February 27, 2008

Stuck in the middle

Batsmen in what should be their most prolific years are more prone to falling prey to the weight of expectations, and thereby being brought face to face with their limitations



Dravid's struggles in Australia brought forth a flood of questions: Had age taken its toll? Was he overworked? Had an error crept into his game? © Getty Images

As a breed, batsmen are haunted by the prospect of failure. It hardens them, tightens them, sometimes exhausts them. A centre-forward unable to score can still chase and create. A tryless winger can tackle and support. A batsman must score runs: it is as simple and stark as that. No words can protect the player from this truth. His existence depends on his productivity. Arthur Miller could have written a play about it. Every time he goes to the crease, a batsman confronts doom.

Everyone knows it is true about themselves yet seems oblivious to it further up the scale. Batsmen like one-day cricket because they have an excuse. Since it is permissible, sometimes almost heroic, to get out, a man can afterwards face his maker and himself, perhaps even his dad or his wife.

Admittedly, youngsters regard cricket as a game and batting as a lark, but before long a deeper association takes hold and then the outlook is lost till the fading years are reached, whereupon a second, better, childhood arises, especially among those who did not greatly enjoy their first one. It is only in these brief periods of youthful folly and aged adventure that batting does not afflict the heart and curse the head.

A youngster may mutter darkly about pitch, curator, umpire, captain, partner, ball, fieldsmen, bat, rules, and quite possibly the previous night's pizza. But it does not last long. Pretty soon a dainty girl hoves into view or a pal suggests kicking a ball around and the youngster moves along. For greenhorns there is always tomorrow. It is not just immortality that is the preserve of youth. Optimism is also in abundance.

Not, by the way, that excuses are the preserve of youth. Far from it. I once heard a batsman complain that the bowler's grunt had put him off as he had mistaken it for a call of "no-ball". On another occasion a dismissed player marched from the ground in the wrong direction in pursuit of some poor fool who had walked in front of the sightscreen just as the ball was being released. That both batsmen were captains of England will not altogether surprise cognoscenti. That both were Yorkshiremen will not surprise them an iota.

As a rule, age eventually realises that it has been taking the whole thing too seriously, whereupon it starts belting the ball around with such élan that for a second time critics become agog. All batsmen are praised twice in their careers. The first comes after a fellow has stroked a couple of boundaries as a teenager, whereupon he is proclaimed a genius. The second comes 20 years later, when a player long since consigned by even the gentlest critic to the rubbish dump manages to rouse himself sufficiently to push the ball around for an hour. The attraction of both periods is that it is not necessary actually to score any runs, just to look like one might. Provided the end is honourable, 30 will suffice. The only veterans who go down lamely are those armed with lucrative contracts they are eager to keep. These blokes turn into crabs and TS Eliot writes poems about them.

Between the milk teeth and the dentures comes the long period of maturity in which batsmen expect themselves to score runs. In this unforgiving spell the poor willow wielder comes face to face with himself and his limitations. Every day is an ordeal, or as it is called in this decade of positive thinking, a challenge. Hereabouts the batsman tries to turn himself into a machine, the better to contain the fickle spirit of this confounded game. Some batsmen put on a brave face and hook and cut their way onwards. To them batting somehow remains an adventure. Or perhaps it is that they sense that time is pressing and the next ball might be their last. Australians tend to think along these lines. They must live or they must die; they cannot exist. Contrastingly, existence is highly regarded in England, a small island surrounded by enemy forces, such as the French. Accordingly, English batsmen tend to scrape around after a crust, even as the Australians charge about in search of a kill.

It is in this period of supposed productivity that the most alarming bad patches crop up. Youth knows there is tomorrow. Age anticipates the decline. But the man at the height of his powers, his career established and yet in the balance at the same time, depends upon a regular supply of runs to keep him contented. Hereabouts it is dangerous to let any unsettling thoughts creep into the head. To that end, Australian batsmen refuse to get carried away by failure or success. Only two remarks ever escape their lips. Asked about their form they will say either that they are "hitting them well", which usually means they have scored heavily in their last five matches, or they are "hitting them well in the nets", which means that they have not scored a run for five months and are thinking about a divorce.

Every summer a bad trot claims some poor soul. Even amongst the mighty it happens. Indeed, it is comforting to watch the best players scratch around like a child with an itch. Just this season Rahul Dravid and Ricky Ponting were short of form. Of course, they are accomplished professionals and managed to hack out a few runs, but they lacked their usual command. Impregnable on his previous visit, Dravid tried hard to recover his effect but located only its shadow. At such times a batsman falls into caricature. He manages to convey his spirit without ever recapturing its essence. But then success cannot be bottled. Always there is a fine line. It is the secret known to all batsmen, one that drives some to drink and others to erect barricades around their wickets.

 
 
Youth knows there is tomorrow. Age anticipates the decline. But the man at the height of his powers, his career established and yet in the balance at the same time, depends upon a regular supply of runs to keep him contented. Hereabouts it is dangerous to let any unsettling thoughts creep into the head
 

Ken Barrington worried himself to great achievements, and then into the grave. Geoff Boycott discovered a flaw in his game, a frailty against even mild left-arm swing, and it tormented him. David Gower concealed his concern behind a serene exterior, and was patronised. Graham Gooch was driven to despair by the delivery he could not counter without losing everything else - Terry Alderman's straight one. Allan Lamb went for his shots and may the devil take the hindmost. All found ways of dealing with themselves.

Dravid's bat these last few months seemed to be made of tin. Certainly, it sounded hollow. Modern bats are as thick as bread cut by a teenage boy. His appeared as thin as prison soup. Previously constructed entirely with bricks, his technique seemed to consist of straw. Of course, it was as much an illusion as his infallibility. Had age taken its toll? Had a heavy programme reduced his capacity? Had an error crept into his game? Failure never has one cause and the trick is to identify and correct the underlying problem. Usually, it is a technical lapse that takes hold when the brain is not functioning properly, and afterwards proves hard to shift.

Ponting's rough trot ended last weekend in Sydney. As often happens, the ending was certified and celebrated by a succession of brilliant strokes. In his typically Australian way, Ponting refused to analyse either the bad spell or the recovery, but he had that very morning spent extra time in the nets and had been examining his dismissals in search of clues. He knew he had been been pushing at the ball and sensed that hard work was needed to break the habit. Matthew Hayden is the same. His game falls into place when he is working diligently in the nets, rehearsing his lofted and grounded straight-drives. But even that does not apply to every batsman. Sunil Gavaskar and Doug Walters seldom held a bat on the morning of a match. To each his own.

It is in these periods of struggle that a cricketer works out his path, and thereafter he tries to apply it with precision. Yet there is another truth about the game, one that partly explains the falls from grace of great batsmen. Always it is important to begin afresh. A batsman may lose form precisely because his mind has been dulled by applying a constant technique. The needs to watch the ball closely and to respond instinctively are also precious and easily mislaid.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

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