THE ART OF DEFENCE
Set 398 to win or, more realistically, to bat all day for a draw, at Edgbaston, England succumbed meekly, losing their last six wickets for 37 runs and the match by a thumping 251 runs. You knew, somehow you just knew, that they would never bat out the whole day. Now why is that? Has the modern batsman lost the art, the wherewithal, the stomach, for a fight to the last? Test match history is littered with heroic defensive dogfights, with batsmen selling their wickets more dearly than their lives. Sometimes a bitterly fought draw can feel every bit as satisfying as a win. Who comes off the field wreathed in smiles? By contrast, who walks wearily up the pavilion steps, shoulders slumped in frustration and disappointment?
Two innings by former England captains spring to mind as illustrations of what I mean. Michael Atherton’s monumental 185* in 634 minutes salvaged a draw against South Africa in Johannesburg during the 1995-96 tour to that country. In the first Test of the Ashes series at the Gabbatoir in 2010, England commenced their second innings with a 221 run deficit and were staring a morale-sapping defeat in the face. Alastair Cook had other ideas. He batted for 625 minutes, scoring 235*, to save the game and set up a remarkable series win. Neither of these innings were match winners but they were justly heralded as epic feats of pluck, resolve, concentration and stubborn determination. It was not just a question of blocking every ball - both took runs when runs were there to be scored – but they refused to be cowed either by the opposition or the state of play, they settled in for the long haul, eschewed unnecessary risk and put their trust in their technique. It was the mental battle rather than any exhilarating strokeplay that earned all the plaudits. Was there anyone in that England side at Edgbaston capable of playing such an innings? Could you see any one of those batsmen dropping anchor for the duration? Oh my Bailey, my Barrington, my Boycott of long ago. There are times when strokelessness can drive us to distraction (both Barrington and Boycott were dropped by England for slow scoring, don’t forget) but as my old friend Barry Richards used to say, “You’ve got to play the situation and the wicket just as much as the bowling.” Which reminds me of one of his greatest innings. His former team-mates and opponents can reel off countless gems in a glittering career but this one sticks in the mind because it was so out of character yet so influential. Nearing the conclusion of the 1973 season, Hampshire and Northamptonshire were in a fierce tussle at the top of the table. Fate would have it that they met at Southampton in late August for the pivotal match of the season. Whoever won would be crowned county champions. The stakes could not have been higher. Our groundsman had thoughtfully prepared a pitch that turned from the outset, generosity to a fault, we believed, especially in view of the fact that Northants had in their ranks two of the finest spinners of that era, Bishan Bedi and Mushtaq Mohammad. In Hampshire’s first innings, Both Barry Richards and Gordon Greenidge – has there ever been a better opening pair? – decided from the outset to take the fight to Bedi, running down the wicket in an attempt to hit him off his length. Both were stumped, by yards. As an excruciatingly tense match neared its denouement, Hampshire were left the ‘straightforward task of scoring 90 to win,’ in the words of the local newspaper reporter. Straightforward it most certainly wasn’t. By now, the pitch resembled a beach and Bedi was practically unplayable. Barry put away his glittering array of attacking shots and basically blocked his way to victory. He scored 37* in 31 overs, unheard of self-denial on his part but nail-bitingly crucial on our behalf. “If I got out, I knew we’d lose,” he said afterwards, “If I stayed in, we’d win. And we did!” This from the finest attacking batsman in the world at the time. So what am I suggesting here? That fings ain’t wot they used to be? Well, they’re not, clearly. The game has moved on apace and, for the most part, it has been a jolly good thing. Test match cricket is more vibrant, exciting, interesting, athletic and innovative than it has ever been. I love the attacking mindset of the modern player, contrasting so vividly with the safety-first predilection of days gone by. But sometimes the better part of valour is discretion and I wonder whether the current crop of Test cricketers ever seriously consider that cautious defence is occasionally what the situation demands. And if the thought ever does enter the mind, whether they have the technique and the patience to dig in and live to fight another day. The natural instinct is to go hard at the ball; if no boundary accrues at least the infield will have been penetrated and the scoreboard kept ticking over. But when conditions dictate otherwise, you need to commit to the shot as late as possible, to play it with soft hands and to leave it if at all possible. Ball after ball after ball, if needs be. Most current batsmen are not conditioned to play this way. Blame it on limited overs formats, bigger bats, shorter boundaries, better protection, including helmets, lack of meaningful first-class cricket…..the reasons are lengthy and arguable but the fact that England could not – and were never likely to – hold out for 96 overs tells its own story.