January 18, 2012

What we could learn from Warner

Far from being the downfall of Test match technique, T20 may actually help batsmen get into good habits for the long form

On Sunday, I fly to Adelaide for the fourth Test between India and Australia. I'm due to arrive just in time for the first ball. I hope the plane isn't late: David Warner might have scored a hundred by lunch.

In smashing 180 off 159 balls in Perth, Warner proved quite a few people wrong - not least those who said that Twenty20 would never produce a Test cricketer. Warner, of course, played T20 for Australia and in the IPL long before making the step-up to Test cricket - well, I suppose it's up to him to judge whether it's a step up.

We've all heard the arguments against the Warner career path: that T20 ruins technique rather than developing it, that you have to learn to bat properly before you can learn to smash it, walk before you can run etc.

But the naysayers may be wrong. The Warner story reveals deep truths about how players bat at their best. In fact, I think it is time we reconsidered the whole question of what constitutes good technique.

Cricket gets itself in a tangle about the word. In football, technique is short-hand for skill. Pundits explain how Cesc Fabregas' brilliant technique allows him to make the killer pass or eye-catching volley. Technique is not the enemy of flair and self-expression: it is the necessary pre-requisite. "Technique is freedom," argued the ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.

Sadly, the word "technique" in cricket is often used as short-hand for controlled batsmanship, even introspection. It is true that some great technicians are very controlled players (think of Rahul Dravid - though even he plays best technically when he is positive). But it is not compulsory that good technique has to be accompanied by caution or repression. After all, Adam Gilchrist had a wonderful technique: there is no other explanation for how he managed to hit the ball in the middle of the bat quite so consistently.

In fact, good technique has a very straightforward definition: it is the simplest, most efficient way of doing something.

Andre Agassi had near-perfect technique on his groundstrokes. He could hit with exceptional power and consistency. How did he learn this technique? When Agassi was a boy, his father used to get him to hit thousands of tennis balls as hard and as cleanly as possible. "Hit it, Andre!" That was the essence of his coaching. If you learn how to hit the ball hard in the middle of the racket, you have to move your body and feet into the right positions to do so. In the same way, Jack Nicklaus summed up his approach to learning golf: "First, hit it hard. Then we'll worry about getting it in the hole."

I should have remembered Agassi and Nicklaus when I was out of form as a batsman and needed to go back to basics. Not only did I suffer prolonged periods of bad form, I would often get out in similar ways - nicking off to the slips, or getting trapped lbw. There were usually plenty of theories about what I was doing wrong. As one coach memorably put it to me, "If you stop getting caught and lbw, you'll be a top player." Er, yes: it would take great ingenuity to get bowled or run out throughout your career!

Many coaches tried to persuade me to change my shot selection. But that rarely helped. When I was nicking off, it was usually because I was driving badly rather than driving at the wrong ball. And I was a far less good player when I was knocked off my instinct to play positively. I came to realise that good form was a very simple issue, almost binary - like a switch that just needed to be clicked back on.

Here comes the difficult part that used to get me into trouble. I learnt that the best way to click the switch back on, to get back into the groove of playing well, was to practise driving on the up. You've probably guessed why it got me in trouble. Imagine a situation in which I had failed three or four times in a row, each time caught in the slips, and the coach walks into the nets and sees me…practising drives! I'd sense him thinking: "Doesn't he ever learn?"

But I knew what worked for me, and I think there are good reasons why it worked. To play at my best, I needed to get into good positions to attack. Why? Because when I was in position to attack, I was inevitably in a good position also to defend. But when I set out my stall to play a defensive shot - before the ball was even bowled - then I not only attacked badly, I also defended badly. Having the intention of defending caused me to be passive and late in my movements. The shot would almost happen to me, rather than me determining the shot.

To play at my best, I needed to get into good positions to attack. Why? Because when I was in position to attack, I was inevitably in a good position also to defend

On the other hand, having the intention of attacking was a win-win: I defended and attacked better. I would set myself to play positively, which had the effect of giving me more time at every stage of the shot.

I think many players are the same. The key to their batting - whether it is defence or attack - is the question of intent. That has nothing to do with recklessness, or even scoring rate. Intent merely determines the messages you send to your brain. Imagine batting as a series of dominos that culminates in the ball being struck. The very first domino, the critical one that begins the whole process, is not physical, but mental. We might call it your "mental trigger movement".

I know it sounds ridiculously simplistic - technique from kindergarten - but many players find that the best mental trigger movement is setting themselves to move towards the ball to strike it back in the direction that it comes from. That does not mean you commit to lurching onto the front foot or playing a drive; you still react to whatever is thrown at you. But your intent is positive and pro-active.

Greg Chappell used the science of physiology to examine the connection between intent and good execution. He studied the preliminary movements of the world's greatest players. Though they all had unique styles and methods, their techniques shared one common thread: at the point of delivery, they were all pushing off the back foot, looking to come forward. Chappell argued that this trait gives great players optimal time to judge length. Why? Because a full ball is released from the bowler's hand early, a short ball is released later. So when batsmen set themselves for the full ball, they will inevitably have time to adjust for the short ball.

Here is my heretical conclusion: by encouraging them to have the intention of striking down the ground with a proper backlift and swing of the bat, T20 may help batsmen get into some good technical habits. Admittedly, T20 will not develop the refinements of sophisticated Test match batting, such as soft hands and the ability to concentrate for six or seven hours. But in terms of basic technique, there is a lot to be said for keeping cricket as simple as possible. The foundation is positive intent and a clear head. In short, we could all learn something from Warner.

The counter-argument is that Warner is a freak of nature, and that no one should try copying him just yet. Either way, I can't wait to watch him in Adelaide and judge for myself.

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith is a writer with the Times. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • gordon on January 21, 2012, 3:05 GMT

    great article ed ,warner is the excitment machine but we all know that he will fail alot more than he succeeds , unfortunely thats cricket and i will be cheering him on no matter how he does . he became my favourite cricketer a few years ago when i seen him in the hong kong sixes and before that i,d never heard of him , let alone know he was from sydney , so all the world knows of him now and they have been warnerrred

  • John on January 19, 2012, 15:09 GMT

    I think you'll find a lot of people got the Ashes series wrong last year landl. Just like a lot of poms seem to have gotten the current Pakistan-England series quite wrong. The fact is that the few times Warner has failed in his short career, he has been faced by some seriously good bowling on some very testing surfaces. Zaheer Khan has an outstanding record against left handers, and the late outswinger that got Warner in Sydney would've done for many more highly-credentialled lefties around the world. Warner is by no means a finished product, there is no batsmen in the history of the game who has a perfect technique. So the fact that Warner can *improve* as a test batsmen is actually a rather scary prospect for his opponents around the world. I don't think there's a batsman in the world who *isn't* vulnerable to a ball that nips around on a fullish length on off stump. But Warner has already proven himself very capable in defence. Expect to see many more runs from him in the future.

  • John on January 19, 2012, 7:24 GMT

    Ah, my old friend Something_Witty, who got the Ashes series so disastrously wrong last year, turns up, undeterred, to try and paint Warner as a calm and measured batsman who just happened to hit a relaxed hundred in 69 balls. Yes, I did watch Warner's innings at Sydney, the whole thing (all 6 balls), and I saw a guy who is so intent on aggression that when the ball called for defence he was in no position to play a defensive shot. Once you understand how the transition from defence to attack works, it becomes quite easy to spot when a player just doesn't know how to defend. That's why Warner has made 2 centuries and failed 5 times in his short test career, with a 37 (out of 46) his only score between 15 and 123. If he gets going, he's devastating, but then so was Afridi; he just didn't get going very often in tests. I hope Warner does well, because cricket needs entertainers like him, but test cricket soon finds out those who have fatal weaknesses in their technique. Ask Phil Hughes.

  • Dummy4 on January 19, 2012, 5:54 GMT

    Very good article and I think we should focus on the thoughts here rather than the example, which some may argue is premature (but Smith is also a cricketer and is entitled to make his call earlier than the audience!). Simon Butler also makes a good point in the comments section which is consistent with the line of thought of the article. Perhaps, it is more important to understand the difference in goals for a batsman between T20 and Tests and adapt accordingly.

  • Roo on January 19, 2012, 4:42 GMT

    @Ed Smith... A good read Ed & your self depreciating comments show a sense of humility not often found in todays writers... An interesting take on 20/20 but you could have gone back 60 years & looked at run rates, then compared ODI's starting in the 70's & then compared run rates in the 80/90's which have been increasing with more exciting Test cricket being the winner... 20/20 will do that again for Test cricket & let Test cricket survive longer than without 20/20's...

  • John on January 19, 2012, 3:28 GMT

    Sometimes I wonder if people like landl47 even watch these matches they talk about. For example, he talks about how Warner doesn't know which ball to attack or defend, using his dismissal at Sydney in this series as an example. What he obviously doesn't realise is that Warner got out *defending* a ball in Sydney. Not attacking. Please landl, get your facts right before posting. Warner is basically an orthodox batsman these days. I think his innings in Hobart is more reflective of what he will do in test matches than his innings in Perth. He is a calm, measured batsman mostly, but occasionally, if the bowling is poor and the situation calls for it, he'll go into T20 mode as he did in Perth.

  • Dummy4 on January 19, 2012, 3:15 GMT


    I strongly feel that most players who become great either have coaches who only step in to rectify when absolutely necessary (read rarely) and not frequently to justify their salaries. Even when they feel that they must step in their advice must be as simple as possible. From our childhood we are hardwired to respond to visual stimuli - we imitate our parents/other adults in picking up basic actions. Later in life we change certain things about them but not by working on specific angles etc.. Coming back to this talk about T20 destroying Test cricket - the only point that can be made is that perseverance is an attribute players are short on. Whether it is T20 or the way life is now is anybody's call...! I love watching good test cricket (causing great annoyance to the missus) and am still not totally convinced about T20 causing problems for Test cricket. We have been seeing mediocrity in cricket for some time now and T20 ain't the source..... my 2 cents worth

  • Dummy4 on January 19, 2012, 3:12 GMT

    Agree w/the point VAKBAR makes. I, too, have come across instances where players (who have been doing well) hv been "advised" to play in a certain way with feet pointing in 'x' direction and keeping elbow at 'y' angle. This is nothing short of silly as all these angels and directions have been arrived at by watching/studying the greats and surely those greats did not become the legends of the game because they worked out the angles. They worked out the shots and left the study of angles etc to those who wanted to find more reasons for the success of the greats.... In India BCCI has made an effort at grooming pacers through "MRF Pace Foundation" started by Dennis Lillee. Now take a look at the bowlers who are representing India. They have not yet produced the likes of Waseem Akram/Younus/Kapil Dev to name a few. .....cont'd (sorry but could not resist posting)

  • Dummy4 on January 19, 2012, 3:03 GMT

    dont understand y so much big fuss on Warner,he played just 5tests and dont forget apart from that 180 he flopped in the first 4innings of the current ind-aus series against an indian attack which is at best an average attack,he did well against NZ but again that attack was no SA or English attack..let him play few more matches to judge him bcoz in past we also saw Agarkar scoring a century in Lords,let him prove and that jump to ur bandwagon,who says only subcontinent hypes their player,this article is a clear example of doing that as well.....

  • Trevor on January 19, 2012, 1:47 GMT

    Nice article Ed. Warner does look excellent and definitely an exciting player to watch, but I'm really looking forward to the next Ashes series by which time Warner will be more of an established part of the Australian set up.

    I remember Phil Hughes was going to be the next Don Bradman but his failings were very quickly identified by almost every bowling attack in the world, similarly Marcus North. I also seem to remember that Phil Jacques was going to be the scourge of the English as well which never happened either.

    Let's see if Warner is still around in a couple of years then we can really judge him.

  • No featured comments at the moment.