When Graham Ford told the media that the Sri Lankan squad had trained hard and had regular chats about their tasks, one has no reason to doubt him. But the fact remains that Sri Lanka’s batting has been abysmal at times. This feature cropped up again during their ODI victory at the Gabba: with Dilshan’s misjudgment of bounce and the manner in which Matthews and Mendis got bounced out serving as further evidence of a serious malady. Such shortcomings suggest a failure to prepare adequately for Australian pitches. In brief, just as one chooses horses for courses, one should practice for courses.
My review here does not displace the caustic comments expressed by Sidath Wettimuny and Somasundaram Skandakumar after the MCG Test debacle. They called the batting “woeful,” “shocking” and “ill-disciplined.” Both placed the blame squarely on the overriding weight that has been attached to ODI cricket, especially the T20 version, in Sri Lankan cricket circles. “Most of our batsmen were guilty of playing strokes more suited for the limited overs game,” said Sidath; ‘“it is about a whole mindset change that has sadly come about through the advent of T20 cricket,” said Skanda.Wettimuny was a consummate and technically correct batsman in his heyday in the 1980s; while Skandakumar was as astute a cricketer when a youngster as clinical in his role as commentator in middle-age. Their critique is spot on: ODI cricket has diminished basic batting techniques and the kind of concentrated application required for survival in the Test arena. Let me amplify their contentions through further specifics and suggestions.
I do so as an amateur assessor. At cricket I have never been a great technician of the sort exemplified in my day by two of my pals, Anwer Jawadh or DH “Hema” de Silva. So I do not have the credentials of either Sidath or Skanda. But I am fortunate to be able to call upon the thinking of another great technician. That is Joe Hoad. Hoad is in his eighties now and was a Barbadian cricketer in the days of the three Ws. He has been coaching in Australia for over 40 years. He may be White, but he will always be first a Bajan (pronounced Bay-jun) and, then, secondly, a Bajan. He is, as well, incisive in his intelligence and thus a first-class coach and mentor.
Talking cricket after Sri Lanka defeated Australia at the Gabba Joe told me that the Sri Lankan players had enormous talent and the team could reach the peaks if properly harnessed. He had nothing but praise for Sangakkara’s batting skills; and said that “that little left-hander” – meaning Herath – was the best left-arm bowler in the present crop of leftie spinners round the traps. But he then moved to the central issue: “Did Sri Lanka prepare thoroughly for the Australian pitches and their greater bounce?”
The clear implication was that they had NOT done so. Why else would Dilshan and Mahela get caught at slip as the ball nicked a bat being withdrawn? Why else would so many batsmen get into a tangle with the short rising ball off a short-of-length or in feeble pull shot? Matthews and Mendis at the Gabba were not isolated examples. Jeewan Mendis was caught out earlier in similar fashion at the ODI at the MCG. Prasanna Jayawardene was dismissed and injured by a short rising ball. Dhammika Prasad was out THRICE at short midwicket and mid-on trying to pull – quite criminal that. Hoad also indicated that at the Gabba Angelo Matthews should have been watching Johnson’s arm and spotted that it was going to be a short-pitched ball from that arm movement and the late delivery of the ball.
Joe Hoad told me that in his day in Barbados his club was all-White and did not have good pacemen of the Hall and Griffith kind. So, they honed their techniques against short-pitched pace bowling by having someone throw-bouncing an old cricket ball or a taped tennis-ball at them from 18 yards. There were no helmets, of course, those days.
This anecdote raises an interesting point: does the availability of helmets today mean that batsmen practice hooking & pulling — or weaving and ducking — the short-pitched ball much less (if at all) these days. Back then you could be decapitated out in the middle. So you practiced. Now, well, with helmets you are safer ….. yes, safer, but more likely to be out and back in the pavilion if one does not hone one’s skills in coping with short-pitch pace. One facet of such skill is weaving or swaying away. Even as an amateur at a much lower level I knew that. Or one can use the pace to glide the ball over slips – as Warner showed once; and Thirimanna displayed on several occasions at Adelaide.
Helmets are not the answer to this difficulty. The answer is good, assiduous use of the bowling machine. That was Joe Hoad’s second question: did the Sri Lankan players hone their ability to face short-pitched bowling by intelligent use of the bowling machine? Good batting coaches are inadequate if they cannot operate this instrument adeptly. One can wrack up the speed and generate extra-quick short-pitch balls. Better still, one encourages the trainee-batsman by using a new tennis ball, tape-tennis-ball or a red-tennis ball (more expensive this latter invention) rather than a cricket ball. The idea is to simulate the pace and trajectory of the short-pitched ball. And practice and practice with a taped tennis ball spat-out by the bowling-machine in varying manner. Weave, duck, pull, duck, weave, glide, duck, whatever.
Joe Hoad also indicated that today’s professional cricketers must think carefully about their approaches to the three formats of the game; and adjust their batting and bowling techniques as well as their plans for each version. Much more improvisation is required in the shorter forms of the game and there must be thought put into one’s preparation and training for each version.
Sri Lanka’s tail-end batsmen: Such attention to detail and preparation for the pace and bounce of Australian pitches should also have been extended to the lower-order batsmen. Prasad, Herath, Welagedera, Pradeep, Eranga and Lakmal revealed a vulnerability and lack of determination in both the MCG and SCG Test matches that was alarming…… and, at times, comical. Every member of a team has a duty to the team as well as to himself – the more so when there is one accomplished batsman at the other end who will be the platform for a better total. They should take a leaf from the performances of the Aussie bowlers as batsmen in this regard. Or recall Malinga’s efforts at Bellerive Oval and the MCG not too long ago.
The most outstanding example of a self-transformation from tail-end bunny of the Chris Martin variety to sturdy support is the story of Jason Gillespie related to me by Joe Hoad. At club level the young Gillespie was always No. 11 and so bad that his team’s wicket-keeper donned his pads as soon as Gillespie walked out to bat – because Jason would be back out immediately. Well. Jason decided to reform himself. With Joe and other coaches he faced up toa bowling machine for hours and worked on his defence. He continued to do so and having secured a bowling spot in the Australian XI, he walked up to Steve Waugh and offered his services as night-watchman. Request granted. The rest is history. In case you do not know, let me tell you that in a Test Match against Bangladesh in Bangladesh night-watchman Gillespie went on to score a double century. Three cheers, then, for those bowling machines. Plus, one must emphasise, determination, application and assiduous practice. Goodness comes in three and fours. Let Gillespie be a lesson to you young Lankan cricket-men.
An Amateur’s Footnote: I cannot let Joe Hoad hog the show. I have some thoughts of my own. At a social occasion, once, I asked Anura Tennekoon whether cricketers today practised shadow batting at home or in the pavilion when waiting to go out to bat. As far as I recall, Tennekoon did not answer me but said that he himself did so in his time. Since he was a technically correct batsman of the highest quality, this speaks volumes. But from my experience at a lower-level the point is that such imaginary batting practice got one’s feet moving: skip-skip forward drive, skip-skip on-drive, forward defence, back-step defence, et cetera…. Alternating moves, rapid-fire, repetitive. The idea is to instill a routine as well as develop footwork.
What else develops good footwork? Ballroom-dancing young man! It is no accident that some of the world’s most magical batsmen were superb ballroom dancers in their day: Sathasivam, Compton, Miller, Sobers. Admittedly, they did not pursue this practice because of any cricketing intentions. They enjoyed it for one. For another, it was a preliminary move in their bedding of women.
There is a moral here for our budding Lankan cricketers. Not one about seducing women; but a pointer towards improvements in their batting skills. Take to the dance floor as part of cricketing…. But not the shake, rattle and girating type of dancing that is popular nowadays. Nay: it is the cha-cha-cha, quickstep, fox trot andjive that one must pursue. They, too, are fun. And there is samba too if one wishes for something attuned to the baila-beat.
 He is, in third part, a Sri Lankan. I also wager that he will be reborn at Seenigama.
 Hoad informs me that Haynes and Greenidge developed the technique of moving the bat inwards from right to left — especially for Australian wickets.
 Marlon Samuels, you will say, will tell you otherwise. But the fact is that Samuels considers himself the best batsman in the world and adjusts his visor because he sees better that way and believes he is a brilliant hooker (info from Hoad).
 “Australia’s depth in bowlers who can also bat has never been better. Peter Siddle, Mitchell Johnson, James Pattinson and Patrick Cummins are all capable to getting Australia out of a hole,” noted Andrew Faulkner in The Australian, 22 January 2012.
Rhodes Scholar for Ceylon in 1962, Michael Roberts is a historian by training, and has taught at the Dept of History at Peradeniya University (1961-76) and the Dept of Anthropology at Adelaide University (1977-2003).
He first ventured into cricket writing in 1989/90, being inspired by the processes of verbal intimidation which victimized the touring Sri Lankan team during that cricketing summer; while taking up cudgels again in 1995/96 after the conspiracy to no-ball Muralitharan. Both moments, he says, indicate that “anger inspires creativity, just as it can, alas, spark various forms of violence”.
He has authored and edited several books in fields that combine sociology, politics and history. But for our interests here, what is more significant is the plethora of articles on cricket and its politics, which have been published over the years by newspapers in Sri Lanka and occasionally in Himal Southasian. He also sustains two websites, namely, thuppahi.wordpress.com and cricketique.wordpress.com.
He is the author of several books on cricket, including the following:
- Crosscurrents: Sri Lanka and Australia at Cricket (with Alfred James) (Sydney: Walla Walla Press, 1998).
- Essaying Cricket. Sri Lanka and Beyond (Colombo: Yapa Publications, 2006).
- Forces and Strands in Sri Lanka’s Cricketing History (Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association, 2006).
- Incursions & Excursions – In and Around Sri Lankan Cricket (Colombo, author, 2011).