As Australian fans rejoiced early wickets falling in the first Ashes test in Brisbane the England locker room would have been searching for quick answers on how to best combat the quality Australian bowling coming from Hazelwood, Starc, Cummings etc.
The challenges of batting are huge with fast bowlers delivering rapid balls that can swing and seam, whilst at the same time slower bowlers make the ball drop quickly in the air and spin off the pitch presenting their own unique challenges. At international level, batters are required to decide to play or leave a fast ball in less than half a second without making a skill error that can result in them either getting out or getting injured. How do skilful batters cope with these performance challenges, but still bat for hours and score big runs? Sport expertise and skill learning studies suggest vision, psychology and technique are the three key attributes required to be a successful batter.
My research with Australian Test batsmen in the early 2000s found that, through vision, players read a bowler's action up to the point of ball release to anticipate what ball will be bowled. This means that expert batters gain extra time to make a reactionary decision from these pre-ball release visual cues. For example, test batters are able to read subtle wrist positioning of the bowling hand and arm to predict an outswinger and inswinger. Expert batters can also then use contextual information from field-placings to anticipate delivery ball types. For example, two fielders positioned deep on the leg side may indicate that a bouncer will be delivered. Vision and cue selection can buy a batter time as they can then sometimes anticipate and predict the type of delivery that will be coming their way.
I have also worked with emerging cricketers on how to train anticipation. This work found that anticipation can be improved in two ways. One approach is to use video simulation footage of a bowler, stop it at ball release and require batters to predict different ball types. Another approach is to require the batter to practice bowling different ball types themselves to help them identify the cues associated with the ball being bowled at them. Collectively, the key message is to design challenging ways for batters to use visual cues that are available prior to the ball's flight.
Another area of research into the art of batting has focussed on psychological routines. This involves switching concentration on when preparing to face a ball and off when the ball is 'dead'. Such a routine provides a method through which expert batters cope with mental fatigue. You only have to watch the movement of Steven Smith, David Warner or Marnus Labuschagne in between deliveries to see a clear routine on how they switch off and then switch on again in preparation for each delivery that they face. Some batters take a little walk to square leg in between deliveries or spend time speaking to themselves. A big innings in a test match can last days so the ability to mentally remain fresh so that you are best identifying visionary cues is an incredibly important attribute for a batter.
The final attribute of a skilful batter is in relation to technique. Research interestingly indicates that non-traditional batting technique is related to skilful batting. For example, it has been reported that the world's best batters backlift prior to striking doesn't necessarily have their bat going in the direction of the wicketkeeper something traditionally coached to be correct technique. Rather, their back-lift is on an angle towards the slips and with some batters even having the bat face slightly open towards the offside. These batsmen strike the ball in a looped fashion. Visualise here the back-lifts and striking patterns of Hashim Amla, Brian Lara, and Ricky Ponting. The advantage of this curved back-lift is that it creates scoring options on both the off and leg sides of the wicket. Expert batters can also adjust the timing of their foot movements, backlift and downswing to strike balls. Together, this means that individualised techniques to batting should be encouraged, rather than coached out and criticised.
Coaches and parents should think of challenging ways to train their players keeping in mind the above characteristics of skilful batting. Training incorporating and developing the above expert attributes does not have to be delivered with large amounts of words. It is preferable to use practice tasks or modified games that can be carefully designed to maximise practice efficiency. When coupled with brief verbal feedback and constructive instruction this training is the catalyst for skill development and performance improvement.
Dr Sean Mller is an Associate Professor specialising in Expertise and Skill Learning in Sport, at Federation University. Follow him on LinkedIn or Twitter @SeanMuller2018
You can join him on Monday 13th December at 5.30pm for a FREE presentation where he will provide further insight to expert visual cues use for anticipation in sport as a part of the Federation University Sports Showcase Seminar Series. Register HERE