Purportedly November 14, 2013

Rhythm and the lost art of hanging on

T20 is bad for batting technique, but could it be good for batting mindsets?

"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.

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, and by Kim Hughes when he tree-axed England's bowlers for 84 at Lord's

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Scott on November 18, 2013, 11:04 GMT

    @popcorn, odd you place Slater on that list who was very much like Warner at the top of the innings. Not sure why you've got such a problem with Hughes either. The first time he was dropped was a poor decision and so too was the last one. Rob Quiney averages 36 with 8 tons in FC cricket after 116 innings. Phil Hughes averages 45 with 22 tons in 190 FC innings. Not sure I'd be advocating Quiney's selection over Hughes. Hughes' shield average is in the top 50 to ever play shield. CA is ruining the confidence of players like Hughes by rotating them in and out of the team and due to our recent levels of success, these guys aren't given any time to adjust to test cricket. Also, notice Hayden in that list. He played around 6 tests before we dropped him. He had to score bucket loads of runs to force his way back into the side. Somewhat comparable to the way that Hughes is continually scoring in shield...

  • Rajaram on November 16, 2013, 16:16 GMT

    Batsmen like Chris Rogers, Simon Katich, who are experts at occupying the crease, gritting it out, battling it out are the kind that Australia needs at the Top of the Order. The CONSISTENT failure of Phil Hughes, despite being given three chances, (two chances too many - why not then to Rob Quiney??) has shown why. David Warner is another flasher. I believe he has taken some psychologist's help to curb his natural aggression - I hope he succeeds. Like he carried his bat with a century against New Zealand at Hobart. Compare Mark Taylor, Michael Slater, Mathew Hayden, Justin Langer with David Warner and Phil Hughes, and you will see what I mean. A gritty hard-fought 88 can be the limit of frustration for the Poms. And wins us The Ashes.

  • Luke on November 15, 2013, 19:11 GMT

    I disagree with the authors summation of bowling rhythm. When you're really feeling it, there is no mind, and there is no reference to the ball you had in your head. Rhythm is about breath, about awareness, and has nothing to do with thinking. As soon as you stop talking/thinking to yourself, the door is open to rhythm. Even strategy comes naturally, like a lightening bolt from the blue. Bowlers who think too much will end up lacking in rhythm.

  • Brenton on November 15, 2013, 10:40 GMT

    Hard fought 88 can win a test. However, for a young Phil Hughes a hard fought 81* did nearly win a test only to find he had 3 more innings before getting dropped.

    Warner either scores 100 off 80 balls or nothing. He cannot grind innings out. We saw today Hughes grind out the first 65 runs off 190 balls, he continues on to make a double ton.

    Hughes is a real test batsman. Open with him and put Warner at 6.

  • Dummy4 on November 15, 2013, 1:30 GMT

    I love this article, its a shame when batsmen like Cowan are so easily derided for making a few low scores yet a batsman like Warner can have his same low patch written off because thats the way he plays. A 100 from 50 balls is worth the same as a 100 off 300 in test cricket...

  • Dummy4 on November 15, 2013, 1:24 GMT

    This writer has a good hollywood name

  • Alex on November 14, 2013, 23:03 GMT

    For technique is same. It is just that red ball swing more , so u have to hit late to not to knick as air friction make it slide through bat. Its ball makes that difference. If you use red ball in T20 , it become TEST immediately. If you remove draw from TEST it becomes ODI, T20.

    Can player without technique survive in T20 and fail in TEST yes. Can player with good technique in Test , play Test , yes.

    For me TEST shows not just technique , it shows various human character. Courage , Brave , Tenacity , Fearless ness , Ruthless ...all will be in display in TEST.

    t20 its all about avg*strike rate=power number. Not technique or any other human skill except some luck.

    if you really ask me for small guy , TEST batting kinda easy as you do not need to spend all energy quickly. On the other hand T20 you have to , T20 more of young man or Strong man game.

    Test is for people to check all spectrum of human skills. Its called TEST for nothing. :)

    Test is not about technique at all..

  • Sameer on November 14, 2013, 16:07 GMT

    Hi Christian, Brilliant article mate. It is very difficult to capture the essence of batting in words. concise or discursive for that matter. But this article does it. Great writing. S

  • Izmi on November 14, 2013, 12:47 GMT

    I reckon if 16 year old Jake Duran scores a century the ECB will be frantically looking to see whether he has an uncle, aunty, grandmother , grandfather or a girl friend in England so that he could be eligible to play for England next year. It's so easy to get a British passport these days provided you are an outstanding cricketer from overseas.

  • Dummy4 on November 14, 2013, 9:47 GMT

    strange that nobody cares for the dying art of fast bowling.....everyone is talking about batting, sadly nobody is caring for the fast bowlers

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