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.

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Performers dressed as Tunnocks chocolate teacakes, a renowned Scottish confectionary, perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
news
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
Sport
Arsenal signing Calum Chambers
sportGunners complete £16m transfer of Southampton youngster
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on