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Pete Langman

The beat of cricket

Getting the timing right, when playing and elsewhere, sets you free

Pete Langman
Pete Langman
Trent Boult runs in to bowl, Australia v New Zealand, 1st Test, Brisbane, 2nd day, November 6, 2015

When your run-up feels off, what you seek to do is get its rhythm back  •  AFP

Time, as a wiser man than I once said, is the author of authors. No matter how fast we run in the hope of outpacing it, it always catches up with us. This is because it is attached to our heels with elastic. And it always has the last word, just as it does the first.
Cricket also has an elastic view of time, packing its excitement into barely a quarter of the actual minutes available. In Test match cricket, each ball bowled is in motion for between six and 12 seconds, with the important bit, from hand to bat, taking up barely an entire second. A typical hour's play, containing, say, 13 overs, thus involves barely 15 minutes of action, of which around two minutes are ball to bat to field. They also serve, as Milton would say.
And yet, within this game of contradictions built on dichotomy, this game that challenges us on every level, forcing us into unnatural positions, demanding fluidity when for the greater part of every match the entire field is almost entirely still, within this game the great players appear to manufacture their own time. Time is the umpire of umpires, if you like.
It's no wonder that when we are struggling with our personal game we explain it in temporal terms: we can't time the ball; the rhythm in our run-up has gone. It even works for keepers: a mistimed take bounces out of rather than buries itself into the glove.
I was once at a milonga, an organised event where you dance the tango, where tradition has it that the women choose their partner for each dance. I noticed one gentleman, maybe in his late fifties, who was in high demand. He danced a simple dance, little more than the basic walk of tango, but he was obviously preferred over the younger and flashier leaders, all leg flicks and twirls. I asked one of his partners why he was so popular (even though I thought I had it nailed), and the response was that he just felt better. I'd been watching his feet, however. The reason he felt better was because he knew where the beat was. This meant that his dancing partners could predict when his feet were aiming at, which made for a dance in which coordination was total, where two dancers merged into one. The others were merely there or thereabouts.
But cricket revolves around the ball, and specifically getting the ball to bend to our will rather than somebody else's. And to do that we need as much information about it as possible. In fact, we need to predict where it's going to be at any given time in its trajectory. Only in this way can it be propelled to just the right length, hit with just the right amount of force into just the right gap, clasped at just the right moment.
This is exactly what happens when playing music, only the ball is the groove.
When you play music (by which I mean contemporary popular music; classical music, with a conductor, is a different kettle of fish), the living and breathing heart of the music is the drummer, for they define the groove, they create the contingent time in which the music exists. For the ensemble to work, each instrument must find its place within that time, as asserted on the drum kit. The bass, for example, will find its home in the kick drum, not played at the same time, but inside the drumbeat. The bass must make the kick drum play a note. In similar fashion, the guitar must make the hi-hat or snare play a chord. For a drummer to play at their best, they must be balanced, relaxed and confident in every stroke. They must feel themselves inside the beat and avoid second-guessing their instincts. The best drummers produce a groove so big, so fat, that each beat acts as though it has its own gravity, with the default placement of a note being in the exact centre of each beat.
It is this knowledge of the beat's precise centre that allows the ensemble player freedom to make a rhythm that is irresistible, a rhythm so simple, so beyond mere precision that it enters the realms of inevitability. From this place, the note can be placed a little in front of the beat, a little behind, on top, underneath... the player controls the note, and thus the music.
And so it is in cricket.
When a bowler's run-up goes, the suggested fix is invariably technical, but what is needed is for them to tap into how it felt when all was dandy. They must feel like the drummer - relaxed, balanced, confident. They must feel that the ball is part of them, on a string, as is said of Jimmy Anderson when he's in the groove. The game is not the time to practise but just to kick back and play.
For the batsman, the process is the same. As you wait for the bowler to deliver the ball, so you tap into the feel of the game, allow your body to connect with it, and as the ball traces its arc towards you, your instinct knows where the centre of the ball is. Then control is yours. Play it early, play it late, play it spot on. Close the face, open the face, show the maker's name. Whichever you choose, the ball will obey.
Cricket is all about timing, and timing is not technique, it's feel. Perhaps, just perhaps, if we learn to feel differently, to trust our instincts to place the ball, bat or gloves just so, it might just help us to slot back into the groove.