The unravelling of the ‘brand of cricket’ myth
Cricket is going through a phase where aggression is interpreted as the by-word for success. Positivity brings victory. This was the shared ethos of both English and Australian camps prior to the first Ashes Test at Cardiff. It must follow, therefore, that the team that was most aggressive won the game… Apologies in advance for the subsequent massive rant, but I don’t think they did.
The Ashes Series approached. The world was brimming with Michael Vaughan articles pleading for an ‘aggressive brand of cricket’, with numerous outlets and individuals parroting the phrase. ‘Brand’ is a commercial phrase, ‘a feature that distinguishes one seller’s product from those of others’, rather than a sporting one, but given the closer association of sports and commerce in recent years it is hardly surprising to see a fusion of the two. I resent the idea that cricket is a product – it is a sport played to win. You can utilise different styles and methods in the course of a game of cricket, but that is being confused for representing a ‘brand’ of play. Just think about how the multidimensional approaches and techniques required to succeed at cricket can possibly be condensed into one solitary ‘brand’, invariably aggressive, which covers all aspects of the game. It is borne out of an inherent laziness to engage with cricket’s nuances, and merely indicates that the man speaking the phrase wishes his side to play positively. Australia won the 2013/14 Ashes series because they played ‘an aggressive brand of cricket’ is what the likes of Vaughan will tell you. So aggressive in fact that every time England started to score some runs at a reasonable rate (not that often, granted) Clarke would bring Shane Watson into the attack to keep it tight. Aggressive indeed. The desire to explain how Australia utilised excellent fast bowling to unsettle England gave rise to the phrase that blights the game, the ‘brand of cricket’. It was as if this was a revolutionary approach to winning games, and it needed a funky buzzword to explain it.
‘What if cricket could be a brand?’
Cricket can be approached in a number of different ways, but ultimately you either play it well, or badly. The Australian approach in 2013/14 was merely to play ‘good cricket’. But that doesn’t sound cool enough in this digital age of revolution.
Jumping back to the start of the summer, the New Zealand tour was a very entertaining one, which gave further credence to the ‘aggression is best’ crowd. Brendon McCullum was hailed a genius for his commitment to this previously unimaginable ‘aggressive brand of cricket’. New Zealand attacked all the time. It was so great that many analysts and writers seemed to crown them as one of the best sides in the history of the game! They drew the Test Series, and lost the ODIs. How could this be true? It was explained away by saying that England heroically matched the tourists’ aggression, signalling the dawn of a seventeenth ‘new era’ in as many months. (I’ve attacked buzz phrases enough, so ‘new era’ will escape unscathed for now.)
England persisted with the narrative. ‘Take the attack to the Australians’ was the rallying cry. In response, Australia also vowed to attack. The most aggressive would surely triumph.
Yet the Cardiff Test was won by England because they played better cricket, not more aggressive cricket. It is certainly true that in important moments England demonstrated more positive intent than they had done in previous years, not least because Joe Root is now a world class batsman. To summarise England’s win as merely being a product of this new aggressive mentality would be woefully inadequate, given the numerous facets of the game in which England proved themselves superior on this occasion.
What I hope would finally explode the myth of the ‘aggressive brand of cricket’ being the route to success is that Australia followed those principles and failed. Root scored at a free rate, but was not overly aggressive. Australia, on the other hand, felt it necessary at every opportunity to prove their intent in the first innings. Moeen Ali isn’t good enough, so he must be carted around the park. Steve Smith played some impressive shots that brought him runs, but in pursuing his aggressive approach he conspired to be dismissed in a comical and ungainly fashion. Clarke, too, fell into the trap, caught and bowled attempting to drive, and the second innings dismissal looks even worse. Voges played an ill-judged shot late in the day. It wasn’t that England had bowled aggressively, it was that they had bowled well. And in failing to exercise sufficient restraint, Australia found themselves behind the game from an early stage.
The Australian chase was a tough ask on a slow pitch, but they had two days in which to pace themselves. What they then demonstrated was a complete inability to occupy the crease for long periods of time. This is the other myth that needs exposing – that defensive approaches have no merit in the ‘modern game’. Root took the headlines and the man of the match award, but after losing three quick wickets on the first morning, it could have been a lot worse had he been caught on 0 by Haddin. His parter at the time, Gary Ballance, played an ugly but determined innings, making a half-century that not only allowed England to build a good partnership, but saw off the dangerous new ball which had already put England in trouble. Defensive cricket is not as glamorous, not as exciting, but I’m pretty sure that most cricket fans recognise the importance of it. Ballance succeeded where many Australians failed, in that he occupied the crease for a period of time that increased his team’s chances of success.
England’s bowling was also much better than Australia’s. It was cleverer and was executed more successfully. Broad and Anderson bowled consistently fuller than they had done for a long time, probing for drives to induce edges. Broad pointed out after the game that having seen the nature of the pitch, England realised they could not afford to offer width to the batsmen, so they stuck to a plan of bowling straight. (It seems odd that they’d never realised this before, but as an assessment of the pitch, it is fair enough.) Moeen’s greatest strength is his perceived inadequacy, which is met with aggression and subsequent errors. Mark Wood bowled with great discipline that was not matched by Starc or Johnson. Admittedly the pitch was produced with an intention of reducing the threat of the Aussie pace bowlers, but both sides had to bowl on it, and England did so far more successfully.
There remains a risk that England are swept up by the narrative that they themselves have helped create. Whilst Ian Bell’s fluent return to form was heartening, the rate at which England batted at times jeopardised their advantage. Often the pitches can be such that to score quick runs is better than trying to bat time when you could easily nick off. An article in the Daily Mail has focussed on how Mark Wood’s 32* off 18 balls tells us all about England’s positive approach to the Ashes. What it really indicates is a punchy lower order bowler made a vital contribution to nudge the target up – bowlers have hit quick fire runs before. England managed to score enough so that the target was insurmountable, and I realise there are few strategies that are completely risk averse, but they must not forget that aggression in all scenarios isn’t always the best strategy. Buttler chipping to mid-on late on day one was an error. It is true that England wouldn’t score the runs as quickly as they did if they didn’t play those shots, and Moeen’s counter-attacking 77 is evidence to support that. However, it is still important to play the situation, and recognise which balls to attack and which not to. There is a balance to be struck.
The cricket world, with it’s Twenty20 franchise tournaments and a love of entertaining batting, has fallen in love with aggression. A revision to all-out attack needs to be made, however. McCullum ceded strong positions with his attacking approach as it provided opportunities for England to score at a quicker rate. Australia too found that aggression without adequate control will not yield results. England showed a pragmatism that earned them a well-deserved victory, but with quicker pitches to come they will undoubtedly be tested in their capacity to defend and resist. At the moment, they seem better equipped to achieve this than their opponents.
Positivity may well be enhancing the ability of England’s players. But they won at Cardiff because they played good cricket. The key to that is not uniformity of approach, but a pragmatism that recognises when different tactics are required, and the skill to execute them. As for Australia, some might say that they simply weren’t up to the task of playing an ‘attritional brand of cricket’…