Tuesday 26 February 2013

'I'm coming anyway': Batting and fear

As a kid, I had a book called Boycott On Batting (okay, okay... I know)  the selling point of which, alongside the accumulated wisdom of the great man at a reasonable price, was a rather neat little gimmick. Down the edge of each page were a series of photographs that showed Geoffrey demonstrating four strokes in a darkened net. When flicked through quickly enough Boycs came to life, his legendary forward defensive available stop-motion style.

Well it's what we did before youtube, kids... The other day, I watched Nick Knight interviewing Brendon McCullum about Twenty20 batting. Just as enough monkeys with typewriters will eventually produce a coherent sentence, Knight and a microphone finally coalesced and made a revelatory little film, aided by his own considerable expertise as a limited overs player.

What hit home was not just the technological remoteness of the decades between Boycott On Batting and Brendon McCullum, or the shifts in playing technique. It wasn't even the amount of 'product' Brendon had in his hair. Instead it was the psychological change, one that drives at the very heart of batsmanship. Boycott's game was based around his famous saying, 'I can't score runs if I'm in the pavilion'. McCullum's short game is dictated by something else: 'It's [about] not having the fear to get out. You've got to be able to make plays that carry an element of risk with them'.

It doesn't sound much but it is a giant, counter-intuitive leap and we are the only witnesses to the generational divide that it spans. In a few years, all of the players that grew up with the singular notion that batting begins with the intention to stay in will be gone, and that means that even Test match cricket, already accelerating at a rate that defies most of its history, will become a different game.

That's alright. In fact, it's more than alright. Every generation should do its own thing and leave its own mark, informed by the past but unencumbered by it too. The old school tends to get bogged down in debates over what has been lost, but McCullum's interview also carries the thrill of possibility.

He's fascinating to watch here, as he takes block relatively conventionally but then sets himself with feet spread far enough to eradicate notions of conventional front foot and back foot play. Instead his foot movement is abbreviated in favour of a broad base from which he sends his weight forwards or backwards in the crease. Like Boycott, he is well briefed on how his opponents will bowl and he has in mind some shots that will ease the pressure of his first few deliveries.

There's no great mystery to the rest, but then there was no mystery to Geoffrey's method either. McCullum wants to get boundaries away early if the ball is in his 'areas' (did Geoffrey have areas? Not in the same way, because his technique was based around the classical response of 'the right shot to the right ball'). The heart of McCullum's innings is the shift between 20 runs and 40 ('as fast as possible') and it's here, usually against spin, that staying in becomes a lesser goal.

Standing rather incongruously in front of a set of plastic stumps, he shows Knight how he re-marks his guard an extra six inches outside of the popping crease. 'It's only a small amount, but it creates so much more opportunity'. Knight, who has not been retired for that long, asks why he'd do it, and the answer is brutally simple.

'Because I'm coming anyway,' McCullum says, as the film cuts to a shot of him walking down the pitch to smite the ball miles into the stands. 'If I get stumped by an inch or a metre it doesn't matter...'

Boycott's fear was not of physical pain. His career as an opener was a monument to sporting courage. His fear was of the pain that dismissal brought, a feeling that could linger for days. McCullum and everyone else in the modern game have learned, at least in the short form, to eschew that fear, to set it aside, to accept that failure means less than it once did. It's a different kind of courage.

'I'm coming anyway'. That's why batting, and cricket, remains both knowable and unknowable and infinitely interesting, because however much you might want not to care, the survival instinct is strong. The game wrangles with this. Kevin Pietersen's batting has in part been defined by what much of the press see as a kind of mad impulse to hit the ball. 'It's the way I play,' as he often says. It is, and it has felt alien in this old land. But less so now.

Of course T20 cricket exaggerates the notion. Aggressive, new generation players Joe Root, Faf du Plessis and Moises Henriques have played hearteningly long rearguard knocks in Test match cricket in the last few months. Yet that first impulse is shifting and the game is shifting with it.

It's coming anyway.

NB: Listening to Brendon, Stuart Broad might want to rethink his slower ball bouncer...


Awbraae said...

Mccullum is a good choice of player to show this generational gap, as he exemplifies the qualities that New Zealand selectors have prioritised. The last batsman we had in the Boycott mould was Mark Richardson, and since he retired the test batting lineup has almost always lacked steel and the ability to play gritty innings. There is a direct correlation between this and our slide down the test rankings.

I Love Cricket said...

Mccullum is an extraordinary batsman. He can turn the game with explosive batting into his team favor. New Zealand should not ignore maccullum even in Test Squad.

John Halliwell said...

‘Roll up! Roll up! For one day only; never to be repeated. For the price of a packet of fags, come and see Geoffrey, transformed from England’s dourest since Trevor of Essex into a cross between Wally of Gloucester and the Brylcreem Boy from Middlesex. Roll up! Roll up, for a day that will live forever in the memory; for tomorrow the prince returns to being a frog!’

I think it went something like that outside Lords on 4th September, 1965: Gillette Cup Final: Yorkshire 317 off 60 overs at 5.28: Boycott 146. For that day, and that day only, I’m sure it was the closest Geoffrey ever got to ‘I’m coming anyway.’

Another great post, OB. But I was left wondering if Nick Knight had failed to return your calls.

Tim Newman said...

I'm not so sure about all this. I think what it shows is that people are less afraid of getting out in a version of the game where getting out isn't a big deal, and is almost expected provided you've flung the bat about a bit first. The entire T20 game is set up to encourage that risk taking, so it's hardly a sign of courage that batsmen are doing so.

Were McCullum to take that approach in the arena where getting out is still frowned upon - test matches - and succeed (which is pretty much what KP does when he's on form), then we could be onto something. But as it stands, talking about a player who is only any good at T20 and sometimes ODIs, I don't see it as being groundbreaking in any way.

I like T20 for what it is, but being able to smash a ball out of the ground without any real fear of getting out isn't, in my opinion, half as impressive as the Cook/Amla/etc. innings of being able to rack up multiple hundreds over hours when the slightest mistake means you're sitting on a chair doing nothing for the next 2 days.

Unknown said...

"Listening to Brendon, Stuart Broad might want to rethink his slower ball bouncer..."

Stuart Broad and think? Really! We know what will continue to happen

Anonymous said...

That's a delightful bit of advertising Mr Halliwell! :). Oh to hear something like that today!

Anonymous said...

Especially that last line :), delightful and poignant at once.

Anonymous said...

Also important to remember Boycott's key skill - he knew exactly where his stumps were, enabling him to leave more, survive longer. Defined his style and suited the times.

John Halliwell said...

Thank you, Anonymous. Boycott’s innings that day would have drawn one-day superlatives in any age, and it was achieved through high class batsmanship. If he’d played with one of Brendon’s bats he would probably have made 250. The cricket writer, John Woodcock, observed at the time:

‘I only hope that the Boycott who fastens his seat-belt at London Airport next week (for the ‘65/’66 Ashes) is the same man who made 146 against Surrey and who won the award as Man of the Match. It is quite likely that Boycott will open England's innings for a decade to come. The prospect of his doing so in his ascetic mood is hard to entertain. If prepared, as at Lord's, to chance his arm, he would give far greater pleasure to others as well as himself. Boycott used his feet to the quicker bowlers and made many fine straight hits. As usual, too, he forced anything short past cover point with the utmost relish. This, I gather, was how he used to play until he was affected by the awful seriousness of first-class cricket.’

If only Geoffrey had continued ‘chancing his arm’.

@AltCricket said...

Great piece OB. I do tend towards the school of thought that McSlogga has lucked into this era, and would have been laughed out of international cricket in Boycott's time.

I read Boycott on Cricket t'other week and I thought the insight was magnificent, seriously good, if heavy reading.


Anonymous said...

Not so sure it's true that Boycott's fear was not of physical pain. In what Mike Selvey calls the 'pre-protection era' it required a degree of physical courage to be a batsman. Much easier to play without fear if you don't have at the back of your mind the thought that a mistimed stroke could put you in hospital.