Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Promise in Cricket

So, Yorkshire are playing Derbyshire, Chesney Hughes has hit 270 not out for Derbyshire and what do I want to concentrate on? The way Adil Rashid is bowling, primarily.

A year or two ago, he was a close contender for an England Test place. He even played some limited overs cricket for the national side, although he since seems to have been overtaken in the spare one day spinner spot by a variety of other people ranging from Scott Borthwick to Danny Briggs. In Derbyshire's first innings, he managed three wickets for just over 120 runs. Not disastrous, given the scale of the total, and at least he was taking wickets. David Wainwright's lack of any for Derbyshire with his left arm spin may suggest that it was not the most helpful of pitches. Yet Rashid went for those runs off around thirty overs, meaning an economy rate far higher than is really ideal.

What has happened to him? What has happened to the bowler who showed such promise at the start of his career?

Actually, I would argue that nothing much has happened, and that the case of Rashid shows us more about the way the current system works than about any major failings on his part. I should explain. Over the years, we have seen a number of bowlers pulled into the fringes of the England set up because of their 'potential'. The public, the media, and even the England management get excited about up and coming players, particularly, it seems, young fast bowlers with decent pace and spinners. Wrist spinners more than most.

They look at these players and they almost never see what they are. Instead, they see what they 'could' be with the right encouragement and exposure. It seems obvious that in just a few years, the kid bowling at 85mph in the county game might be strong enough to bowl 90mph for his country. That the 90mph bowler with accuracy issues might be taught to tame them. That the spinner with only one trick could be taught a few more. That the wrist spinner who currently goes for too many runs will metamorphosise into the next Shane Warne.

There's a level of natural optimism in this process. It says 'the kid has the right attributes, so we can build on that'. It also recognises that there is a sort of arc to a playing career, based on the rise and decline of physical attributes, acquired skills and experience. And there have been instances where players picked with less than perfect county records have done better for England (Duncan Fletcher's determination to stick with Michael Vaughn and Marcus Trescothick, for example).

And yet...

All of this feels like it is predicated on a couple of key assumptions. First, that players will grow and improve once they have reached the top level. Second, that we can accurately predict the ways in which young players will develop. I would question both of those assumptions.

The first is probably the more important of the two. It is the idea that we can take a player who is 'almost there' or who has most of the things he needs for success and give him the rest. That because Rashid spins the ball, we can build on that foundation to create a world beater. Yet frequently, when you look at players, their 'learning' phase is actually quite short. They are essentially the same players at the start of their careers as at the end, unless forced to change through the reduction of their powers, or through injury.

Yes, there are players who change and grow. Richard Hadlee famously sat down and decided to become a fast/medium bowler because he felt New Zeeland needed that more than a tearaway fast bowler. Yes, there are players who learn new tricks, such as Murali acquiring his doosra or Matthew Hoggard learning to cut the ball in. Yes, Shane Warne changed his bag of tricks as injuries forced him to put away the googly and flipper.

Yet fundamentally, how many players go from being nothing to something on the back of changes? Steve Harmison was still bowling slightly short and straight at the end of his England career despite plenty of attempts to get him to learn more tricks. Saj Mahmood never did learn to bowl accurately. Warne's restricted options never changed the type of bowler he was, and Murali was a massively spinning off spinner before the arrival of the other one. Monty Panesar is still bowling just like Monty, despite all the shouting at him to flight it or not flight it, acquire a slower one or a quicker one. Tinkering with a bowler doesn't change who he is. Unless there is a specific technical deficiency stopping him from being great, a bowler is unlikely to magically gain 5-10mph of pace, or change his approach to bowling, or indeed become more accurate. Most of these people have been playing the game all their lives. Their development is about as developed as it gets.

More than that, when we do tinker, we don't know what result we'll get. There might conceivably be an improvement if, as I just suggested, there is a specific problem holding someone back. Yet we must look at the example of James Anderson to see that it isn't always a good idea trying to change people. He started well, with deliveries that swung either way in the mid-high eighties and occasionally low nineties. Then someone pointed out that he wasn't looking where he was bowling at the point of release, and proceeded to tinker with his action. He actually dropped out of the England team, experiencing a slump. Now, he is back, not looking where he is bowling, and swinging it both ways in the mid 80s to (occasionally) low 90s.

What does all this mean for Adil Rashid? Well, perhaps it means that we shouldn't be wondering where the promise of his England days went. Perhaps it also means that no one is going to be turning him into Shane Warne soon. Maybe the main thing here is what happens to the next young spinner. Maybe we should acknowledge that what we have by the time he's playing first team county cricket probably is pretty close to the finished product.

Of course, having said all this, I'd still love for Rashid to prove me wrong. It just goes to show that this sort of optimism doesn't go away.

No comments: