When England bowlers are at practice they can be seen delivering to a lifesize wooden cut-out of what appears to be a baseball player in readiness to receive.
Dangling down in front at stump height, like a plumb line, is a sort of elongated bell pull. And on the crease, in front, is a metal scaffolding pole raised up six inches or so on bricks. Contained in that single contraption is the essence of the bowling philosophy of the England bowling coach, David Saker.
Fundamentally the England pace bowlers will have had drummed into them time and again that, variations notwithstanding, there are only three basic lengths. First there is the bouncer, which should, as Viv Richards says, be high enough that the batsman cannot control a hook or pull downwards should he decide to take it on. Next there is the yorker, the toe-cruncher, still the best option to stop the big hits no matter that batsmen can now sit deep in the crease and turn them into half-volleys, advance and make full tosses or scoop and chop them away. Finally there is one in which the ball is aimed from whatever length is necessary (and it will vary) to hit the top of the stumps – what Ashley Giles, when he refers to it, calls a heavy length.
So in practice the bowlers will answer Saker's call and aim to hit the cap badge, the dangler or sneak it limbo-dancing style under the pole. It is around the ability to produce these lengths at will that all the other variations – the slower balls, cutters – are constructed: the "good areas" of turgid cliché.
England won the first match of the T20 series at Eden Park not so much because they were able to hit close on a record number of sixes (two shy of the 17 South Africa carved against them at Centurion in 2009) as because they prevented some powerful Black Cap hitters from returning in kind. The Kiwis managed eight.
Basically England either out-thought New Zealand or, if they did not do so, were in possession of more skilful bowlers to carry out the strategy. New Zealand were clever in that they responded well, either directly or intuitively, by firing a full length on the limit of legality outside off-stump to a batsman advancing with the intention of going for the short straight boundary. That they had a number of left-arm seamers bowling to England's right-handers was a help in this. The difficulty came in the natural length they employed otherwise, which was too full too often, enabling the likes of Luke Wright to prop forward and nudge the ball into the crowd.
England's lengths, forcing the Kiwis to score square of the wicket, and the clever use of cutters to try to get some grab in the pitch and force the batsmen to mistime strokes, worked well for them. Important, too, was the back-up of an extra seamer in Wright, which meant that unlike the Black Caps, who sent down eight overs of spin from Ronnie Hira and Neil McCullum that cost 91 runs, they restricted their use of spin to two overs apiece from Samit Patel and James Tredwell, costing 41.
Wright, still the team's enthusiastic Labrador despite his status as a global T20 gun for hire, was outstanding, delivering his medium-fast with a weight that punched above his own and taking two wickets for 29, including the dangerous Martin Guptill. Four years ago, in an ODI in Napier, Wright had to deliver the final over of a tense game with the odds stacked against England. Somehow, with icy nerve and an accurate yorker, he clawed back a tie. The strategy may be different in the second match in Hamilton on Tuesday but he really could bowl more.
Eoin Morgan, who took a fine catch to see off the home captain Brendon McCullum, is likely to miss practice to rest his injured back, but is expected to play in the second T20.
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image: © JJ Hall