Greg Chappell explains why you need to modulate your level of focus out in the middle. The piece appeared in the May issue of Wisden Asia Cricket.
Having played Test cricket at a time when fast bowlers dominated, I was fortunate to learn early on that concentration was the key to success.
The biggest thing I needed to get to grips with while facing an awesome quartet of pace bowlers such as the one West Indies boasted in the second half of my career, was that it was going to take a long time to make runs. On average they bowled 12 overs per hour, with a high percentage of short balls, often head-high. Assuming each of the two batsmen in the middle faced half the balls bowled, and that half of those were difficult to score off, you were effectively facing three overs per hour. This made it difficult to build up any momentum with your innings. Even with the best will in the world it was hard to force the pace and get on top of the attack.
I decided that if I was going to score runs against them I had to be prepared to bat all day and not get distracted by the frustration of not being able to score quickly. To achieve this I had to develop my mental techniques to give support to my physical skills.
I had always prided myself on my ability to concentrate for long periods but I had to take it to a higher level during the period of World Series Cricket in the late seventies. What I learned at this time was that to develop a mental routine I had to have a strict physical routine between balls and between overs, similar to a golfer's pre-shot routine, to conserve my mental and emotional energy. Such a routine would also provide me with checkpoints so that I knew I was concentrating before facing each ball.
My routine allowed me to switch in and out of the different levels of concentration. I had three: the first level was 'awareness'; this was a state in which I was aware of what was happening around me but was not acutely focused on any one thing. It was used while waiting to go in to bat, between balls, and between overs.
I switched from awareness to 'fine focus' when the bowler reached the top of his bowling mark. At this point I moved my focus to the bowler's face. That gave me an insight into his emotional state and, via my peripheral vision, into his body language as well. All of this helped give me valuable information and cues from the bowler. As he reached his delivery point, I moved to 'fierce focus', narrowing my visual field and devoting my attention to the point from which the ball would be delivered.
Fierce focus was only used for the shortest possible time because it required a lot of mental energy. As the bowler delivered the ball, all I saw was his hand, and the ball leaving it. This gave me all the information I needed to gauge the line, length and type of delivery.
Once the ball was done with, I looked to the crowd momentarily to give my mind a rest as I switched back to the state of awareness. This was important to conserve mental energy. I would count the fielders to bring my mind back and then switch to the bowler's face as he reached his mark. Thus I would cycle through to the state of fine focus on to fierce focus and back again.
I went through this process for every ball I faced. If I didn't, it was possible to get stuck at one level and either use up too much energy too quickly or face balls without being properly focused. Each time I got back to the striker's end after having been away from strike, I marked my crease afresh as a signal to my brain to begin the cycle once again. These physical actions sent signals to my brain that it was time to start the process over again. They were also checkpoints for me to gauge that I was in the state of mind necessary for the best chance of success.
Each time I went through a lean period in my career I was able to trace it back to the fact that I had got away from this routine. As soon as I got back to the routine my output of runs increased. What I learned early in my career was that 99 times out of 100 I was getting myself out. The pressure built up by the bowlers may have contributed, but it invariably was mental error that brought about my dismissal.
I also realised that no matter how good my technique this ratio would never change. What I decided was that I had to improve my mental skills so that I could delay the inevitable for as long as possible to have a greater chance of making runs.
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