How do batsmen cope with the intensity of their lonely skill?
All sportspeople like to imagine that their discipline is the most mentally challenging, that winning or losing comes from within. But batsmen have a stronger claim than most. What other sport demands such intense concentration, affords participants so little control over their situation and penalises mistakes so cruelly and with such dramatic ritual?
Batting is a game of life and death like no other. Success - a century, a match-saving last stand - can live with you forever. But getting out feels like the end of everything: you are dismissed not just from the field of play, but from your own dreams of hopefulness and redemption.
Dismissed batsmen are like mourners at their own funerals. The dressing room falls silent as they return, "in respect for the dead", as Mike Brearley puts it in The Art of Captaincy (1985).
"There aren't many situations in sport where you have this challenge of one tiny mistake and that's it, finished, the rest of the day you're watching from the sidelines," says sports psychologist Steve Bull, who worked with the England cricket team for 17 years. "It creates a particular type of pressure which I don't think other athletes experience."
Given the intensity of the mental drama, it is little wonder that a batsman's struggles are with himself as much as with the bowler he faces, and that a lack of confidence can invite negative thinking and a fear of failure. For top-level batsmen with near-perfect technical skills, protecting themselves from such tendencies is critical. The methods they use to reduce anxiety, stay positive and maintain focus are idiosyncratic, often eccentric and tell us as much about the quirks of the human mind as the nuances of cricket.
If you watched England's three-match Test series against Sri Lanka this summer, you will have spotted a graphic example of one of these methods. Before each ball, the Sri Lankan opener Kaushal Silva performs what psychologists call a "pre-performance routine". He adjusts the velcro on his gloves, moves his bat from his left to his right hand and holds it up in front of him, moves his left elbow back and forth eight times (fewer if he's facing a spinner) as if pulling on an imaginary rope, then, gripping his bat with both hands, arches his back before settling into his crease.
The repetition looks neurotic, but Silva has developed it to help him feel settled. "I don't really count the exact number of times I do it, it just comes from my body," he says. "I do it until I have calmed my nerves and I feel OK and I'm really focused. These small things help me to be myself and to just concentrate on the next ball."
It seems to be working. Sri Lanka lost 0-2, but Silva won his team's Player-of-the-Series award for his 193 runs.
Most batsmen have pre-performance routines, though few as elaborate as Silva's. They might wander a few steps towards square leg, tap the bat on the ground a particular way or pull at their shirt. What psychological purpose does this serve? Brearley thinks it's "a way of clearing the mind of the last ball, getting on with the next one, making clear to oneself that a line needs to be drawn under the last one".
In Jonathan Trott's case this is literally true. He marks his guard with a shallow trench, which he reinforces before each delivery, as if to bury everything that's gone before, a habit he repeats whether he's batting in the nets or in a county or international game.
Such repetition is critical to why routines work, says Bull. "It has to be 100% consistent, every ball always the same. You need to get your routines habitualised to the point where you don't think about them, to practise them so that when you're in the middle you go into automatic pilot."
In other words, batsmen should tune their mental routines alongside their physical ones so that the two coalesce. Consider Kevin Pietersen's advice to a 12-year-old budding cricketer who asked him on Twitter how to stop "second-guessing" himself when playing a shot, a common mental error among cricketers still developing their technique. "Practise, practise, practise, and trust your practise," Pietersen replied. "Hardest thing to do but when you do it changes your game."
Perhaps the most tangible function of routines is that they give the batsman a sense of control over a situation which, for the most part, is out of their hands. The state of the wicket, the weather, the path of the ball through the air and off the pitch are beyond his reckoning; his pre-ball ritual is all his own. This need for control amid so much uncertainty may explain why batsmen are particularly prone to superstitions. Unlike a pre-performance routine, a superstition - essentially an irrational belief in implausible causality - is unlikely to improve performance. Yet cricket is full of them.
The Glamorgan opener Steve James avoided eating duck meat until he retired, and he wouldn't allow his daughter to have plastic ducks in her bath. Mike Atherton had to be first on to the field at the start of an innings, even if it meant barging past his opening partner on the way down the pavilion steps. The South African batsman Neil McKenzie used to tape his bat to the dressing-room ceiling because his team-mates had once done this as a practical joke prior to him scoring a century. Steve Waugh batted with a red rag in his pocket for similar reasons.
Derek Randall, like many batsmen, hated being on 13. "I couldn't wait to get off it," he says. "Sometimes I'd get out because I was trying too hard to get off the blooming thing."
Ed Smith, one of the most notoriously superstitious cricketers, had a habit of asking the umpire, mid-over, how many balls were left. For the first part of his career he did this always after the fourth ball, then switched to asking after the third ball. Since he batted for around 15,000 overs in his career, he must have asked this question of the umpire around 15,000 times.
"It was silly and I knew it," he writes in Luck: A Fresh Look at Fortune (2012). "It was unintelligent and I knew it. It was a source of mirth and I knew it. But I did it anyway. Superstition was a dependency I found hard to give up."
Many batsmens' superstitions revolve around an obsession with their kit. Trott is scrupulous about how he arranges his bats. Atherton always followed the same padding-up routine: box, chest guard, inside thigh-pad, outside thigh-pad, left pad, right pad, arm guard, gloves, helmet. This kind of fastidiousness is not too surprising since batting is much about organisation, repetition and structure.
Yet rigorously adhering to a ritual is unlikely to put you in the runs and could make things worse. "If the superstition is something you might not have control over, like wearing your lucky socks, what happens when you lose your lucky socks or they fall apart," says sports psychologist Stewart Cotterill. "It will have the opposite effect: you'll feel you're not ready."
Once all the fussing and the rituals and the routines are done and the batsman is settled at the crease, he can then focus on the bowling. This is where the real test begins. Unless you are an expert meditator, paying close sustained attention to something for long periods can be mentally draining. To deal with this, coaches encourage batsmen to "dial up" their focus when the bowler is running in and "dial down" between balls.
Atherton says switching on and off like this is "absolutely vital" and came easily to him, a naturally relaxed character. "All studies show you can't concentrate for lengthy periods without a break. The ball is 'live' for maybe six to ten seconds, so that is all you have to concentrate for."
Silva pares down the window of concentration even further, to three or four seconds, switching on only when the bowler is halfway through his run-up. He calculates that this way, if he sets out to score a century in, say, 180 to 200 balls, he will have to concentrate deeply for just ten to 15 minutes. "So it's 15 minutes to get 100 runs. If you cut it down like this then it will be easier. You don't worry about the long term, you just focus on the particular ball."
The thought of surviving hours at the crease can seem overwhelming if you don't break it down.
Tammy Beaumont, who this summer became the first woman to hit back-to-back ODI centuries for England, during the series against Pakistan, worries only about the next five runs. "I'll tell myself: get to five, once I get to five get to ten, keep it like that, keep it all about the next ball."
Another approach is to segment time. Brearley and Randall did this during the Centenary Test between England and Australia in Melbourne in 1977. Needing 463 to win with a wicket down, they decided to take it in 15-minute sections. "Stick at it, Skip. In ten minutes there'll only be 15 minutes to tea," Brearley recalls Randall saying, in The Art of Captaincy. They lost by 45 runs; Randall scored 174.
You don't have to be an international or even a professional cricketer to benefit from these mental heuristics. Bull says the key difference between elite and "Sunday afternoon batsmen" is that "Sunday afternoon batsmen tend to overcomplicate things. They're standing there tapping the ground as the bowler runs in, thinking about where the fields are, thinking about their left-hand grip, where their shoulders are. The best players in the world are just standing there saying: watch the ball."
Mental routines are a way to simplify things, to shut out technical thoughts, memories of mistimed shots and other internal distractions, and to help the batsman settle into a state of readiness that Bull calls "relaxed alertness". But routines alone may not be enough, especially in international games where the pressures can be immense. To settle nerves and maintain confidence through an innings, many batsmen engage in what used to be considered a symptom of mental illness but is now recognised as fully functional: talking to yourself.
In a 2013 study at an English first-class cricket club, psychologists at Cardiff Metropolitan University found that batsmen used self-talk regularly, either to motivate themselves in challenging situations - when walking out to bat, for example, or after a poor shot - or to deliver instructional cues that focus attention, such as "Watch the ball!"
In fact, "Watch the ball" seems to be the default cue for most batsmen. Ricky Ponting used it. You can sometimes see Eoin Morgan mouthing it before a ball. Beaumont, after watching one of Ponting's masterclasses, adopted it then adapted it - her current cue is "Time the ball, play straight". Easy if you know how.
One of the most notorious self-talkers in cricket history is Randall. He did it constantly and out loud. "It was spontaneous, it was a natural thing to do. When I'm nervous I start talking. It would help me concentrate. It annoyed everybody, including the people who played with me."
During the fourth Test of the 1978-79 Ashes, when Randall scored 150 during the second innings and turned the series in England's favour, his monologue continued throughout the nine hours and 42 minutes he spent at the crease. Here's a snatch of it, as relayed to Sunday Times journalist Dudley Doust by his opponents and team-mates: "Come on, Rags," he says. "Get stuck in. Don't take any chances. Get forward, get forward. Get behind the ball. Take your time, slow and easy. You idiot, Rags. Come on, come. Come on, England."
Younis Khan, who averages 53.72 in Test cricket and is Pakistan's highest-ever run scorer, also talks to himself all the time when he's at the wicket. But he has a slightly different approach to most, conducting his conversations with an alter ego that he conjures up as he goes out to bat.
"I imagine there is a guy standing in front of me and he is Younis Khan, and just talk with him. It's like there are two Younis Khans standing face to face like a boxer, and they are talking and looking each other in the eyes. Come on, Younis Khan, you can do this, you can do that."
Self-talk can keep you focused, and it can also help maintain confidence, without which batting can feel like Russian roulette. Mark Ramprakash, the England men's batting coach, says confidence and self-belief are "absolutely paramount. They can work wonders: they can make up for a less-than-perfect technique. The thing with cricket is that you have a lot of bad days. You make one wrong decision, or someone takes a great catch. The best players, like Alastair Cook, are incredibly resilient to those bad days. They maintain a belief in their own ability."
Ramprakash himself suffered a crisis of belief early on in his England career when he failed to make a big score and began to question whether he belonged at Test level. Then in 1998 he started working with Bull, brought in by England as team psychologist.
"He gave me a very simple framework of coping with all the scrambled thoughts that were going on in my head," says Ramprakash.
It proved pivotal. Soon after meeting Bull he scored 154 against West Indies in Barbados - his first Test century - and then topped the averages the following winter in Australia. His team-mate Atherton, writing in his autobiography, said he sensed at the time that Ramprakash was "a totally different person, and consequently, player".
Today the mental side of batting and the pressures that come with playing at international level are taken very seriously by England's management, due in no small part to Ramprakash's influence. Yet confidence is a fickle trait. Sometimes it's necessary to fake it to make it, so to speak. Psychologists have known for decades that feelings and emotions stem from changes in the body, rather than the other way round - a phenomenon known as embodied cognition - which means it's possible to generate confidence simply by acting it out.
"Shadow batting" - practising sublime strokes between balls - or walking out to bat with head held high, can have a positive effect on the way you play. The sports psychologist Jamie Barker, who works with Nottinghamshire Cricket Club and the ECB's performance programme, makes a point of getting players to focus on their body language as they leave the pavilion, to appear confident even if they don't feel it: "If you're assertive, your brain will pick up on that."
Another way of "faking" confidence is to visualise the way you want to play in your mind's eye before the game begins. In 1974, early in his career, Randall suffered four first-class innings in a row without scoring a run. "It was a nightmare," he says. "The pressure just builds on you." So on the morning of his fifth innings he got up early and arrived at the ground while it was still deserted, strapped on his pads, walked out to the middle, played a cover drive and took a run, "just to remember what it was like". He scored 93 that day.
Ramprakash encourages England's batsmen to use this kind of visualisation, which serves as a cognitive rehearsal for the main event. There is much evidence that it works. One problem with all these approaches is that worrying too much about your own performance can easily make things worse. Steven Sylvester, Middlesex's psychologist and author of the recent book Detox Your Ego (2016), thinks that for players at the top of their game what really matters is "where your heart is, why am I here?"
The important thing, he says, is to believe at an emotional level that you are playing not for yourself but for your team or your country, or some other ideal that transcends you. "When players start to think about their performance as serving the group it increases their self-esteem, their belief goes up and they become a bit freer in their skills. It gives them a little bit extra."
In 2013, Sylvester helped Australia and Middlesex batsman Chris Rogers after he was called up to the Ashes squad more than five years after his previous Test. "It became blindingly obvious that his fear of representing his country in the Ashes as an opening batsman was stopping him from moving forward," he says. "Through a deep discussion of how to serve his country he came up with a more compelling reason to doing well than if it was just about him."
Sylvester coached Moeen Ali through a similar process, helping him put his cricket in the context of his faith and his desire to be a role model. The Pakistan batsman Asad Shafiq, who has scored eight Test centuries at No. 6 - a world record - gives an equally compelling reason for his own success: "To bat at No. 6 you have to be patient, as most of the time the tailenders are with you. You have to give them confidence and support."
Shafiq is batting not just for himself, but for Nos. 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11 as well. He epitomises CLR James' portrait in his classic Beyond a Boundary (1963) of the batsman as the ultimate team player. When facing the ball, writes James, he "does not merely represent his side. For that moment, to all intents and purposes, he is his side."
Without doubt, all batsmen can improve their confidence, resilience and other mental attributes if they're willing to practise. "Mental skills are like physical skills," says Bull. "You have to work at them relentlessly. You have to challenge your brain to get better at blocking out the negatives and replacing them with positives."
Yet it also seems clear that some people are inherently better at this than others. In 2005, Bull carried out a psychological analysis of 12 English cricketers from the previous two decades whom county coaches had identified as the toughest mentally in the country. Among them were Atherton, Graham Gooch and Alec Stewart. Bull found them all to be highly competitive and motivated, full of self-confidence and with a never-say-die attitude, some of which derived from their upbringing, some from the teams they had played with and some from their personality.
For the rest of us, it is comforting to know that we can learn such skills - and that even the greats can struggle at times. Even Don Bradman called batting "a nerve-racking business". In The Art of Cricket (1958), he implores us to give a thought to the batsman's travails as he wends his way to the wicket: "He is human like you, and desperately anxious to do well."
Michael Bond is a consultant for the New Scientist. This article first appeared in MCC Magazine.