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