Go hard when it suits but dig deep when the force is with those who oppose you

August 28, 2022

If Brendon McCullum hasn't said that to England's dressing room yet, he probably will soon

Go hard when it suits but dig deep when the force is with those who oppose you

In Test cricket a player has choices to make and his career may depend upon the wisdom of these choices. One-day cricket is simpler and the shortest forms simpler still, as is always the case with the lowest common denominator. In general, limited-overs matches are less interesting because they dictate to the players, whereas in Test matches the player is constantly asked questions, and in the search for answers lies the plot.

By winning four consecutive Tests against very good opponents, England's batters effectively played short-form cricket in their win-or-bust pursuit of a target. It made for incredible watching and lifted spirits to the point where the players, and the game itself, were back on the lips of, well, just about everyone. It is impossible to praise them too highly for this. Most other pieces of news are pretty traumatic right now but the cricketers made everyone happy.

Now they have lost a Test match in quick time and English cricket fans are having a grumble. Oddly, they weren't the only ones.

I was in a suite overloaded with South African friends on Friday, the day it all fell apart for England. The high standard of bowling, catching and captaincy was appreciated by all, and yet, remarkably, there was a sense that the thing they so keenly wanted to happen was happening too quickly: winning at Lord's is wonderful but, please, can we delay till tomorrow?

They loved Lord's and in beautiful weather they wanted more of it; they loved the pulsating cricket and wanted more of that too, and they loved the powerful style of the cricket their team was playing and wanted to watch it for longer than England's batting allowed. From the celebration of each wicket came the rider - err, okay, enough now, fight back please you Poms. But instead, Ben Stokes and Stuart Broad rattled along with an equal mix of plays, misses and boundaries putting on 55 in 7.2 overs. It was fun and fast, and moments later it was finished: the match, that is, and the media folk were gathering as vultures to feast on the carcass of English batting while offering platitudes to the South Africa captain and the Player-of-the-Match, Kagiso Rabada - good job, guys, now for the story: England lost in two days.

To their surprise no regret was offered. Stokes talked about bad execution of a good plan, Brendon McCullum about not going hard enough in attack. Buckle up, said the coach, and double down. It's really quite wild. Except that it's not. It's tight and committed; a plan based entirely on the freedom of the mind. McCullum's rages against inhibition, Stokes' against the dullards. It's not cricket on speed, more cricket as a free spirit.

Reflecting on the four consecutive victories, it is worth remembering that England were often behind the game, that the bowlers dragged back those unpromising positions with brilliant third-innings bowling, and that the pitches stayed true enough for batting until the end. The template of putting the opposition in to bat with a view to chasing down fourth-innings totals is dependent on too many uncontrollable factors to be seen as the silver bullet. It is useful, of course, and intimidating when it works as well as it did, but one-trick ponies don't tend to last the pace.

Brendon McCullum tosses a ball at a training session ahead of the game, England vs South Africa, 1st Test, Lord's, London, August 15, 2022

McCullum's philosophy of attack rages against inhibition: cricket as free spirit•John Walton/PA Photos/Getty Images

McCullum's point about not going hard enough is simply that in the first innings at Lord's, when the ball was nipping around and the skies were gathering angry, any ball from this fine South African attack probably had one of his players' number on it, so they might just as well have been looking to take it on as to defend or leave well alone.

It is a shame Ted Dexter isn't here to here to bear witness. The former England captain and thrilling No. 3 batter advocated a wide and high pick-up of the bat with the blade open and ready to attack.

He added that a batter's default position should be to look to score because the movements to do so lead to a more positive form of defence. Those brought up in the north of England might disagree and therein lies the dichotomy of English batting that the present captain and coach hope to bypass.

Not that the so-called Bazball tactic was England's downfall anyway. Yes, Stokes and Broad went at it but prior to that misleading partnership, and beneath the Friday sunshine that favoured batters, England's front six were outplayed. Each of the South African bowlers unleashed a type of hell: the physical threat from their pace, the drip of torture from their accuracy, and the mindscrew of their varied skill - witness the use of the angles, the subtle movement of the ball, and the disguised changes of pace. You could argue that in the shadow of the lunch break Zak Crawley might have been better off with a gentler sweep shot, or a forward block for that matter, but the devil in that detail belies the power of the message Stokes is putting out there. You could argue a bit actually, but not so much as to prove a point.

On the subject of Crawley, Alastair Cook has pushed to see him left out, as much for his own good as that of the team. Cook's view is widely shared, except by the coach, who has explained that Crawley is there for the match-winning innings that is in his gift. "A guy like Zak," McCullum said in the aftermath, "his skill set is not to be a consistent cricketer. He's not that type of player. But he's got a game that can win matches. We've got to be really positive with the language we use around him and with the selections in general." You can pretty much hear the groan from a legion of cricketers hastily discarded by impatient selectors in the past.

Behind closed doors, McCullum will have another message, one based on smarter thinking. Go hard when the conditions demand or suit but dig deep when the force is with those who oppose you. There is more to batting than the chase. Batting is fickle and not to be trusted. Treat it well and rewards will come, treat it lightly and the gods of cricket will have their say.

In the list of attributes that accompany the art of batting is the construction of an innings. Some look for flyers, other for occupation of crease. Brian Lara used to say, "The bowler gets 40 minutes. If I'm still there after that, good luck!" The 40-minute point is typically well made and provides a good reference for those uncertain of a method. Preserve your wicket, stay in, whatever, but you can't make runs back in the dressing room, so find a way. And if McCullum hasn't said it, or something like it, he probably should. –Cricinfo 

Go hard when it suits but dig deep when the force is with those who oppose you