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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Madan on February 29, 2008, 7:55 GMT

    Normal Human, I 'll disagree on a small point. At his peak, Dravid, purely in a Test match perspective, was as punishing on the bowlers as a Lara or Sachin would have been. Like Laxman, he relied on exquisite timing and excellent penetration square on both sides rather than flamboyant pulls, slashes or lofts. That time is clearly past him, but unlike Sachin, he seems unable to suitably adapt and change his approach. If he could just rotate his strike more, he could make life easier for him. As for best no.3s, I think VVS Laxman is the best no.3 that never was. Every time he has been promoted to that spot, he has delivered a masterpiece for the ages and yet, he is never given a fair run in that position and worse, the media calls for his head before every Test series.

  • Paul on February 28, 2008, 15:48 GMT

    While psycho-analysis may be important for correcting the symptoms of failure (the depression, the loss of self belief); to hide behind this as the reason for failure is a smoke screen. It is a technical error or errors that cause problems. The only one of these that seems purely psychological is the "stiffening up" that some batsmen suffer from, but even this is normally a symptom of recent failings weighing on them, leading back to a time when they were selected (for whatever role and whatever level) based on good performances. The psychologist is required to shed light on the real priorities of life, often outside of the field where the failings are occuring.

    As the the player themselves, the best motto may be ~ "Batsman, heal thyself"

  • Santhoshi on February 28, 2008, 13:33 GMT

    I think high expectations is one of the the key factors in cricketors to succombing to "bad form", and ofcourse, the overloaded schedule of the ICC, which seems to be getting bigger , now with IPL on the block.Due to being overexhaustad and players being expected to produce and high qualityt innings in almost every match they play, they end up playing some rash shots, bowling some bad balls, making wrong decisions.Now that the young ones are starting to make a mark for themselves on the pitch,The palyers are under even more pressure to perform.And what people fail to realize is thta, its takes time and patience for a person to come out of a bad patch in their careers.They can't be expected to okay overnight.Just like in Ponting's case, he was struggling for form all summer, but beacuse he was given time, and was trsuted upon by everyone, he ended up making a matchwinning hundred for his team.

  • Normal on February 28, 2008, 6:28 GMT

    Test match perspective:I think its harsh to say that Dravid is out of form.To b honest,Dravid has been so consistent for the past decade or so,that he has set very high standards for himself,even tendulkar or lara don't seem 2 have such consistency as he has,yet they do have some match-winning knocks to their names.But Dravid is a Consolidater rather then aggressive batsman,which is so vital in essence of Test cricket.I do agree he is not at his level best,but I do believe that he is a human who is bound to error.This is just a phase where as Peter mentioned just start fresh & don't think too much about his one day spot/ICL/IPL, he just a few "consistent" runs in his bag, & all the accolades will b his.Its just a matter of time.

  • Vineet Raj on February 27, 2008, 18:38 GMT

    Towards the middle of their career batsmen are studied and discovered by the bowlers. This is the time that they need to revisit the drawing board and rework their technique. Quite a few batsmen fail at this juncture.

  • Madan on February 27, 2008, 14:55 GMT

    Nice article Mr. Roebuck. But in addition to what you have mentioned above, the media also plays a huge role in showing biased and exaggerated reports. The two players Ponting and Dravid are among the best one-drop batsmen the world has ever seen. But the media just write them off ever so easily. Maybe because the batsmen have been so consistent for a few years and all of a sudden are searching for runs. I personally feel in Dravid or Ponting's case, it has got to do more with their "mental strengths" of reacticng to prolonged criticism and analysis which is troubling them rather than age or cricketing technique. I guess at a certain point, you do get frustrated when every armchair expert starts questioning you and your contributions, conveniently ignoring your golden past. Maybe they try too hard to prove people wrong, when all they have to do is relax and play their natural game.

  • Madan on February 27, 2008, 11:11 GMT

    Dravid's loss of form must be one of the highlights of 07. When I see his performances in the previous tour to Australia, it is evident that he was timing the ball beautifully and even seemingly gentle pushes on the on-side rolled to the MCG ropes, he couldn't do that all of this Australian summer. He was getting it back in Perth only to once again retreat into a shell in Adelaide.

    I wonder if the joy for cricket has just evaporated inside of him or is overwhelmed by the pressure to perform, another reason why other batsmen can and have gone through bad patches. This would also then explain why he stepped down as captain. The best thing for him would be to announce that he tentatively plans to retire within a year's time or so and enjoy that last one year to the hilt - the runs will flow as they always did in a jiffy.

  • Mahesh on February 27, 2008, 7:21 GMT

    Yes, there is certainly more pressure on the batsmen. They have reached the middle of their careers only because they had a good start. So, there are great expectations from them. They are in the middle of their careers, which is a reminder that there is only another half, or lesser, left. So, they set great expectations for themselves. Everyone wants to go out at the top. So, being in the middle, there is pressure from the outside to retain the same performance, and there is pressure from within to stay on the top, and reach the end of the career on a high. Yes, there is certainly more pressure on the batsmen in the middle of their careers.

  • AWARUDKAR on February 27, 2008, 6:08 GMT

    much of this 'loosing form' phenomenon can be explained by psychologists. This is quite common among high-achievers and it is not about loss of skill or loss of desire to succeed. It is about depression, isolation, inability to 'open up', lack of being 'in-touch' with their inner world. A good sport psychologist can help recover and also prescribe a good on-going recovery group to prevent repetition.

  • P Subramani on February 27, 2008, 5:31 GMT

    I feel that the bad patch is inevitable for all players howsoever great they may have been and indeed are.For the greater ones it happens late in their careers because age has a say in diminishing co-ordination between mind and limb. Roebuck says ,'To each his own'; I believe that every batsman has his own set of play. Footwork and shot selection are deeply ingrained in the mind. Thus if a fundamental flaw is noticed in a batsman he will find it difficult to get over it. It is for this reason that I am not too sure if Ponting has really come out of his trough, centuries at Adelaide in the test and Sydney in the ODI notwithstanding. The wickets at both venues were flat as borne out by the fact that even unheralded Indian batsmen cashed in. Besides, Ponting was lucky to have survived early on. So between his usual brilliance and aggression, there were indeed occasions when the flaws showed up. It will surprise me if other tall fast bowlers do not get him more frequently from now on.

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