Pretty Privilege and Batting

Right off the bat, this is not an assessment of the looks of batters in cricket. If you’ve been clickbaited, I can only apologise. Maybe one day I will indeed cover such a topic, but not today. Instead, let’s talk about guards.

About footwork. About head position. About high elbows. The good stuff.

There are a certain set of features that cricket purists look for in a player. A set of features that you would be forgiven for thinking give players bonus runs for fulfilling. The problem, is that this is not the reality. An ugly run and a pretty one are worth the same, so why do we often talk as if this is not true?

Style Points

To begin, I don’t want to sound like some madman who pays no attention to aesthetics in batting. Not all cover drives are created equal. On a highlight reel, I’d certainly look to load up Ian Bell and James Vince first and foremost. There is a lot of visual enjoyment to be had with pretty players.

When our eyes see something that looks fluid and proud, it does make us happy. Similarly, it helps craft individual identities for players. Of England’s new young ones, my attention has been sharply drawn to the wonderful workings of Dan Lawrence. In a uniquely wristy way, he moves the bat unlike many others.

Style is part of a player’s identity. It should not however, be a basis for unfair criticism.

The Post-Mortem Begins

After England’s incredibly sad showing in the Second Innings against New Zealand at Edgbaston, the pitchforks were out. Live on Sky Sports, Nasser Hussain was crying bloody murder about the England players’ idiosyncrasies and batting styles. Whilst the players do indeed deserve criticism about their returns, I feel that talk of style has a habit of missing the mark.

The broadcast team seemed to put it all down to an arrogance of sorts, an idea that England were deliberately seeking out strange ways to bat in ‘an attempt to reinvent the wheel’. I feel this is a bit harsh on them.

First and foremost, they are batting in a manner that has already awarded them a good level of success. It is not like they have all arrived in the Test arena with a goal to find the most grotesque way to hit the ball.

Also, it runs the risk of making a false equivalence between style and fundamentals. Things like keeping your head still at the point of contact, not falling over the off-side, and presenting a straight bat are universally helpful things to do. Things like taking a middle stump guard and having an arrow straight backlift are not always.

It is this conflation where I feel there has been some very inaccurate criticism of the England team. Indeed, some of them are doing things which increase their risk of getting out, but a lot of anger is misdirected at other facets of their game.

Burns and Sibley

The best way to explain this gripe of mine, is to look at what has been said about the actual players. Let’s take the openers, Rory Burns and Dom Sibley.

For a pairing that have repeatedly shown that they are actually very capable at digging in and grinding out runs, they cop an incredible amount of grief for how they do it.

If you wanted to pick holes technically, maybe you’d look at how Sibley has a habit of getting a leading edge on balls due to his trigger movement which causes his bat to come in from a sideways angle. Similarly, Burns when playing a straight shot often turns the bat in a bit as he hits it. These feel like quite fair and sensible observations to make.

Instead, we are treated to comment after comment about how ‘ugly’ they are to watch. A lot of people take a real issue with Burns’ contorted batting stance, or Sibley’s leg-side favouring game. To me, this should not really matter.

Both men have shown that they are capable of getting a lot of runs, Burns even did so against New Zealand, so why is there this notion that both are fundamentally broken players in dire need of replacement?

For the first time since 2011, an England opening pairing batted to lunch. After ten years, England’s openers did their job, and their reward is a post-mortem that calls them both useless.

My hunch is that if Burns and Sibley had more conventional stances, and scored the same number of runs but with a wider array of shots that they would be fawned after. This is not a sensible way to pick a team.

For me, you could break into interpretive dance between deliveries and I would have no problem so long as you routinely batted for a long time. I think I can live with Burns’ crooked neck and Sibley’s flick off the pads.

Burns and Sibley epitomise being judged a bit too harshly for their less than conventional style. There exists tangible technical flaws, but it’s foolish to get distracted by less meaningful quirks.

Our Friend Down Under

Moving away from England, what struck me about Nasser Hussain’s comments was the absurdity of the notion that doing something different is somehow a slight to cricketing greats of the past.

It’s almost impossible to talk about less than conventional methods without having to discuss one Steven Smith. Smith has an incredibly open stance, points his bat nearly parallel to the stumps, and scores over 60% of his runs on the leg side. Steve is also perhaps the greatest Test batsman ever.

As any England fan knows, Smith looks uncomfortable and ripe for an LBW dismissal with nearly every ball, then he middles it off his pads for four. There are two things to unpick with Smith.

The first is that most of his oddities are aesthetic as opposed to technical. He fidgets, he leaves the ball as if the bat is a lightsaber. Yet, he keeps his head still at the point of contact, brings down a straight bat, and gets his head in line with the ball. The only area which may frustrate purists is that his backlift comes from side-on.

The second is about discussion of Smith. The same pundits who complain about taking guard on off-stump, about idiosyncrasies, will be the same ones who rightly laud Smith when he hits England round Australia this Winter.

Smith is proof that being conventional may not take you to the summit of the game. Often at this point, people chime in that Smith is an exception, not someone to model batting after. In truth, imitating Smith has taken Marnus Labuschagne quite some way.

England’s distrust of unorthodox styles is misplaced. Much like how being picture perfect is no guarantee of runs, a little individuality is hardly a guarantee of failure.

Why Always White Ball?

Somewhere, hidden in this argument, is the wish to pin all the problems on white ball cricket.

Some people went so far as to explicitly blame it for England’s failings, some hid it in the coded language of players being ‘overly-aggressive’ and not ‘playing proper shots’.

At no level does it make any sense for the England Test top order.

Dom Sibley was hardly put in the team for his white ball exploits, yet people sometimes speak as if he’s getting out by trying to scoop bowlers over fine leg. England keep getting out by nudging at balls outside off stump, not because of some urge to try and hit every bowler around the ground.

The hilarity of the NZ series to me, is the fact that New Zealand actually played a higher percentage of false shots than England.

Indeed, England were not actually throwing their hands at everything, they were simply a bit unfortunate to get punished a lot of the time that they did. In many ways, this fact makes something of a mockery of much of the post-match analysis. The narrative became that NZ were controlled where England were reckless, intelligent where England were stupid. The truth? That sport is a game of fine margins, and sometimes you will have an absolutely rotten day.

None of this is to say that England did not deserve to lose, simply that a lot of the reaction has been totally inappropriate. People have relished sticking the boot in, and have made targets of England’s less conventional batsmen.

Burns and Sibley will not give you the most gorgeous runs you ever see, but they will probably get more of the things than anyone else you can suggest.

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