Friday, 26 February 2016

PREPARING FOR ANOTHER SUMMER


Moddershall 1st XI when I started out 

The run up to a new cricket season is markedly different for an old(ish) man – a man perhaps able to count his remaining cricket campaigns on the badly gnarled fingers of one hand – than it is for a fresh-faced, bright-eyed youngster. Back when I was a teenager, life stretching out before me as a seemingly endless sweep of run-soaked summers, my pre-season thoughts were usually little more than idle daydreams – the usual fantasies of scoring 1000-plus runs, cup final centuries, hooking this or that West Indian pro out of the ground.

As you get longer in the tooth your horizons draw in, and you merely hope your body survives the five months without breaking. You hope, too, that your enthusiasm isn’t snuffed out by the various off-field duties and dramas that come with seniority and responsibility. Having already lost the buzz once, in 2010, after which I stopped playing for three years, I now know what the warning signs are. But the beauty of that three-year hiatus, I later discovered, was that my focus shifted away from myself, and my own diminishing powers, and onto the young players in my team, helping them develop their talents. Pass on some wisdom, learn about their personalities.  

Of course, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with those lofty individual ambitions of youth, since to take care of your own contribution is almost always going to help the team realize its collective goals. Nevertheless, it’s easy to become too excitable, too fixated on personal targets, build it up too much. As a batsman, a slow start to the season – a few unplayable balls, a couple of bad decisions, a run out, an abandonment or two – can mean those initial targets become more or less unattainable, and therefore oppressive, a numerical reminder of the “failure” that the season is shaping up to be. We can be our own worst enemies.

My best ever season in terms of runs started fairly slowly. I don’t remember the details (I have it written down in some dusty folder somewhere, when such things seemed to matter a lot and before there was the Internet to document it for you), but it wasn’t until late July that I really got going. I was heading to Spain for my university gap year in October and so, to earn some cash, spent a couple of months working at the Creda plant in Blythe Bridge, loading the parts for white goods into big kilns then taking them off again. Then putting others on, then taking them off. The tedium of the work made me appreciate the weekend’s cricket all the more. Crucially, it made my thinking much clearer. It made me value my wicket more.

the good old days
I ended up scoring 895 league runs that year, but during those last six or seven weeks of the season I didn’t think about aggregates or targets. I just batted. I was ‘in the zone’. Relaxed concentration. The game was easy. The noise in my head was off, for once. Yep, I just batted.

And that’s the thing about targets: if you’re going to have them, they should be about the process not the end result. That’s something of a sports psychology cliché these days, but it’s true. And it’s true because it works. What focusing on process not outcomes means is that you should draw in the frame of reference for “What I want to do” from the whole season to the next game, the next hour, the next over, the next delivery… Stay in the process.

Simplifying a little, that process boils down to three things, depending on the discipline. For batting, it’s decision-making. For bowling, it’s pressure. For fielding, it’s awareness (or concentration, you could call it).

Making the right decisions as a batsman of course requires several skills: judging the pitch and which shots are on, which not; working out each bowler’s threat and how they’re trying to get you out; assessing the scoreboard situation and what needs to be done. None of this is in your head as the bowler is running up, of course. It’s done between balls, in conversation with yourself, and between overs, in conversation with your partner. 

For a bowler, maintaining pressure also requires several ancillary calculations: what each batsman’s strengths are and what fields to set; what’s in the wicket for you and what the condition of the ball might allow; what the game situation requires, etc. Nevertheless, the process is all about maintaining pressure, being patient.

As for fielding, and awareness, that’s simply about being tuned into what the team is trying to do – i.e. what a hyper-precise skipper wants when he moves you three yards this way, two yards that – and what the batsman is trying to do to counter it. And it is about keeping the team buoyant, switched on, optimistic.

In his autobiography, Out of My Comfort Zone, the great Australian skipper Steve Waugh wrote that “fielding is a true test of players sacrificing themselves for the interest of the team because it’s the only facet of the game where you don’t get statistically rewarded for your efforts”. And that is precisely the point about making a slow start to the season, falling short of your targets, be that as a batsman or a bowler. If you don’t hit the ground running, you can still make a contribution that isn’t statistically rewarded. Be a good teammate. Keep the troops going on those hot afternoons. Encourage your mates out there scrapping hard to get you a total. Take your weary bowler’s jumper to the umpire. Polish the ball. Go and console a fielder who’s dropped an important catch. Buy the skipper four or five pints of lager because you love him. Step out of your bubble (it’s stressful in there), think about what the team needs, and keep putting in the pot.

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