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Lawrence Booth: Why the sweep might not suit

November 12th, 2008 by Lawrence Booth in England, International, One-day cricket and tagged , ,

Almost three years ago on a sweltering afternoon in Delhi, a horde of English hacks, including this one, sat high in the stands of the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium and watched open-mouthed as England threw away the first one-day international against India.

A collapse of seven for 47 was hard enough to take, although England collapses were nothing new. No, what really seemed to offend was that five of the batsmen fell on the sweep – a stroke that has never sat easily with the English who a) prefer a bit of pace on the ball, b) feel comfier when the bat is vertical rather than horizontal and c) can’t say “sweep” without twitching uncontrollably at the thought of Mike Gatting’s cack-hander in the 1987 World Cup final.

What emerged from that game was a fascinating polarisation – press on one side, England camp on the other – and one whose consequences could decide the outcome of the one-day series starting in Rajkot on Friday morning. For the journalists on that trip, the sweep became an unnecessary evil when there were runs to be had by other – in their view, safer – means. For the England camp, the sweep was a useful way of upsetting the Indian spinners’ length. Asked the morning after whether he thought Harbhajan Singh was bluffing when he said he liked being swept, Kevin Pietersen replied: “I think so. I don’t think there’s any spin bowler who likes to be swept or slog-swept.”

Since then, Duncan Fletcher has told me that some of the batsmen became fearful of the sweep, precisely because they didn’t want the know-alls in the press box to climb into them again. He has always maintained that the sweep, when played well, is a great way of disrupting line and length and a more secure way of gathering runs than hitting the ball over the top, mainly because a horizontal bat is less vulnerable to the vagaries of turn and bounce than a vertical one. He also believes it is harder to score down the ground on Indian pitches because the ball comes on to the bat so slowly.

In his autobiography Fletcher writes that when, for example, Muttiah Muralitharan is swept, his “walk back to his mark” is a “very timid one” … “the walk of a man who does not like what he is seeing”. Anyone who remembers Graham Gooch sweeping England to victory in the 1987 World Cup semi-final against India must acknowledge Fletcher’s point.

But if over the years the sweep has become a source of English paranoia, it is surely not exclusively the media’s fault. Rewind to Delhi, where England found themselves 117 for three in the 20th over, chasing just 204 to win. Defeat from that position would have invited scorn whatever shots were played; that it was the sweep simply provided an easy target. And, yes, journalists love easy targets.

So what does all this mean now that England are about to embark on another seven-match one-day series in India? England’s oldest limited-overs Achilles heel is falling behind the required rate against subcontinental spinners, so it will help no one to demonise the sweep once more, even if it has become a less prevalent shot under Peter Moores.

As Pietersen himself once said in another context, the whole dilemma feels a bit Catch 21: a lack of innovation will invite just as much condemnation as dismissal to a horizontal bat. Perhaps England’s biggest challenge will be to stick to their plans come what may – and hope they don’t provide the media with an early excuse to mount an old hobby horse in Rajkot in two days’ time.

Posted in England, International, One-day cricket | 1 Comment »

The TWC Summit - How bad are Australia?

November 12th, 2008 by Alan Gardner in Test cricket and tagged , , ,

On the back of their first series defeat by more than one Test since 1988-89, we ask, are the Aussies really on the slide? Jrod has already lamented the current situation, but now it’s time for the summit to make a stab at consensus. Ponting’s captaincy blunders; a lack of wicket-taking; failure to seize the initiative … Australia’s problems have been manifold. But how bad has it got?

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Posted in Test cricket | 4 Comments »

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