October 27, 2012

Is he any good?

Where does one begin to rate the merits of a batsman in regard to his peers? It can only be a work in progress

There are so many factors to weigh up when comparing two batsmen that it isn't even a case of apples and oranges. It's more like comparing two greengrocers' shops that appeal to entirely different clientele. What are eight pounds of spuds worth when measured in mangoes and galangal?

There are so many different elements that make up the whole that it is almost impossible to form a clear opinion of a batsman's worth while you're actually watching him. Some people seem to reach opinions from a single shot, but to take the above analogy further, that's like carrying out a stock-take from a single glance. You can't even see most of the produce, so you'd do well to count it.

Many of a batsman's most significant attributes are obscured almost constantly. This is compounded by the fact that it's also very easy to avoid looking for them.

We're naturally inclined to place emphasis on the more eye-catching qualities. We see the boundaries first, then perhaps the carefully placed ones and twos, and only then might we stroke our chins and examine defensive technique. However, many batsmen appear to tick all of those boxes without experiencing any great success. Clearly there is a lot more to the art of batting.

How did your 217th forward defensive look?
Key to it all is the fact that batting is not just an art; it is a trade as well. One of the most significant factors influencing a batsman's performance is really rather prosaic. Quite simply, they must do good things reliably. It is a measure of quality to do the right things again and again, more frequently than anyone else. It is not enough to nurdle the ball into the leg side for a single. A batsman must do it repeatedly and without error.

For those of us who can't insert food into our mouths without applying at least some of it to our clothing, this is faintly admirable, but there's little glory in it. There's little to cheer about a forward defensive stroke at the best of times, but no one stands to applaud the execution of 145 successful forward defensives by one batsman compared to 129 by another - not directly at any rate.

As much as we might like to think that being a great batsman is about playing a stroke that makes people gasp, it is actually more about stockpiling moments of competence in industrial quantities. One great shot will earn at most six runs - England's Jonathan Trott knows this, which is why he hasn't as yet deigned to hit one in a Test match. A batsman needs to do far more to have an impact.

Although we get a sense of cumulative competence when watching an innings, we can't see it directly. We don't see percentages - we see individual events. We see the batsman middle his first ball, but can conclude little from this alone. It might be the first of many times he achieves this or it could be the sole occasion. We gain perspective on that shot over the course of the innings.

There are also opaque factors affecting the success rate of any given shot. One of the most obvious is whether that particular stroke should have been played in the first place. It is not just about leaving dangerous balls but about picking the right shot at other times. Again, this is hard to perceive. We don't see the shots a batsman doesn't play, so we don't get much sense of this happening. Shot selection only really becomes striking when it's terminal.

Is your cover drive the same in New Zealand?
Similarly, different shots suit different conditions and different match situations. A player might pick his shots wisely in home conditions, but by playing the exact same way abroad, he could risk ignominy. Even when picking the right shot, he might struggle to play it on unfamiliar pitches. We can almost say that it is impossible to fully judge a batsman's cover drive until we have seen it played all over the world, against every time of bowling, in every format and in every circumstance.

The list of permutations is near-infinite and this is why great batsmen don't materialise in front of us fully formed. Instead, they are revealed to us over time. We may think otherwise but it is just an illusion - history is forever being revised by hindsight.

Every cricket match alters our perceptions of all that has gone before and spectacular early performances only scream of greatness when seen in the light provided by later evidence. There are plenty of players who promised much but let us down; players who, it later transpired, were adept at only one format, or only in home conditions, or who had a glaring weakness against one particular type of delivery.

Does your technique deteriorate?
When a batsman does lose his wicket, experts will often point out poor footwork or improper technique, but the mechanics of batting get less attention when the results are not so catastrophic. Few dwell on a mishit that results in a dot ball, but this too affects a player's final score. Every delivery matters.

When technical analysis is carried out, we are often given the impression that the players are robots, executing identical movements on every occasion, whereas in reality technique is fluid. It changes subtly from one ball to the next and can alter significantly over the course of a longer innings.

As much as we might like to think that being a great batsman is about playing a stroke which makes people gasp, it is actually more about stockpiling moments of competence in industrial quantities

Good footwork is not merely about knowing what to do and doing it, it is also about having the wherewithal. After batting for many hours, a batsman is less likely to spring into the optimal position. Frequently, he will get away with this sluggishness. Occasionally, he will not. The better batsmen are those whose technique deteriorates the least.

One delivery is all it takes to end an innings, and how might that one delivery have panned out were the batsman possessed of better cardiovascular fitness or were he not ever-so-slightly dehydrated? It is very hard to see how a batsman is feeling, but weariness can prove just as costly as a fundamental flaw in technique because the results - poor footwork or imperfect head position - are often the same.

How well do you recover?
In the modern cricket world, a batsman's physical fitness is perhaps more important than ever before. They say of old batsmen that their eyes are going, but it's fair to wonder whether it's more often their feet. It isn't just a case of staying sharp throughout the course of a single innings. Tests, one-dayers, T20s - there isn't much time to rest nowadays, and fatigue is cumulative. It is not just about how long you last but how well you recover.

If a batsman never fully recovers from each match, the situation will compound itself and deterioration will come into play earlier and earlier in each subsequent innings. A lack of zest, a slightly stiff hamstring - either could spell disaster. These are mundane problems compared to a 150kph inswinging yorker, but they too must be conquered. It's not about how good a batsman looks in reaching 40 or 50, it's how he looks from then on and whether he's even still there.

In order to do what's necessary to combat fatigue, a player must retain a certain enthusiasm for the game. This too is an invisible attribute. Efforts and sacrifices must be made, and when that motivation fades, the death knell for a career is invariably sounded.

At that point, we have all the evidence we are ever going to get about a batsman and we have in essence completed the stock-take mentioned earlier. By necessity, this process has taken years. This is because ability to hit the ball cleanly is not an end in itself - it is merely an entry requirement.

Alex Bowden blogs at King Cricket