Brian Ashton: Teams could run up a cricket score if they attack the corridor of uncertainty

Tackling The Issues

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It seems only logical now that the cricket season is in full swing that the theme of today's column should emanate from a phrase commonly associated with the great summer game: namely "the corridor of uncertainty". It relates to that hallowed area of the pitch that quickish bowlers, not to mention those who bowl at express speed, unceasingly seek – a line on or just outside off stump that sows the seeds of doubt into a batsman's mind. Does he play forward, play back or leave the delivery alone? Now, there's a question.

There is also a football connotation, with the term being used to describe a cross delivered towards an area near the penalty spot which is just in front of the goalkeeper and behind the last defender. Who shoulders responsibility for dealing with such a ball? It is a dilemma that potentially causes untold confusion and, yes, uncertainty.

For all that, cricket has made the phrase its own, and when I spent a day at Lord's last week – I was delighted to be invited by the former Test bowler Angus Fraser, now the managing director of cricket at Middlesex – I saw plenty of the "corridor" in question as Andrew Strauss, the England captain, battled away in search of crease time and runs ahead of the forthcoming series with the West Indies. It was no easy task: the heavily overcast conditions caused the ball to swing regularly (perhaps by accident, perhaps by design) into the precise area under discussion and caused him all sorts of decision-making issues. To get some bat on a ball moving sideways while travelling forwards at 80mph-plus? Mind-bogglingly difficult, I'd say.

In addition to the purely physical manifestations already mentioned, the "corridor" can also be a mental phenomenon. In 1974 in the country then known as Zaire, in temperatures of 104F and in 80 per cent humidity, an ageing Muhammad Ali created a maelstrom of uncertainty in the brain of George Foreman by adopting a paradigm-shift approach to their contest for the world heavyweight title. Finding it impossible to come up with an answer to Ali's strategy, Foreman had only one escape route available to him: to be knocked down... and out. His actions had become increasingly confused, his thought processes scrambled.

If you have read thus far, you're probably wondering what the hell this has to do with the denouement of the English club rugby season. Well, we're in play-off territory this weekend and many pundits, myself included, think they have a fair idea of how the four semi-finalists will approach their respective ties. Wouldn't it be fantastic if one or more of them suddenly displayed, in this era of ever-advancing technological analysis, a snippet of play that caught their opponents totally off-guard, forcing them into unexpected areas of indecision in the early minutes of the game? To say to them, in effect: "Right, let's see how you deal with this." There would be no risk involved at so early a juncture, because every team would have a default position on which to fall back in the event of a misfire. I'm not presuming to offer any specific advice to the four competing coaches: I'm a firm believer that all coaches should be allowed to manage situations as they see fit. But the mischievous side of me, underpinned by what you might call my "challenging" streak, leaves me praying that someone gives it a go somewhere.

Rugby below professional level rarely gets a look-in with the national press these days, but the amateur/semi-pro game still provides an indication of how a different take on things can influence responses to certainty and its opposite. On the recent Bank Holiday Monday I watched the Lancashire Cup final, in which the two sides sought, in wholly contrasting manners, to lay hands on a much-desired trophy.

Team A tried to dominate proceedings in the traditional fashion, using their forwards to hammer away at the opposition defence in what was obviously a pre-discussed manner, thereby creating ever-slower possession for themselves and eventually coming to a standstill. The players in the wider channels were mere appendages, used only as an afterthought, if at all. A much-quoted principle was being followed here: the one about "earning the right to play wide, because if you don't, forget about going there and settle for the body-strewn mess in centre field instead".

In the opposite corner, so to speak, were Team B, armed with a couple of former rugby league players of note at outside-half and outside centre. By contrast, they maintained a challenging attacking shape, targeting the 13-plus channels as potential avenues of reward. This immediately opened up the field and created scoring possibilities that generated a collective sense of uncertainty in the defending team's mindset. By following a corridor of complete predictability and certainty, Team A were repelled time and again by heavy-duty tacklers who were only too happy to occupy a space between five and 10 metres wide. Team B had the vision, the expertise and the courage to explore the more poorly defended parts of the pitch, constantly creating a corridor some 25 metres wide in which to test their opponents' technique and resolve. Guess which team won? Of course, I must reiterate that this was not a professional fixture, and those with closed minds will, I suspect, take the view that what Team B did would never be seriously considered at higher levels of the game. But I feel that what I saw up here in the North-west that day illustrated another principle: that when it comes to a big occasion like a Premiership semi-final, seeking to sow doubt in the opposition should be at the forefront of a team's approach, both on and off the field.

All four of today's contenders have the personalities, physicality and technique to induce a state of anxiety and uncertainty in their rivals. Do they have the mental strength to follow this through? As we are talking about the elite end of the professional club game, the answer must surely be a resounding "yes". In which case, we can all look forward to a feast of rugby.