The Death of the Bunny: Competence Threatens the Art of the Tailender
There was a time when the fall of the sixth wicket would alert everyone to the imminent end of the innings, a time when bowlers would be queuing up for an average boosting bowl and batsmen began to farm the strike and open their shoulders. Not any more.
Having a good No. 8 has always been a key ingredient to a team’s success, someone capable of assisting the top order and adding a few runs of their own, but in recent years the definition of a good lower order player has shifted significantly.
Take the 2005 Ashes for instance. England and Australia both had No. 8’s who were considered solid and dependable in the form of Ashley Giles and Shane Warne.
Warne remains the player with the most runs in test cricket without a century and was at times a sensational player, striking the ball with customary gusto, particularly against spin.
Giles’ batting also reflected his cricketing persona; stoic, well organised and refreshingly uncomplicated and his final test average of 20, three higher than Warne, highlights his importance to the England cause.
They were both highly valuable assets for their teams and Giles’ exit in particular caused multiple selection headaches for England as they tried to find the correct the balance of their side.
However, two years on since they both made their last appearances in the 2007 Ashes series and the current incumbents of their number 8 position perfectly illustrate the way cricket has evolved.
Mitchell Johnson and Stuart Broad may be in the team primarily as seam bowlers but their batting prowess has been equally impressive during their short careers. Johnson in particular has been a revelation with the bat against the South Africans in the recent series.
An immensely powerful man, he strikes the ball as truly as anyone in world cricket and has developed a simple, easy technique to take the attack to bowlers.
The freedom of being able to express oneself in the lower order has also been a feature of Broad’s batting. The 22 year old is perhaps a more classy stroke-maker than Johnson but both have proved consistent run getters and currently hold averages of 34 (Johnson) and 24 (Broad).
It is a phenomenon common across the game with youngsters generally having been coached more rigorously and older, more experienced players striving to improve their own games.
Daniel Vettori and Harbhajan Singh are two examples of the latter with Vettori in particular now considered one of the prize wickets in the Black Caps team courtesy of the durable, pestilent nature of his batting.
The demand for improvement and increasing professionalism of the game has also led to an overall improvement further down the order with even Glen McGrath winning a famous bet for his teammate Mark Waugh by retiring with a test match half century.
Gone are the days when all teams possessed a Chris Martin, the Kiwi walking wicket who survives as a relic of the days when England could send out a tail end featuring the likes of Angus Fraser, Phillip Tufnell, and Devon Malcolm on a regular basis.
It is a trend which follows on from a similar revolution in the wicket-keeping world as first Alec Stewart and then the groundbreaking Adam Gilchrist ensured that the days of one-dimensional, non batting keepers were well an truly over and has been fuelled by an insatiable demand for runs.
The evolution of the tail does coincide with a general shift towards the batsmen across the game of cricket but as much credit is due to the players desire to improve as should be attributed to flat, featherbed pitches and the relentless pace of the international game.
A part of me yearns for more Martins and Tufnells, players with test averages lower than their shoe size and bats gloriously free from advertising, but the never ending march towards competence has all but seen off a small but wonderful aspect of the game.
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