Who Wants to be a Batsman: Don’t Look Too Closely
‘Watch the ball.’ It’s the first thing they tell you. ‘Why do you think you missed that one?’ the coach says. ‘Because you took your eye off the ball! Watch it all the way.’ You can lip-read batsmen saying it to themselves as the bowler is running in. Watch the ball. Right on to the bat.
But have you ever tried to actually do that?
It’s impossible. An 80mph delivery – an average pace for a fast bowler – travels at 117ft per second. So it takes about half a second to travel 66ft (22 yards) – the length of the pitch. That is almost 12ft (3.65m) per 0.1sec. Sharp eye movements – called saccades – take about 0.3sec for the brain to generate and process, which means that in the case of an 80mph deliv- ery, by the time you have focused on it the ball will be in a different place.
That explains why, when I came to face the great New Zealand pace bowler Richard Hadlee in my second season of county cricket, the ball was past the bat before I got it down. I ‘saw’ the ball all right. Well, sort of. I caught sight of it leaving his hand. Then I was just conscious of a red blur zipping down and up and past my outside edge followed by a malicious-looking scowl from the bowler.
What batsmen really do is keep their eye on where the ball is expected to be. Experience and expertise enable them to work out from the information received – the bowler’s release, the trajectory, the speed of the delivery, the perceived movement in the air, the point of pitching – where the ball is likely to end up. And the good players are quick enough to fashion a response. The best seem to anticipate where the ball will be even before it’s released.
In fact research demonstrates that the better players actually watch the ball for less time out of the bowler’s hand, shifting their focus to the expected bounce point earlier than lesser players, giving them a fraction more time to play their shot. The young Bradman achieved this naturally through his end- less repetition of hitting a bouncing golf ball with a stump.
Obviously you can sharpen your reactions, not just with practice against fast bowlers and bowling machines, but with other techniques too. Andy Flower improved his eyesight by deliberately following a bird in the sky. He would really focus on it as it flew past, watching it carefully, monitoring its move- ment as it veered about, his gaze locked onto it until it was just a distant speck. He chose birds like swallows that changed direction sharply in flight. He was convinced it enhanced his ability to focus on and respond to the moving ball. He also ate a raw egg at 2am every night (mixed into a protein shake)
setting his alarm specifically to do so. (Flower averaged over 50 in both his Test and first-class careers.)
The Indian legend Sunil Gavaskar went to the lengths of watching the ball as it was fed round the field and back to the bowler. It helped him maintain focus and also, over time, gave him little clues about what the bowler might bowl. ‘Michael Holding always used to set off on his right leg instead of his left when he was going to bowl a bouncer,’ he remembers. ‘One hundred per cent!’
Ricky Ponting focused on the ball three times as the bowler was running in. ‘Once at the top of his mark, once half way through, once at delivery. I wasn’t able to stay zoomed in all the way through the run-up. I found that too intense.’ Kevin Pietersen stared intently at the ball throughout the bowler’s approach. He was particularly good at playing reverse swing because he could detect the shiny side. Both he and the West Indies opener Desmond Haynes were so sharp-eyed they zeroed in on the seam of the ball in the bowler’s hand and Haynes even tried to read the manufacturer’s small print. It made him the only batsman in the world who could hook a lame bouncer out of the ground and cry: ‘Made in England, sent to Barbados!’ …Read more