Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The Bull and the Chef, in Shadow and Sun; Weapon of Choice... More Ashes Notes

Each Spring, the EKKA comes to the Brisbane showgrounds. There, Australia's prime beef goes on parade. It's a strange and awesome display of meat and muscle, and it's easy to see why they regard David Warner in the same way, why they call him 'The Bull'. Even as he stomps to the crease, or re-fastenes his gloves for the many-thousandth time, he gives the impression of bunched and barely restrained power. The Bull is emblematic of a certain national characteristic, a successor to Slater and Hayden as the top-order enforcer. Hayden had a shot he used to call "the bowler killer". Dave Warner has a few of his own.

To see him bat at Melbourne was to marvel at what he has become. On a pitch that made parts of the Mojave desert looked nuanced and inviting, he scored 103 of the first 135 runs Australia made, 83 of them before lunch on day one, and in the second innings made his slowest half century. In all he faced 378 deliveries, the most he's ever squared up to in a single Test.

Warner is a freak with a freak career, the first man since 1877 to represent Australia before he'd played a first-class match. He arrived at a feverish time for the game, a year or so after the IPL began, and he batted feverishly too, so much so that the notion of a Test debut was laughed at. Only the great Sehwag saw what he might become (well perhaps also Warner's long-term coach Trent Woodhill) but Sehwag was the one with a platform to point out that Warner's style would translate. In his second game, on a Hobart greentop, he carried his bat for his maiden hundred, the sixth player in history to do so in the fourth innings of a Test.

Regardless of the Ashes win and the arrival of the new Bradman, it is what you might kindly call a transitional time for Australian batting. The Bull has had ten opening partners in seven years. Like his opposite number Alastair Cook, he went into the series knowing he would probably have to deliver if his side were to win.

The second half of Cook's career has a kind of symmetry with Warner's entire one. When Andrew Strauss retired at the end of the 2012 series with South Africa, Cook had played 83 Tests, and had 6,555 runs at 47.89. Since then, he has played 68 matches with twelve different opening partners, making 5,401 runs at 45.00. Warner's 70 Tests across almost the same span have yielded 6,090 runs at 48.72.

As the Ashes began, they had claim to be the two most established opening batsmen in Test cricket. Cook was the only opener in the top 10 of all-time highest run-makers, too, but for more than a year had been working on the technical aspect of his game with Gary Palmer, a coach outside of the ECB set-up until he was invited to Australia to work with some of the younger batters as well as Cook. Palmer is not an entirely holistic coach: he has firm views on technique and a gimlet eye for the fine detail of it. Cook has compared their work to that which a swing coach does with a golfer.

Although Palmer felt that by Perth Cook's batting was in shape, the player himself was having darker thoughts about the end. For the older batsman, knowledge is a double-edged sword. Experience cuts both ways, and all of the accrued scar tissue leaves its mark. The certainty of youth is a distant memory, replaced by an understanding of everything that can go wrong, and of the fleeting nature of what goes right.

The dead-loss pitch, Cook's technical work, his gathered fortitude and the late arrival of some luck produced an innings that will be remembered as a bittersweet classic, filled with personal meaning.

Meanwhile, the Bull, usually bristling with aggression, had appeared beset with his own uncertainties, not in technique or psychology, but in approach. He had been weirdly passive in the first three games, perhaps conscious of the stakes; the hail mary picks of the Marsh brothers and the form of Smith had bailed him out. Warner had seemed content with the un-Bull like game plan to see off Anderson and Broad rather than attack them.

It just wasn't him, and the Melbourne pre-lunch blitz, fired by adrenaline, had been coming. And yet this wasn't the rampant Bull of old. He hit the ball along the ground and into spaces, he ran hard. It was an attacking, fast hundred, but it was full of control too. To counterpoint it with that second innings 86 showed a psychological range that has been developing for a long time.

Warner eschewed the booze a long time ago, too. His marriage and family centred him as a man. They stopped calling him the Bull. They changed his nickname to Reverend. But Australia, in Australia and on their landmark day for cricket, needed that demonstration of bullish power. They got it, and they got more. On a wicket that has rightly been condemned to the dustbin of history, the Bull and the Chef showed how to survive in the shifting light and shadows of a career opening the batting.

Between them stood the ghosts of twenty-two men, fallen openers that they have so far outlasted. The Bull and the Chef may be Yin and Yang as players, but together they would have made a hell of a pair.

Weapons of Choice

The endless, circular Duke's versus Kookaburra debate and the wider one about the balance of bat and ball was drawn further into focus by the Melbourne drop-in (dropped in from where, we should be told... Hell, apparently). There is a solution, maybe slightly avant garde in the slow-moving world of Test cricket, but perhaps worth trying. Instead of one make of match ball, offer a choice at the toss.

It would work like this: the winning captain could select whether to bat or bowl, or alternatively what ball they would like to use. The losing captain then gets choice of whatever's left. For example, Smith wins the toss and chooses to bat. Root then decides whether to use a Duke's or Kookaburra ball.

The system would add some more variety and nuance to the start of the game. At Melbourne, Smith would, I'm sure, still have elected to bat, figuring that even a Duke's ball would not tilt the advantage towards the bowling side. In more marginal circumstances, the choice of ball may be more valuable than whether a team bats or bowls first, and so a captain may change their thinking.

The value of the toss would also be recalibrated, meaning a chance event has less effect on the game's outcome.

I'd propose one other change too, one that would put more power in the hands of bowling sides. At the moment a team gets two new balls in the course of 80 overs (or 160 overs until a third). Why not allow a captain to take the second new ball whenever they want during that 160-over period - if they thought it would be an advantage to have it after 30 overs, then they could, but that ball would then not be replaced for another 130 overs.

It would add a tactical dimension, allowing a captain some flexibility to try and dislodge a partnership, or blow away a tail. On flat wickets it may be a gamble worth taking or one that could backfire, but it feels as though it's time to allow the bowlers a little redress in an age of the bat.

Smith and the Don, Redux...

It's now the law to write about Bradman's technique in every Steve Smith piece, but there's one part of the theory that hasn't yet been aired. Tony Shillinglaw, the man behind the modern dissection of Bradman's method, has argued that the Don's 'Rotary' style is physiologically easier on the body. Although Bradman batted for Herculean periods, sometimes days on end, his concentration was rarely affected. Shillinglaw reasons that Bradman got less tired than other players, and therefore found concentration easier to maintain.

Smith half-joked at the end of the Melbourne Test that he would have liked another hour out there, and considering he'd left the field during the game with the stomach bug that was going around the Australian dressing room, he would probably back Shillinglaw up.

NB: I've had the pleasure of writing about Gary Palmer and Tony Shillinglaw, plus another man outside of the mainstream, fast bowling coach Ian Pont, for the next issue of Wisden Cricket Monthly.

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