July 19, 2017

It's time to rediscover Test-match batting

England's recklessness in the name of positivity is a sign that the art of batting in the longest format is no longer given due attention
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This is what can happen if your forward defence is not up to scratch © Getty Images

England's cavalier batting throughout the entire Trent Bridge match beggared belief. Hence the pages of opinions in the newspapers since. Over two innings Joe Root's team occupied the crease for fewer overs than South Africa managed in each of theirs. Most of the wickets lost by England were self-inflicted: the work, you might reasonably presume, of masochists.

The duty of a batsman is to score runs. To do this he must stay at the crease. To do that he must preserve his wicket. The notion of being "positive" - a misleading buzzword for modern cricketers - is fine if applied as the opposite of negative but not so healthy if it is used to encourage reckless play. In the art of batting, the percentages matter. Being positive no more means pushing hard at straight balls pitched on a good length than it does an ill-conceived aerial assault. The defence applied by most of England's top players was negligent to say the least. It appeared to be beyond the means of some of the best players in the land to simply block the ball, in the true sense of "thou shalt not pass". This led to a debate about how much they cared.

Then you stop to think harder and quickly appreciate how very much England's cricketers care and how Joe Root in particular is hurting. Then you remind yourself how quickly these things change. We are all subject to the emotional fallout from a disastrous performance. The ownership of, and investment into, a sporting team is widespread. Almost certainly, if they hurt, the rest of us hurt.

The duty of a batsman is to score runs. To do this he must stay at the crease. To do that he must preserve his wicket

After the first match, at Lord's, South Africa were all but written off. The supporters, both here and back home, talked of everything from government intervention and misguided cricket administration, to injuries, desertions, sabbaticals and new-born babies. The future, most from the republic agreed, was bleak and the downward spiral of international sport in the republic was accelerating. The critics suggested that Test cricket had become a diminished priority, especially in the light of the London launch of the new South African T20 Global League (a name of splendid self-aggrandisement) that overrode the needs of first-class cricket and, more particularly, the Test team. The facts, rather than the emotions, were that big scores had dried up, bowlers had lost discipline and catches were being shelled with embarrassing consequences. That's an ugly list of failings for a cricket team. Everyone harped on about the absence of AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn and Faf du Plesssis, not to mention the Kolpak crew who had jumped ship for the good life and pots of gold to be found in the shires of England.

Then Faf du Plessis arrived after the complicated birth of his first child and immediately, as if the fairy godmother had waved her wand, the story took a U-turn. We don't have to be magicians to beat this England team, said the magician, we just have to get the basics right and apply them. He spoke with admirable conviction, much as he had done in Australia last winter before the first Test in Perth and then again during the inquiry into the mint-infused saliva he applied to the ball. He is right that his team did not require supernatural powers to win at Trent Bridge but he modestly refuses to accept that his own leadership is well out of the ordinary.

If South Africa have regained their grit, Faf du Plessis' leadership could be a big part of the reason © Getty Images

Frankly, South Africa looked a completely different side, even without Kasigo Rabada. The batsmen adapted to the conditions of the day and the requirements of the moment. The bowlers hit their mark and their straps. The fielders caught everything. Du Plessis was both everywhere and everyman, but never theatrical or bombastic. You had to look to find him but there was no missing the steel in his batsmen, the intelligent improvement in his bowlers or the crafty placement of his fielders.

For all the efforts of Vernon Philander, Hashim Amla and the others, the man of the build-up to the match, and of the match itself, was the South African captain. It is a difficult job, one vacated by Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers. Du Plessis follows in the line of Graeme Smith, neither the best nor most fluent cricketer, but a man blessed with the right mind to process all the complications, frustrations and demands, and come up with a clear way forward.

Which, of course, is what Root must do this week. Find a way forward. He faces a problem of perception. T20 cricket is thrown down the throats of everyone in the country who picks up a bat. The patience required for Test cricket is hardly modern-day box office, T20 is box office times two. The England batsmen are fabulous ball-strikers, the proof of which can be seen in the two shorter forms of the game and in the myriad brief innings that light up the Test match arena before opponents snuff them out. England have lost seven out of their last ten Test matches.

The defence applied by most of England's top players was negligent to say the least. It appeared to be beyond the means of some of the best players in the land to simply block the ball, in the true sense of "thou shalt not pass"

Clearly enough, the batsmen aren't making the runs they can. To do so they have to buy into a more thoughtful approach that reacts to the pitch, weather and game situation. They have to show patience when need be, while still looking to pounce on opportunities when they arise. Even Root, whose 190 was mainly brilliant, was twice missed early in his innings at Lord's, having taken the attacking option. These are not the words of a spoilsport. All the truly great players have a defence. To see Viv Richards play a forward defensive shot was to recognise the strength of his mind. To watch Brian Lara absorb the bowling during the first 40 minutes he was at the wicket was to understand the construction of an innings. To witness Ricky Ponting, resolute and ruthless in both defence and attack, was to understand how damn important it was to him.

The England dressing room holds Alastair Cook in high regard. It is high time they learned something from the limits he imposes upon himself and the calm sense of authority that is the stand-out quality in his best batting. This is not to say that everyone should bat like Cook, only that they should think more like him.

One upside to the galling nature of the Trent Bridge defeat is that Test cricket is the talk of the town. Even casual observers want to know why a winning team becomes a shocker overnight. Certainly, whether consciously or subconsciously, England took South Africa too lightly. Now, people will tune in to see if the new captain and his men are able to do anything about it.

Can Joe Root show the clarity of thought that his opposite number has displayed? © Getty Images

It is infuriating, and a concern, to see the salivation over T20 cricket. The fanfare that came with the recent television rights deal was all about the new city-based T20 competition, which is England's crack at the Big Bash that has won new audiences in Australia. There is risk involved with the English version but it is worth taking for the potential in new audiences as much as anything else. The key is to ensure it is not the only show in town. T20 promotes itself, so much so that successful players have begun to belief their own myth. This illusion is damaging the art of batting because, in T20, the loss of your wicket doesn't matter much at all.

The ECB, the various media, the players and the teams of extras that surround them must start to prod, push, prevaricate and persuade on the subject of Test cricket. The space for those huge T20 posters across the metropolis and the glitzy ads in the provinces must be shared with hardcore promotion of Test cricket. The five-day game needs to sound more important than it does at present and the ECB must shout the loudest and spend the most money in its favour.

The foundation of this game we love is the longest form. Upon that foundation is built everything else. The players appear to have been distracted from these simple but hugely relevant facts. For Test cricket to be played well, due care and attention is required. England have the talent, masses of it, but the loss of direction at Trent Bridge needs an immediate and faithful response. This is a lifelong love affair - a relationship that needs work if it is to be sustained - and we are all responsible for it. This is not a one-night stand.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Cricinfouser on August 7, 2017, 17:49 GMT

    Having watched the English top order batsmen, Jennings, Westley and Malan, imo that only Westley shows a test match ability. I feel that Hameed should be recalled at number two

  • Cricinfouser on July 23, 2017, 13:29 GMT

    "The duty of a batsman is to score runs. To do this he must stay at the crease. To do that he must preserve his wicket" - Mark, I normally enjoy your writing but that has to be the most asinine thing you've ever written. Remember its a bowlers "duty" to take wickets as well - that's why it's a contest. If batsmen never got out wouldn't be much of a sport would it?

  • Iman on July 20, 2017, 19:42 GMT

    Hasib Hameed has serious technical issues against the short ball. It was first brought to notice in a practice match England played against Bangladesh. Taskin Ahmed peppered him with some short stuff and he looked uncomfortable. The Indian team management picked up on that a little later, and when they did, a much quicker Umesh Yadav went after him and made him hop. In that aforementioned innings as well he was jumping and fending Umesh Yadav's short balls, and was hit many times on the arm and body before one fractured his finger. On a subcontinent track, he was like a cat on a hot tin roof against short stuff from a fast bowlers, if he opens next match and the track is even remotely similar to English conditions, he would be a Canon fodder in front of Rabada Morris and company. Word travels fast in international cricket, and I am sure a side like South Africa would have done their homework. He's a talented bloke, with good temperament. And still very young. So there's enough time for him to work on his technique and improve, but under current circumstances, there's no point in exposing him to this South African attack at the top and further jeopardise his already doubtful career. Let him play county cricket for a few more seasons and work on the lacuna. Because unless he does, with his abilities against short ball, I don't see a long successful career in test match cricket for him.

  • junaid7140064 on July 20, 2017, 12:22 GMT

    The only team in the world who know how to play real and traditional Test cricket is Pakistan look at them they never had any batting collapse because they don't treat test cricket as T20 everyone should learn from them

  • Jose on July 20, 2017, 11:57 GMT

    @IAN on July 20, 2017, 10:45 GMT

    Modern cricket, they say, has evolved.

    Like in Darwin's theory of evolution!

    But, looks more like"Neo Darwinism".

    The survival of the fattest (at least in terms of the pay cheques)!

    Most of the fat on the bacon is luring from the bacon of the short formats.

    And, it gets magnified as soon as someone grabs the fattest paycheck at the end of highly publicised auctions. Those glittering stories get posted in social media by zillions of posters. When such great stories get pasted on every glamorous wall-poster & sports magazine, it is only natural for the very young eyes, to pop out, looking only for those skills needed to get the balls for 'maximums'; doesn't matter whether they are from the sweet spots or bitter edges. In such an exciting world, why bother holding straight bats and learning forward defense?

    Let me stop, before I get kicked out of any cricket stadium I may step in, like a white ball sailing over the roofs to the nearest car park!

  • paul.r8086736 on July 20, 2017, 11:31 GMT

    @jamesn4081647. Great point 3 defensive batsemen in the top 3, and they regularly fail to be bailed out by a partnership between Stokes and Ali, or Bairstow and Ali (or someone else). It's technique against the new ball that seems to be the main failing.

  • rynelr8107044 on July 20, 2017, 10:49 GMT

    FAF best captain since Smith and should remain captain in all formats, great leadership skills and makes the right decisions and gets the best out of his players

  • ian on July 20, 2017, 10:45 GMT

    Shishir: A thoughtful analysis of England's current top order. I think the advent of t20 has had some influence on England's batsmen, but not purely on the criterion of temperament. It is, perhaps, a little more subtle than that. It is, possibly, to do with the change in technique that has come with playing sf (specifically t20) cricket. There is an obvious inability to play a long innings when the bowling is genuine Test quality, as SA's attack most certainly is. The white ball does little after four overs or so, and playing against skilled practitioners with the red ball demands a good defensive technique - the least practised mode of batting these days. Test cricket offers no hiding place; two top order wickets in quick succession change a game drastically. The coach doesn't help; he has no real grasp of Test match disciplines. If there are bowler-friendly conditions, a lunch score of 80-1 is so much better than 110-3, but this Eng. side is far more likely to get the latter!

  • Shane on July 20, 2017, 10:39 GMT

    @JAMESN4081647 - "our top 3, who are all defensive, consistently fail". I'm not an England supporter, but have you heard of a guy called Alistair Cook?

  • jamesn4081647 on July 20, 2017, 10:10 GMT

    Bizarre saying England need to have more 'test match' batsmen, when our top 3, who are all defensive, consistently fail and are bailed out by our aggressive middle and lower order.

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