'I was as much an iron man as I was a cricketer'
You were known for your visualisation routines on the eve of a Test match. When did it become a part of your routine?
It was something that had been with me for my whole career, in particular my professional career. My brother Gary, who was my coach, five years my elder, studied human movements at Queensland University in Brisbane. We used to train together everyday and we'd train for so long that at the end of a session, we would physically almost collapse. We'd talk about what we went through in the session, and a briefing on what we were looking to do in the next session.
It started from there, and when Gary no longer toured with me, I continued the process of gathering my thoughts, sitting down in an environment which was comfortable and going through the kind of expectations I had in store for me in the week's period of the Test or the one-dayers, getting used to the conditions, understanding where the breeze is coming from, what the bowler's arms were going to look like, so that there were no surprises on the day, and just going through how I felt at that time.
There were various confronting emotional things that I needed to deal with - like touring a country like India, understanding the environment. It would be an hour of conversation, because there would be so many things going through my mind in such a short period of time. In the middle, I would let it all go and be completely relaxed, looking down at the wicket, loving the environment of being outside and being in a physical state of mind where I would be at peace. It was a wonderful time in my life.
One of the things that I miss the most about cricket and batting in particular is that meditation of cricket, that involvement of myself - mind, body and spirit - to delivering that one specific process, which is to execute a cricket shot. It is a beautiful feeling, it is very hard to replicate. As a civilian not playing sport, to get that sense of real belonging and feeling how you are progressing through the day is what I loved and miss.
Did you also visualise opposition bowlers and identify areas of scoring easily?
Of course. For example, I might be sitting on the wicket right now and seeing Zaheer Khan coming in to bowl from round the wicket, and trying to deviate through a swinging delivery with a new ball and trapping me in front. Visualising what that looks like and seeing how I process that in my head before that event happens so that there are no surprises. It might be that he was trying to bowl a slower bouncer with two people back - I am just working through the scenarios and understanding how I was going to win on each of those occasions, and how I can master and control my own destiny. I might be there for ten minutes and feel confident that I don't need any more, or I might be there for two hours.
My nets was completed in my head, just sitting down and going through those various scenarios. It might be Courtney Walsh or Curtly Ambrose coming across the left-hander from round the wicket, understanding the batting zones where I would feel comfortable leaving the ball, almost visualising like how Hawk-Eye does. I could see that in my mind even before that technology came in.
How does the visualisation change from when you are in a purple patch to when you're in a rough patch?
There is always pressure, whether you are in top form or not. It is very much a ball-by-ball event. Some of my best innings have been those that were less than 50 balls in duration because of the conditions. You won't get the glory of 50 or 100 or 150 or 200, but you will get the inner peace of knowing that you committed to what the process was on the day, and that you were part of the process and you were living out that process.
Good form and bad form is a little bit like driving a vehicle. When you are in good form, you drive from A to B in two hours which feels like two minutes, because you are in the flow, you have your stereo pumped up, you are comfortable with the seating arrangements, the climate within the car, you have some banter in the car if you have travelling guests etc. Bad form is like the same trip, but now you're being tailgated by a police officer. You suddenly become aware of pretty much everything in your conscience. Am I too close to my fellow drivers? Am I indicating correctly? Is my speed limit correct? It is all of those thought processes, which if you were to relate to batting would be - Am I watching the ball? Is my body position excellent? Am I moving according to the conditions? Inevitably, you get out in the process, you are stuck in the mindset of analysis by paralysis.
Let me give you some examples, and you tell me what you would have done in those scenarios You are playing against [Muttiah] Muralitharan in Sri Lanka. Your main goal is to combat Murali, but you still have to get past the seamers first. In another scenario, you are batting on a fast pitch against South Africa, against a seamer-oriented attack. How does your preparation change in these two scenarios?
There is significant difference, albeit subtle. When I face a seam attack like South Africa's in conditions like they were once at the MCG for a Boxing Day Test where it was very damp - there had been a drought in Melbourne but the conditions almost miraculously changed. Play was delayed and Australia lost the toss and were sent in to bat on a green wicket. Any preparation we had leading into that Test was pretty much out of the door because you had to commit to a lot of different processes - watching the ball, good body movement, good body language, great strategy.
I was prepared to weather the storm, bat for time, pick off any mistakes that may come my way. It is too much to plan for on any one given strategy. You have to change accordingly. It is in change where athletes master their environment. Working now in a business environment like I am, it is very hard to get human resources to change its thinking. It does what it does well, it loves its structure, it locks into a structure and tries to deliver on that structure. In a sporting environment, you might have one structure that may completely change overnight. Yet you are the same person.
It is the same when I travel to Sri Lanka, where Muralitharan is bowling and he is playing on the opposite conditions to what you have grown up on as a kid. Suddenly you have to alter what you had thought about within a short period of time to get the police officer out of your rear-vision mirror. That was very much in my overall psychology of trying to execute the base process of batting so that I was on the front foot rather than being on the back foot and reacting to conditions.
In the last Test of the 2001 Ashes, you began your phenomenal partnership with Justin Langer. You wrote in your book about Langer: "We were united in our passion by work ethic, but diametrically opposed in other areas." Could you expand on the similarities and differences?
Certainly. Where we were different is... for starters, he was vertically challenged.
Just joking! He was a very different batsman to me. Technically, even though we grew up in extremely similar circumstances - on fast, bouncy wickets at the Gabba and WACA - how we handled those was very different. He let the ball come onto the bat and hit through cover, cover-point and third man. I was much more up at the ball and was the opposite, which was to come back and across at the ball. I always challenged that thinking because of my height, where I can come forward and across to the ball, which is more of a power position as opposed to reacting off the wicket.
Neither are incorrect in the approach, both have their place. That is just pointing out the differences in our techniques. Whenever anyone was saying lefties can't come together, I was always disagreeing with that. If you look, [Adam] Gilchrist's and Hayden's scoring zones were almost exactly opposite. Langer and Hayden's scoring zones were exactly opposite. Sure, we can play all the shots, if you are going to play long enough on any given day, you are going to have a wagon wheel that looks like it has got silk threads all throughout the 360 degrees. The predominant areas of our scoring are opposite. As I said, he likes it around third man, cover-point and covers. I was mid-off, around the other side of the ground.
It gave us a natural synergy from a batting technique point of view. But it wasn't really the glue to our relationship. The glue was without any question the ingredients in our values and our cultural elements, our love for the game, our commitment to the game, our commitment to get to the baggy green side, which was forged through many years of very hard work and lots of performance. And also, just challenging the culture in terms of fitness and being really in an environment where we wanted to be the best professionals that we can be, which came through that commitment to hard work. We had a great love of the outdoors, food, our families, and we put enormous emphasis on relationship, celebration of key milestones. There was so much to the relationship that it was just the perfect storm in terms of a competitive combination of two individuals.
You and Langer were equally as aggressive as the middle order, if not more. Was there a specific moment where there was a change in philosophy, or was it something that you grew up with in Shield cricket and just brought to the international game?
It is a really interesting perception, and I say that because perception is reality. In the Australian dressing room, the opening batsmen had a special title - "Buff removers", where they remove the shine off the ball and do the job of the engine room of the side. The one, two and three were called the engine room. From four down, they were all called the "interior decorators". The engine room set up the innings and did all the hard work. They didn't have all the bells and whistles, but you knew that it was going to be solid because it has got a sheer volume and weight, it is moving the whole vehicle forward. The interior decorators come in and add the cruise control and the lovely interior designs, the beautiful panels that you see in front and the visual effects. Both are very important.
As we started our youth cricket, we were both focused on driving the train - and I have got to add Ricky Ponting here too. The drive train did the work. It saw off conditions, or saw them off till lunch. It took pride in holding the engine room together as long as it possibly could, and it allowed what was pretty and finished and capable of driving a great result for the team, and that is bringing to life the middle order for Australia and giving them opportunities to flourish.
When we started being really comfortable with being in the side either in the state side or in the national team, we came together in 2001. That allowed for this natural expansion of play. Justin would often outscore me to 50. And where I started coming into my own was through those middle stages where I would up my scoring rate and risk against spin and medium-pacers. I would start to have a different gear. There are times when he played the ball more than I did, because his approach of going back and across meant that he was in line more than me, and he loved to play through covers. Majority of the bowlers we faced were right-armers, which would go across the left-handers. It would mean that I would leave a lot more balls. It was a perfect combination - he would get the scoring going quickly early, and from there I would take it on and the game would keep moving forward accordingly.
It was a very interesting partnership when you look from an analysis point of view. It was stuff that we didn't do when playing, but now thinking about it sitting back, it is interesting.
In India in 2001, you scored more than 500 runs and averaged over 100. From that series on, you averaged 54, and before that you averaged 24. How did that series transform you as a player?
It was definitely a watermark series for me. You can cut stats any way you want, I am not a stats-driven person. What was ringing in my ears was that after seven Test matches I averaged 21. I know that for a fact because Glenn McGrath would come up to me and tell me "Mate, you are not that good, I think I have just about pipped you on the aggregate of runs", which was salt into my wounds. But, I guess that West Indies series before that Indian summer, I scored some really significant runs that broke the camel's back in a lot of ways in terms of arriving at Test match cricket. I got run out a few times in that series, but I'd made some massive progress. There was an overarching theme that it didn't matter where I was playing, I was going to arrive in a series at some point.
Technically, I had been working very hard behind the scenes for a decade on my ability to score against spinners and on turning tracks. There were years of planning that went into that, right back to 1993, when coach Bob Simpson had planted a seed about sweeping, as did Allan Border on rotating the strike.
That was grown during my experience at county cricket, especially in 1998 and 1999, when I was captain of Northants. I had two quality spinners in Alec Brown and Graeme Swann, and Monty Panesar as well - they were kids. Our wicket was a turning track, that was our edge. That track suited the team, and suited me as a side benefit of that - I was able to hone and develop my technique through those two years of county cricket which wasn't that far away from the 2001 series.
This story has got a very deep and rich history. It started way back in 1995-96, when I was begging the Australian selectors to take me away to the MRF Pace Foundation, where they were holding a spin bowling clinic with S Venkataraghavan and Bishan Bedi, and I didn't get picked in it and I wanted to know why. I was an emerging player and I wanted to go. I was putting my case forward and said that I was going to be the person with the character who was going to drive a good result for you in India. I will never forget walking off the Chennai field and turning to one of my colleagues, Matthew Elliott, who was an opening batsman and played a bit more for Australia at that time and telling him, "Herbie, I am going to get a Test match hundred here one day." And he was looking at me, thinking, "What has this got anything to do with it? We are not even close to Test match cricket!" Speaking of that statement, it proved to be incorrect actually - I got a Test match 200 there!
I look back at my very fond memories of playing for Chennai Super Kings and the importance that stadium had to me personally, for my growth and development, and to see the lovely different genres of cricket come to the stage, and be a part of the inaugural series of the IPL, and even commentating at the ground and having a really close connection with the people in Chennai. Sometimes things are just meant to be, aren't they? You just have to give in to the higher forces and say, "You know what, this is forever, and I don't understand it. But so be it."
What were the aspects that you were trying to absorb at the spin clinic about facing spin bowling that you would implement later on?
Interestingly, I can't remember picking up the bat more than two or three times in that seven-day trip. I understood what flight meant, strategically, trying to understand what a spin bowler tries to achieve by putting rotation on the ball and setting a certain field. Those lessons don't get taught, because all I could look back and see were three slips and two gullies on fast, bouncy conditions. I didn't understand the overall strategy of what spin bowling would achieve both technically or from a strategic point of view. Those were invaluable lessons.
The bowlsmanship as well - if that's a word - the ability for a crafty person of Bedi's [calibre], whose mind is as sharp as a tack, his thought process of tossing the ball in the air. When you really boil it down, there is no imminent physical threat compared to Shoaib Akhtar bowling 160kph thunderbolts, where you are physically challenged, and you have the real possibility of getting dangerously hurt, as opposed to someone who is bowling in the high 80s and early 90s, you take that any day of the week. The whole difference between the mental anxiety and the concern of being hurt, as opposed to spin bowling, where it is the mental fear. It is the fear of failure, of stepping out and being stumped. Bridging the gap between those two was an important part of that trip. Only through risking getting stumped is when you start to confront your own fears and you start to develop and learn strategies accordingly.
I can't express to you in words how important that time was. It was an important introduction to India. Look, I am doing this interview sitting in my backyard and I have got a pizza oven and I've got a herb garden. The only thing that I can see is a crow on the trees. There is not one person in sight here. And yet, coming to Chepauk, we have got workers, crowds in and around, the market, shops, streets, and the beachfront location. It was a polar opposite to what I was used to. It was a great introduction to the heart of India as well.
You were an opening batsman in a fast bowler's body, a very intimidating presence. About the physical aspects, did you try to use that to your advantage, to intimidate the bowler?
The short answer is, yes. The long side of it is that it was a very natural thing for me because it had already been developed before I arrived at international cricket. I went home to Kingaroy [Queensland], my home town, just over this week and saw my parents who live on an 800-odd acre property. We actually live on the side of a volcano, on red basalt soil - deeply rich soil. And it's extremely hilly. There was a cricket wicket that my brother and I would roll every afternoon and mow, and there was a net on the ten-acre house block we had. Other than that, the sport I loved was hunting, high over these mountains. I would climb those mountains every day of my life. Physically, I was very capable. I love to swim and it's not a stress on my body.
I developed my body in a way by exploring all these different sports. When I came to the high-performance arena, I was kind of a one-off in a lot of ways. I was as much an iron man as much as I was a cricketer. Having surfed, fished, hunted, that was just a natural thing.
In fact, the very first time I saw Justin Langer, way back in early 1991, he was in the middle and he came up to me and thought that I was the groundsman. He asked me, "What is this going to play like, mate? What are the conditions like generally?" and I thought, "I am a player! You have to find that out for yourself, champ." I don't think I said anything, truthfully. I said that it looked very good and we had a bit of a chat. To his surprise, he didn't realise that I was actually fielding bat-pad to him next day when he was opening the batting for Western Australia. I said to him, "You thought I was the groundsman yesterday, didn't you?" He said, "Yes!" My physique was already developed.
Queensland was the epicentre in terms of Australian development of players and playing groups - football and other codes - for high performance. The studies were cutting edge, coming out of the Queensland University high- performance culture, with words like VA2Max - which no athlete has ever heard about, but all of a sudden there was a KPI connected to all your physical attributes, in which I was already 15-20 years ahead of the pack, because my brother was studying that. There are a number of things that you look back at in your career. That was the perfect storm that had me evolve to a state where I was ready to play.