Australian Autodidactism: Dying, But Not Dead Yet

Posted on August 14, 2013


Note: this post was republished on The Guardian Sport Network on 15 August 2013.

Before Waugh, before Chappell, before Bradman even, there was Victor Trumper: Australia’s first great batting hero. As a boy, Trumper had a batting coach: Charles Bannerman, Test cricket’s first centurion. Trumper listened politely to Bannerman’s eminently sensible coaching advice (for example: “Leave it alone, Vic; that wasn’t a ball to go at”) and then, as Monty Noble put it, went “his own sweet way”.

Trumper’s way is the Australian way.

Cast your eye over Australia’s great batsmen and, for nearly every legend, you find a natural, heterodox technique that would horrify many a cricket coach. Steve Waugh: feet like cement early in his innings and never learned to leave his crease against the spinners. Matthew Hayden: all half-front-foot. Ian Chappell: a compulsive hooker. And Sir Donald Bradman was perhaps the most unorthodox of them all, with his turned-in bottom-hand grip (which early critics said would prevent him driving fluently through the off-side) and predilection for hooking and pulling.

None of that mattered. In Australia, great Test batsmen are natural-born scorers of runs, not  pristine modellers of textbook technique. Sir Donald himself best summed up Australia’s cultural mores towards batting technique:

I experimented — worked out the pros and cons — and eventually decided not to change my [unconventional] natural grip. Throughout a long career my grip caused many arguments but I think it is sufficient to prove that any young player should be allowed to develop his own natural style providing he is not revealing an obvious error. A player is not necessarily wrong just because he is different.

Gideon Haigh described this rather more formally as the “Australian tradition of autodidactism”. In the modern Taylor-Waugh era, it was called backing yourself and your natural ability. This, as much as anything, historically distinguished Australia’s cricket culture from England’s. England is the home of the MCC Coaching Manual, a country where a batsman’s technique and style matter as much, if not more than, his actual output of first-class runs. As an Englishman by the name of Richard Binns put it in The Cricketer in 1940: “I am prepared to contend that style always tells. Generally speaking I believe it to be true that the cricketer who has a good style achieves something more than the cricketer who has indifferent style.” Earlier this year, Rob Key, speaking on SkySports after watching footage of his 221 against the West Indies, the high water mark of a Test career which never fulfilled his enormous talent, confessed: “I do my own head in really … because I get too cluttered with technique.”

Now, as Australia is confronted by a Test batting problem as bad as any in living memory, it is worth asking whether we still hold to our traditional beliefs in autodidactism. The answer, judging by the conduct of the Australian selectors and many fans during this Ashes series, is: probably not, because a strange, new-age technical fetishism appears to have taken hold.

At 9/117 in their first innings, Australia looked well on their way to a humiliating defeat in the first Test. However, a world record 163 run last wicket partnership between Phillip Hughes and Ashton Agar turned a 98 run first innings deficit into a 65 run first innings lead, and instead of a landslide defeat, Australia fell just 15 runs short of a thrilling victory. Hughes finished unbeaten on 81 in Australia’s first innings, the highest score by any Australian specialist batsmen in the Test match.

One Test match (and three Test innings) later, Hughes was out of Australia’s Test XI altogether.

Hughes, like Hayden and Sir Donald before him, was born and raised in a country town that most of his countrymen couldn’t find on a map and possesses an unconventional batting technique. Indeed, “[w]hen he first burst onto the Test arena … [he] resembled a hobbit scurrying away towards leg to create room to scythe balls through the off side.” His travails are emblematic of the declining influence of the “Australian tradition of autodidactism”. Once upon a time, Hughes’s heterodox batting technique would not have been a disadvantage at all at the Australian selection table, but, in our modern age of cosmetic excess, it clearly has been. As F Scott Fitzgerald might have put it had he known anything about cricket: Hughes has not received the same advantages that other, more aesthetically pleasing and technically orthodox (but empirically inferior) batsmen have.

When the 24-year-old Hughes was dropped after the Lord’s Test, it marked the third time that he had been dropped in his 26 Test career. On each occasion, he’d made a match-turning score of 80-plus three Tests or less before being dumped — in 2009, it was his twin hundreds in Durban which won Australia the Test and the series; in 2011, it was his first innings 88 in Johannesburg which helped put Australia in a position from which they won the Test and drew the series; and in 2013, it was his unbeaten 81 in Nottingham.

On this occasion, despite having been assigned to bat in every position in the top six during this Ashes tour, he’d also made: the highest Test score by a specialist Australian batsman in the ongoing series, the only Test score by a specialist Australian batsman in the ongoing series which altered the course of a Test match, the most first-class tour runs of all the Australian batsmen, and the second-most career Test hundreds of all the Australian batsmen.

The official explanation provided by the Australian coach and selector Darren Lehmann for Hughes’s dumping was: “It’s very unlucky for Phil Hughes, who has done well on the tour without getting the hundreds that would have cemented his spot. That’s always a tough call as a selection panel.

That explanation would make sense if the perfectly reasonable standard that it invokes — converting starts into hundreds — had been applied equally to all the Australian batsmen. It wasn’t. Usman Khawaja was retained in the Test XI for the third Test at Old Trafford in preference to Hughes. Khawaja’s first-class innings on tour before the Old Trafford Test: 8, 51, 0, 29*, 6, 27, 73, 14, 54, 40 and 1. Hughes’s first-class innings on tour before the Old Trafford Test: 47, 11, 76*, 50, 19*, 86, 81*, 0, 1, 1, 84 and 38. In three of those 70-plus scores, there was a sound, team-oriented reason why Hughes hadn’t gone onto a hundred — Michael Clarke declared aggressively in Australia’s first innings at Taunton in pursuit of victory leaving Hughes unbeaten on 76; Hughes selflessly threw his wicket away slogging on 86 at New Road as he and Clarke scored at better than a run-a-ball in Australia’s second innings to try set up an outright win; and Hughes simply ran out of partners at Trent Bridge, finishing unbeaten on 81.

Khawaja, by contrast, hadn’t touched 75 all tour and, continuing a frustrating trend evident in his short Test career to date, was struggling to convert consistent starts into 60-plus scores, much less hundreds. Hughes, at least, had been consistently converting his starts into 80-plus scores on tour. Yet it was Hughes, not Khawaja, who was dropped for not “getting the hundreds that would have cemented his sport.”

Looking at the overall first-class records of the young batsmen that Australia brought on this Ashes tour, it would appear that Hughes is the last of them who should be criticised for not getting hundreds — Hughes had: three Test hundreds to Khawaja’s zero, Smith’s zero and Warner’s three; 21 first-class hundreds to Khawaja’s 11, Warner’s seven and Smith’s seven; and seven List A hundreds to Khawaja’s four, Warner’s four and Smith’s zero.

Warner and Smith satisfied Lehmann’s standard for selection by getting hundreds in their last first-class match before the Old Trafford Test, therefore, the final batting spot must have been a choice between Khawaja and Hughes.

Perhaps, whether consciously or not, one reason why Khawaja was preferred to Hughes despite being empirically inferior according to the every conceivable statistical criterion, was this: he looks better at the crease. Whereas Hughes can, at times, resemble the banana farmer that he is, scything balls through the off-side like a farmer hacking down a bushel of bananas, Khawaja, with his low-grip and left-handed elegance square of the wicket bears more than a passing resemblance to the great Clem Hill. At Durham, I overheard one loud Australian fan say that he can’t abide Hughes because, regardless of whether he scores runs, he “always looks s**t” at the crease. A chill ran down my spine.

The Australian tradition of autodidactism may well be dying, but it is not dead yet. Not as long as the likes of Steve Waugh are around. If Waugh had been seated in the vicinity of that Australian fan in Durham, perhaps he would have been told him what he told The Advertiser after Hughes’s unbeaten 81 at Trent Bridge: “He [Hughes] has got that desire and fight in his belly and that desire to score runs which is something he was born with. He has character. He is a tough cookie. I am a big Phil Hughes fan, he doesn’t always look the best but that doesn’t matter. At the end of the day it is how many runs you score and not how you look.”

It wasn’t the first time that Waugh, a private man who has happily receded from the limelight since his retirement, has spoken publicly in support of Hughes — and it wasn’t the last. In the lead-up to this Ashes series, Waugh said: “I like the look of Phil Hughes, he’s got something deep within him that makes him a long-term Test player”. Following another shambolic Australian batting collapse and defeat in Durham, Waugh told ABC1’s 7.30 programme:

Look at Phil Hughes, he’s been up and down the order and has been dropped three or four times in 20 Tests. That doesn’t give you much confidence … If you’ve got the axe hanging over your head always it is really hard to relax and play your natural game. Selectors have got to say: “We’re going to go through some tough times, but these are the six or seven batsmen we believe in and we’re going to back them even if they don’t succeed straight away”. It took a long while for me to get it right as well. But I had the benefit of getting it wrong. Right now, the selectors need to pick and stick and show confidence in players.

Like Hughes, Waugh was picked to play Test cricket for Australia at the age of 20 following the retirement of a legion of greats. Unlike Hughes, by the time Waugh had played his 26th Test, he had never been dropped. After his 26th Test, Waugh averaged 30.52 with zero hundreds and 10 fifties. After 26 Tests, Hughes averages 32.65 with three hundreds and seven fifties.

Moreover, as Waugh pointed out earlier today, in Hughes’s “last four Tests he’s played three innings … [that] have been great” — a second-innings 69 (incorrectly given out LBW by Aleem Dar when the ball pitched and impacted outside leg and would have missed leg-stump by the width of Eric Cartman’s midriff) in Mohali on a raging turner when no other Australian batsman passed 35; a fluent 45 in Delhi (when he inside-edged onto his stumps two balls after nearly being “killed” by a pitch that Bishan Bedi described as “ridiculous”); and his unbeaten first innings 81 in Nottingham. Hughes has, quite bizarrely, been punished for one bad Test at Lord’s, whereas Khawaja has been rewarded for a solitary promising Test innings of 54 at Lord’s which, unlike Hughes’s 81* at Trent Bridge, did nothing to alter the course of the Test match.

In the past five years, many theories have been espoused for the decline in Australian cricket. T20, bowler-friendly Shield pitches, the abolition of the old state second XI competition, and even some modern cricketers’ fondness for clothes, hair product and tattoos have all been blamed. There is merit in the former three theories, but none in the latter three — how a cricketer looks, whether on or off the field, should have no bearing on whether he is picked to play for Australia. What matters is his performances on the field — matches influenced, runs scored and wickets taken — not how he looks. The “Australian tradition of autodidactism” has served Australian cricket well for 130-odd years. Now is not the time to be abandoning it in favour of shallow aestheticism and technical fetishism.