The state of modern batsmanship is at a worryingly low ebb. The recent capitulations by Australia and England encapsulate a larger pandemic that seems to be spreading like wild fire throughout the game. The ability to grind out difficult periods of a match and steer the side into calmer waters ahead appears increasingly hard to come by.
In England’s current series with India one of the key components in this malaise is evident in the experiences of recent debutants, Ben Duckett and Haseeb Hameed. Whilst favouring the attack minded Duckett to debut as Alastair Cook’s umpteenth opening partner in Bangladesh, the Northants made made an encouraging start, not least with a fourth innings half century in the second Test. The left hander, however, looks all at sea against the Indian spinners following his demotion to number four.
Meanwhile the Lancastrian Hameed, chosen to open ahead of Duckett for the India series, has settled in immediately alongside Cook and looks like a mainstay of the team already.
The modern game is bigger and louder than any previous era. Big totals and quick scoring players are what the 21st century game is all about. With Test cricket facing an increasing battle to retain an audience, the emphasis has moved towards entertaining and away from one of the fundamentals of the game; the ability to tough out tricky situations.
For many current internationals, their first experiences of cricket at a national level is in one of the shorter formats of the game. From that spring board, if successful, they normally get promoted into the Test squad. Ever since the Australian side of the early 1990s, sides have looked to dominate with the bat from ball one and scoring rates of four an over are commonplace.
Attack minded players have supplanted players who are technically sound but score at a slower rate. The likes of Cook and Hameed are throw backs to how cricket used to be played.
Having been overlooked to open in Bangladesh it was thought that making your debut in India and opening the batting might be a bit too much for a 19-year-old. However, on the evidence seen in the first two Tests, Hameed has a very bright future in the game.
His technical ability and, in particular, his outstanding foot movement suggests that he has the temperament to succeed at this level. He is different to almost all of the previous attempts to find a partner for Cook. The emphasis, since discarding Nick Compton who also debuted in India on England’s last tour, has always been to find an attack minded opener to accompany the more defensive captain. What they have unearthed eventually is a guy who looks like he is his partner’s long term successor.
What Duckett offers is the ability to take the attack to the opposition. He has an incredibly good eye along with tremendous hand speed which means he has a wide range of shots. If England find themselves in a spot of bother, as they so often do, then he can come to the crease and take the attack to the bowler.
This is what Australia would do (well, the old Australia anyway). This attack minded attitude can, when the time is right, be utterly devastating to the opponent if it comes off. However, what you also need at this level is a technique that will allow you to play yourself in and get accustomed to the conditions.
What transpired on Saturday, during the second Test, was similar to watching the Australian batsmen in Sri Lanka a couple of months back. Duckett got himself tied up in knots and presented his wicket to Ravichandran Ashwin. In doing so he also exposed a big technical floor that has now been evident in his last few dismissals.
He looked a walking wicket before he was out and fortunately Ashwin put him out of his misery for a 15 ball duck. As he demonstrated against Bangladesh in the ODIs, he has the shots to succeed at this level along with the attacking instinct. What this has exposed though, is a deficiency in his defensive game that will not be solved quickly on a tour in India.
This is not intended as an attack on Duckett. It simply highlights an issue that is affecting cricket as a whole at the moment. There are many who are able to adapt their individual mindset and games to the varying formats but each needs to be respected for what it represents. Success in one form doesn’t guarantee success in another (see Jos Buttler) and that should not be assumed as a guarantee.
If Test cricket is to improve and gather momentum then teams must start to win games and series when things are not laid out on a platter for them. So many teams are collapsing and lowest score records seem to be tumbling by the week. Cricket can be an open attacking game that entertains the masses. It can also be a two-hour session where the battle between bat and ball is changing by the minute.
There is a place in Test cricket for both styles of player and whilst one might grab the headlines for a quick fire hundred the other should be lauded for doing their job and softening up the bowlers before the middle order come to the crease. At this moment in time though, it appears that Test cricket needs more Hameed’s and fewer Duckett’s if the game is to stay alive.
By Andy Hunter