We have all wondered what it would be like to face the ferocious bowling of a speed demon like Brett Lee or Shoaib Akhtar. Most of us concede that if we were to face up against such speeds, playing a semi-competent cricket shot would be an afterthought to avoiding grievous bodily harm.
How is it then that the elite batsmen of today not only face such fierce pace, but manage to score runs fluently and build an innings? Clearly they have an edge.
At international level, the ball can be bowled so quickly that the time it takes for a batsman to sight the oncoming ball, read its line and length and set themselves to play an appropriate shot can be twice as long as it takes for the ball to leave the bowlers’ hand and reach the bat*. Compounding this problem is the bowler’s deliberate attempts to deceive the batsmen with swing or seam. In the case of spin bowling, although the delivery is indeed slower, there is the added challenge of reading the bowler’s initial wrist or finger movements, and failing that, reacting to the direction of turn once the ball has bounced.
Therefore, international batsmen must process a lot of information in a matter of milliseconds and react to this information with precision. Expert batting relies on the process of acquiring information from the bowler, interpreting that information, selecting what information to act upon and then performing the chosen shot. At lower levels of cricket, the slower speed of ‘fast’ deliveries provides the batsman with more time to read the ball. Worldclass batsmen do not have the luxury. Thus, they have honed their skills of anticipation to wrest themselves some precious milliseconds.
Recent research by Dr. Sean Müller under the funding of the Cricket Australia Centre of Excellence and RMIT University revealed that highly skilled batsmen have the unique ability to pick up information from specific early cues, such as the bowlers’ hand and arm movements to anticipate the type of delivery they will face.
Using video simulation and liquid crystal glasses to obstruct vision at various points of the bowler’s release, the research showed that elite batsmen used various cues in the bowler’s body language to position their feet before the release of the ball. That allowed more time to process the rest of the information required after the ball release, giving the batsman a distinct advantage. Lesser skilled batsman were shown to be less attuned to this ‘advance information’.
Interestingly, Dr Müller observed that elite batsmen struggled to articulate what they do to pick-up this advance information, that it almost seems instinctual.
With 105 Test caps to his name, a career batting average of a 45.27 including 23 centuries, former Australia opener Justin Langer more than qualifies as an elite batsman. Few batsmen have faced such a variety of elite bowling during their career.
Langer too finds it difficult to pinpoint exactly what allowed him to effectively utilise the ‘advance information’ emitted by world bowlers as they trundled in. “I think some of the best innings you play, people will come to you and say what were you thinking about at each delivery, and it’s like, ‘I wasn’t thinking anything,’” says Langer.
“Recently however, I was playing county cricket and I was facing the Australian bowler Darren Pattinson, and it was so bizarre, but I noticed he ran in with his eyes closed. It was the first time I realised that I do watch the bowler’s face.
“Greg Chappell, who is the king of the mental side of batting, told me he used to watch the bowler’s face to extract information. He believed you should watch the body first, the head second, then the ball. It is difficult to watch a small object for the entire run-up so you go from a larger object to a smaller object.”
Langer is a believer in closely watching the ball as it is delivered from the bowler’s fingers and says he would be surprised if heightened anticipatory skills are sheerly innate.
“My take on batting is that as a kid you learn the basics,” he adds. “Obviously a modicum of talent is required, but under enough exposure and the right environment you learn the correct technique for all the required shots and work on them as you move up the ranks.
“Probably all the time, even in the backyard, you are teaching yourself how to watch the ball most effectively, and once you get to a certain level of ability, it is perhaps the mastering of that skill that can help you become a Test cricketer.”
“By the time you get to the top level, your body is like a robot because you have just spent so many hours in practice, and batting can be quite a surreal experience because you play certain shots and catch yourself saying, ‘How did that happen?’
According to Dr. Müller, the research shows the enduring practice is indeed the factor that allows top-line batsmen to anticipate better than others.
Langer adds: “A sports psychologist friend of mine had a great saying about what is required at the top-level – ‘The ultimate paradox is that to have ultimate control you have to lose conscious control’ – and I agree with that for Test batting.”
Dr. Müller offers a host of training tips for how batsmen can improve their anticipatory skills through the use of ‘advance information’. Of these tips, Langer felt that providing batsmen every opportunity to practice in different environments including different pitches and against a variety of bowlers was the most pertinent.
“I don’t think cricketers today practice nearly enough under different conditions, in particular, pressure conditions,” he states. “People seem to avoid practicing against quick short balls and that’s because it puts them out of their comfort zone. No one likes short quick bowling, not even Ricky Ponting who is the best player of short bowling in the world. But he still practices against it regularly.”
Anticipation alone is, of course, not enough at the top level.
“Batting is a synergy between the technical, the mental and the physical,” Langer says. “The great players, and let’s face it there are only about 20 to 25 of them - the likes of Ponting, Pietersen, and Hussey - all have outstanding footwork patterns and a great deal of mental and physical strength.
“That’s what sets them apart.”
In the 1958 book The Art of Cricket the greatest batsmen of them all, Don Bradman, said: “Watching the ball means that the batsman must first carefully observe the bowler’s hand as he is in the act of delivering the ball. The movement of hand and arm gives the first clue as to the bowler’s intentions.”
Perhaps the answer to test batting has been in black and white all along.
* It takes approximately 900 milliseconds for a batsman to make a decision about the oncoming ball and move to hit it (backlift, feet movement and downswing). By comparison, at the international level of cricket where a ball can be bowled in excess of 140km/h regularly the time it takes for the ball to travel from the release from bowler’s hand to the bat at this speed is around 500 milliseconds. Therefore, the reaction and movement time of the batsman is almost double the ball’s flight time. This reinforces the notion of anticipation where an elite batsman must be preparing to play a shot before the ball is released from the bowler’s hand.
Editor's Note: This article was first published in the November 2008 edition of Inside Cricket. This story is under copyright and permission must be sought from Inside Cricket in order to reproduce it.