England should keep the sweep, but they must do it right
21:00 GMT, 2 April 2012
The sweep is in danger of becoming a dirty word with this England side, but the truth is it’s a crucial shot to have in your armoury in Asian conditions.
The problem is not with the shot itself, but the manner in which it has been executed.
Look at all the best players of spin in recent times – Brian Lara, Matthew Hayden, Marcus Trescothick, Andy Flower, Graham Gooch – they all worked ferociously on their sweep because they realised it disrupts a spinner more than any other shot. But they chose their moment to play it.
On the sweep: Ian Bell gets down to the spinners
FIVE WHO FELL IN GALLE
STRAUSS: Out lbw after missing a very full, quicker delivery.
BROAD: Attempts to sweep a fuller ball but misses and is out lbw.
BELL: Mistimes a premeditated sweep and is given out lbw.
PRIOR: Sweeps Herath straight to Thirimanne at short leg despite good connection.
SWANN: Misses a sweep and is plumb out lbw.
In the last four Tests, England have been sweeping full-length deliveries off the stumps. It’s a sign of panic. They feel they don’t have any other release shot against spinners on slow pitches, so they premeditate and fail to adapt when they realise they might be in trouble. Their bodies and minds are scrambled.
Plenty of sweeps are premeditated – it’s not a crime. But there must be a Plan B if you realise you’ve chosen the wrong ball. Play an ugly dink, if you like – just don’t get out!
But it’s Plan A that concerns me most. You have to choose the right line for the sweep. The shot is relatively safe to play if the ball’s outside off stump, as there’s less chance of an lbw. And if it’s outside leg, just paddle it round the corner, as Jonathan Trott did so well at Galle.
Showing how it's done: Trott plays a reverse sweep on the way to his century
If you keep sweeping the ball when it’s straight and full, you are playing a high-risk game. And that is especially the case in the era of the decision-review system. Look at Ian Bell in the second innings at Galle. He was hit just in line with off stump – Dickie Bird would never have given it. But now the umpires have got DRS to fall back on, the stroke becomes riskier.
Kevin Pietersen is a good example of someone who has changed his game post-DRS. In his first Test match he was slog-sweeping Shane Warne at Lord’s. He used to sweep Muttiah Muralitharan too. Now he’s less inclined to play it. And the less you play it, the more hemmed in you feel.
When that happens, you’re more likely to do something silly. It can be a vicious circle. And yet bowlers hate it. Murali preferred it when the batsman was trying to hit him over the top rather than sweeping him.
Man-of-the-match: Herath profited from England's poor use of the sweep shot in Galle
When I toured Sri Lanka in 2000-01, we knew we could sweep Murali because he turned it so much. If the ball hit you in line with the stumps, the chances were it would spin on past leg stump. And if it was going to hit, it probably hit your pad outside the line of off stump.
But Rangana Herath isn’t such a big turner of the ball, and England are getting into trouble on pitches that are not exactly bunsen burners (turners). They’re trying to manufacture strokes that don’t come naturally to them on pitches they’re not comfortable on.
It’s easy for armchair critics to say they should give up the sweep. But on these slow, low tracks, it’s not easy to come down the track and hit straight.
England are in a bind. But Trott showed there is a solution. Be patient and pick the right ball. And be flexible enough to change your mind if disaster’s looming.