Why England are on a sticky wicket

For all the excitement of the Lord's Test, the national team need more runs - but who is going to score them?

These are grim times for English batting. It is beleaguered by dodgy pitches, with methods to match, by poor practice areas with similar attitudes, by too much cricket, by too little cricket, by a plethora of coaching, by a dearth of coaching.

These are grim times for English batting. It is beleaguered by dodgy pitches, with methods to match, by poor practice areas with similar attitudes, by too much cricket, by too little cricket, by a plethora of coaching, by a dearth of coaching.

Above all it is plagued, because of all of those things, by what truly counts: far too few runs by far too many batsmen. Worries about whether to get on the front foot or the back foot have been overtaken by the distinct fear that they all have two left feet.

England have not made big enough scores for years and there is no reason, orthodox or otherwise, to suppose that this will change. The present bunch of batsmen has usually failed to set the world alight and have often been guilty of rather dampening its ardour. The Test match at Lord's last weekend was one of the greatest of all games, but it was distinguished by an utter shortage of runs. In their past 63 Tests and 116 innings England have been dismissed for under 200 on 36 occasions, 22 of those in the first innings. By any lights that is horrendous.

But the incumbents are hardly being pursued at every corner for their places. Perhaps the last hindrance the sport in general and the selectors in particular required was a wet summer, which was bound to create indifferent surfaces, lower scores and custom-built reasons and excuses.

The batting averages so far attained by most of the men in the top order are too low to warrant attention, other than from remedial coaching clinics, and the level of consistency resembles the graph on the Channel 4 snickometer. Up one minute, down the next, but - like the snickometer - it usually means out.

Whether you favour off-side or on, defensive vigilance or attacking flair, there is no solid reason to speak brightly of the immediate future. As long as runs are hard to come by so will new England batsmen.

"I believe that English batting has gone backwards in many ways over the years," said Bob Woolmer, coach of Warwickshire, former coach of South Africa, former England batsman. Woolmer is one of the usual suspects where commenting on techniques is concerned, but he is one of those who can spot a flaw or a strength in a trice.

"Some of this may be for reasons going back years, but I do think that for batsmen four-day cricket has become a lost experiment. It has not led to increased practice time because of the overload of cricket. That can happen in Australia and South Africa, where they have the weather. England does not, and it also suffers from extremely poor practice facilities.

"Until that is addressed I can see no reason for significant development. On the playing front I would favour a return to three-day county cricket, which would give more innings, and definitely support Mike Atherton's idea for a tier of regional, better-class, four-day cricket."

The key coaching ages for professional batsmen, identified by Woolmer, are those in the formative years between nine and 14, when technique is taught and established, and the first three years on a county staff. "Without the platform of the first, without learning good habits, the second does not happen. But it is when he joins a county that a batsman for the first time confronts the ball being bowled in the right spot more often than not."

It seems that the adjustment is becoming harder. A succession of top-five batsmen have a Championship average in the 20s or below this season. Not all of them are in the 20s in age either, which is another slight concern.

It may seem harsh to pluck names at random, but take Trevor Ward, who was released by Kent and enlisted by Leicestershire for his experience. Ward is 32 and after seven matches had a batting average of 12. Or take Alan Wells, a prolific, handsome runscorer in his days with Sussex, who was distinctly unlucky to be awarded only one Test cap.

When he departed his former county amid acrimony he was given a five-year contract by Kent. He has never quite justified it in terms of runs, and although he averaged 32 last season he has made 139 runs in 10 innings this summer, two of them undefeated.

There is no cause for panic, though Woolmer appears to have spotted a trend which could become alarming. He thinks the flat back foot is creeping into too much play when weight should be transferred to the front foot. But the standard of youth coaching at least is improving.

Bill Lake, chairman of the Association of Coaches, said: "I think there is case for saying that at the top they have failed to keep pace with the change of cricket. This has come about because there is a greater gulf now, where you can go from facing Mark Ilott and Ronnie Irani with the new ball in the Championship to Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. But coaching has got better. It had to, and we have a way to go, but the new levels introduced by the ECB will make all the difference."

One of the most respected coaches of young batsmen - he was mentioned by Lake in the first minute of conversation - is John Barclay, former captain of Sussex, who is head of the Friends of Arundel Cricket Society, based adjacent to Arundel Castle's beautiful ground. Barclay sees and coaches hundreds of young players every month.

"Undoubtedly, we create tremendous pressure for our young players as they move from boyhood to manhood," he said. "We ask them to be equipped for the longer version of the game and for the shorter version. This can be terribly difficult, the one demanding doggedness and determination, the other a more flexible approach."

Barclay is a passionate believer in teaching the fundamentals of coaching, of giving the young cricketer the necessary weapons to take him as far as his talent will allow. "The idea is to give him a technique in which he uses hands, feet and head effectively. I think that in those formative years there is no real scope for improvisation. That can come later.

"Picasso, for instance, was one of the great innovators as an artist, who did extraordinary things with colours and shapes. But he began by learning the basics of line and draughtsmanship and it was only because he had those and never lost them that he was able to develop as he did."

So, too, with batsmanship, though Barclay, like most others, is not altogether certain where the next lot but two of international England players may come from. It is a while since he saw someone who made him go: "Wow".

"But I am sure of this, that overall the standard will greatly rise, as it always has done. There may be a blip at present, as there can be blips in the stock market. But inevitably, as history has demonstrated, the stock market always rises ultimately."

But in the here and now, as even Barclay may be forced to concede, batting is operating in a bear market. Look at the Championship averages, look at the young players. Look, for instance, at David Sales, a young man who never makes a single century where a double or a triple will do. Sales is unquestionably a strokeplayer of vast talent, he was the youngest Englishman both to score a double and a triple century.

He has been at it again this season with a resplendent innings of 276. But in eight other innings until this week Sales had accumulated a total of 67 runs. The reason for his non-selection for the serious business of international affairs is enshrined in that statistic, but at 22 he can amend that.

The men who might be knocking at the selectorial door, if it is deemed that there should be a change at long last, are clear: Marcus Trescothick, called up to the one-day side, averages 45 in the Championship, Vikram Solanki, also in the squad for the NatWest triangular tournament, is down to 33, but has some scores.

But the shining light is Aftab Habib. He was given two Tests last year and summarily dropped for reasons of sloppy technique and suspect temperament. But there is a feeling in the corridors of power that this action may have been unfair and taken too soon. Habib (who, as his wise Leicestershire coach, Jack Birkenshaw, put it, returned to the county to be put back together) has responded with 502 runs at 62.72 in this wet summer of difficult pitches. Poor technique didn't do that.

Some particular words about English batting, or rather England's batting, continue to haunt. They have been spoken often by the former Australian captain Ian Chappell and have been along these lines for Ashes series aplenty: "These batsmen have failed too often before and if you stick with them they'll fail again." Chappell may not be right, but finding out will be fraught with concern.

Thin on the ground: How the counties' batting line-ups have fared in the Championship this season

First Division

Yorkshire Name Nat Age M I NO R HS Ave

1 Michael Vaughan Eng 25 3 5 1 265 155* 66.25 2 David Byas Eng 36 7 10 0 241 49 24.10 3 Richard Blakey Eng 33 7 10 1 210 56 23.33 4 Darren Lehmann Aus 30 7 10 1 548 133 60.88 5 Matthew Wood Eng 23 7 10 2 166 100 20.75

Lancashire 1 Michael Atherton Eng 32 3 4 0 47 25 11.75 2 John Crawley Eng 28 6 8 0 97 33 12.12 3 Andrew Flintoff Eng 22 5 6 0 302 119 50.33 4 Sourav Ganguly Ind 28 4 5 0 152 73 30.40 5 Neil Fairbrother Eng 36 5 7 2 302 138 60.40

Surrey 1 Mark Butcher Eng 27 8 13 2 414 116 37.63 2 Ian Ward Eng 27 8 13 2 339 158* 30.81 3 Alec Stewart Eng 37 3 4 0 108 42 27.00 4 Graham Thorpe Eng 30 8 12 0 280 115 23.33 5 Alistair Brown Eng 30 8 12 0 337 74 28.08

Leicestershire 1 Darren Maddy Eng 26 7 10 1 240 63 26.66 2 Trevor Ward Eng 32 7 10 1 110 39 12.22 3 Ben Smith Eng 28 7 9 1 188 45* 23.50 4 Vince Wells Eng 34 6 7 0 150 56 21.42 5 Aftab Habib Eng 28 7 9 1 502 172* 62.75

Somerset 1 Jamie Cox Aus 30 7 11 0 389 153 35.36 2 Marcus Trescothick Eng 24 7 11 1 453 105 45.30 3 Piran Holloway Eng 29 7 11 1 205 50 20.50 4 Peter Bowler Eng 36 7 10 0 367 108 36.70 5 Keith Parsons Eng 27 5 8 0 210 62 26.25

Durham 1 Jonathan Lewis Eng 30 7 12 0 150 52 12.50 2 James Daley Eng 26 5 9 0 95 16 10.55 3 Simon Katich Aus 24 7 12 1 462 137* 42.00 4 Paul Collingwood Eng 24 7 12 0 305 111 25.41 5 Nick Speak Eng 33 7 12 0 168 78 14.00

Hampshire 1 Giles White Eng 28 8 14 2 425 96 35.41 2 Jason Laney Eng 27 6 11 0 111 19 10.09 3 William Kendall Eng 26 8 14 1 300 78* 23.07 4 Robin Smith Eng 36 8 14 0 266 61 19.00 5 Derek Kenway Eng 22 8 14 1 303 93* 23.30

Kent 1 David Fulton Eng 28 5 8 0 150 115 18.25 2 Robert Key Eng 21 7 11 1 212 54 21.20 3 Rahul Dravid Ind 27 6 9 2 474 95 67.71 4 Alan Wells Eng 38 7 10 2 139 60* 17.37 5 Matthew Walker Eng 26 5 7 0 156 61 22.28

Derbyshire 1 Matthew Dowman Eng 26 8 15 3 286 69 23.83 2 Stephen Stubbings Eng 22 8 15 3 271 84* 22.58 3 Michael Di Venuto Aus 26 8 12 2 506 92* 50.60 4 Rob Bailey Eng 36 7 9 2 302 118 43.14 5 Matthew Cassar Eng 27 8 11 0 199 47 18.09

Second Division

Warwickshire 1 Nick Knight Eng 30 3 3 0 351 233 117.00 2 Michael Powell Eng 25 7 9 0 449 145 49.88 3 David Hemp Eng 29 7 9 1 248 90 31.00 4 Dominic Ostler Eng 29 7 9 0 494 145 54.88 5 Trevor Penney Eng 32 6 7 1 252 85 42.00

Worcestershire 1 Elliott Wilson Eng 23 7 12 1 364 104* 33.09 2 Ryan Driver Eng 21 4 8 0 169 64 21.12 3 Graeme Hick Eng 34 4 6 1 357 122 71.40 4 Vikram Solanki Eng 24 7 12 1 364 104* 33.09 5 David Leatherdale Eng 32 7 12 3 439 117 48.77

Essex 1 Paul Grayson Eng 29 6 11 1 276 58 27.60 2 Paul Prichard Eng 35 7 13 2 315 96 28.63 3 Nasser Hussain Eng 32 2 4 0 31 24 7.75 4 Stuart Law Aus 31 6 10 0 353 120 35.30 5 Ronnie Irani Eng 28 7 12 2 577 168* 57.70

Sussex 1 Richard Montgomerie Eng 29 7 11 1 237 71 23.70 2 Toby Pierce Eng 27 7 11 1 241 86 24.10 3 Chris Adams Eng 30 7 10 1 365 90 40.55 4 Michael Bevan Aus 30 7 10 1 391 107 43.44 5 Tony Cottey Eng 34 7 9 0 383 154 42.55

Nottinghamshire 1 Darren Bicknell Eng 33 7 12 1 395 180* 35.90 2 Guy Welton Eng 22 4 7 1 421 200* 70.16 3 Jason Gallian Eng 29 7 11 0 191 45 17.36 4 Paul Johnson Eng 35 4 7 0 167 100 23.85 5 John Morris Eng 36 7 11 0 305 88 27.72

Gloucestershire 1 Rob Cunliffe Eng 26 6 10 0 112 36 11.20 2 Tim Hancock Eng 28 6 8 0 116 30 14.50 3 Matthew Windows Eng 27 7 10 0 269 107 26.90 4 Kim Barnett Eng 39 6 8 0 343 106 42.87 5 Ian Harvey Aus 28 5 6 0 191 79 31.83

Middlesex 1 Mark Ramprakash Eng 30 4 8 1 241 93 34.42 2 Andrew Strauss Eng 23 7 13 1 397 111* 33.08 3 Justin Langer Aus 29 7 13 1 662 120 55.16 4 Owais Shah Eng 21 7 13 0 347 76 26.69 5 Paul Weekes Eng 31 5 9 0 202 39 22.44

Glamorgan 1 Stephen James Eng 32 7 10 0 354 166 35.40 2 Matthew Elliott Aus 28 7 10 0 479 117 47.90 3 Michael Powell Eng 23 7 10 0 246 70 24.60 4 Matthew Maynard Eng 34 7 10 1 343 119* 38.11 5 Adrian Dale Eng 31 7 10 1 294 75 32.66

Northamptonshire 1 Matthew Hayden Aus 28 6 9 0 468 101 52.00 2 Adrian Rollins Eng 28 6 9 0 361 100 40.11 3 David Sales Eng 22 6 9 0 343 276 38.11 4 Mal Loye Eng 27 6 9 1 269 93 33.62 5 Tony Penberthy Eng 30 5 6 1 258 62 51.60

Does not include current round of matches

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