Why Brown may be pinching himself

Cricket: Simon O'Hagan studies a new trend as England consider one-day experiment
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The Independent Online
Bowlers always think they are hard done by compared with their batting brethren, and events this season can have only confirmed them in this belief. Batsmen, it is true, are not complaining, but they too have had challenges to meet that were not there before.

We're talking pinch-hitting here - a tactical development in one-day cricket that seems to have caught the imagination of everyone involved, and which is at the heart of the debate over the how and the who of the forthcoming Texaco Trophy series between England and India. Made possible by the rules that applied in the World Cup and which have been adopted in this season's Benson and Hedges Cup, pinch-hitting - quick scoring at the start of an innings, often by a lower-order batsman promoted on grounds of his belligerence - has represented a minor revolution in the way the one-day game is approached.

With all but one round of the group stage of the B&H completed, the England selectors who will choose their Texaco squad next weekend already have quite a lot of evidence to go on. They have seen English cricketers pick up where Sri Lanka's world champions left off with an alacrity perhaps born of resentment: pilloried for their predictable and unimaginative performances in the World Cup, the onus was now on adaptability and forward thinking. The B&H has been full of that, and the prospect is of an England team taking the field with a semblance of modernity about it.

In spite of the reduction in overs from 55 to 50, no fewer than four counties - Surrey, Kent, Warwickshire and Somerset - have broken their run- total records in the competition. And the rule which stipulates that during the first 15 overs a maximum of two fielders can be positioned more than 30 yards from the bat, while a minimum of two must be in catching positions, has led to some remarkable scoring.

Provided the wicket is flat, totals of 100-plus in the first 15 overs have become quite feasible where previously anything much above 70 would have been considered good going. When Warwickshire scored 194 for two in 23.3 overs last week to overhaul Derbyshire, any notion of pacing the innings - once a central tenet of batting philosophy - went out of the window.

When that sort of damage is being inflicted life looks very different from the batsman's end of the wicket than it does from the bowler's. Each has demands being placed on him, but there is no doubt that without the sort of protection in the field that they can call upon at other times, bowlers are often helpless to do much about it if the batsman is controlling his aggression and seeing the ball well.

"It's very worrying," said Angus Fraser, the Middlesex and England opening bowler, last week. "Where you put your two men in the deep becomes a bit of a lottery. I have mine at third man and fine leg, the traditional positions. Bowling just short of a length like I do, the danger is the batsman gets on the back foot and starts pulling you over square leg. Then I'd probably have to move someone out there and bring my fine leg up and bowl more at the middle stump than the off. Give a batsman any width and he'll try to get after you. Very often there's just nothing you can do about it."

The batsman Fraser picked out as perhaps best equipped to take advantage of the new rules was Alistair Brown, of Surrey, and certainly his scores in the B&H this season - 51, 82 and 117 not out - have underlined what a destructive batsmen he can be. "There's no great secret," Brown said last week. "You just have to make sure you hit through the line. Once you try hitting across the line you're in trouble. I don't hit over the top all that much. There are still gaps in the field, and you don't have to slog.

"The main thing is to be positive and play it as you see it. If you're 15 for no wicket after five overs that's no reason to panic. But if you can score your runs quickly it takes a lot of the pressure off the lower- order batsmen." As when Surrey amassed an astonishing 134 for one in the first 15 overs of their match against Gloucestershire.

Brown is perhaps the best pinch-hitter around at the moment. Going in at No 5 in the County Championship, he has made himself a fixture as a Surrey opener in the one-day game, and the complete confidence with which he goes about his business counts for a lot. "I know people think I hit some funny shots sometimes, but right now I think I'm playing as well as I've ever played," he said.

The case for Brown opening for England in the Texaco Trophy is a strong one, but, he said, "I'm working on the basis that I won't be selected so that if I am it will come as a nice surprise." The man who is perhaps ahead of him in the reckoning is Nick Knight, of Warwickshire, an authentic opener in all forms of cricket but one who can match Brown for the speed with which he accumulates his runs. And his hundred before lunch at Hove on Thursday suggested that B&H principles can be applied in the County Championship too.

It's still possible that the pinch-hitter, always assuming England decide to use one, will be someone who can bowl as well. Neil Smith, also of Warwickshire, is the best in this category, but the selectors may need convincing that he can improve on the moderate performances he gave in the World Cup. It's a job to grasp with both hands - shrinking violets need not apply.

Five go mad on opening: Candidates for the England pinch-hitting role

Alistair Brown

Surrey

Age: 26. B & H scores this year: 51, 82, 117 not out. Average: 125.00.

The new Benson & Hedges Cup rules could have been devised with Brown expressly in mind. An attacking No 5 batsman in the four-day game, his promotion up the order in limited-overs cricket has given him carte blanche to indulge his liking for the big hit. On form the best candidate, but his selection would still be a gamble; his international experience amounts to an England six-a-side tour to Singapore in 1993.

Matthew Fleming

Kent

Age: 31 B & H scores this year: 72, 41, 12, 22. Average: 36.75

Kent have long used Fleming as an opener in limited-overs cricket, and on his day he can take any bowler apart. But after his 72 against British Universities his B & H form this season has been mixed, and the fringes of the England debate is probably where he will stay. His case gains strength with his bowling - bustling medium-pace which served Kent well in their run to the Sunday League title last year.

Nick Knight

Warwickshire

Age: 26. B & H scores this year: 0, 104, 91. Average: 65.00

The tall left-hander should not really be described as a pinch-hitter. He is a proven opener whose Test career, launched with two appearances against West Indies last summer, was surely only temporarily interrupted when he had to settle for a place on the England A tour of Pakistan in the winter. He furthered his cause with a hundred before lunch against Sussex in the County Championship on Thursday.

Mark Lathwell

Somerset

Age: 24 B & H this year: 121, 29, 1, 76. Average: 56.75

The England selectors were commended for their boldness when they called up the 21-year-old Lathwell against the Australians three years ago. But he was only given two Test matches, and his career went into decline after that. Always a dashing opener, he is now beginning to make batting look easy again, and an opportunity in the one-dayers could represent a step back towards the Test arena.

Neil Smith

Warwickshire

Age: 28 B & H scores this year: 22, 25, 80. Average: 42.33

Another batsman who comes in at No 7 or 8 in four-day cricket but gets his shot at glory in one-dayers, Smith could regard himself as the man the others have to dislodge, having opened for England in the World Cup. Like Knight, he is imbued with the Warwickshire spirit of progressiveness that England must harness, and, crucially, can offer more than serviceable off-spin bowling as well.

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