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Inside the art, science and mind of batting

Simon Hughes examines batsmanship through his own experiences and those of the greats of the game

Alan Gardner
Alan Gardner
Mark Ramprakash gets on his toes, Australia v England, 5th Test, Perth, 3rd day, February 5, 1995

Mark Ramprakash: prodigious in first-class, suspect in Test cricket  •  PA Photos

Who wants to be a batsman? It feels like a leading question and in a sense it is. Batsmen - the good ones, at least - are cricket's millionaires (and who doesn't want to be one of those?), but as Simon Hughes writes at the outset of his new book, everyone who plays the game has to take guard at some point. You would be daft not to try to maximise your winnings.
Another question might swiftly follow, however. What does a former bowler with one fifty and a first-class batting average of 11.37 have to say on the subject? Well, Hughes largely uses his own experience as a self-deprecating study in how not to do things, while quizzing some of the great run guzzlers of our time on their methods. Along the way "The Analyst" applies some science to the artistry.
It should be noted immediately that Who Wants to be a Batsman? is not a technical manual; there are no diagrams showing the best stance or how to play a cover drive. And while Hughes promises to "unveil the secrets of batting", this does not come in the form of a prescription. One of his conclusions is that the greats all stuck by what worked for them - "Not a right way or a wrong way, but their way."
There are "Ten Wanna Be a Batsman Rules" but only one - Keep your head still - touches on technique. The majority focus on the mental aspects of batting, such as concentrating for extended periods of time, blocking out distractions and adapting to the situation. Oh, and play at The Oval (home to five of the 25 batsmen to have scored 100 first-class hundreds) if you can.
Perhaps the most important challenge, in the long run, is how to deal with failure. Hughes' own career, as he tells it, was full of hard lessons (most of which he did not learn) and the examples - running himself out first ball, demolishing his stumps while pulling Geoff Lawson for four - usually involve a joke at the author's expense. But his close relationship with Mark Ramprakash also provides a more serious study in the agonies of underperformance.
Hughes was a Middlesex team-mate when Ramprakash debuted as a 17-year-old prodigy and followed his notoriously unfulfilled England career closely after crossing the boundary to join the media. There is probably a whole book to be written on how a man capable of scoring 114 first-class centuries managed only two in 52 Tests, and an average of 27.32, but a mind clouded by self-doubt and anxiety emerged as the principle block on his talent.
England's confused selection policies and a lack of early success bit further into Ramprakash's chances of success. Hughes notes that the leading Test run scorers all made a half-century within eight innings - you have to go as far down as Alec Stewart, currently 23rd, to find someone who took longer, and even then he reached 50 at the tenth attempt. Ramprakash needed two years and 17 innings and it was another five years before he finally reached three figures in a Test, in his 38th knock.
The result was Ramprakash's mind becoming ever more cluttered, burying his immaculate technique beneath a muddle of neuroses. Contrast that with the advice of two other batsmen Hughes speaks to. "When you're in form you're thinking about nothing," says Michael Vaughan, while Kumar Sangakkara, who did not excel at an early age but retired this year with the highest Test average since Garry Sobers, adds: "The moment you think, it slows you down. It restricts your body and movements and that's when you make mistakes."
Failure is inevitable - at some stage - so there's no point in dwelling on it. Graham Gooch, who made a pair on debut but went on to amass 8900 Test runs, puts his success down to a "philosophical" approach. "When I came back in the dressing room, people agreed you couldn't tell whether I'd got nought or a hundred and fifty." As Hughes describes it somewhat more prosaically, "batting can be a head-f***".
Weaved in among the psychology are nuggets such as the fact that the ball is only actually in play for around 45 minutes during a day of Test cricket (hence the importance of being able to switch on and off at the crease); a suggested ideal height of 5ft 10in; and Hughes' theory that the DRS has effectively increased the size of the stumps (as far as lbws are concerned) by 70%.
It should all be about enjoyment, of course, and if the batting life begins to weigh you down, just remember that Devon Malcolm hit more international sixes than Bradman.
In all, Who Wants to be a Batsman? is an interesting examination of one of sport's more precarious pursuits. It even strikes a mildly progressive tone at the close, with Hughes' realisation that his daughter Nancy is a better batsman than he was. For that, perhaps, we can forgive the dad jokes and references to checking out "well-endowed females in the Tavern", crimes on a par with using your slightly naff broadcasting nickname to describe yourself in the third person.
Other analysts are available, just remember that time at the crease won't necessarily be improved by time on the couch.
Who Wants to be a Batsman?
By Simon Hughes
Simon & Schuster
280 pages, £18.99

Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick