Sweeping reform off the agenda for Fletcher

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The Independent Online

As an advertisement for the sweep shot, the first day of the third Test was a dreadful failure. It must have been grim viewing for the England coach Duncan Fletcher, an advocate so friendly towards the sweep that he could be called Sooty. The stroke was executed grotesquely enough yesterday by his charges, from the captain down, for anybody seeing it for the first time to wonder why it was invented.

Caring parents watching it being essayed with varying degrees of ineptitude must have been sufficiently alarmed to threaten their offspring if it was going to get them into that much trouble. "Don't talk to strangers - and never, ever on any account play the sweep."

Four of England's finest were dismissed because of it. Michael Vaughan led the parade shortly after lunch just as he and Marcus Trescothick appeared to be firmly back in the old routine with a century opening partnership. The paeans of praise for Vaughan's virtues as an elegant opening batsman were being dusted down when he played carelessly to square leg.

It has been said the England team will follow Vaughan anywhere, and this was a classic example of the old theory of mindless devotion as defined by the question: "If he stuck his head in a gas oven, would you?"

Ian Bell, more culpably, Trescothick slightly unluckily to a smart catch off his boot, and Geraint Jones, with utter recklessness, all perished sweeping.

Fletcher has been a longtime sweep supporter, and as a player with Zimbabwe he was a pioneer of its cousin the slog sweep. In his recent book, Ashes Regained, he not only goes into bat on their behalf but also has a dig at those who question his approach.

"They were shots I played a lot during my time as a batsman for Zimbabwe and I have always been convinced that they have to be part of the armoury of any top batsman, especially if he is to succeed in the sub-continent against top quality spin on slow, turning pitches. The problem is that a lot of the commentators in this country do not concur and some of them have been conducting a long-running campaign against England batsmen sweeping."

The case against the sweep is made up of 33 and three-quarter inches, or in new money 85.7cm. That is the difference between the length of the bat (38in, 96.5cm) which a batsman presents to the ball if he is playing straight and its width (4.25in, 10.8cm) when offering a cross bat.

The trouble is - and why Fletcher states his case so strongly - that against a sharply turning ball a vertical bat can be beaten while a horizontal one can smother the ball and offer a safer attacking method. Or that is the theory. There have been outstanding examples of noteworthy sweeping by foreigners on subcontinental pitches. In 1987 Graham Gooch took England to the World Cup Final using the sweep almost exclusively in an innings of 115 in Bombay. In 2001 Matthew Hayden spent months learning the sweep at India's academy and then averaged more than 100 in Australia's three-match series there.

The England player who all but eschewed sweeping yesterday was also its most successful, Paul Collingwood. "That's because I'm not very good at it. I prefer to play with a straight bat or use my feet," he said. "But you have to have the sweep in your armoury; I'm not saying you play it all the time under all conditions. We'll continue to do it but there were a few mistakes today."

Fletcher can be obstinate but neither the stroke nor constructive criticism of it should be brushed under the carpet. It might be wise to avoid sweeping it there.