August 12, 2010

Reading the batsman

Video footage is well and good, but there are also plenty of clues for bowlers to pick up from their opponents' grips, back-lifts and stances

What if a bowler could read a batsman's mind - predict how a batsman would play before bowling a ball to him or having watched him play? Wouldn't it bolster his chances, give him leeway to plan, and buttress his skill?

Some may call it wishful thinking, others a secret science, but often just looking at the grip with which a batsman holds his bat tells you something about his preferences in terms of shots, and the way he stands may help you place your fielders.

Will a batsman be a good driver of the ball or more comfortable scoring off the back foot? Will he prefer scoring runs through the on side or the off? It's important to observe the finer nuances of a batsman's grip, stance and back-lift to size him up and plan accordingly. While it may seem utterly useless in this day and age of exhaustive analysis based on video footage, which is available to almost all professional teams, observation was one of the tools players relied heavily on in the past, and it continues to be useful.

The grip
Most batsmen playing professional cricket hold the bat correctly with regard to the Vs made by thumbs and forefingers. The top hand is firmer and the V its thumb and forefinger makes opens out towards the outer edge of the bat, while the bottom hand plays only a supporting role.

A correct grip allows a proper downswing, which in turn enables a batsman to play the ball with the full face of the bat. The right grip is also imperative if you want to play the entire range of shots.

While the basics remain the same, lots of batsmen do enough with the grip to give some information away. For instance, Sanath Jayasuriya holds the bat close to the bottom of the handle, and Adam Gilchrist higher up. Now the coaching manual recommends that one holds the bat in the middle of the handle, but to say that successful players like these two don't hold the bat correctly would be grossly incorrect. While there are pros and cons to each approach, it all boils down to what suits your game best.

Holding the bat closer to the bottom gives you more control and helps you generate more power at the point of impact. In such cases, since the bottom hand becomes dominant very often, you don't need a high back-lift to hit the ball long and hard. That's why Jayasuriya is ever so good with his short-arm jabs. Such players generally are more comfortable on the back foot, and horizontal bat shots are their bread and butter. The flip side of holding the bat close to the base of the handle is that the arc of the downswing gets radically smaller, which in turn reduces the reach and makes driving off the front foot that much difficult. But some players are exceptions to this rule. Sachin Tendulkar holds the bat close to the bottom of the handle but has managed to overcome the shortcomings with ease.

On the contrary, Gilchrist's batting is built on the extension of the arms, and holding the bat high on the handle complements the extension. With this grip, the arc of the downswing becomes bigger, and hence increases the reach of the batsman. Lower-order batsmen tend to prefer this grip to enhance their reach. That's how the phrase "using the long handle" was coined. The flip side of such a grip is that you may not have enough control and you have to rely on the downswing to generate power. Players with such grips prefer playing on the front foot and can also be a little circumspect against quick short-pitched bowling. Gilchrist, like Tendulkar, is an exception here.

Then there were those like Javed Miandad, who had a gap between the top and bottom hands. The textbook recommends keeping the hands close to each other on the handle, to ensure that they move in unison. Yet Miandad's grip allowed him to manoeuvre the bowling and milk it for singles, though he possibly sacrificed some fluency in the bargain.

The stance
If the grip on the bat is the first giveaway, the manner in which a batsman stands is the second. While the coaching manual recommends the feet be about a shoulder span apart, lots of batsmen have toyed with different options to suit their game.

People who stand with their feet too close to each other are often good back-foot players and the ones with wider stances are generally stronger on the front foot. Here, too, there are snags: you lose some balance if both feet are too close, and too wide apart results in lack of foot movement.

A stance that's too side-on or too open-chested also tells you a bit about the strengths and weaknesses of a batsman. While you'd be suspect against inswingers if your stance is too side-on, you'd struggle against away-going deliveries if it is too open. Sachin Tendulkar's is the closest to what would be a perfect stance - though even he tended to lean too much towards the off side when he started.

The textbook recommends keeping the hands close to each other on the handle, to ensure that they move in unison. Yet Miandad's grip, with hands apart, allowed him to manoeuvre the bowling and milk it for singles

Even the way you take guard can give the bowler a pointer or two. Generally players who ask for a leg-stump guard are good on the off side, for they try to make room by staying beside the line. And the ones who ask for middle stump are good on the leg side, for their endeavour is to whip it through the leg side. It's not a hard-and-fast rule but any information is better than none at all.

If a batsman is falling over, with his head not in line with his toes - which is the case with a lot of batsmen - he will predominantly be an on-side player, but would still be susceptible to sharp, incoming deliveries. Also, the intended ground shots on the leg side will probably travel in the air for a while, and hence positioning a fielder at short midwicket comes in handy. Such a batsman would also be unsure of his off stump and hence might play balls that are meant to be left alone.

The back-lift
The last clues before the ball is finally bowled come from the height of the back-lift and its arc. Ideally the bat should come down from somewhere between the off stump and first slip, to ensure that the bat moves straight in the downswing.

Players who bring the bat in from wider than second slip, like Rahul Dravid, need to make a loop at the top of the downswing, or else they will find it difficult to negotiate sharp incoming deliveries. Should they fail to make that loop, the bat won't come down straight, which means meeting the ball at an angle instead of straight on.

Batsmen with higher back-lifts find it difficult to deal with changes of pace, because with higher back-lifts it's tougher to pull out of a shot after committing. Also, there's always a possibility they will be late in bringing the bat down to keep yorkers out. Ergo, yorkers and slower ones might just do the trick.

Since players with short back-lifts, like Paul Collingwood and Andrew Symonds, don't have a reasonable downswing, they rely on the pace of the ball to generate power for their shots. They tend to struggle if the ball has no pace on it, so taking the pace off isn't a bad move against them. On the contrary, short back-lifts are almost ideal to keep yorkers out with.

If anyone has to think on his feet in cricket, it is the bowler. For it is he who initiates the action and everyone else reacts to what he delivers. Yet, these days he's the game's underdog, constantly at risk of being on the receiving end, and bound to follow a plan to render himself effective. Since video data isn't available to teams before they reach a certain level, most bowlers rely on observing the finer nuances of their opponents in order to strategise.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Beyond the Blues, an account of the 2007-08 Ranji Trophy season. His website is here

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