Sunday, 9 August 2009

Sloppy Playing, Sloppy Thinking

England's cricket team were completely outplayed at the Ashes Fourth Test at Headingley. But this is sports, you learn from your mistakes, put it behind you, and focus on winning the next time. Well, unless you're a panicky England fan.

This is the perfect example of the kind of sloppy, knee-jerk thinking that characterizes the English way of doing things. Go back to that Justin Langer document. Beneath all the Australian arrogance are two key points: 1) England's players like to feel they are making progress; 2) England are psychologically weak. Point two is the kind of 'cod psychology' that gives successful athletes a bad name. I'd almost recommend ignoring that nonsense, except in making that point, this document actually tells us something important.

Let's go back a bit here. England picked an XI at the start of the series that excluded Bell and Harmison. So why are they in the side now? We know the answer to that — injuries. The question is whether they are worth retaining as injury substitutes. Harmison was, apart from Anderson, the most expensive English bowler. That's fine if you take 4-5 wickets, but he took 2. He's been found wanting, and I don't need sabermetric methods to tell me he should be dropped. Bell is a different issue, in that there isn't an obvious alternative. I'd actually stick with him over any inexperienced batsmen, such as Trott.

The real England problem is a sabermetric issue. Basically, the batsmen don't seem to know where their stumps are, and can't seem to accept that they can be making progress in a Test match if they are not giving up their wickets. This isn't ODI or T/20 territory. You can bat all five days and be guaranteed not to lose the match. So it's a simple psychological tweak needed with the batsmen. Instead of them getting fidgety when they are not scoring, they should get fidgety when they are playing shots they don't need to. Also, they should try to reset themselves more often, so they have a clear idea where the stumps are. It doesn't matter what some sledging Ocker, with more lip than brains, has to say about it.

The bowlers have a similar issue. The trouble is in their heads. Yes, short-pitched, aggressive bowling sure looks good, but the reality is that if it's not productive, go for a longer length and if your deliveries are drifting wide, aim a little bit more at leg.

With Langer's (1), the issue is simply to redefine what making progress is.

(2) tells us more about Australia than England. The Australians have a confidence that comes from a tradition of winning, and look down on a side that during the Nasser Hussain years had all the charm of a little kid looking up to the 'Australian way' as the best. Normally, the English can look at these jumped-up transportees with a confidence that comes from greater sophistication. That doesn't quite carry over into the realm of sports (particularly with Nasser), so let's draw on some other good English traditions that have equated to winning. The England side needs to remember the kind of bloody-minded stubbornness that made its soldiers and sailors the best in the world in the eighteenth century and after. 'Throw everything you like at us, mate, we'll be here tomorrow.'

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