OPINION: The Specialist’s Lament

A very unusual scene unfolded at Eastcote Cricket Club last Sunday. In a 50-over Women’s County Championship match between Middlesex and Surrey, Middlesex skipper Izzy Westbury moved the field.

Leaving an enormous void on the leg side between backward square leg and long on, she packed the off side with attacking fielders, including a short (if not quite silly) mid off, and a slip and a gully just inches from the bat.

Such an aggressive field might not have looked out of place in an Ashes Test, but in a Women’s County Championship game it felt unprecedented, because 99% of the time the captain has to guard against “that” ball – the one which you know is coming, once or twice an over – the one that is pitched too short, or not pitched at all, or which slides down the leg side. And when it does come, a field like that leaks runs you can ill-afford; so the skipper plays it safe – square leg, midwicket, mid on – hoping to build pressure by saving runs – defence as a form of attack.

Westbury’s daring move – attack as a form of attack – was made all the more so because Middlesex were defending a lowish total (165) against an opposition batsman (Bryony Smith) who looked well set on 23 off 36 balls. Yet it was possible because the bowler was Alex Hartley – perhaps, with the retirement of Holly Colvin, the one bowler left in the county game who you can rely on not to bowl “that” ball.

That Hartley’s action puts one in mind of a ballerina reaching for a pirouette, is somehow appropriate, because for all the grace of the performance, what lies behind the execution is an iron will and an obsessive sense of discipline, to which few care to aspire and fewer still achieve.

So Westbury was able to set the field with a rare confidence in her bowler… and was rewarded with two wickets in two balls, both caught at gully as pitch-perfect deliveries turned away from the right-hander – a special moment, made possible by a special bowler.

But sadly “special” still comes at a price – Hartley bats at 11 even at county, where England tail-enders usually consider themselves all rounders; and she has to be hidden in the field, so they say. Thus when England needed to fly a spinner out to the Women’s World T20, they turned elsewhere – to a “steady hand”, who can “bat a bit”; who “turns the odd one”… but better keep that midwicket in there, just to be on the safe side.

And who is to say it wasn’t the right decision? England’s batting was fragile! They did need shoring-up in the field! So they demand excellence in two of the three disciplines – bat, ball or field – and brilliance in one is not enough any more.

Pragmatically, it makes sense; but romantically, there is still a longing for a bygone age, when a specialist… could just be special.

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2 thoughts on “OPINION: The Specialist’s Lament

  1. Blame the system from County U9s upwards the assessment of a player covers all facets of the game. These teams are full of all-rounders if you are filling a fielding space rather than being in there due to your specific skill.

    Typically come match day the strongest all-rounders bat and bowl, so there are still a group of players who get more practice fielding than game time and the captains look to the coach for the game plan, rather than learn on the job and about their players.

    The reason given will be that there are so few county fixtures to ‘win’ and these are usually in a festival environment where the success or failure of the team – is key to the county profile and results are fed back to the performance manager.

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  2. I find it a bit worrying that the overall issue cannot be righted with the proper coaching. If Hartley is as good as you say, and she is in the Academy after all, it is the coaches’ jobs to bring her through to the performance team.

    If Hartley can’t bat, it should not be an issue to be honest – she would be replacing another bowler and a team should be able to afford 2-3 players who won’t score them many, if any runs. It is a sure sign that England’s main batsmen aren’t doing their jobs if we need to worry about how good at batting our bowlers are. So this is more a symptom of the general malaise.

    The fielding is a bit more of a concern, but that is certainly something I’d expect to be able to be addressed with better coaching. She might never become really good in the field, but an adequate standard should be possible, you’d think. If the performance squad are losing out on an exceptional bowler because the management can’t fix a couple of issues that should be easily resolvable, do they only have themselves to blame?

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