August 22, 2008

Celebrating struggle

There is extra satisfaction in playing a scratchy knock, in concentrating harder than usual, in pulling yourself back into form



"I tested the bowlers' patience, and once they tired down I could play the fluent strokes" © AFP

There are days when you walk out and start middling the ball right away, days when you know nobody is going to get you out. It is nice to play such innings, when you are in complete command, but the gritty, fighting knocks give you a different kind of satisfaction.

When you're struggling you consciously build an innings. You start identifying areas to attack and defend, what bowlers you will try and take more strike to. My century at the P Sara in the third Test against India was one such innings. That knock was all about ensuring I got into a rhythm, and paced myself. Once I got used to a certain bowler's run-up and turn, and once I got my rhythm going, I accelerated. Then when bowlers changed ends, I started from the scratch again, readjusting to suit that change.

I hadn't had the best of the series until then. I made 12 in the first Test and then 68 in the first innings in Galle, where I was disappointed that I didn't go on and get a hundred. It could have made a big difference to the outcome of the Test. Getting out for 1 in the second innings was extremely frustrating. But if you go into a match thinking it's going to be a struggle, not much is going to go your way. I always get my confidence from pre-match training, and I have a feel for how I'm going.

In such situations you have to make sure you convert starts into big runs. My work ethic has been to do all the hard work at practice, and then bat in the match as well as I have trained. If I'm successful that's very good. If I'm not, it's back to training.

But as long as I try and execute the plans I have trained for, the actual innings doesn't really matter. Thinking that way is easier for me to get back into form. If my focus is on doing the basics right, I have no worries. It was no different in the third Test, because I trained as well as I could and played according to my plan.

What was different in this innings of 144 was my magnified focus. When I have a rough idea of what a bowler is looking to do, I first check out the field, then the line he is bowling, and then I concentrate on one ball at a time. The moment a bowler goes up to his mark I switch on. I look at the ball from his run-up, when it is delivered, and until it comes onto the bat.

At the P Sara I didn't premeditate, and was very balanced. I kept telling myself to watch the ball. The way the game was going it was a case of testing the bowlers' patience. India could not just sit back. Harbhajan Singh couldn't have gone on bowling across me, because he needed to get wickets. He couldn't have kept tempting me that way. When I was getting a partnership going with Prasanna Jayawardene, and then with Thilan Samaraweera and Tillakaratne Dilshan, it was the same. India didn't have much more than 200 on the board, and the closer we got the harder they tried. And that's when the loose deliveries came. They started to err in line and length, and I had the patience to wait until then.

There are certain innings when batting with tailenders can be a huge plus. Suddenly the fielders try to get you off strike, and get the other guy out. I had that opportunity twice against New Zealand. The fielding side was not trying to get me out; they were giving me runs. I got easy singles, and figured I would face four balls and then rotate the strike, or hit two boundaries and trust the tailender. It really worked.

 
 
The way the game was going it was a case of testing the bowlers' patience. India could not just sit back. Harbhajan Singh couldn't have gone on bowling across me, because he needed to get wickets. He couldn't have kept tempting me that way
 

Against India we had to form partnerships, so my focus shifted. When the lower-order batsmen came out, I had to play smartly and rotate the strike. I had to try to build partnerships worth at least 10-20 runs to being with. I had to trust whoever was batting with me, hope he held his end up and did his share of the work. Every run got us closer to India's score. That was when my approach changed, I couldn't have cast off the burden of anchoring the innings. It was our first innings, and one which could have set up a win.

Batting was hard, and I had to get down and dirty. This innings was a bit like my first Test hundred, against India in Galle, in that it was a tough innings too. I had just been dropped from the one-day side, and it was a big comeback for me. I had gone in at No. 3, and batted through the innings.

Even before that I had scored a struggling 98 at Centurion in 2000-01. We were following on, I opened the innings, and was the last man out. It was my first away series, and I had Alan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Jacques Kallis and Makhaya Ntini to contend with.

The innings at P Sara gave me tremendous satisfaction, and in the context of a series this was my best innings. It was a series-decider, and I had helped set up a win. All these innings have been a just reward for the amount of concentration and focus that made them possible, and just as cherished by me as the other fluent, spotless knocks.

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