Philip, aka Batting With The Bola (Too long a name for the heading!), who can be found on Twitter @pgpchappers has kindly written a piece for us on what he thinks is required from an opening batsman. As usual, I’d like to express my great thanks for the time and effort put in to this post (and for Philip’s previous post on batting technique too).
Feel free to jump in, have some questions, and I’m sure Philip will answer.
The England team has had many struggles working out what should be their opening pair since the retirement of Andrew Strauss. Rather than say who I thought should be playing which like most people seems to be a guess, I thought I would write a few words on what I think a successful opening pair needs to do, which I hope will spark some debate. Feel free to disagree and challenge in the comments section.
I have set this up with a few headings which I have then tried to elaborate on them – clearly I won’t have thought of everything and they are in no particular order, but what I have tried to do is look beyond the obvious (with the exception of the last one). With the coaching I do I try to work on how players think about their game and read the situation rather than just focussing on technique as especially in club cricket this isn’t something that is generally worked on.
Putting pressure on the opposition bowlers
Barnes, Morris, Haynes, Greenidge, Slater, Sehwag, Hayden and Warner – all tremendous attacking opening batsman for genuinely great teams and they also set the tone for some of the greatest teams ever to play the game (I accept the mid 2000’s Indian team wasn’t as good as the Invincibles, the 80/90’s WI side or the Australian 90/00’s machine so no quibbles about the Indian team please!). All were/are horrible to bowl at, especially on the first day of a test match and all put pressure on the opening bowlers by taking them on. They were instrumental in taking their team to the top. Their value cannot be underestimated in setting the tone of an innings. As far as I am concerned not allowing the opening bowlers to settle is a key function of an opening batsman. I admit that those players I have named were (are) extraordinary and the very fact there are so few of them is relevant, although there are others you could name.
But at any level having a player who can upset the bowlers is key. If you don’t have that then the received wisdom is to have a right hand/left hand combination or a bank foot or a front foot player as contrasting styles for your opening pair. Why have England been struggling in this department? Cook’s form has been mixed (but recently decent) and the player at the other end hasn’t known whether to stick or twist and have been bereft of confidence pretty quickly into their period as the other one to Cook. What Cook and Strauss always did really well was run between the wickets and put pressure on the opposition that way. There are many ways to skin this cat…
Regardless having a dynamic opening pair is crucial – at the moment you can’t say Cook is hugely dynamic. I sort of wonder if, given that Root won’t bat at three, perhaps Cook should, I think having two new opening batsmen would take the pressure off the new player that isn’t Cook, the problem England has at the moment.
Batting as a pair
This is a very common comment, but what does it mean – in my view it means knowing if your partner is struggling and giving them a breather, perhaps hogging the strike a little, knowing if they are flying – so giving them the strike, running well between the wickets, knowing who is the “bogey” bowler. When you are opening it does matter who takes the first ball – Which one of you will the bowler least like to start his spell against… this matters – put pressure on that opening bowler. As an experienced player you should take the first ball because your junior partner will be more nervous. It is natural. Conversely if you know that a batsman has a terrible record early on against a bowler, put him up the other end to start with! Be flexible, especially when one of the openers is the Skipper. A few years back Andrew Strauss was captain when there was a rain affected toss, had to do a few interviews then was out batting under 15 mins later. He was out first ball. In those circumstances, why didn’t Cook say: “Straussy mate – go up the other end have a breather get your head sorted, I’ve got this.” That is what batting as a pair is.
Reading the field – what is the opposition trying to do?
As you are walking out to bat – read the field – this will tell you what the bowler and opposition skipper is trying to do – also read where your strong scoring areas are – and are they covered or clear. Classically as a batsman you are told to look where the fielders are – but it is far more helpful to look where the gaps are!
Where the fielders are will tell you what the bowler is trying to do however – whether that is 3 slips and a 6/3 or 7/2 field for an away swinging bowler or 5/4 with 2 slips and a short leg for an inswing bowler. I wonder with all the computer analysis that is done these days whether players forget to remember that each day is different, different pitch and conditions and the bowler may be in a different rhythm.
But above all know where you like to hit the ball and know where the gaps are.
Understand the state of the game/setting up the innings/being adaptable
One of the key roles for the opening batsmen is to give confidence to the other batters and to set up the game. This isn’t always easy as you are facing the new ball with the freshest bowlers – but a few solid shots and a couple of early boundaries will make a different. A few wild shots and a play and miss however and you are causing a bit of chaos for you mates in the shed. Remember so much of batting is in the mind.
Knowing the pitch is a road also brings its own pressure – you are expected to score runs – but how often in these circumstances there is an early wicket because the batsman is so eager to cash in they haven’t played themselves in properly.
But what about Seeing off the new ball?
I know – what would Sir Geoffrey say – you have to see off the new ball – it is harder, it bounces more, it moves in the air more. Taking your time helps the rest of the team, play with soft hands, leave the ball well etc… I paraphrase – and it would be callous to disagree with Sir Geoff – but I don’t see how that isn’t in any way compatible with what I have tried to outline though this commentary.
I hope it is helpful, I look forward to reading your thoughts…