulder is The Little Man, asking you the ever-present question of how your innings (and your mode of dismissal) will be received: by teammates, management, selectors, ‘the media’.

[NOTE: It is all too easy to homogenize ‘the media’, or to imagine it as a single subject, when it is in fact a heterogeneous entity comprised of thousands of singular acts unguided by any overarching voice. I know you know this. Even so, some writers in the media use a rhetorical sleight of hand, drawing on metaphors that imply a unified, concerted agency to the media-as-entity, an attitude from which they then seek to distance themselves; thus, what they think they are merely describing from the outside (a mood or attitude of ‘the media’) they are in fact creating from the inside.]

Just when you think you’re facing a purely cricketing problem, the outside seeps in. Lines of pressure, Beyond a Boundary. Therefore, the 10-minute turnaround and the (possibly non-existent) group discussion is not solely or primarily about shoring up the clarity of one’s own cricketing gameplan, one’s tactics; it also concerns the clarity that exists in the communication between players and among the group. It is micropolitics. And it is crucial, because,for all the perceived strength of the bonds forged in victory (of this England team, not least), cricket, as we know,harbours a tendential instinct for self-preservation that often – though not always – interferes with the selflessness demanded of team play, the latter ceaselessly invoked,the former often dishonestly suppressed (and disingenuously so when statistics afford such a shorthand, if reductive, quantification of one’s apparent contribution,and thus an aid for selectorial judgement). When the noxious curlicues of self-interest waft into one’s thoughts, having someone else get out to a diabolical shot is often greeted with an inner happiness: that is where people will lay their blame…

So then, what, finally, would have been a good strategy for England to have adopted? In club cricket you might have bunged in a pinch-hitter, whose scalp was of lower value,but who could have scattered the field and grabbed early momentum. Perhaps that is a shade…well, a shade too ‘clubby’; or perhaps it is the sort ofoutside-the-box thinking that might have won England the game. Graeme Swann atnumber 3 to replace the stricken Trott? (Conversely, and in no allusion toTrott, it might have made far too loud a squeaking noise in the rectal region,a noise that could well have served to send shivers through the team.)

Which brings us back to where we started: when chasing asmall total (sub-150, say) a quickfire 50+ partnership, with a couple ofadditional cameos, generally breaks its back. Was Eoin Morgan assured he hadthe backing of the management to reverse sweep, use his feet, and call on there are skills he has shown in the ODI format, safe in the knowledge that, should he fail, the management would have headed off the encircling snipers by announcing that Player ‘X’ had licence, in line with what the gameplan was at the time?

I suspect not. As it is, a good player’s career hangs in thebalance, and a team’s ascendency, likewise.

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Published with permission from Scott Oliver.

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Scott Oliver
Cricket Fan
Occasionally inspired leg-side favouring batsman with mediocre concentration; hyper-theorizing captain; reluctant fielder; under-used, low-trajectory, one-trick dobber.
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