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Deep Point: Dangers, weakness and opportunities - what they're plotting in the Ashes war rooms

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Expert
7th December, 2021
15

If Marcus Harris or Travis Head need any further inspiration when they continue their Test careers at the Gabba on Wednesday, they don’t need to search very far. If you want an example of players who were dropped but fought their way back into favour it starts with the coach, Justin Langer.

He made his debut against the West Indies in 1992-93 then was in and out, 12th man for a heap of games, and played just eight Tests in six years.

Where JL can really earn his money this series is to make sure the focus for those batsmen, and their teammates, is really on that next ball and ensuring that they’re true to themselves and back their ability.

Because that’s what he did. And he ended up being one of the best Test openers of all time. That ability to bounce back is what will probably determine the series. I see the bowling departments to be very close – so it could come down to those players who are given another chance to perform.

So what’s the best approach?

Simon Katich once told me that when he debuted he got a lot of advice on how to do things from senior players and coaching staff around what he needed to do to succeed. Then he got dropped.

He went back to domestic cricket and scored 1500 runs, doing it his way. He backed his own judgment and technique when he returned to the Test arena and had a really good Test career.

Head coach Justin Langer and Steve Smith talk during an Australian Ashes squad nets session at The Gabba on December 07, 2021 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

That’s the template for Travis and Marcus. This summer’s not so much about are they good enough, because they’re good enough. It’s about how they stay disciplined to their own strengths, rather than trying to identify and overcome perceived weaknesses in their game and by embracing being uncomfortable.

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The batting team that stays strong when uncomfortable and under pressure in this series is going to get the job done.

I think the bowling teams cancel each other out. And then the other factor is the weather. Will the wicket be as hard as it normally is? Will the seamers be brought into play? Will it swing? Will wickets turn?

There are all these little pop ups that can determine a series result, but who is going to flinch? Head and Harris left the team and scored a mountain of runs, as did Langer and Katich before them.

Langer’s message should be clear: this is an opportunity, rather than this is your last chance.

Luck can’t be discounted – it can play a massive part. Just take a look at the debuts of Peter Handscomb and Nic Maddinson, versus South Africa at Adelaide Oval.

Pete got 50 on debut and batted predominantly in the daylight. When Maddo came in he was batting in the twilight.

The ball had gone from not doing a lot to being very, very difficult to play. So you had two different debuts in the one day. To me that’s luck.

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Pete gets 50 and Maddo gets a working over from a world-class attack in difficult conditions. So he’s already behind the eight ball going into game two of his Test career.

That’s the beauty of Test cricket: some people get the luck and some don’t. And the media is ferocious. The game hasn’t started and you’re looking for the worst player in the top six and the weakest in the bowling lineup – it’s all ‘whose head is on the chopping block?’

When Langer spoke to the media on the weekend he talked how well prepared both sides would be for each other. And the players from both teams have very good coaches in their corner.

England have Chris Silverwood, Paul Collingwood, Graham Thorpe, Marcus Trescothick and Troy Cooley – really good people and coaches.

Langer has support from bowling coach Andrew McDonald, analyst Dene Hills, and Jeff Vaughan and Michael Di Venuto, two really good batting coaches who will shift the focus and make sure that players are not sweating on their long-term positions but focussed on preparing well and being true to their strengths.

There will have been lots of discussions around the England bowlers. Dene Hills will likely have provided a highlights package of each of the English bowlers – where it’s actually not their highlights as much as it’s their low lights.

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David Warner

David Warner (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, File)

I’ve always shown my batsmen when they’ve done well against certain bowlers, not when they’ve come unstuck – unless it’s something that can be fixed.

Not many of the Australian batsmen will have seen Ollie Robinson before. He’s a really good bowler relatively new to Test cricket so they’ll want to look at him in depth.

Where are his release points, does anything change with his variation, is the seam orientated to try and swing the red ball, has he bowled with a Kookaburra before, if so what were his lengths and lines?

Dene will have a lot more information on him to make sure that the guys who haven’t seen him at all are fully aware and have an understanding what he’s trying to do.

They won’t gloss over Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson, who should return for the Adelaide Test, but you look at what they’ve done well in Australia: ‘When they’ve succeeded this is their length and line. This is where you score from them.’

Then it’s identifying the dangers to have in the back of your head so that you can go straight to the areas where you can hurt them on the scoreboard.

When they are on their games, what does it look like? Where can we expect to cash in – and that analysis will differ for left and right handers.

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England are probably going to go seam heavy with some overs from Joe Root, but the Australians will have a look at Jack Leach anyway.

They’ll DNA players – or match them up to similar people who the Australians might have faced on the different venues. What did the Indian seamers do last season that was so successful?

Attention will be paid to how to stop England getting into the game. If it’s the quicks you want to rotate the strike so that they can’t get the rhythm, and even though David Warner and Harris are both left handers, they are very different to how they play – similar almost to JL and Matthew Hayden.

Andrew McDonald will be taking a strong lead with the bowling tactics with heavy input from the bowlers. Di Venuto will ensure the batters are ready to go and JL, Steve Smith and Warner will take a a strong lead with the setup of the batting in terms of what they need to do as a group.

Partnerships will be mentioned often, both with bat and ball.

Then Di Venuto will work closely with Dene Hills around identifying perceived threats to each batsman.

They’ll also look at opposition bowlers, as well as how they work as a group, and there will be footage available to each player show them how each bowler will attempt to get them out.

Jeff Vaughan will have the catching at a peak and ram home the importance of ball maintenance.

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And from there it’s a case of how do we score from these bowlers?

Di Venuto is as good as anyone in the world as a batting coach. He has his unique way of taking that information they’ve gathered into a net situation, whether that’s watching players against net bowlers, or trying to mirror a length or a line they face through using the dog stick.

There will have been individual conversations going on over the past few days with a structured rhythm.

Three days out is usually a feel-good session where you’re trying to groove your game, two days out will be quite competitive and one day out it’s up to each individual.

It’s a case of ‘what do you need today from me as a coach to make sure you’re ready to go at 10:30am the following day?’

Where the game’s evolved in my time in terms of coaching, is around having two aspects: game management/decision making, and technique and preparation management – making sure that a player is ready to go and that they’re delivering their own game to the best of their ability.

From an English perspective, they’ll look at Marnus Labuschagne and Smith as one. They’ll think the line you bowl to them is the same. And they’ll be looking at how they’re using a short ball, how the Gabba performs on different days, and they’ll DNA the pitches too.

Anderson and Broad will be talking to Mark Wood and Ollie Robinson about when they’ve had success there what that looked like.

Warner will be a key discussion point and England will be hoping to replicate 2019 but they will be wary as, like Hayden before him, he could take the game away in a session.

The English analysts will be providing highlights packages of when the Australian players have been in trouble what does that look like, and where do they score their runs. They will be looking to block off the Australian boundary balls both sides, so at times they’ll utilise a deep point or third man, just to stop the leaking on the scoreboard.

You might go defensive so that you can come harder in attack when the run rate is low to put pressure on two batsmen to score.

Bringing it back to Harris and Head, it’s about them being comfortable knowing that batting time is important. But also staying true to the balls that you that you play at and the ones you leave. That’s got to be the same as would be in Shield cricket – you just have to do the do the hard things for a lot longer.

Thanks again for all your questions. If you have one please leave in the comments box below.

To what extent are fielding skills taken into account when picking a T20 team? Are there some players you would just not pick regardless of their batting ability, because of their poor fielding and mobility?

If your fielding is poor you want to be exceptional at your core skill to get picked these days. The better you are with bat or ball will determine how much your fielding is exposed from a selection perspective.

Hi Trent. When coaching at the top levels how much focus is given to batting according to the game situation, particularly in the long form? I understand that you want guys batting naturally and playing each ball on its merits but there were some examples last summer where batsmen got themselves out at critical times (after a wicket had fallen at the other end, just before a break etc) with really poor shots that they didn’t need to play. From memory the first day of the last Test in Brisbane was a prime example. These kind of poor decisions had a major bearing on the series result, so surely they must be addressed in some way? You can’t control whether you get a great ball, but you can control your own decision making process.

Great question and I touch on it in the article. Decision making and game management is usually what separates great players from good players. Playing naturally is not an excuse to fail rather a push to repeat good processes. The quicker you settle on a technique that you can repeat under pressure the quicker your learning can begin unimpeded and the quicker you recognise danger moments in matches. Border and Ponting learnt the game at the highest level quicker than most and their records show that they read games better than most and embraced being uncomfortable. Alistair Cook and Kevin Pietersen were the same. Root and Smith both had their learning fast tracked by debuting young firstly, then secondly succeeded because they have made good decisions when under pressure. By grooving your technique so that it holds up under pressure it will at times allow you to make a poor decision that isn’t fatal. Lots of poor decisions have ended with the ball over the rope.

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