Most coaches and players make the mistake of assuming everyone knows about playing the bowling on line and length. It isn't always as obvious as it seems. A fellow coach who has years of experience with talented younger players has a story to reflect this.
He was coaching a representative level Under 13 side against Somerset. The team were all good players who had been together for a few seasons. They were playing a 40 over match on a difficult wicket. Our coaches side bowled well, restricting Somerset to 160 in conditions where 170-180 was a par score. The openers went out confident of a good start but came up against a left arm spinner opening the bowling. The first 5 overs he bowled were all maidens, every ball on a good length and pushed back defensively.
At that level, even on a difficult pitch, the opening batsman should have worked out quickly that they were tied down and looked to either move out to drive or try to sweep.
This story chrysalises the problem of playing the ball on its merits: Everyone has a different idea to what a balls merits are.
What is line and length?
It should be easy to decide which shot to play. You watch the ball, decide the line and length as early as possible then play the correct shot:
As you can see from the picture, the traditional way of playing gives you a wide range of low risk scoring options. Here it is in table form:
However, the problems start even in theory. You may not agree with everything in this table. Would you automatically pull a long hop on off stump or would you cut it? I have left the sweeps (conventional, slog, reverse) out of the table altogether but for some it is an essential option. It's not always an obvious choice for every shot.
That's also assuming you can play every one of these shots. Most players cant. I am terrible cutter and rarely attempt the shot for example.
So, the idea of playing a ball on its merits is subjective even in theory. This means players have to think about what their game plan is before they head out to the middle. That is something coaches often ignore.
Is line and length the only factor?
Once you get out to the middle you quickly find that the basic theory of line and length can change dramatically depending on other factors. These are:
- The pitch. The bounce of the pitch will adjust what you think of as a good length. The obvious comparison is the difference in pace between a hard floor indoor pitch and a soft outdoor grass wicket. You may find yourself playing back indoors to the same length as you would play forward to outdoors.
- The movement of the ball. It's generally less risky to hit a ball with the movement. So an inswing or off spin bowler to a right hander should be hit more on the leg side while an outswing bowler or leg spinner should go to the off side more.
- The angle of the line. If a right arm over bowls wide of the crease to a left hand batter the ball that pitches in line with the stumps will be well outside off stump when it passes the batsman. This means you will see a different shot to the same ball bowled to a right hander. More on angles here.
- The state of the match. In our example game above, playing out 5 maidens might have been OK if the match was a 4 day game. In a 40 over match it was not on, even in the opening overs. The game situation dictates how attacking you have to be and you may need to find scoring options to balls you would normally defend.
So it's not enough to know what shot to play to what ball. You also have to plan around what is actually happening in the middle. This is also often overlooked by coaches when teaching players about shot selection.
How to think in scoring areas
If you were to take all the factors and try to put them into a diagram or table like we did above you would get a very large and complex output. To simplify your plan it's easier to think, as the professionals say, in scoring areas.
Let's take an example of an opening batsman playing in a time game. Early in his innings he goes out with a set plan: Perhaps look to play straight as often as possible, sticking mainly to the orthodox line and length shots. He may decide to cut out riskier shots like the cut and hook.
He will also take this time to judge length and whether to play forward or back to the ball. Additionally he will carefully watch the angle and movement of the ball to work out the areas that are safer to score:
- Off to leg movement: On drive, Flick off the legs
- Leg to off movement: Off drive, cut
As his innings progresses he finds it easier to time the ball and can expand his range of shots, especially driving at wider balls. He can also look to start working the ball around more: moving his feet or sweeping the spinners. He may try to hit over the top in the air as well as along the ground. He will still be playing the least risky shots, although at this point he may have a couple of options as to what they are.
Finally if he is batting well and the captain is looking to make a declaration he may want to get on with it more. Now he can consider more unorthodox techniques: hitting length balls to leg, standing back in his crease to turn yorkers into half volley length balls and other methods. These shots will be calculated risks in the effort to score quick runs. However, he will still look to score in the safest way under the circumstances (say, playing a lofted on drive to a length ball rather than trying to hit across a slog sweep as he knows he often misses the latter).
Split second decision making
As you have to make these line, length angle and movement judgements in a split second, it's best to follow the example of the better players: Have a game plan before you even head out to the middle, then be prepared to adapt if it is not working.
You (or the players you coach) probably have not got every shot in the book, so develop a method that works for you and run with it. It will end up with more runs through higher percentage shots being played.
Image credit: mailliw