Angus Fraser: Australia prepare ambush for compulsive hookers

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The Independent Online

To hook or not to hook, that is the question facing England's batsmen as they prepare for tomorrow's first Ashes Test. By selecting six fast bowlers for Brisbane Australia have made their objectives clear - they intend to roughen up and intimidate England's batsmen on the fastest pitch in the country with a barrage of bouncers.

But how will England's top order react to the onslaught? Will they look to meet fire with fire and take the Aussies on, or will they duck, weave and take a few blows to the body before the more conventional method of attack is resorted to? When it is executed well the hook shot is, for a fast bowler, possibly the most soul-destroying stroke a batsman can play. Pietersen demonstrated this against Brett Lee during his wonderful 158 at the Oval in 2005. By playing the stroke well a batsman shows that he is not frightened of what the thug at the other end is pelting down at him and that he is prepared to take on the opposition.

But if the stroke is played poorly, as it was against the Prime Minister's XI in England's opening match of the Australian tour, batsmen look foolish as they forlornly make their way back to the dressing-room. Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Ian Bell, Paul Collingwood, Andrew Flintoff, Geraint Jones and Pietersen all like to hook. It is a shot that has brought them hundreds of runs in their careers and it is a shot they will, no doubt, continue to play.

But hooking in Australia is a different proposition to what it is in England, where grounds are relatively small and it takes little more than a top-edge to send the ball sailing into the spectators at backward square leg. This was the case when Pietersen took on Lee at the Oval, and during Flintoff's swashbuckling 68 at Edgbaston, where he mis-hit the same bowler for two sixes over a pathetically short boundary.

Australian grounds are big. No, actually, they are bloody huge, and if these two players execute the shot in the same manner in Brisbane, Perth, Melbourne or Sydney - Adelaide has short, square boundaries - they will be caught 10 or 20 yards inside the boundary. The pitches are quicker and bouncier too, and it can take time for batsmen to become fully accustomed to the conditions.

Alec Stewart played the short ball as well as any England player in the past 20 years. Stewart hooked, and he hooked well. "The hook was a very productive shot for me. The short ball was, to me, a run- scoring opportunity. But you do have to be selective and decisive," the former England captain warns. "Very early in your innings you have to decide whether you are going to play it or not. If you get caught in between you are in trouble."

Stewart stressed: "The most important thing is to pick the right pitch to play the shot on and the right bowlers to play it against. The stroke brought me a lot of runs but I put it away against blokes like Wasim Akram, who fizzed it down at 90mph."

He was an excellent hooker because he seemed to be able to pick the length of the ball earlier than most batsmen. But Stewart pointed out: "I also tried to hook down, in that I would pick the bat up high and try to hit down on the ball. Andrew Flintoff, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell all hook up. Their bats come up from a low position and they help the ball on its way. You may hit more sixes playing the shot like this but the ball goes in the air more often, and this is something the Aussies have noticed. Sixes in England are boundary catches in Australia and if I was Ricky Ponting I would tell my fast bowlers to pepper these three for just that reason."