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England upset purists to combat spin

Perhaps one of the hardest things about playing spin when it does not come naturally is letting go of your preconceptions. Few countries find that harder than England.

Much of it comes down to the attitude within the English game – an insistence that things are done “a certain way”. In The Art and Science of Cricket, Bob Woolmer shares a telling story on the reverse sweep during his time as a coach at Warwickshire. Having shown some younger players how to play the shot, Woolmer sent them to the nets to practice. By the time he had joined them, one had already been kicked out, in tears, by another club coach for not taking his net seriously.

In fact, some of the best ways to practice against spin may get you laughed right out of your local club.

Kumar Sangakkara believes the most effective way to master advancing down the pitch is to first do so without any stumps behind you. The stumps, he believes, puts doubt in your mind: the feeling of leaving the one thing you were sent out there to protect prevents you from fully committing with your feet and execution.

Rahul Dravid, in a letter to Kevin Pietersen to help him combat his LBW habit to left-arm spin, urged him to train against spinners without pads. That way, Dravid mused, he’d watch the ball more intently, play with his bat out in front of him – crucial in the DRS world – and not be as willing to push out his unprotected front leg.

Both greats, however, offered one similar caveat: in doing these drills, a batsman will still find a way which works for him. There is no universal guide to playing spin, but there are minor tidbits to be garnered from these and other drills that can be put together to build a substantial game plan. Over the last few weeks, this is exactly what England have given to their Test cricketers.

As the ODI series wound down, Graham Thorpe, one of England’s finest in the subcontinent, had chats with various players who would be staying over for the Tests. Recent history indicated what sort of pitches to expect and, though Thorpe was to join the Lions for their series against Pakistan A in the UAE, he was able to impress on them that, in this part of a world, a ball will have your name on it. The worst thing you could do is wait for it.

Joe Root has not only taken this on but has become the main driver, particularly in encouraging England’s batsmen not to worry about looking foolish if they top-edge a reverse sweep or simply run past one. Spin can make a grown man look daft, but this was not the place for vanity. Chats, by and large, have been casual and player-driven. If a player has questions, generally someone will have the answer, or at least part of an answer. Keaton Jennings, for example, worked out that going to the effort to time a reverse sweep and hit it straight to the fielder at third man was more worth the risk than defending with a straight bat. For him, the shot has become a defensive rather than attacking measure.

There has not been much funky at training, but every session there is one spin net, always exclusively for local spinners, in which batsmen use bats of handle-width thickness. On the ground are coloured disks acting as a guide to not just where the ball pitches but also of an individual’s interception points. Shots square of the wicket, straight down the ground and nudges to rotate the strike are usually on show.

But, ultimately, it is about gaining confidence and not being hung up on the consequence. On Wednesday (November 14), at the Pallekele Stadium, Jos Buttler and Sam Curran provided shining examples of both.

The two began their respective days in different hours of need. Buttler answered the first call, which came at the end of the 19th over when Root was bowled by series newcomer Malinda Pushpakumara to leave England 65 for 3.

Ironically, the biggest revelation for Buttler has been backing his hand-eye coordination early on – getting bat to almost every delivery he faced from a spinner in the opening session – and honing his sweeps. CricViz noted that since Buttler’s comeback at the start of the summer, it has been a shot that has only got him eight runs in four successful attempts in 14 innings. That ratio was flipped on its head.

When Buttler reaches 50 from as many balls – his 11th half-century of his career – 41 of those runs had been achieved through sweeps. The standard ones had garnered 29, with most of those picked off from outside offstump. The reverse sweeps, though, reaped 12, with most picked up from around middle and leg and even outside leg stump. The worst executed of the lot brought about his demise on 63, giving Dimuth Karaunaratne an easy catch at point and Pushpakumara his third victim. By then, his “sweep strike-rate” was 51 from 31 shots.

It was Curran’s knock that swung the game well in England’s favour. For the third time, a half-century, brought up with a six, has taken this side to a position of strength. He started slowly at first, with just 16 from 65 balls to his name upon the arrival of number 11 James Anderson. An over-turned LBW and a dropped catch in two balls later – either of which could have seen off Anderson for nought and England for 225 – nudged Curran into action. Six sixes, one four and 54 balls later, Curran had holed out down the ground – this, the third such chance, taken – to help the tourists to a final score of 285.

Since coming into the Test side, Curran has made a mockery of those who have lost decades of their lives trying to master the most taxing form of international cricket. Unlike most people exiting the teens, he has never needed encouragement to be himself. But even he came into this series with a degree of trepidation. And yet, here, the influence of his former Surrey teammate Sangakkara was evident with every charge down the pitch. Given the whole world is in front of him, Curran need not be bothered about what he leaves behind.

The key? Embracing the “no fear of failure” approach and not worrying about how it may come across.

“That’s what Rooty has been massive about with us in the dressing room: don’t worry about making mistakes,” effused Curran after the day’s play. “We work on them (shots) in the nets in training, and we’re just trying to go out there with a positive mindset.

“There’s a ball in that wicket that’s generally going to get you out. We spoke about it. So you’ve got to take those risks when you can and hope you get the reward. But if it doesn’t, we speak about keeping a positive mindset while batting, and bowling.”

Of course such an approach, as it did in Galle, provides a few scares. Lunch in Kandy come at 120 for 4 compared to 113 for 5 on day one of the first Test. But the sight of English batsmen sweeping with confidence, charging spinners and not simply waiting for to be dismissed represents an impressive about-turn in a matter of weeks.

The “purists” may moan but the results won’t lie. England are on the cusp of their first series win in Sri Lanka since 2001.

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