The fading art of defensive batting making Tests closer, writes Sanjay Manjrekar
“With Tests not the pre-eminent format any more — certainly not the most lucrative — it’s only natural for players to not obsess over mastering the skills needed in it,” writes HT columnist Sanjay ManjrekarUpdated: Aug 11, 2020 10:13 IST
The cricket-watching world has lapped up the Test matches in England that marked the resumption of the game during Covid-19. Couple of obvious reasons for that — one, it was live cricket after a long time, and two, there was just one international match on at one time in the whole world. It made me imagine a utopia where one-match-a-day was the norm in the world, and the viewing pie was not sliced in many pieces. Wouldn’t that be lovely?
I was one of those watching the Tests closely, and yet again, one aspect of the game caught my attention — the batting.
With Tests not the pre-eminent format any more — certainly not the most lucrative — it’s only natural for players to not obsess over mastering the skills needed in it. Test batting, specifically defensive batting, is a hard-earned skill. It needs hours of practice to perfect its little nuances.
Those hours are needed to hone temperament too, because you need great patience and focus to be able to block balls for hours and, at the same time, pick the ones that are there to be hit. A seemingly boring thing to do, you would think, for modern, upbeat athletes growing up in a fast-paced world.
You can get away by counter-attacking in other formats, but if you don’t have a good defence in Tests, long-term success in the format will elude you, that’s for sure. People remember the audacious stroke play of Sir Viv and our own Virender Sehwag, but both could also keep a good ball away with a still bat.
And there it comes, that term— “still bat” — the one that keeps getting mentioned when a Test match is on and batsmen are batting in seaming conditions. Here’s the interesting bit. Presenting a still bat in defence is absolutely necessary in Tests, but absolutely unnecessary in T20s, and to a large extent in 50-over cricket. Hitting through the line is now the basic instinct of batsmen, limited overs cricket being their staple.
When a Test comes along, suddenly, they have to change that deep-rooted instinct. This, in a nutshell, is the single biggest challenge that batsmen face in Tests.
In New Zealand recently, after some hard lessons in England, Indian batsmen tried to defend with a still bat. Some of them actually did very well, but with it, they also lost the reflex of attacking the slightly loose balls when they came along.
Only the rare player now has the ability to be exceptional in all three formats, and you know who I am talking about. The rest, unfortunately, are finding Test cricket too hard. Many have given up on the format at their prime to focus on the shorter stuff.
The breed of what we used to call “world-class batsmen” has almost disappeared. These weren’t your great 50-plus average batsmen, but those who averaged 40 or close to it, and brought a steely, critical sturdiness to the batting line up. Only a couple of teams today have them. Most teams now have at least three batsmen who average around 30 in first-class cricket; that’s essentially mediocrity at that level elevated to the ranks of Test players. These are the batsmen old timers watch and despair.
But can you really blame these batsmen? You can’t. They are simply the products of their environment.
For batsmen, there is greater competition to get into a limited overs team than a Test team, and far more incentive to do well in T20s than in Tests. Batting quality in limited overs cricket is getting better and better, while those averaging 30 in domestic cricket are playing Tests.
This is what the time demands of them. Just as for us — cricketers growing up in the ’80s — chasing 270 in 50 overs was an almost impossible task. Now it’s done without batsmen breaking a sweat. Bowling has not suffered the same fate. For them, it’s still “bowling in the right areas”; that is often enough to run through sides without doing much else because defences are so much easier to breach now. Think Shanon Gabriel and Jason Holder in the recent England-West Indies series.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s okay if the quality of overall Test batting has gone down — we can still sit back and periodically enjoy watching the class of batsmen such as Virat Kohli, Steve Smith or Kane Williamson — for the undeniable truth is, what do cricket fans like to watch most?
Nope, not wickets falling, or 4s and 6s, or all the brilliant fielding we see around the ropes these days. Yes, these are important attractions, but what keeps fans on the edge of their seats is nail-biting finishes. Twists and turns in the plot. That’s why T20s are so popular; because of their short duration, weaker teams have a better chance against a strong team, and you see more close finishes, those that keep fans awake until 1am during the IPL. It’s for this reason we all enjoyed, old-timers included, the first England vs Pakistan Test— it went down to the wire.
We are getting results in virtually every Test match now. Perhaps we can thank the deterioration of defensive batting for that, but close contests between two teams are the key to keeping cricket alive, especially Tests. For instance, we have seen how the toss plays such a huge role in cricket. Why not then have a team that loses the first Test decide what it wants to do at the start of the next Test? It could even the series out a little bit. Fans will love it. Keep them happy, and sport survives.
(Sanjay Manjrekar will be writing a regular column for HT. With this piece, he opens his innings.)