Stillness in the stance isn't what we might think it is
Two interests that have long fascinated me are 1) how to hit a cricket ball and 2) how conventional wisdom is often wrong. Only now, aged 36, have I joined up the dots and considered whether the first issue falls into the category of the second.
Last month I played my annual round of golf. As you would expect from someone who plays 18 holes a year - 36 at a push - it was a pretty mixed outing. But it was better than usual. In previous years, when my swing disintegrated, I relied on the usual clichés, especially an old classic: "Keep your head still." Typically, however, as soon I became fixated on not allowing my head to move, and on instead keeping it rooted directly above the ball, things got worse rather than better. I tend to lose all naturalness and rhythm in my swing, and with them the ability to time the ball.
So this year I thought I'd try something new. I followed a piece of advice a friend passed on from a swing guru called Jimmy Ballard. He permits the idea that your head - and your whole body - moves slightly backwards and then forwards before the club hits the ball. Indeed, he encourages it. Without that essential movement, Ballard argues, you are contorting your natural impulse about how to strike a ball.
Ballard's technique is often wrongly called "a sway"; indeed, most people think it is something that should be eradicated from their swing. But Ballard argues that most great players have always moved in this manner, admittedly to the appropriate degree - i.e. not too much, but not too little either. In other words, making a fetish out of keeping your head still is counterproductive.
Now let's turn to cricket. As in golf, the "head still" school of batsmanship is extremely popular. Martin Crowe, one of the best technicians I ever watched, wrote a fascinating article last year for ESPNcricinfo about keeping your eyes still and level. Alec Stewart told me recently that Shane Watson attributed his prolific form at the end of the Ashes series to a piece of advice from Ricky Ponting. Ponting had encouraged Watson to keep the visor of his helmet absolutely level. This would help him to stop "falling over" to the off side and getting lbw, as Watson had done during the early stages of the Ashes.
Indeed, in the thousands of hours I've spent talking to professional batsmen about technique, the most common theme is that they believe good form derives from keeping the head still. Who am I to argue with such an overwhelming majority?
Nonetheless, here is my conjecture. The feeling of your head being still, so often a symptom of good form, is actually an illusion. Your head is moving. But it is moving in a balanced, controlled manner. After all, your body has to move if you are to play shots, and by definition (given that your head is attached to your body) your head must move with it. "Stillness" is a quality many feel convinced lies at the heart of their game. But I suspect a more accurate term is poise. Poise captures the idea of balance within movement.
Aha, the "head still" school counters: but your head must be still at the point of delivery (this was the point articulated so clearly by Crowe). It is true that Sachin Tendulkar, for example, keeps his head exceptionally still. But other players move their heads significantly - and close to the point of delivery. Allan Border sank at the knees, so his head necessarily moved - see here.
To my eyes (still and level as I watch the screen), Border's eyes dip significantly very close to the point of delivery. It is part of the dynamic movement of his shot. He has poise, he is balanced as he moves, but he is not actually "still" at any moment, particularly close to the ball being delivered. Marcus Trescothick did something similar.
With other great players, their preliminary movement takes them into "the channel" outside off stump. This is particularly true of great leg-side players - think of Mohammad Azharuddin or Sir Vivian Richards (no specified Youtube clip for Sir Viv - why limit the pleasure to just one?). This movement towards mid-off and the bowler helps what Greg Chappell calls "unweighting". Get ready to move towards the ball, Chappell says, and you will necessarily get your body into the correct, dynamic position.
To help them with this, many great players make tiny sways of their body, almost a rocking motion, in order to get in sync with the arrival of the ball - much as in Jimmy Ballard's golf technique. There is no way of doing this without your head moving, as your head moves when your body moves. Here is Boycott, a master of poise in everything he did, facing Holding - watch especially from 29 seconds into the clip.
Boycott told me when we commentated together for the BBC this summer that it was vital for the head to be still at the point of delivery. Of course, if the point of delivery is defined sufficiently precisely - i.e. as a tiny fraction of a second - then the head isn't moving much. The head never moves much in any given tiny fraction of a second. But over a reasonable period of time, as they prepare for the ball to arrive, the real characteristic of good players in form is not stillness but rhythm and poise - exactly what Boycott is doing in that clip.
Here is my central point. In focusing too much on stillness, you risk jeopardising the other things that make batting work: fluidity, naturalness, being in sync with the ball.
I don't doubt the honesty of the hundreds of top players who rate stillness as the most important thing. But there is a difference between what we feel happens and what actually happens. Soon, no doubt, scientists will add a little silicon chip inside the helmet that records exactly how batsmen move as they prepare and execute their shots. When this happens, my prediction is that we will discover the following counter-intuitive facts: in the milliseconds before the ball is delivered, batsmen in form move more than batsmen who are out of form (who are often rigid and static). But the fluidity and poise of good batting creates the illusion of stillness - both to observers and in the batsman's own mind.
I have some personal history here. I was never taught "to keep my head still" until I was in my early 20s. But around that stage it became pretty much the only advice I received. All we talked about was never moving the head, how it had to remain absolutely static. My batting went backwards fast. All the things "keeping my head still" was supposed to cure (falling over to the off side and getting lbw, playing at balls outside the off stump, etc) it in fact made worse. The advice became the malady dressed up as the remedy.
Then, aged about 24, I started to bat once again how I'd played as a child, and enjoyed the best few years of my career. Now, when I play cricket just for fun, all I think about is trying to get my body and feet moving in sync with the ball. My basic technique is in some ways better now, when I bat only a handful of days a year, than when I batted 200 days a year.
This website is fortunate to call upon some of the insights of some of the finest technicians who ever played the game, including Boycott, Rahul Dravid and Crowe. I learned a great deal from watching all three of them. In the case of Dravid, in the 2000 first-class season I was lucky enough to have the best seat in the house at the other end of the wicket. I am happy to yield to their greater expertise about the art of batsmanship.
But I hope cricket will be kinder to left-field, irreverent thinking about technique than golf is. Jimmy Ballard helped more champions - Gary Player, Johnny Miller, Sandy Lyle, Curtis Strange and a host of others - than almost any other coach. And yet the golf establishment won't even give him official status as a coach.