Friday, December 2, 2016

Matt Renshaw - The Return of the Gritty Opener

Something bizarre happened last week, a test match batsman left the ball.

Left the ball? What is this, the 70s? Where are the boundaries, the DLF maximums? What is this nonsense about batting time! Leaving deliveries that should be left, putting the flashy garbage in the cupboard. Didn't Matt Renshaw get the memo? This is not cricket!

I jest, of course it is.

Let us compare him to that nutter David Warner, a player intent only on his damn-the-torpedoes crash and bang approach. No disregard to context and circumstance. Hey, it's earned him an average of 48, what's wrong with that? Honestly, probably nothing. In this day and age with our ridiculous batting tracks and lowered bowling standard, heave-ho test cricket actually works.

But if we take him back 20 years ago, and he would have averaged about 28, mincing about quietly at domestic level. Warner would have been clueless facing the likes of Ambrose, Walsh, Donald, Was & Waq, the entire Australian attack. Especially if the ball talks and the pitch misbehaves. The apparent "Modern" cricketers of his ilk would have been nothing but fodder in the yesteryear, including fellow T20 experts Martin Guptill and Rohit Sharma, cut from the same cloth.


That's not to say attacking cricket doesn't work. Viv Richards and Adam Gilchrist were geniuses of their time for being able to maintain a colourful strike rate while clad in whites, turning entire matches on it's head in a mere session. But the difference is that they had to combat genuine pace, quality swing, horrendous spin and alien conditions all the time.

Virender Sehwag tonking Murali and Mendis around was pure joy when no other Indian that day could even get the ball off the square. It's no fun if everyone else is whacking centuries too.

That's all changed. This breed is allowed to bat with utter disregard of what the ball might do, simply because most of the time the ball will do absolutely nothing. Watch the way modern batsman thump their front foot down, pre-determine the ball's trajectory, and swing their caveman-esque batting clubs away.

They could do it blindfolded, with the right timing. Without this ability to judge so easily, Dhoni's last over mad glory swings would result in flying stumps instead. It's baseball cricket, and it leaked into the five-day format.

We all love Ross Taylor, but hammering 290 in Perth is just insulting to the 18-year-old Tendulkar, who's century is worth 500 in comparison. It was a plain stupid match containing four centuries and two doubles, two high-quality seam attacks reduced to dust.

Is it their fault? Not at all. They are a product of the times, engineered out of the senseless thirst for fewer wickets and more whack. You play what's in front of you, and that's certainly not the fault of batsman cashing in.

But there is a larger problem, now we have a kid named Renshaw who actually wants to play for stumps, protect his wicket, leave anything not worth touching and force the bowler to do all the work. Sunil Gavaskar once said, the first hour always belongs to the bowler, and the rest belongs to him. The old-fashioned ideas of settling down, getting your eye in have slowly become obsolete. Mark Richardson did it and was appreciated, Akash Chopra did it and was discarded permanently in favour of another flat track robot Yuvraj Singh, a hopeless test match player.

The insanity in the commentary box summed up the bizarre situation, fellow stone-waller Mark Taylor and his blissfully clueless Channel 9 crew slammed Renshaw for "not getting on with it", while the aforementioned Warner and their captain threw their wickets away in typically idiotic fashion. Remember this is a team that was bowled out for less than 200 twice in the series, and there was a full day's play left to get the winning runs.  Renshaw saw off 183 deliveries for one dismissal, we were regarding someone finally with the stomach for a fight, and he's hung out to dry? Ludicrous.

His partnership with Usman Khawaja for practically zero runs on day one was a massive reason Australia was even allowed to build a score. His second innings ensured that the run chase was secured at least on one end. His die-hard mindset, regardless of a few play and misses, had Abbott and Rabada frustrated, two men who were otherwise raking in wickets for fun.

By taking away the commonplace batting-mistake mode of dismissal, Renshaw, and similarly, the freshly introduced Haseeb Hameed & Jeet Raval, are forcing the opposition to produce a jaffa to remove them, asking them to earn their wicket. Immediately the initiative was back on the batsman, 90% of the balls delivered weren't going to trouble them. The bowling quality was forcibly raised and in turn the value of quality shots. It was refreshing to see the brief return of smart cricket.

But sadly, here's what might happen. Renshaw will stick around for now given that Australia finally won a test match, but times will get tough again and his gritty 30s and 40s will be overlooked simply through the numbers game. There's always a flat pitch around the corner for Warner to keep his stocks healthy, at the end of the day selectors will look at raw averages and discard this young bloke.

A shame, because Day 1 of the Adelaide Test delivered that wonderful slow burning drama that a full IPL season could never deliver.

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