Last weekend I was chopping firewood with an axe in my garden. The trick, obviously, is to land the blade of the axe in roughly the same part of the trunk every time. Each accurately aimed blow widens a V-shaped wedge, until, eventually, you cut through the whole tree. If you're inaccurate, you end up stabbing the trunk and messily scarring the firewood.
I was surprised by what I noticed. When I concentrated intently on the spot I was aiming for, when I tried to be precise and particular, I was in fact quite clumsy. But when I merely casually noted the target and focused more on the rhythm of the swing and the naturalness of the motion, I found that the axe landed in exactly the right spot. In fact, every single "good swing" - by which I mean something lazy, fluid, languid, with the weight of the blade being first unweighted then dropping almost casually - ended in hitting the target.
Accuracy was best served not by trying to be accurate, but by a sense of rhythm. Precision was achieved not by seeking it but by absorption in free, uninhibited (but not wild or uncontrolled) movement. When I tried to force the axe to go exactly where I wanted, it rarely did. When I allowed myself to work with the axe, it cooperated.
Eventually I realised this is exactly like batting.
We talk too much about "watching the ball", as though straining to identify the target is always the answer. (This is my second article challenging central tenets of the coaching manual - the first took issue with the "head still" theory.) In fact, a batsman can watch the ball too anxiously, to the point that the process inhibits his response to the ball. Instead, we have to be alert to the ball, to get in sync with it, to match the rhythm of the shot with the arrival of the ball. And these things happen best intuitively, when we aren't consciously pursuing them.
This is not a new idea. It was articulated by the golfer James Baird in 1914. He criticised players who fixate with desperate intensity on the point of impact. Instead, in a good swing, "The dispatching of the ball from the tee by the driver in the downward swing is merely an incident of the whole business [my italics]." A few years ago, I chatted about golf with Colin Montgomerie at Gleneagles. He took a few swings exactly as Baird suggested: the ball was almost incidental, a momentary obstacle in the natural movement of the club. The swing happened, the ball just got in the way.
That is not always easy, especially in cricket, when the ball is moving. I've never liked the cliché that cricket is "a simple game". All taken together, the art of batsmanship is very complex - the tension between attack and defence; the balance between protecting against lbws and yet not opening up the edge to the slips; the ability to transfer weight decisively forward and back; sustaining concentration, switching on and off.
And yet most batsmen would agree that when they're doing it well, batting feels simple and natural, sometimes even easy. Bowling is the same. Every fast bowler I've known, when asked why he was able to bowl so fast and well on a particular day, tends to answer, "Because I had good rhythm." I've not heard one bowler yet reply, "Because I tried harder and thought more intently."
The best coach I worked with would sometimes stand behind the nets with his eyes closed. He'd listen to the bowler's steps arriving at the crease, the noise of the batsman's footwork, the thud of the ball on the turf, and finally the crack of leather on willow. "That was good," he'd say, "you had rhythm." Or sometimes, "No, you had no touch, no finesse." All with his eyes closed, or with his body turned away from the net. And he'd be right, every time. The coach was able to distinguish between the right process (an open and uninhibited mindset, a lack of predetermination, a natural swing of the bat) and the outcome of the shot in narrow terms. He knew that if you play a high enough proportion of good shots, the runs will inevitably follow.
Because the important things are hard to coach, it is tempting to take refuge in the small, irrelevant things because they are easy
There is a mystical element here. By crudely reducing things in the hope of "explaining them", we often simply distort them. Batting is not like rummaging around in a bag of machinery, looking for a pre-moulded tool. Instead, it is the ability to answer a question posed by a particular ball - batting as a form of conversation. As every ball is slightly different, so is every good shot. As Roger Federer put it brilliantly, "I need a different point every time."
In elite sport we overstate the importance of trying hard. After all, players are highly incentivised to do well (money, glory, fame - need we go on?). Conversely we hugely underestimate the value of achieving that sense of lightness and freedom - the feeling I had swinging the axe, and, sometimes, when I was swinging a cricket bat. There is truth in the cliché: "You learn about batting when you've already scored a hundred." What you learn is how good you could be if you learned always to trust yourself, to play free from restraints and anxiety, without the suffocating influence of what Arsene Wenger calls "handbrake-age".
The question follows, obvious but very rarely addressed: how can we make batting and bowling feel easy more often, given that is the feeling we get when we are doing them well?
First, we misunderstand technique. Technique is not a thing, an object that can be owned. It is a means. The goal is not technique but to hit the ball sweetly. Technique allows us to do it better, to achieve that goal more often and completely. For that reason, the perfect technique is the technique that disappears: it is no longer in the way. We are not conscious of it at all. We track the ball, swing the bat in rhythm, and everything else organises itself intuitively.
Secondly, we overstate the value of rational intelligence and analysis. I am not sure that the subject of this article can be "coached" in the conventional sense of the word. Coaches can help you to understand the process, perhaps even help you get there more quickly. But, at best, the coach can only support and enable a journey that the player must undertake on his own.
Because the important things are hard to coach, it is tempting to take refuge in the small, irrelevant things because they are easy. Too much bottom hand, getting squared up, playing too early, closing the face of the bat? All symptoms, but unlikely to be the ultimate cause. That is probably much simpler and yet harder to put right: the bat isn't working as part of your body but in opposition to it.
As the literary critic Steven Connor wrote about tennis: "If I wish the racket to become me, I must first become it, or become the kind of me that it requires and will most readily respond to."