Rhythm and the lost art of hanging on
"My rhythm was out and I just couldn't score, but the longer I batted the better I got…"
This is what happens when a sport built on the principles befitting 18th-century English schoolboys is bent and crunched into something to stimulate the attention glands of vodka-Gatorade highball-drinking nightclub goers. Statements once brimming with obviousness become profound-sounding. Chris Rogers, who said it, had just spent 300-odd minutes doing it, in a Sheffield Shield match last Wednesday. Rarely did the ball arrive at or leave his bat exactly how he'd hoped. Eighty-eight runs he walked off with, his broken rhythm not fixed, but endured. "Cricket's a game of rhythm," England's batting coach Graham Gooch noted on Friday. Cricket's a game of no rhythm, too - except what then?
The knowledge of how to survive patches of no rhythm used to lie sub-skin, ingrained, no need to coach it. When your batting's awry, what you do is bat, then bat some more. Don Bradman said of his 254 at Lord's in 1930 - "Practically without exception every ball went where it was intended" - which was another way of saying that on days when balls were flying to spaces unintended he was still liable to make - and the following quotes are Bradman scholar BJ Wakley's - 267, 270 (batted "listlessly" from 248 onwards), 278 (struck "painfully on the toe" and generally struggled early), 299 (looked "most uncomfortable" between about 170 and 219), 304 (proceeded "cautiously" through his teens and twenties; lacked "power and certainty" after 280), 334, 340 ("slowed down" nearing 200), 357, 369 or 452. To keep batting, you rope in your attacking repertoire, concentrate hard, hope, hang on. It is an unglamorous lost art.
Rope in - that's what's done to boundary lines, with batsmen's wells of concentration supposedly bottoming out in parallel with the society-wide sputtering of over-harried young minds today. I have a theory that the 17-year-old in my household prepping for a Berlin Wall exam essay might have ended up better prepared had she not simultaneously been live-tweeting a TV show, skipping between Facebook and Tumblr, while listening to and humming along with Joanna Newsom's 2004 album The Milk-Eyed Mender. She says it goes to show how vast and resilient her concentration is.
Thinking about this now, I think she's got a point. Concentration is not a muscle to be toughened and made taut by a non-stop, singular usage. Another batting mantra, also held skin-deep, says that between deliveries you must gaze at faces in the crowd, or plot tonight's meal, relax your mind on something, anything.
Twenty-over cricket - and the notorious "flicking between formats" - gets blamed for the vanishing of batting fortitude. When rhythm is out, the batsman knows only to try (fail, invariably) to slog his way through it. Yet T20, it might equally follow, is like that break between deliveries, a chance to freshen and energise the mind for the more serious grinding stuff. The human mind is a thing of some nimbleness, to give it its credit. Purportedly, T20 is bad for batting techniques. Arguably, T20 is good for batting mindsets. One proposition is as plausible as the other.
Writing's a rhythm, falling asleep's a rhythm - let your brain drift down a bad alleyway and you're wide awake, sweating in your bedsheets. Bowling rhythm is when the ball coming out of your hand closely resembles - length-wise, line-wise, menace-wise - the ball you'd had in your head. Batting rhythm's mysteries are less easily laid bare. With batting, "rhythm" is not "the zone", the zone being the source of much elevated language, a hallowed land whose borders were crossed by David Gower when he made 72 in Perth one day ("I just got in there, moved and hit") and by Kim Hughes when he tree-axed England's bowlers for 84 at Lord's ("I don't know why you're running in," the notion zapped through his head, "because I know where you're going to bowl"). On leaving the zone, a lifetime can be spent searching for the exact repeat circumstances via which you accidentally gained entry to it - the timing and order in which you buttoned on each item of your clothes, say, the formation of clouds in the sky.
Rhythm is drearier than that. It's batting - and the ball arriving in near-synchronicity with the stroke you are aiming at it, and your mind not being conscious of every tiny thing around you, and you tapping your bat on the popping crease as if you are chewing gum: absorbed in the task, yet oblivious to it. Probably rhythm is not contagious, and team rhythm an impossibility. Rhythm, seemingly, is an individual business, as individual as the state of your pull shot or your block. Also, it is jinx-able, and best not mentioned. "I was really enjoying it out there and felt in good rhythm," Joe Root said two weeks ago, after a 36, which felt like Joe rhythmythologising things too far.
How you cope with being out of rhythm is as important as how often you are in rhythm. Ed Cowan batting is a fascinating sight. He looks a wiser, older type for whom rhythm is an occasional visitor, who during its absences must stow away quiet singles while awaiting rhythm's return, except that at Trent Bridge in July he was vomiting and dismissed first ball in the first innings, which can happen, and then moments before the tea-break during a tight second-innings run chase he swooped down on one knee to leather the part-time spinner through the covers, and got out. This assaulted our ideals of what a batsman is and does. It felt like betrayal. He has not played a Test since.
When you are down to your last seven dollars, those seven dollars jangle heavy in your pocket, and right now there don't seem seven batsmen in the world accustomed to batting without rhythm. Usually at this stage of an Ashes summer - a week out from the Gabba - we'd be tallying the match-winning fast bowlers on each team and basing our pre-series predictions accordingly. This time the team with a batsman or two who can hang on and score when things are running wrong for them, but the moment is right, has the edge.
A hard-fought 88 could decide these Ashes.
To believe that hard-fought 88s are beyond the wit of batsmen in today's changed cricket world is to short-sell the human mind.
Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and, most recently Australia: Story of a Cricket Country