Countdown to the first Test: The sweeping solution

England's batsmen face a huge challenge when they take on the wiles of Muttiah Muralitharan in the Test series that begins this weekend. But, writes Angus Fraser in Kandy, there is one shot that they will all be turning to

To sweep or not to sweep, that is the question facing England's batsmen as they attempt to finalise a strategy to overcome the most dangerous bowler in the world Muttiah Muralitharan. For when the prince of Kandy is bowling batsmen can often be found reaching for a Hamlet once they have located the sanctuary of the dressing room.

Muralitharan's doosra (a delivery that spins like a leg-break) was designed to combat the desire of batsmen to sweep him. The controversial delivery many believe it cannot be bowled without the arm being straightened illegally has made the shot more hazardous, but, even so, every England player that takes guard against the spinner in the first Test in Kandy, which begins on Saturday, will intend to use it.

As a stroke, the sweep, a shot that involves the batsman putting his front leg down the pitch to cover his stumps and heaving across the line, is one of the more contentious in cricket. To the purist, who loves to see batsmen dance down the pitch and drive elegantly through the covers for four, or rock back on to the back foot and cut the ball to the backward point boundary, it is a slog played by a desperate, uncultured and unskilled heathen.

To most, however, it is a legitimate, highly effective and relatively safe way of combating a high-quality spinner. Whatever your view it is a shot that England's batsmen have been practising religiously during training sessions and playing regularly in their two warm-up games against the Sri Lanka Board President's XI.

In many ways both descriptions of the stroke are correct. The sweep is an ugly shot but it can be mighty effective when played well. In public, spinners say they like it when a batsman attempts to sweep them. They believe that it shows the willow wielder has run out of options and it is only a matter of time before a top edge lobs up to the fielder at short fine-leg or the man loitering on the deep backward square-leg boundary.

But who are they trying to kid? It is all a front. Spinners hate being swept, especially by someone who plays the shot well. It messes up the line and length of the bowler and prevents him from settling in to a rhythm. Spinners want to bowl maidens and the stroke reduces the chance of them achieving the goal. The shot used to drive Philip Tufnell, the former Middlesex and England spinner, to distraction and you only have to watch Shane Warne's reaction to the stroke to see what he thinks about it.

But why is it so effective and why does it frustrate spinners so much? It is effective because it is a shot that everyone can play. A good top-order batsman should possess the ability to hit the ball in different areas of the ground but even the village green No 11 can put his big left hoof down the pitch and heave the ball to an area between the keeper and square-leg, where the fielding captain can position only two fielders. Yes, occasionally the ball will go to hand, but there is a lot of land out there for just two players to cover.

Every cricketer would love to have the confidence and ability to shimmy down the pitch and hit the ball through the covers for four or over the top for six. But very few Brian Lara and Ricky Ponting are two are blessed with the skill to do so consistently. For most, coming down the pitch is a hazardous pastime because it opens up another way of getting out stumped. Charging down at Muralitharan when you cannot pick his variations and have no idea which way the ball will spin is as reckless as playing hopscotch on the M25.

Yet, somehow, each batsman must carry a threat. He has to show the bowler that he can score runs off him, he has to be able to rotate the strike, and he has to try to take the close-in fielders out of the game and make them feel uncomfortable, as though they may get hit. Marcus Trescothick is a magnificent sweeper of a cricket ball and when he shapes to play the shot short-leg is more concerned with getting through the day unscathed than taking a catch.

The danger in fielding at "boot-hill" encouraged Keith Brown, the former Middlesex batsmen, to ask the club for danger money. At the time John Emburey and Tufnell were the county's likeliest match-winners and the club, quite rightly, coughed up.

Few bowlers have extracted more spin from a pitch than Muralitharan but the deviation he generates can create problems for him. Balls that pitch in line with the stumps tend to slip down the leg side, which means that he has to aim to pitch the ball some distance outside the line of off stump to hit the wicket.

This leaves him open to being swept because a batsman should not be given out lbw if he is playing a shot and the ball hits him on the leg outside the line of off stump, the area where a pad normally ends up when playing the stroke. The doosra suddenly meant that Muralitharan could bowl a ball that pitched in line with the stumps and went on to hit them. The creation made batsmen question the wisdom of playing the stroke, but only briefly.

And that is the principal reason spinners hate the shot; because it can be played, relatively safely, to a good length ball that is about to spin in to or away from you. When played successfully the bowler is forced to vary his length and pace rather than just plug away waiting for a mistake. Not all sweeps are intended to go for four. Batsmen often play it to get off strike, another factor that forces the bowler to change his plan.

A problem for batsmen is the way in which the umpires interpret the game's laws. In England, and other parts of the world, umpires are reluctant to raise their fingers when the shot is played. They are deterred by the fact that the batsman has taken a big stride down the pitch and most of his pad is often outside the line of off stump.

In Asia, a region where umpires have sympathy for spinners, the officials are not as inhibited. Here, as Alastair Cook found in England's final warm-up before the Test, they do not like the shot. Unfortunately for England, Aleem Dar and Asad Rauf, two Pakistan-born umpires, are officiating in the Test.

Alan Knott, the former England and Kent wicketkeeper, had three different conventional sweeps; the slog sweep over mid-wicket, the defensive sweep when he was not looking for runs, and one that he just nudged away for a single. Graham Gooch swept his way to a brilliant match-winning, one-day hundred for England in a World Cup semi-final against India in 1987 after practising the shot for hours on a rough outfield for the previous three days. And in 2000-01, following weeks of dedicated preparation on pitches that had been deliberately scuffed up, the shot allowed Matthew Hayden to score 549 runs for Australia in a three-Test series against the same opposition.

Spinners are not too keen on the reverse sweep either because setting a field for it leaves them a fielder short, but we will save that for another day. In Test cricket, unless you are Kevin Pietersen, it is a shot that should be kept in the locker.

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