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A Neil McKenzie Masterclass on batting against spin in Asia

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Neil_McKenzie_South_Africa_CricketThere’s no way to sugarcoat this: South Africa were woefully short with the bat against Sri Lanka over the two Tests that ended in mammoth defeats - 278 runs in the first, 199 runs in the second.

Apart from Theunis de Bruyn, whose maiden century in Colombo was the one shining light in an otherwise dark and dour exhibition, the rest of the Proteas’ willow wielders have some hard graft ahead of them if they are to challenge India as the number one-ranked team in the world.

The great dynastic sides captained by Clive Lloyd, Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting and Graeme Smith conquered adversaries around the world. This batch of Proteas have shown potential but if they are to ascend to greater heights, they’ll need to overcome a glaring weakness - batting against spin.

Of the 40 South African wickets that fell across the series, 37 went to spin. This high proportion says as much about the makeup of the Sri Lankan attack as it does the frailties of the visiting batsmen, but when one considers the struggles against India - against the white ball at home this year and in the crushing Test defeats away in 2015 - a worrying pattern emerges.

Fortunately, there is hope. Let us not forget that we are talking about quality cricketers hailing from a country renowned for its batting prowess. If the Proteas heed the advice of their former batting coach and fluent strokemaker Neil McKenzie, there may be cause for optimism on future tours to the subcontinent.

Rethink Positivity

After the first defeat in Galle, South Africa’s current batting coach Dale Benkenstein stated that the primary cause for his side’s failure was mental fragility. Indeed, watching Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram charge out their crease only to be stumped made one question the psychological well being of the otherwise trustworthy openers.

For McKenzie, ‘positivity’ does not mean recklessness. “You can be positive in defense and you can demonstrate positivity with an emphatic leave,” he says. “It’s about being clever with your positivity.

“Positive is a word that can flare up emotions in a batsman who now thinks he has to be hitting boundaries with regularity. I’ve been there. I’ve had coaches drill the concept of positivity in my head and who couldn’t understand why I went out playing a wild shot. It’s a mindset that boils down to trusting your game and your defense and doesn’t mean throwing your wicket away.”

Stay Patient

Dimuth Karunaratne faced 302 balls in the first Test in Galle and was beaten past the outside edge of his bat countless times by Keshav Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi. Every time the ball fizzed off the deck the bowlers oohed, the commentators aahed, but the Sri Lankan opener remained unflustered. This is the blueprint that must be followed for South Africans on future tours.

“Back home, our batsmen are used to being beaten like that against seam bowling but as long as they keep their shape, remain side-on and don’t jab at the ball, they keep their heads,” McKenzie explains. “When it’s the spinner beating our edge, we can get impatient and can go looking for the pitch of the ball with the front foot. This makes you susceptible to the one that goes on with the arm and pings you LBW or you can get bowled through the gate.”

McKenzie continues: “If the ball rags past you but you didn’t jab at it, what’s the harm? It’s about changing the way you think about the game and trusting your defense and being prepared for the one that doesn’t turn as much. If the bowler is unrewarded with the big turning deliveries he’ll go looking for something else. That is when you can strike.”

Hit the ball where you want to hit it

The first time Neil McKenzie faced Anil Kumble as a 23-year-old, his captain Hansie Cronje warned him against playing the cut shot. This was difficult advice to take for the young man who had made a living on the Highveld cutting leg spinners whenever they’d dropped one short.

Ignoring his skipper’s warning, McKenzie’s eyes lit up when Kumble strayed from his usually full length as he coiled his body in anticipation of the crunching cut that was to follow. Inevitably, the ball skidded on, found McKenzie’s inside edge and clattered in to his stumps.

“World class spinners make you play shots they want you to play,” McKenzie cautions. “That is why it is vital to be patient and wait for the ball that you want to hit. If the spinner bowls an entire spell at you without offering your scoring shot, let him have his maidens. If he bowls all six balls in an over that offer a boundary, hit the ball to the fence. Test cricket is about occupying the crease and waiting for your opportunities. Trying to force the issue on turning subcontinent tracks is a recipe for disaster.”

Utilise the defensive sweep

For a hot blooded South African or Australian, the concept of a defensive sweep might sound like a contradiction in terms. A sweep is an aggressive cross-batted shot that sends the ball careening to the square leg fence, no? Perhaps in Johannesburg and Melbourne, but in Nagpur and Galle the sweep should be brought out to negate turn and rotate the strike.

“The main line of attack for the off spinner to the right hander [or the left arm orthodox bowler to the left hander] is around the 4th or 5th stump,” McKenzie says. “He’s trying to hit the top of off by bringing it in to the batsman. If one goes on with the arm he can trap you LBW, if it straightens he can find your edge, if it spits it can find a glove or bat-pad and if he drags you out your crease he can find the gap between bat and pad and bowl you.”

With all these possible dangers to navigate, one weapon is the defensive sweep which, as McKenzie explains, minimizes the threat of dismissal.

“Take guard on off stump and focus on the line the ball is coming down. Anything outside your eye line is sweepable. If it’s very full you can hit across the ball and smash it in front of square, but only if it’s very full. Anything shorter than a length you can fully get to, you want to come down on the ball and play it late and with softer hands so you’re hitting it behind square.

“If you’re coming from top to bottom, you can control the ball that spits off a length and bounces at you. If you’re coming across the ball, as you would a shot you’re aiming more square of the wicket, you can catch it with a top edge and look foolish. The top to bottom motion of your bat with the defensive sweep solves this problem. Besides, there’s nothing a quality spinner hates more than batsmen calmly rotating the strike.”

***

McKenzie says that “cricket is a game of instincts and trusting your gut. You’re conditioned to play certain shots based on line and length. This muscle memory is ingrained in a batsman and I don’t think people realize how hard it is to adjust to foreign conditions.

“But that does not mean that these South Africans can’t do that. They’re world class and would have learned a lot from this trip. The next time they travel to the subcontinent I trust they’ll have different strategies in place.”

Whether or not McKenzie’s optimism is well placed remains to be seen. What is certain is that more than a few Proteas batsmen would do well to heed the advice of their former batting coach on their next visit to the turning dustbowls of Asia.

 

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