August 7, 2013

Mind the criticism, please

Why do we insist on castigating cricketers - particularly batsmen - as careless, lazy or lacking strength of character?

What does an error in judgement have to do with character? © Getty Images

Cricketing criticism can broadly be categorised as that which highlights the technical aspect and that which focuses on the mental side of things. As a result, failures in an international cricketer's career are seen to be a deficiency of technique or a lack of temperament, and sometimes both. With some cricketers, these weaknesses, at times real, at times perceived, tend to stick. In the event of a dismissal or a few loose deliveries, familiar criticisms reappear.

I don't think any other sport has such a variety of questions thrown at its practitioners in the face of failure. Some of it can be put down to cricket being a team sport - the individual failure contributing to a collective failing, and what is seen as the shirking of individual responsibility toward a collective cause assuming a moral flavour. But I believe a lot of the questioning of character is also a result of cricket's nature, the rules of the game, its drama, and its ebbs and flows. The drama and form that leave such lasting impressions on followers also lend themselves to an almost bewildering variety of vitriol, much of it carrying moralistic overtones. Cricket can be an utterly unforgiving game.

In this piece, I'll restrict myself to two aspects of batting: its protracted one-on-one nature, and a more specific point in the context of the famed corridor of uncertainty. Other factors that spring to mind are: batting's almost obligatory mix of attack and defence (you are supposed to give the opening hour to bowlers in Tests, else you might be termed impetuous); and that you are expected to perform in varying conditions, unlike, say, in tennis, where there's more understanding of the fact that a clay-courter might not do well at Wimbledon. Further, not playing well on bouncy pitches is termed as lack of stomach for battle, whereas not playing spin well is referred to as more of a technical shortcoming (though this view is gradually changing). But more of that in another piece.

Cricket, as CLR James noted in his opus, Beyond a Boundary, is a game within a game. A large contributory factor to cricket's unforgiving nature, is, I believe, this characterising feature. In what is a team game, for a large portion of the time the focus is on an individual pitted against another. It is the bowler versus the batsman, one on one. The nature of this duel tends to highlight individual strengths and weaknesses like no other sport. A batsman sometimes becomes a bowler's bunny, and a known weakness gets exploited. The audience, quick on the trigger, consigns the batsman's temperament and technique to the bin. The batsman's ability to withstand pressure is questioned. Under duress, during the course of a long, probing spell from the bowler, he sometimes plays an indecisive stroke, interpreted as a waft, and gets out. This is construed as carelessness, a blot on his commitment to the team's larger cause.

The effect of struggle in a one-on-one situation - a batsman defending while a bowler attacks, one excelling at his art, the other failing at his - creates the impression of extreme fallibility. Since these different forms are up in contrast within a long play-out of the repeated central action, faults appear magnified. In badminton or tennis, although there is exploitation of the opponent's weakness, ultimately both players are doing a similar thing. There is not enough contrast. And, since there is a serve, a return, and a rally in between, the focus is a bit distributed.

The time factor is also crucial to this magnification. In football, the play unfolds too quickly. Time is not a tangible enough dimension. Cricket, whilst offering pause to draw out personalities and events more, also facilitates endless replays of events and gives more of an impression of hunter and hunted. Hence weaknesses are exaggerated and overly criticised. A dismissal fundamentally is a result of misjudgement of the path and character of a ball, and the batsman's failed attempt at altering it. Can this be dubbed careless?

A second reason that allows for facile criticism in cricket is the famous corridor of uncertainty. After watching Michael Clarke execute a bunch of brilliantly conceived leaves at Old Trafford, I'm convinced there isn't a more peculiar, even eccentric characteristic of a game. Which other sport requires you, even encourages you, to leave a ball so much? Baseball does, to a degree, but the leaving is tightly bounded. In cricket you are expected to be a good leaver, if you are to get anywhere at the international level. Aakash Chopra's ability to judge the line and length of the new ball to a nicety was as much at the core of India's excellent campaign in Australia in 2003-04 as everything else.

The corridor of uncertainty is exploited by the best bowlers, and it sometimes facilitates the harshest criticism. After leaving a bunch just wide of off stump, a batsman opts to defend a fairly similar ball because he judges it to be coming in at an angle with the arm, or swinging/seaming in. Else, he aims to attack by hitting what seems like a full, hittable ball, driven by an impulse to take the attack to the bowler.

According to Greg Chappell in his fascinating book Greg Chappell on Coaching - and your own impressions formed when playing confirm his line of reasoning - the decision to play or not is the only aspect of a batsman's reaction that is almost completely conscious. And even there, form and state of mind play a role. A major portion of the actual shot that you play is based on a sort of subconscious athletic intelligence, monitored constantly by the conscious thought process of where to hit the ball. A lot of this athletic intelligence, modulated and enhanced by practice, is rooted in early cricketing experience. To my mind, this is all the more true of your reaction to balls in this eminently vulnerable corridor outside off. Practice matters, but it is type of practice and not necessarily only amount. So perhaps we need to keep all this in mind when criticising and accusing batsmen of being loose, careless, and of not caring a whit about the team's cause.

The cricketing form, the lines that the batsman's body and bat end up making after he has pushed at a ball outside off, along with an expression that speaks of guilt at having attempted something he ought not to have, adds to this picture of a temporary loss of focus. Can this really be judged as being lazy or letting the team down, though?

There is no batsman who doesn't regret playing what cricket calls a loose shot. It is just that the nature of the game and its geometry are such that at some point there is bound to be a misjudgement of line or length. This uncertainty in judgement can hardly be called a flaw in human character as it is often made out to be. How could he have been so loose, we ask. How could he have lazily thrown it away? The corridor of uncertainty seems to open a convenient door to admonishment. At times, when you hear this common comment, you wonder whether it is pure rhetoric. Or are we simply falling in line with established precedent?

At this point I must return briefly to an old, sometimes excessive, aspect of cricket. The established precedent has been that of a strong moralising tone always. This isn't cricket, this is not the way it ought to be, is a strong sentiment that runs through the game. While this is cloaked in antiquity, and is apt when evoked in the context of the spirit of the game, it isn't so in the context of playing technique. But quite often, I believe it spills over contexts, perhaps unnecessarily so. Maybe we need to be more wary of this spillover.

What then are we left with? Perhaps while we revel in displays of greatness and flashes of genius, we can hold back on the criticism just that little bit. Or level it at technique rather than spew it all on carelessness, laziness, selfishness, lack of courage and even ego. Does criticism of this sort spur sportsmen on? Does it not actually impede their progress? Wouldn't criticism aimed at correcting technique be enough? We can celebrate skill and perceived valour, we can bemoan inability, but we need not berate character. We can even marvel at how certain aspects of character might be revealed by the shots you play or by some you don't, but let us not carp about certain others that seemingly aren't in evidence.

The most gifted will find avenues in their game for parts of their personality to shine through, but those slightly more limited in talent might not be so lucky. Will we lose that much if we don't moralise so often? Are we so unsure of the game's inherent drama that we can't let go of the moralistic tone? The form and action will be no less intense and neither will the drama. We might just have to alter our vocabulary a little. If it still lets us celebrate ability and accept variety, yet permits criticism of technique, why not? And then, will it not afford us the luxury of enjoying the game even more?