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Cricket: Why you need to master defence to score runs

Jon Hotten in Cricinfo


Technique is a servant, not a master. Take the example of Jonny Bairstow, and his successful comeback to the England Test side


Dropped from the Test side after a run of low scores, Jonny Bairstow worked out his technical flaws and became a prolific run scorer © Getty Images



Graham Gooch once said, "I don't coach batting, I coach run-scoring." In a sentence he defined the requirements of the game's highest levels: those who arrived there already knew how to bat; what they needed to know was how to prosper on the mean streets, where the pressure was greatest and where any and every weakness would be found and exploited.

It suggested, too, that technique is a servant rather than a master, a means to an end rather than the end itself. Ugly runs count the same as pretty ones; David Gower's and Shivnarine Chanderpaul's look just the same in the scorebook, if not the history book. And as Alastair Cook, Gooch's most famous pupil, has moved inexorably onto the list of the all-time top ten Test match run scorers, and Goochie himself got more than anyone else across all forms of cricket, he's probably on to something.

Like all good buzzwords, technique has been thrumming through Test series between England and India, and Australia and South Africa. There's nothing like a batting collapse to begin the self-evisceration. Speaking to the Guardian for a thoughtful examination of Australian concepts of batting written by Sam Perry, Ed Cowan said: "One of [our] biggest issues is the attitude of 'attack at all costs', which I think is defunct in Test cricket. The message feeds through that we've got to pick attacking cricketers and that you need to be an attacking cricketer to be picked."

In India, Haseeb Hameed is the new poster boy for doing it right, the "baby Boycott", a kid with arms like sticks who hits through the covers with all of the easy power of a natural ball-player. Ben Duckett and Gary Ballance, having got it wrong, well, how must it feel to be them, to keep touring knowing that your tour is over and that stretching ahead is exile, and in that exile there are hard truths to be faced, hard labour to be undertaken.

They will join a list of recent discards, from Alex Hales to Sam Robson, Nick Compton to Adam Lyth, James Vince to Ian Bell, who have various hopes of a recall somehow, someday.

In that, they can look to Jonny Bairstow, who knows the feeling. When he was dropped from the side he averaged 27. He was out for 18 months and went through what he called some "dark spots". In the summer of 2014 he missed six weeks of domestic cricket with a broken finger and afterwards his renaissance began.

Bairstow addressed a point of technique. He felt that he was crouching too low in his stance, which led to a rigid right elbow and back and made him lunge at the ball, a fault compounded by a low backlift that often had him playing shots well in front of his body. He began standing up straighter and holding his hands higher, the bat hovering almost baseball-style as he waited. He still waggled the bat, but it came at the ball from a steeper angle and because of that it arrived later, which meant the interception point was under his eyes, where he was perfectly balanced. He laid waste to county attacks and was recalled for the 2015 Ashes. In 2016 he has made 1355 runs, more than any wicketkeeper in a calendar year, at an average of 64.52.

"You got two options," he says of being dropped. "You either run and hide or you front up."

It wouldn't have happened without a technical change, but then the technical change would not have happened without the desire to improve, to escape that darkness. He had what seems like the right attitude to technique, that it existed to serve him, to help him score runs. If he wasn't scoring runs, then he needed to find out why.

Dean Jones, the former Australia batsman, has published a book called Dean Jones' Cricket Tips (The Things They Don't Teach You At The Academy), about the kind of small improvements players need to make to evolve from being good professional sportsmen to international stars. He analysed a typical Sachin Tendulkar century, which took 180 deliveries, and found that Tendulkar left or defended around 70% of them - about 126 deliveries.

It suggested that the ability to stay in remains a great batsman's primary quality. His array of of scoring strokes, however wide and thrilling, are restricted to one ball in three. What all players looking to score runs must be able to do is defend forward and back and leave the ball well. To score runs, you begin by knowing how to not score them too.

It's interesting that the most discussed technical flaws always apply to defensive technique. England's most improved players, Bairstow and Ben Stokes, have improved most in that area. The problems of Duckett and Ballance lie there. For all of modern batting's pyrotechnics, finding a way to stay in remains the key to it all, as Cook and Gooch continue to show.

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