Opening Up

This is not an emotional one. This is not a personal one. This is one about batting stances.

Ollie Pope Problems

Ollie Pope is having a bit of a rough time. After a run of dismissals edging to the slips, Pope has sought to reinvent his guard at the crease. When he first emerged, Pope took his guard rather centrally. Over time, he has drifted across to stand at approximately tenth stump. With this has come a new foe, the dreaded LBW dismissal.

Struggling with LBW, this has naturally sparked a new debate. This time, talk has arisen over the merits of taking an off-stump guard. Pundits have pointed towards it as being the root of Pope’s new problems. The central argument is that taking guard so far across the stumps makes it too hard to flick shots off the pads, Pope should move back to a central area.

Of course, we must ask if this actually is the true reason behind his dismissal. Indeed, Pope is getting out LBW. Indeed, he is struggling to navigate his front pad. Indeed, he takes guard around off-stump. I for one, am not sure that the guard is the reason for the problems.

I propose to you, the problems of a side-on stance.

Open to New Ideas

When Ollie Pope bats, he is very side-on to the bowler. His feet are relatively in line with one another, and one could roughly draw a line across his shoulders to the bowler. I believe that this may be where Pope’s problems lie.

In taking a side-on stance, you may be shutting off a range of shots. By this, I mean it is physically difficult to access the ball when it is anywhere except outside off stump. With your feet planted parallel, it is easy to step diagonally forward to the off side, but much harder to get them sorted to play off the pads.

The answer is to take a more open stance.

If you move your back foot slighter further round than your front foot, your hips open up and are more front-on to the bowler. The effect is that playing shots to the leg side is made easier. You can now easily move your front foot back to play a flick off the pads. Similarly, it makes many shots a bit easier.

People often call the on-drive one of the hardest shots in cricket. This makes sense when you think of a side-on stance. You have to turn a fair bit to play it. With an open stance, this shot theoretically becomes a lot easier as it is now more of a simple forward movement.

Right now, it may sound like I am simply rambling on about theory, I am, so let’s look at some examples.

England’s Tormentors

The two most famous examples of very open stances are Steve Smith and Steve Smith 2 (Marnus Labuschagne). Both take guard near off-stump, but play with a very open and almost front-on stance. What this does is raise a very interesting debate.

In one camp, you have people who say that these two are exceptions to the rule. They only get away with it because they are exceptionally talented. My response to this, is to ask ourselves if, as exceptional as they are, they are actually helped by having a superior choice of stance. It’s not a matter of being good and getting away with shoddy technique, but pairing talent with a deceptively strong technique.

Perhaps even, Steve Smith’s own evolution leads credence to this theory. Much of his transformation into freakish talent coincided with his exaggerated back and across trigger movement. Every time he bats, we are treated to commentary talking about how ‘his stance makes him a prime LBW candidate, but his hand-eye coordination saves him’. At this point, should we actually be asking if his stance helps ward off LBW?

Whilst it does paint what looks like a massive target of pads in front of the stumps, we must ask ourselves if the stance itself actually helps play shots off the pads so much that it offsets the perceived risk. Perhaps it does invite more balls at the pads, but perhaps it makes this an easier threat to deal with.

A new example of a player thriving with an open stance is Devon Conway of New Zealand. At the point of delivery, Conway adopts an open stance, moving his front foot across if necessary, moving it away if necessary. With this, Conway has looked imperious in his tour of England. His defence is rock solid, and bowlers have had to toil away to dismiss him. Conway too, shows another benefit of an open stance.

I believe a more open stance can help when a batter faces a different-handed bowler. Conway bats as a leftie, and was against a right armed pace attack of England. When they bowl round the wicket, his body is open to the bowler and able to access all areas. The open stance may however help one thrive when the bowler bowls from over the wicket. With a side-on stance, it is easy to feel like the bowling is out of your line of sight. You may get caught awkwardly going forward at a ball fizzing across you. With an open stance, this is less intimidating.

When opened up, one can see the bowler more easily and thus can find it easier to play balls aimed at the body. I wonder if it could help mitigate the problem of a batter feeling cramped by bowling at the body from outside the line of sight.

Tradition, Tradition, Tradition

As with many things in sport, there is something of a reluctance to experiment and look at different ways of doing things. The idea of a side-on stance feels quite set in tradition, and epitomises the concept of ‘textbook batting’. It’s the way it’s done, and that’s that.

I find myself incredibly sympathetic to the idea that we should always be looking for new ways to succeed, and never settle with a technique just for the sake of tradition. Sport is at its most exciting when it is constantly innovating. I understand that for athletes, tweaks can be scary as with them can come a mountain of criticism. The change to be made needs to be to encourage players to look for novel approaches to challenges.

Ollie Pope can get through this. It may just require him to open up a bit.

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