All in a day's work

Gifted with a wonderful eye, Kevin Pietersen's ability to hit sixes into `slogger's corner' will make him one of the most dangerous batsmen in the World Cup.

The Good Book tells us that `One Day telleth another.' But that does not seem to have been the case in the instance of the recently concluded Champions Trophy, won for the first time by cricket's World Champions: Australia. One-Day Internationals usually follow one of a few set patterns. Option one stipulates that the side winning the toss chooses to bat first and establish a challenging chasing total — which, until South Africa and Australia revolutionised One-Day thinking in 2005-06, by scoring 400 each in a single day — ordinarily hovered around the mid-300s. Option two caters for the team losing the toss and batting second. In this case, the tactic is to chase runs and victory by establishing a sound batting platform which leaves the `chasers' perhaps 100 runs shy of their target, but importantly with five or six wickets in reserve, with which to buy runs by means of audacious and unorthodox aggression. Whether sides batted or bowled first, however, it was usually the batsmen's ability to score runs quickly which decided the day. Bowlers were batting fodder, seeking to avoid having to bowl last with no possibility of dismissing the opposition in the space of 50 overs and little chance of restricting their score to less than 300 — let it be added — on flat batting pitches.

In 2006, however, a new ingredient was added to the mix. The Indian monsoons were late, providing unexpected assistance for bowlers, who revelled in the low, slow conditions of the early games of the Champions Trophy: matches which produced skimpy totals and caused the captains and coaches to dispense with the advice of the orthodox tacticians. No longer was it a case of captains winning the toss and signalling to the pavilion for their openers to pad up. Every skipper had to evaluate the wicket, adopt the role of Captain Courageous and seize the bowling initiative whenever the pitch offered the slightest assistance to his bowlers. The demand for the many skills of captaincy was revived. And the necessity of leaders using the M. Poirot's legendary little grey cells showed it to be under utilised or misguided! England, for instance, lost the toss three times out of three in the league stage, batted first twice, but only won one match. South Africa won one spin of the coin out of three, but like New Zealand batted first on three occasions. Each team won two of their three preliminary matches and qualified for the knock-out rounds. Sri Lanka won the toss on two occasions out of three but did not have the bowling strength to win more than one game in spite of fielding first thrice. The West Indies more than most, played an orthodox one-day game. Not once in three games did the Caribbean side fail to surpass 200 with the bat; defeating strong Indian and Australian sides en route and losing only to England at the last gasp. Lara had the advantage of winning the toss three times in succession, batting twice and opting to field once.

An element of the bizarre crept into the competition when the supremacy of bat over ball had to be restored by dint of gluing a wet disintegrating Brabourne pitch into an acceptable batting surface. No doubt the exercise was all in the cause of providing a durable batting surface and the exigencies of television programming. But it made one wonder what modern batsmen would have made of the pre-covered wicket days. It also made one surmise that perhaps the `big boys ` of modern cricket would be well served by acquiring the experience of learning how to bat on pitches that `did a bit': a worthwhile salutary lesson of the 2006 Champions Trophy.

Yet another compulsory practical tutorial for them is to be found in the analogy of the coaching story told of Wilfred Rhodes of Yorkshire and England. Bowling one day in the Headingley nets to a group of youngsters, Rhodes was horrified when one boy planted his front foot down the wicket and `slogged' one of Rhodes' best deliveries clean out of the ground. "Nay, nay," said Wilfred, "that's all wrong. Look where your feet are." "Never mind my feet", said the youth, "look where the ball is!!!" The moral of the story for the benefit of contestants in next year's World Cup? It will be effective, not orthodox, cricket which will count.

In this respect it is interesting to observe the successful batting and bowling methods of today's international stars. England's Kevin Pietersen shapes up to the bowlers with his chest facing extra-cover. His batswing loops from slip towards mid-on, and often causes him to release his grip on the bat handle with his left-hand at the bat's point of contact with the ball. Both characteristics defy the dictums of every known coaching manual. Yet, gifted as he is with a wonderful eye, Pietersen's ability to hit sixes into `slogger's corner' will make him one of the most dangerous batsmen in the World Cup. `Freddie' Flintoff favours the boundaries at square-leg and long-off. Australia's Andrew Gilchrist aims for mid-wicket and square cover. The West Indies' Chris Gayle likes drilling the ball back past the bowler, whilst his skipper Brian Lara prefers the `not a man moves' drive past cover's left-hand. Technically I rate knocks from India's Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, South Africa's Jacques Kallis and Australia's Ricky Ponting, streets ahead of an explosive episode from Pietersen's blade. Dravid will win or save a five-day Test on a dodgy pitch such as he encountered in Kingston last year; but the expatriate South African hitter will win many more 50-over thrillers. And that is the batting diet that all but the cricketing gourmet seem to prefer. Effectiveness before the aesthetic is the motto of limited-over cricket. A vignette of the various successful fast bowlers on show in the one-day game comes down in favour of the man with match-winning figures rather than the `quickie' with a classical action. England's Harmison has an ungainly and ugly open delivery stride. His weight falls away from his bowling line, frequently producing an expensive proliferation of wides; yet occasionally he produces the decisive miserly over or the crucial `jaffa' delivery. It is hard to envisage how South Africa's Ntini bowls economically with his delivery of flailing arms and legs. Yet he does, and is sometimes more effective than his metronomic team-mate, Shaun Pollock.

But to my way of thinking, the most influential legacy which next year's World Cup will inherit from the Champions Trophy of 2006 will be an awareness of how to play attacking cricket in adverse conditions. The lateness of the Indian monsoons last June meant that in the early games of the trophy, stroke-making was hard work. Batsmen had to contend with under-prepared pitches on which they had to punch out their strokes against bowling which came on to the bat sluggishly and kept low. The first few games on such surfaces encouraged and rewarded bowlers who persevered with the basics of line and length and severely handicapped stroke-makers. The tournament also provided an excellent demonstration of how to use the power play tactic at the very outset of a match: it put to flight the antique concept of a team making sure that it could not lose a match before trying to win it! It held up for imitation the clean driving of Gayle and Pietersen, demonstrating how to imbue batting with a sense of urgency, without being rash. Moreover, identifying the outstanding performers of the Champions Trophy — their strengths and weaknesses — has enabled their opponents to plot their downfall next year in the Caribbean. Finally, the competition demonstrated how to manipulate batsmen's strike rates and bowlers' economy rates so that teams could maintain or change the impetus of a game in their favour from session to session.

Here endeth the one-day lessons from the Champions Trophy!