A call for the Thinking Cricketer

A perspective on making Sri Lanka more competitive in International Cricket

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Sri Lanka Cricket
Photo credits: unsplash.com/@samarth_shirke
 

There’s a lot of behind the scenes movement inside Sri Lanka cricket these days. The Sri Lankan fan is radiating disapproval on the performances of the national team in numerous creative ways. The spotlight has also fallen, arguably even more than before, on the local administration (Sri Lanka Cricket), the cricketing structure and what not. 

Free hit contributor – Keshan Dissanayake

The problems are deep-rooted. We all know this. So, the players shouldn’t be dealt the brunt of the criticism – that’s unfair. But their upbringing within the system and all those who are responsible for it should be. Everything from school cricket to club cricket to u19s and A teams (do they even exist anymore?) and the brains of the people in charge have been on a steady decline. 

There’s no easy fix here. We’ve listened to prominent past players on how this can be turned around but that’s only us. The powers that be have deaf ears. Some are hopeful that there could be actual change this time around. I’d like to be hopeful too. We shall wait and see.

And as we do wait, this is a look into something that is devoid of all the structural problems and politicking that Sri Lanka cricket currently faces. Something if we take steps to implement can greatly improve our chances and add to the quality of cricket we play in the international game.

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Cricket at the grassroots

Day in Day Out

In the late 90s and early 2000s, this is usually how a day at cricket practice panned out for us kids:

It could be the late afternoon or early morning depending on whether it was a weekday or a weekend. There was the head coach and a few assistant coaches to help him out. 

Things kicked off with a couple of laps around the ground, then some warmups. Most tried to call dibs on who gets to bat first, the rest fell in line to bowl. In the meantime, one of the assistant coaches would pick a few and walk off with them to do fielding drills. I usually jumped on the chance to bowl. 

When the batters were ready, we would play. Everyone got the opportunity, around 20-minute sessions of batting.  The coaches scrutinized the techniques and did their best to develop your game.  Sometimes we ended the day’s session with a competitive game on the ground, generally around 6-8 overs a side. And day in day out, this would repeat.

Lost in the middle

Throughout the year we got to take part in a lot of practice games with schools and other clubs. Sometimes tournaments. The coach picked the team, usually announced at the top of the morning. And we played. 

I remember coming on to bowl in many of these games and being a bit clueless. I could obviously remember my action and how to deliver the ball. But I was quite lost in terms of the field I should set. 

The chat on top of the mark with the captain didn’t usually help either. We never asked the right questions like – How are we going to get this batsman out? What’s the mode of dismissal we are building towards? Or basically, what is the plan?  

Spin the ball, loop it up and get it above the eye line, gather momentum as you hit the crease, brace and pivot, complete the action and follow through ( I bowled leg spin) – all these things were drilled in. But we didn’t know how to make use of these foundations. We didn’t know how to think about the game.

So, we set a generic in and out field, tried to cover both sides of the wicket and played. Sometimes the coach shouted from the pavilion, dictating terms. We obediently followed. This was the case for everyone.

And every game it was more or less the same.

The morning after

After these inter- school or club level games, we go back to the routine. 

We turned up at practice and repeated the same old. 

At times we did talk about some of the batting and bowling etc.  The tactical discussions primarily entailed the bowling changes, batting tempo, whether we rotated the strike sufficiently, the running between the wickets and so on.  But rarely if at all the fields and the plans employed are broken down in depth.

What’s more? This is a pattern that to a large extent fed off to the club level and other domestic setups as well. We are taught to analyse the game only from one dimension.  

And therein lies the point of this whole piece. 

It’s 2021 now. But going by what is taking place on the field, it seems nothing has changed or ‘much to be done’, to quote Eddie Vedder, in order to build the thinking cricketer. Those cricket academies and high-performance centers have their work cut out.

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The call for the thinking cricketer

Going back to the roots

The focus here is on the upbringing. 

More specifically, it is on the strategic and tactical knowledge a cricketer needs to be successful as a bowler, a batsman, a captain and ultimately as a team on the field.  It is about the lack of attention given to these things at the grassroots level and throughout, until a player is framed for the international setup. 

Through the years, up to date, by looking at some of the choices the team makes on the field, it’s clear that we still lack this skill. Sorely. And it is one long held disappointment against the Sri Lankan coaching system.   

It is something I feel that needs more awareness and appreciation from within. The investment can be done quite easily at very little cost. Nobody will have to tolerate any political interference. And in my opinion, it has great potential to make us that much more competitive, regardless of the enormous gap we see between our domestic cricket and international cricket. It can certainly add to the brand of cricket Sri Lanka wants to play.

But then again, I rarely hear people talk about the need for it.

Missing the mark 

Let’s take some recent examples that stood out.

The 2nd test between England and Sri Lanka. It was the 4th innings, a tricky chase on the cards, a chase in Galle at that. 

Throughout the series, the English openers were under pressure. With an India tour coming up, a sterner test than anything they’d find in Sri Lanka (currently), the familiar doubters were starting to raise their voices as well. Yet Dom Sibley, found it very easy to milk singles and start feeling good about himself. And slowly the runs leaked, and the fight left us.

Go a bit further back to the tour of South Africa. It is Covid times, we were under prepared. Playing in Centurion and the Wanderers is tough for any team, let alone for us.

But we batted well in the first innings to get to 396. 

Yet once again our bowling nor our fields allowed us to compete from there on. And it’s not because we were terrible at it but because Sri Lankans were hardly able to put together some maidens and bowl at one batsman continuously. The basics at international level.

For one thing, it felt like Lahiru Kumara, who has great pace and can have good presence on the crease, was trying to bowl a wicket ball every single delivery. It was mostly the same with other bowlers too. And slowly the runs leaked and the fight along with the game once again left us.

Now obviously, they would have had their own plans to each and every batsman discussed and finalized. However, out there in the heat of the moment as the game dynamics took hold, we missed the mark from a long way off. We just didn’t adjust and read off the game to inform our tactics. The coaches cannot do much about it. These things happen with the run of play and ideally the think tank on the ground should be able to make the calls. 

Unfortunately though, in most such instances, we generally fall back on unnecessarily spread out fields, trying to plug every gap, trying to contain the boundaries, following the ball at every step. And excruciatingly, even when we are on top, you see fields set for bad bowling instead of thinking wickets first.

And the problem is that this happens all too often and it has been happening even when Sri Lankans were playing well. Usually, when a team is made up of great players or when a team does exceptionally well in one or two disciplines, it carries them over the line, even if the tactics happen to be terrible. 

And things get quickly forgotten. 

The nearly headless

In cricket, we sometimes hear players being spoken of as ‘got a great head on their shoulders’ or ‘got a great cricket brain’ etc. It seems in those terms, in Sri Lanka, we only ever speak about Mahela Jayawardane. What does that tell you about the kind of cricketers we produce through the system?

At the grassroots or in the domestic setup Sri Lanka barely do enough to develop the aforementioned cricketing brain of an individual player. A player graduates to international cricket with bare minimum of tactical knowledge and cricketing smarts. The system does not teach them how to think. And it is not something that one can master in quick time at the international level, no matter how many support staff and how in-depth analytics exist. 

Constantly the pundits and fans alike talk about the need for cricketers to be that much more smarter, bolder and attacking. We want them to be wrought with patience and outsmart the opposition. Of course, much of it is easier said beyond the boundary line. But that’s not to say most of the very basic things can be put under the same rug. 

At the same time though, you have to ask – given all that is above, are we fair to expect that when the system doesn’t breed that kind of a cricketer? 

To develop a natural feel for moments and have the ability to quickly analyze and breakdown the game and technique of an opponent under pressure, during match situations, just doesn’t happen overnight.

Outside the 3 main disciplines of the game, things like figuring out the right field (to the situation, given the type of batsman and type of bowler) and learning how to maneuver it, setting traps, dissecting the pitch to understand the right pace to bowl on it, to know which shots are on, the angles, whether to have fielders square of the wicket or much finer etc. take a long time to master.

Building the brain

A lot of the game is played on the mind and it needs honing and gradual development. The mindset informs strategy and tactics. And mindset dictates your approach to the game. This would in turn contribute to the ‘brand’ of cricket Sri Lanka play as a team.

Think about it, as kids we go to school and from a very young age, study maths and sciences to train our brain to think, be analytical, break down cause and effect etc. 

It is a slow process that takes many years. Some are naturally good at it (the Mahela Jayawardanes in cricketing terms). But the majority come good upon practicing and learning these sums and experiments over and over again, gradually, at increased levels of complexities. 

So how could it be any different in cricket? Come a tight game, it could end up making all the difference. 

Drifting without pullback

“The plan was to ‘drag’ the game as long as possible till the end.”

Both in the past and present this is something we commonly hear from Sri Lankan captains at post-match conferences. At times, it is the explanation for letting the game seemingly drift with an unnecessary number of fielders in the deep during the middle overs. For the opposition, ones and twos can be run blindfolded. Partnerships are easier to be built. 

This has its merits. It certainly does when the run rate is of utmost importance and batsmen are constantly looking for boundaries. But it is usually implemented for all the wrong reasons. Most times, teams sit back and wait for the opposing side to make a mistake instead of trying to force the mistake or create the environment so that when an error is made, everything is in the right place to snatch on to it. 

Especially in Test Cricket such a strategy when there’s a big first innings score or a lead is quite baffling.  In limited overs cricket, in the present day, cricketers are fearless (especially the batsmen). Any score is gettable. Boundary lines are taken head on even when fielders are there as protection. Therefore, the complete focus should be to prevent partnerships. Cut off easy runs. The driver should be ‘what would the opponent least want us to do?’. 

It is important to state that these are not mere ramblings of the aggravated fan.  But they are also common sense in cricketing terms. And it is certainly not nitpicking. Tactics and strategy can be subjective. At times, to get into the game, to build confidence in players, certain choices need to be made. We know this. But those are special circumstances.

However, it also means you try to avoid as much as possible playing into the opposition’s hands. Generally, playing it safe (not in all situations) leads to that. This gets accentuated when the team is constantly underperforming,  like Sri Lanka is doing right now.

Losing is fine

Ultimately, there is also the part about playing a good brand of cricket that fans would appreciate. After all, as Sanath Jayasuriya aptly put it – ‘national pride is at take’. The country is represented and the game is played for the country. 

So then letting a game of cricket drag when it is frustratingly evident that the tactics are not putting any pressure on the opponents, not only tarnish the aforementioned brand of cricket we were talking about, it also does not do any justice to the fans, who eagerly ride every ball, every moment and every decision in a cricket mad country like ours. Losing is fine and will be accepted in much kinder terms if the game is also played in a much more attractive way. 

But again, you have to ask the question – Are we right to expect such gameplay when the upbringing does not blood that into the system?

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Blooding the system

Areas of Focus

Well.

Where do we begin? 

At the core, to implement such a strategy, as the cliche goes you need to start with the basics. And top of mind that involves a couple of things.

First to determine the right age when the more tactical elements of the game can be introduced to young cricketers. Second, to educate the coaches in the system to create awareness on the problem and to impart them with the right knowledge to pass on to the students. 

Both are vital.

The former encompasses questions like how to do this without losing the fun element of the game for kids. Nasser Hussain articulates this brilliantly in almost every discussion related to coaching. Nobody wants to walk into a theory lesson having just escaped the classroom. 

So, how do you get them thinking? How to make it repetitively part of the process of executing their skill?  Crack these questions, and you will always have cricketers asking the right questions at the top of their mark without just going through the motions.  

Done properly, they should enjoy it too. At a younger age, anybody loves the opportunity to have one up over the other. It would be healthy competition. It will be growth. 

Then the latter –  it needs to ensure that coaches don’t deliver some stock standard by the book gibberish. In Sri Lanka, coaches are really good with the coach’s manual and building technically correct cricketers to a fault. But the capacity to build and explore more strategic and subjective elements of the game can be questionable.

Small convenient steps, everyone learns 

In an age, where so much knowledge is accessible through various mediums at everyone’s convenience, I would simply just start with Youtube. The endless masterclass videos that box-office cricketers do for various broadcasters are all freely available. And they are not just simple 2-minute noodle stuff either. 

Cricketers and pundits alike dig deep into the subject matter, dissecting every detail, in really engaging ways. They provide incredible learning for both the teacher and the student. The insights are just bloody amazing. They are current, immediate and impactful. You often come out watching them thinking, ‘I wish I knew that when I was playing’. 

Imagine a coach playing it for the students and initiating a discussion among them. That alone could lead to so much growth.

For budding cricketers, when it happens to be their heroes, whom they idolize, naturally every word will be inhaled. At more advanced levels, well, if one is serious about the game, they will make the effort.  

To be fair though, it is likely that all cricket playing nations can do more to bring in this skill at developmental stages. Looking at some of the gameplay in international cricket sometimes stands as evidence to this. Lack of confidence, the fear of the unknown, insecurity – so many things could be the contributors. And that’s precisely why, these skills need to be gained from an early stage. But for now, the scope of this article will remain within Sri Lankan boundaries. 

And be that as it may, it gives further ground to invest more in a strategy as discussed here, to gain a competitive advantage over other nations.

The art of pulling the trigger

At the end, it is all about having the right thought process and getting cricketers to think. Tactics are subjective. At most times, there’s no right or wrong answer in there. 

A coach need not have all the answers either. But the system should do just enough to create awareness among them and make them capable of triggering this thinking at training.

It could be something as simple as watching from the sidelines during practice and throwing in a question like ‘what are your six deliveries going to be?’ to a kid. That’s just it. It will suddenly get them thinking. 

And that’s a start. With time, Sri Lanka Cricket can bring in experience and feed it to the coaches. It can be more of a curriculum.  But right now, cricketers just need to be aware that the game at a more advanced level is played more on the mind and cricket smarts. As long as that message goes through, combined with the effort we already put into giving a solid cricketing foundation to a kid, the system can soon start churning out more competitive cricketers. 

With an added dimension.

Conclusion

At the end of the 4th day’s play in the first test between England and India in Chennai, Michael Vaughan, the former English skipper, tweeted the following:

“I would like to know from spinners out there WHY spinners have a cover point on the boundary when you have near on 400 on the board on a pitch that is spinning square… and you an off spinner bowling … and it’s the last over of the day!!!! Wtf…” 

To which, Stuart Broad replied with:

“You do, as a bowler, whatever makes you feel comfortable to deliver your skill under pressure, your best ball. If a deep point helps you land it, turn it on to off stump, then it’s a good field no? For me, cover sometimes helps me bowl a more attacking length, hitting stumps” 

We’ve seen it countless times, Broad bowling with some protection. Not just him actually, some other great ones too including Murali, who just hated going for boundaries. And in this instance Broad, presumably, was generalising and most likely sticking up to his teammates.

But are we not missing Michael Vaughan’s point? When you have done so much to bat India out of the game, to ensure that they do not have time to chase down a 400+ score by slowing down the game considerably (much to the irk of many), should it be something that bowlers worry about? If so, surely the captain must step in and override the bowler. Right?

If anything the English bowlers were under pressure to take wickets and justify the team’s decision not to declare. The thought process should then be wickets and men around the bat. 

In the dying light at dusk, what’s the last thing the opposition batsmen would want?

Keshan is a cricket enthusiast. Follow him on Twitter at @KeshanSD. You can also read his blog at The Spectator’s Diary

*Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of ThePapare.com.

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