Saturday, August 01, 2009

The art of captaincy

Yesterday was the day I was supposed to be going to the Test Match. My son had bought me a ticket. This was the first Test Match that I was to be going to since I was a child. Alas, I was not well enough to make an eight hour there-and-back journey and I was reduced to watching it on TV.

Test Cricket is the prince of games, and Tests in England rank higher than anywhere else because of the uncertainty of the weather. A match lasting over five days requires strategic thinking as well as tactics, and for that reason it is worth playing a c aptain even if he is not the best batsman or bowler. Several players in the past have been selected even when they were not worth their place in the team on cricketing excellence alone. The captain must direct the play, choose whether to bat or bowl, when to declare, whether to enforce the follow-on, in which order to deploy his bowlers, how to set the field and what tactics to employ against particular batsmen. Mike Brearley was the last player to be picked purely as a captain. In Andrew Strauss, England may have another. Interestingly, since he has been appointed captain his batting has improved. Australians always feel that they were cheated by the bodyline tour of 1931-2, when Jardine had Harold Larwood, Bill Bowes and Voce bowl at the batsman rather than the stumps, but it was within the rules and kept Don Bradman, their star batsman, relatively quiet. Bradman retired with a batting average of 99.4 runs in every test innings. No-one before or since has got above the 60s and anything over 40 is regarded as very good. The West Indian bowlers between 1960 and 1980 were more effective at bowling at the man - it was they that prompted batsmen to kit themselves out like motor bike riders - but nobody complained that it was unfair.

But to return to the current test series. Australia have been world beaters for a very long time. Only India playing at home could threaten them. Cricket in India is a different game; hot, dry and dusty conditions call for different skills, particularly in spin bowling, that are not mastered except in the sub-continent. The rise of Sri Lanka as a test team bears witness to that. Australia had a strong batting line up, but their supremacy was based on their two bowlers, fast-man McGrath and leg-spinner Warne. In 2005, England beat Australia to everyone's surprise, though the same team lost in the return rubber in Australia a couple of years later. England's triumph in 2005 was put down to the performance of captain, Michael Vaughan, and the all-round performance of the giant, Andrew Flintoff (known as Freddie). This year Vaughan has retired but so have McGrath and Warne. Freddie has a dodgy knee and the other English giant to emerge, Peterson, is out with a damaged ankle. Australia have also lost their third best bowler, Bret Lee, to injury.

In the first Test, at Cardiff, it was Australia's game, but a last ditch batting performance meant that England held out for a draw that they didn't deserve. In the second Test at Lord's, England had an easy win. This is an inexperienced Australian side, with only their captain, Rickie Ponting, remaining from their years of dominance. The third Test in Birmingham is going to be heavily affected by rain, so that on the first day only 30 overs were bowled, which Australia negotiated easily. Yesterday, on what should have been my day, England bowled splendidly. They took 9 wickets on a day perfect for swing bowling - damp, overcast and not too cold. Swing bowling is an art particularly suited to English condition. Ideally, the ball should appear to be straight, but late in its flight veer to the left or right to catch the edge of the bat and give a catch to the slips or miss the bat completely and crash into the stumps. Jimmie Anderson is probably the best swing bowler in the world at the moment, and he took 5 wickets, while Graham Onions is not far behind him.

I remember watching Reg Perks bowl for Worcestershire in the 1950s. He could make the bowl swing for yards, but it was uncontrolled and while spectacular to watch, he took no wickets. No, the art is to move the ball inches so that the batsman must play at it, but is likely to miss. Alas for the Australians they do not possess great swing bowlers at the moment. England are on top so far but it is pouring with rain here this morning and the Test has all the hallmarks of a Draw.

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