Throughout cricket’s history, batsmen have been idolised and rewarded in preference to bowlers. In his new book, Simon Hughes remembers his first impressions of professional cricket life: “Batsmen got all their gear sponsored and a car with their names on the side. Bowlers had to buy or borrow kit and drive round in old jalopies.”
It is a familiar complaint. Alec Bedser used to enjoy grumbling that the last English bowler to be knighted was Sir Francis Drake. Eventually he collected one himself, at the age of 78, as much for his services as selector and manager as for his then world record total of 236 Test wickets.
But batsmen pay for their pre-eminence. They expose themselves to physical terror from fast bowlers and mental torture from slower ones. They have three huge choices to make in an instant: play or leave, forward or back, attack or defend, the wrong choice risking not only sudden extinction but total ignominy. A bowler usually gets another turn after a bad ball and can hope for better things. “Just tempting him,” murmurs Captain Mainwaring during the cricket match in Dad’s Army after being struck for an enormous straight six. A bowler can cling to the belief that nought for 100 was a good performance. For a batsman, nought is nought and nothing else.
Batsmen get no second chances and, except in the very rare cases of genuine bad luck, any dismissal represents personal failure. In a bad team performance, batsmen are the first to be blamed, and social media now instantly expose out-of-form stars to every carping critic and worse, every self-imagined expert who thinks he can set them right. In the recent Lord’s rout, England’s batsmen were understandably pilloried for their second-innings collapse – but what about the toothless bowlers who yielded Australia 820 runs for just eight wickets (several of them gifted)? One batsman (Gary Ballance) has been dropped from the squad but none of the bowlers.
England batsmen have often crumbled in the past, but never after the astonishing range of physical, technical and psychological support that they enjoy today. Equipment-makers now supply massive but still manoeuvrable bats (coinciding with generally smaller boundaries) and far better protective equipment. Bowling machines can repeatedly fake almost any kind of delivery, while the humble “sidearm” can turn anyone into a challenging net bowler. Artificial surfaces can mimic almost any kind of wicket, now that these are covered. Digital technology can process millions of images of performance and isolate critical microseconds.
Analysts can categorise every single movement by a batsman – even eye movements – and use them to identify his or her “action type” (global, distal, rhythmic and conceptual). Each type can be guided to its own optimal batting methods, though such analysis may be little help to those trapped in the last category, who are several concepts short of a clue.
From sports psychologists, batsmen are given copious techniques to improve self-esteem, relax concentration and intensify it at appropriate times, tune out negative feelings, and “prepare scenarios”. They learn to visualise – preferably by actually standing in the surroundings where they intend to play. If those surroundings hold nothing but bad memories, they learn to replace these with future triumphant images.
Do batsmen need all this stuff? Don Bradman famously learnt to bat alone with a stick and a golf ball against his parents’ laundry door. In the modern age, Javed Miandad was taught by his brother on the roof of their home. The one common characteristic of all great batsmen seems to be the will to work immensely hard with whatever resources are available to them.
Batsmen of quality come in every possible shape, stance and style, from the exuberance of A B de Villiers or Chris Gayle to the circumspect accumulation of Shivnarine Chanderpaul. (That said, exuberance has increased thanks to T20 cricket.) Preferred preparation ranges from a few casual throwdowns (Virender Sehwag) to the fanatically detailed rehearsals of Kumar Sangakkara. It is bold of Simon Hughes (first-class career batting average 11.37) to pick out from this miscellany 10 essential tips for all would-be batsmen.
One is frivolous (play at The Oval) but the other nine are intriguing because only one is physical: keep your head still. Eight out of 10 are mental, concluding with, “You gotta love it!” This carries the tacky bonhomie of David Brent, but it might have helped England at Lord’s. Only three players (Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Stuart Broad) looked ready to enjoy themselves as they walked out to bat. The others looked careworn before they had received a single ball.
Hughes’ first rule is at the other end of the emotional spectrum: realise your limitations. For millions of batsmen in the twilight of careers which never really had a dawn, this advice is only too easy to follow. They receive constant reminders of their limitations, even when they respect them.
Fortunately, even these batsmen have a built-in remedy against existential despair. Batting means entering a bubble. This is true of all sport but it is especially true of batting. For a defined period, you have nothing to think about except hitting a moving object successfully. Even in a terrible season, perhaps only in practice, the laws of chance guarantee that you will sometimes do this perfectly, as well as your chosen batting hero. Imaginary crowds will rise to their feet – Simon Hughes, the Analyst himself, will dissect your shot in dozens of imaginary replayed frames. Amazingly, in spite of all the counter-evidence, a very few such individual moments can usually keep a batsman in the game.
Whether successful or not, the secret of any long batting career is a renewable fantasy life.
‘Who Wants to be a Batsman?’ by Simon Hughes is published by Simon & Schuster at £18.99Reuse content