December 3, 2012

More to getting your eye in than meets the eye

The position of the eyes in the stance is the key to balance while batting, and balance, in turn, is the key to dominating

Ricky Ponting's retirement brings to an end a dominant era of Australian cricket, from 1995 to 2010. The Aussie juggernaut that slayed all before it was born under Allan Border, started up properly under Mark Taylor, sped along swimmingly under Steve Waugh, and came to its conclusion under Ponting. That brutally dominating team was propped up by a multitude of true modern-day greats: Matthew Hayden, the Waughs, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Ponting. Australia now solely relies overwhelmingly on Michael Clarke; while Ponting had massive support, Clarke is alone. The dominant era is done.

For me, as a pupil of the finer points of batting, the single most significant fundamental in the success of Ponting, Clarke and those before them is the balance of the head at the moment the ball is released. The position of the eyes is the absolute key to true balance. Both eyes need to be level, still, and looking directly at the bowler's hand. Any deviation from that position and the batsman's balance is affected.

When a batsman sets himself into his stance, it doesn't mean that that position is retained right through to when the ball is released. Often batsmen will lose a still, level, aligned position a split second before the ball is released, resulting in losing the proper balance needed at the crease. Often they never get into the right position to start with, being too "closed off" and not looking at the bowler with square and level eyes.

Sachin Tendulkar has the perfect head position, as does Virender Sehwag, as did Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman. Sourav Ganguly was a bit hit and miss with his. Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla, Graeme Smith and AB de Villiers all have it, but only at the last minute, as their stances are adjusted just prior to delivery. The South Africans get into the right position at the right time; the Indians are naturally always there.

For Australia, Ponting, Clarke and the Waughs all had very natural positions too. The naturalness I refer to is the fact that they all start with the bat down, tapping away with a natural lift as the ball is delivered. The South Africans prefer to hold their bats off the ground.

Brian Lara never quite got his eyes level. His stance was slightly closed and his left eye not always level with his right, but he hardly missed a ball. Ultimately he moved beautifully, lifted the bat naturally and fluently, and had an eye like a hawk. Shivnarine Chanderpaul has an open stance to enable his eyes and head the best position. He executes this perfectly, illustrating that it's better that the stance and body position be more "open" than "closed".

Kevin Pietersen has an excellent starting position but he moves a lot as the bowler delivers and sometimes gets stuck early. His problem with left-arm spin is simply that he doesn't hold the balanced position long or late enough. The slower the bowler, the more disciplined the batsman needs to be to wait. At times Pietersen moves a fraction too early and gets his eyes slightly out of line. His tall body leans to the off, which causes his feet to get stuck, so from there it's all hands.

Alastair Cook has a fine set-up, allowing his tall frame the best head position and maintaining his balance until the ball is released. When he loses form, it's because the balance is slightly off.

Throughout New Zealand the coaching has been to stand erect and side-on. This has put almost every batsman in the wrong position. Ross Taylor and Kane Williamson are the best at keeping the head position level, but Williamson prefers to lift his bat high when facing quicks, as opposed to when he faces spin; and when he lifts, he takes his eyes slightly off the proper, level position.

Those who hold their bats up in their stance often get into trouble. When the bat is held up, the top hand is set into a too side-on position, and this pushes the head to look at mid-off, not the bowler. Therefore the eyes are not level and are out of line. You can best tell by the position of the nose: a right-hander whose head is not in the perfect position is only half looking at the bowler, so to say; the nose will point to mid-off - a sure indicator that the balance is not perfect.

From there the body falls to the off side, the front foot lands early, and the body shapes to play to the off side. The bat comes through as only half a bat. What feels like a straight push can easily end in an outside edge. A straight ball can be hard to locate with the bat as the front foot is in the way, and the potential for an lbw is created.

It all comes back to the proper position of the eyes. Ponting had it perfect most of the time. But when he didn't and the body "fell" early and the front foot landed early and he started to push early, especially early in his innings, he had a problem now and then. His only flaw, which was also a great strength in attack when he was flowing along, was that the higher his bat was lifted early, the more the body struggled to hold the balanced position. Still, for Ponting this was rare. In the last two years, though, his balance has let him down. His head and eyes have fallen slightly outside his proper line of sight, and he has got stuck and gone searching with his hands.

Tendulkar has a similar problem at present but it stems from his back foot being rooted to the spot, so when his front foot lands without movement from his back foot, he becomes closed off and the eyes are slightly out of position.

Balance is everything: the feet moving together, the bat held down to centre the body, the head and eyes in a level, still hold. Holding that balanced position to the point when the ball is released is the single most important fundamental to batting, and ultimately to dominating.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand