Friday, 27 September 2013

The relative nature of time and speed

Ever wondered why it's so difficult to swot a fly with your hand? I'd always thought it had something to do with its angled take-off, how it can throw itself sideways as well as upwards. New research has discovered something else though, something about the way that the fly perceives time itself.

In simple terms, the smaller the creature the more slowly time passes. The fly's compound eyes offer it life in stop-motion, the hand moving towards it a gathering shadow rather than a speeding car. The research opens up the notion that, in this relative, elastic time, the fly feels that its life lasts as long as long as ours. The mayfly lives its endless day, while, for the elephant, or the giant tortoise, the years blur past...

The brilliant Andy Bull wrote at length for the Spin on fast bowling and whether it's actually that fast any more. His piece highlights a great anomoly that exists in many arenas of sport: progress is spiky. Records move in clusters and then seize up for a generation. Quick bowlers were quicker in the 1970s than they are now. In part, this is natural. In the same way, the world records of Bob Beamon and Sebastian Coe stood for decades in athletics; heavyweight boxing exists in the shadow of Ali and Tyson; there wasn't a footballer as good as Maradona until Ronaldo and Messi. There will be someone as quick as Thomson or Holding along someday.

But it's also a question of perception. Part of the legend of fast bowling comes from the man playing it. In the wild west of cricket in the 1970s, batsmen had no helmets, pads and gloves were by comparison rudimentary and the way in which fast bowlers could bowl at them was unregulated. Not only was it fast, it was genuinely dangerous (and everyone should read Christian Ryan's wonderful, impressionistic essay on the quickest spell Jeff Thomson ever bowled for an idea of how it must have felt to bat in that era).

In the same way that time moves differently for the fly, so fast bowling feels different depending on who's facing it and when. In his majesterial The Art And Science Of Cricket, Bob Woolmer highlights some experiments conducted in the early 1980s by Tim Noakes, a South African researcher, in which an old-style static bowling machine was set at 130kph. Peter Kirsten faced up to it, and was unable to hit the ball without the complex series of visual clues a batsman picks up from the bowler's run-up and delivery stride (during his long career Kirsten faced all of the world's quickest bowlers out in the middle, playing deliveries at speeds of 150kph). Yet spat without notice from the cold eye of the machine, the ball came towards him too quickly for him to accurately plot its course.

From this, Noakes observed that the best players did not necessarily have better eyesight, but were somehow better at interpreting the bowler's approach and angle of delivery. He conducted another experiment in which the bowling machine was wired to the lights at an indoor net. Less than 200 milliseconds after the ball was fired, the lights were shut off. Kirsten was still able to anticipate the trajectory of the ball and hit 70 per cent of the deliveries he faced. Some provincial players brought in to bat in the same circumstances were so unnerved they ran out of the way of the ball.

It was clear that international batsmen had a kind of visual early warning system that enabled them to play the very fastest bowling. And so all 'fast' bowling is relative, in that the experience of facing a ball delivered uncomfortably quickly is available to any player. The only variable is the speed. A good club bat might be on the edge of their capability at 80mph, while a Test match player can handle 95mph. Both experience the same sensations and emotions while doing so.

Every batsman, though, is human and subject to the quotidian variations of biorhythms and mood that affect us all. Fast bowling that is survivable, even hittable, when the brain is sharp and the feet quick and everything in its place may not be when the body is injured, the mind jaded, the ego assaulted by doubt and fear.

These are the variables that make the game what it is. The fastest bowling will always have a mystique about it that has nothing to do with the speed gun or the stats. It's about that moment when bowler and batsman are both stretched to the limit of their ability, locked in a visceral, physically dangerous duel that might end in any way at any moment.

It's a glinting, alluring knife-edge that doesn't happen often, but when it does it sticks in the imagination, it gets written about and talked about and passed down into the annals. It's magical, and necessarily rare.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Paying it forwards

The end of the season is almost here, with its rain and with its retirements, with its shadows that fall longways across the ground and the inevitable melancholy that it brings. It is a cliche of sorts to acknowledge the feeling, yet it's always there and always the same, a kind of longing that cannot be fulfilled. It's always worse before the last game too. Afterwards it seems to run away quite quickly.

As the seasons tick by, it's heightened by the realisation that they too are finite. One of the geniuses of the game is that it is complex enough to offer a different face to each age of the player.

Once you pass the point at which professionals retire, it takes on a new hue. Before that moment, however delusionally, you can convince yourself you're playing the same game that you always have. You're not yet entirely divorced from the young kids who come in to thrash their 60-ball hundreds or mark out their 20-yard runs. Soon though, there's something different in the way that they look at you, and you realise that they are occupying a psychological terrain that you have surrendered.

It's not the death of ambition, more the adaptation of ambition to circumstance. You still play because you want to do well. What's changed is your definition of 'well'. The elements of the game that you take pleasure from have shifted.

Matthew Hoggard is pulling off the bowling boots for the final time in a week or so. When he was dropped by England in the brutal way that sometimes happens, Hoggy, understandably, had a difficult time accepting it. The cruelest thing, though, was that it was fair. The real bad guy was sport, where one day you are at your peak, and the next the slow descent has begun.

Yet there are some sunlit uplands here, too, on this plateau of the old fart. If you carry on putting yourself into the game, it sometimes gives you something back. Cricket can seem like a capricious sport, especially for batsmen, but in reality it's just implacable, neither for you or against.

My friend and team-mate Tony has, like most of us, had his moments. He played a lot of his early cricket in the unforgiving North, and, back in '86, once made 99 in a league game somewhere in the shadow of the Satanic Mills. He thought that maybe the chance of a hundred had passed him by forever on that day.

In one of our last games of the season, on a golden afternoon at a wonderful ground, he got himself in and past fifty. The runs kept coming, and he had 80-odd by the time I went in to join him. He hit a couple more boundaries away and came down the wicket.

'Eleven more,' he said.

'It's just a number mate,' I replied, but we both knew it wasn't.

We batted on. He went to 95 and then got a long hop, which he pulled for four.

For once in my life, I was genuinely prepared to make any run he called, even if it ran me out, but I didn't have to. The next ball was a full toss that he hit hard to boundary. In a little speech he made in the bar afterwards, he admitted that he'd thought of that 99 almost every night before he went to sleep. Well he doesn't have to think of it any more.

That is what the game sometimes gives you. It's why we miss it as it slips away for another year.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Not knowing how: Batting's emerging question

Here is a group of players: Chris Rogers, Ian Bell, Michael Clarke, Alastair Cook, David Warner.

And another: Jonny Bairstow, Phil Hughes, Joe Root, Jonathan Trott.

And a third: Kevin Pietersen, Chris Gayle, Virender Sehwag.

And finally: Sachin Tendulkar, Kumar Sangakkara, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Mahala Jayawardene.


There is a humming undercurrent to the critique of modern batting, that increasingly idiosyncratic and macho pursuit. You hear it on commentary and in analysis, and while it's hazily defined, it's usually expressed in one of two ways: 'He wasn't sure how to bat' or 'He didn't know how to play'.

They're phrases that need a little context, because they're obviously not literal. Any batsman who has made it as far as the international game clearly knows how to bat. Any player playing at the top level evidently knows how to play.

Instead, it's to do with circumstance, the demands of format, the ebb and flow of the red ball game. The longer the batsman is asked to bat, the more nuanced his batting must become. The task in 50-over cricket is almost rote now, its formula exhausted by repetition, while the blunt challenge of T20 remains brutally simple to compute. By contrast the challenge of the five day game shifts under the batsman's feet even as he is at the crease.

Not knowing how to bat, in context, is not knowing how to tune yourself into the fluid set of circumstances that the game produces. Here, self-knowledge is everything.

The first two groups of players above competed with varying levels of success in the Ashes series. The difference between them is that group one essentially batted the way that they always bat. They lived or died by the quotidian fluctuations of form and luck, the natural run of good days and bad. Chris Rogers, for example, with the benefit of 20,000 first class runs behind him, battered a quick 80-odd at Old Trafford and accumulated a careful hundred in Durham. Both innings fitted with the rhythm of the match they were played in. Aside from the pressure of Test cricket, there was nothing new about any of it for Rogers. Both were innings of a type regularly required of an opening batsman, and he responded with the touch of a craftsman.

Bell had the series of his life and Warner one that he'll never forget, but both did what they always do. Clarke fought his stiff back and Cook battled a technical fault but neither panicked nor changed their method. They stuck it out, because experience tells them that they will come good again soon.

The second group are (pretty obviously) the batsmen that didn't know how to bat, the players who weren't sure how to play. Phil Hughes*, the Australian among them, is a talent betrayed, first dropped from the side when his Test average was above 50, then thrown up and down the order, his method questioned and ridiculed. No wonder the light has gone from his eyes.

Joe Root and Jonathan Trott demonstrate how delicate the equilibrium of a batting order can be. Sometimes absence becomes a player like nothing else, and Andrew Strauss already has a post-retirement glow about him. At his best, Strauss was the most bullish of the triumverate he formed with Cook and Trott. His solidity and tempo let the others be themselves.

Root allowed himself to be lulled into periods of stasis, an understandable reaction to the match stretching out before him, and yet also the response of a young man who felt that his natural game may equal irresponsibility (here he can be contrasted with Rogers, a less talented player, but one who has spent years doing the job).

The knock-on effect on Jonathan Trott was less predictable. He had built his reputation on being impervious to external forces, yet his crease rituals always hinted at his need for certainty. With Cook and Root at sea, Trott played a series of uncharacteristic innings, quick forties studded with boundaries that built a discomforting momentum he didn't seem able to halt.

Jonny Bairstow didn't know whether to stick or twist and it showed. Playing his natural game kept getting him out, and yet he didn't seem to have another beyond the same glacial slowness that descended on Root. 

The third and fourth groups are rarely unsure how to play, of course. Pietersen, Gayle and Sehwag have controlled every format with the same unorthodox force. They are outliers blessed with a freakish talent that can be expressed any way - devastating in a single over or a day and a half of batting. Their method is uncompromising.

And the final group are the last generation to have grown up without T20 cricket, whose path to the Test game was always clear and rising before them. It was their ultimate aim, their career peak, and they spent their early lives preparing for it. The way they bat actually reflects that: their skill sets were honed for Test match play, their mental strength built by its adversity.

Last week Aaron Finch played an extraordinary innings at the Ageas Bowl. Could he be a Test match batsman? That's a well-intentioned question anyone who doesn't really follow the game may ask. Well he's 26 years old and has played 33 first class matches. In those, he averages 29. He debuted in 2007, and in 2009-10 had his best season in the Shield, with 416 runs at 37.81. That same year, he became a star in the Big Bash and that is where he has stayed, typecast as a talented slugger. He doesn't have to worry about 'how to bat'. In fact, he doesn't really have to worry about first-class cricket at all, unless Australia decide he's worth a punt.

In Finch's brutality, in Bairstow and Root's uncertainty, in Australia's bare cupboard and England's wavering second string (what awaits Buttler and Hales and Ballance and Morgan and the rest?) lays the conundrum facing the modern batsman. How do you play?

It's interesting to note that some of India's finest young blades - Kohli, Pujara, Dhawan - are less afflicted. What is different about their thinking? Now there's a question.

NB: I blogged about Phil Hughes for the Cordon here.