October 4, 2014

Minding the gap

The space between two balls is where cricket is really played

Shane Warne could clear his mind of an unsuccessful previous ball to attack afresh with the next © Getty Images

The gap. This is the space between thoughts, between breaths, between fielders, between balls. They say to experience the gap wholly brings ultimate joy in what we do. In the gap there is nothing, and it's that nothing space in which lies the secret to our purpose.

As I contemplate the meaning of much my life, a life I now truly treasure, with dangers lurking, it is in this moment of nothing that I feel at peace. Awareness has taught me that previously I was always too quick to fill the gap with judgemental, premeditated masking and conditioning.

Batting is essentially about scoring runs, by hitting the ball instinctively and late, finding a gap in the field, whether it be over or through the field. Barry Richards, the great South African player, came to Auckland when I was 12 and remarked to a small group that it was vital to look at the gaps in the field, not the fielders in the field. That never left me and remains one of the greatest pieces of advice I ever received.

However, I often dismissed myself with predetermination to hit the ball into those vacant areas. I was constantly filling the gap in my mind with a busy traffic of thoughts; of this, that and anything else that randomly joined the gridlock building in my mind.

The mind needs constant clearing out of past and future concerns in order to function effectively, so by positively affirming that gaps must be found instinctively, the mind invariably seeks that wisdom automatically, subconsciously. This is when cricket is played best.

The gap between balls, that 30-second time span between when the last ball became dead and the next ball becomes live, is arguably the most important period in a batsman's innings.

I learnt in my third year playing for New Zealand that if I properly appreciated the gap between balls it would aid my desire to compile a long innings, especially under pressure in Tests or under duress in a limited-overs chase. Up until then I was a classic example of playing sublime innings of 30 or 40 before succumbing to an easily worn-down mind-body battery.

Awareness of the gap between balls didn't guarantee anything, but it gave me a better chance, once in, to make a big score, to convert starts and fifties into three-figure scores

On my first tour of Australia in 1985, I began listening to some senior players and coaches talk about mind power. They spoke to me about my concentration routine, in particular. They emphasised that my innings were running out of energy too quickly, and suggested I switch off after the ball was dead and remain non-judgemental in the time before the next ball. That by doing so I would conserve a certain amount of energy, which could be used later.

The first time I tried it, in a tour match, I returned fresh to the dressing room after more than six hours in the hot sun, unbeaten on 242 at Adelaide Oval. The next innings brought 188, at the Gabba in the first Test of the series.

Now the wisdom was automatically written into my intellectual software. Awareness of the gap between balls didn't guarantee anything, but it gave me a better chance, once in, to make a big score, to convert starts and fifties into three-figure scores.

Cricket is such a complicated game that when the mind quickens, the mistakes invariably flood in. Great captains have the poise, the ability, to create a gap between thoughts so that the information they seek can come to them at the right moment.

There is no panic or indecision. There is none of this chasing-the-ball mentality. Instead there is a space they fall into that gives them the accurate assessment they need, and the decision comes accordingly. Michael Clarke has this in abundance, Mike Brearley and Ian Chappell had it, as did Mark Taylor in his prime.

Great batsmen have it too. Garry Sobers, Don Bradman and Brian Lara, to name a few, had the ability to clear the mind easily, enjoying the gaps between balls, and ever more so were focused on the gaps they found in the field.

The spin bowler who can access this gap mentality despite a swiftly completed over when he is being slogged all over is the treasured one.

Shane Warne had this ability to be in the present. At the top of his mark he could slow down the game if he chose. Even if the odds were stacked against him, he would clear the negative, letting go of the previous ball, and visualising the outcome of the next one, providing another piece to the puzzle, building his attack up, mounting more pressure again. By not letting anything before or after affect the creativity he needed to access for each ball, he was able to instinctively find the insights he needed.

So when we consider how important it is to have a clear-minded approach in cricket, to utilise the space between balls bowled or faced, between fielders' positions, we can appreciate that it is the gap we truly seek, mentally and strategically, to find the answers to the many questions we are confronted with.

If we are to widen that out to life itself, we can again begin to find that our peace and our creativity lie in the moments between thoughts and actions. When we can sit or stand still, even for 20 seconds, when we can hold off the urges to judge, or the old habit to overthink, then we really begin to open ourselves up to the truth, for the truth is in the present, not the past or future.

Look at any player between balls and study how he spends that time from when the ball is dead and before the next - whether it be batting, bowling or fielding - and try to sense the poise he has. Is the pressure building, is it neutral, or is it low-key?

Unless the play is boringly slow with the potential to kill the spectacle, it is a fascinating exercise to watch players on centre stage while the ball is dead. What is everybody contemplating? Cricket, to me, offers a glimpse of the way we live our lives, and this gap in play, before the next ball is bowled, holds the most intrigue of all.

That's why I adore Test cricket. There are so many more interesting gaps in play to appreciate. Tests are won and lost in these 30-second pockets.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s and early '90s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand

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