While many people may enjoy a game of backyard cricket, only a few go on to become elite professional batsmen in Australia.
Cricket batting is an example of what human skills can achieve. The fastest bowling delivery speeds can exceed 150km/h. That leaves a batsman with less than half a second to react. And to complicate the challenge even further, the environment and pitch they play on can change the trajectory of the delivery every time.
To find out what gives elite cricketers the edge we interviewed eight expert high-performance international or state-level coaches, who themselves were batsmen at those levels.
We asked them a series of questions to capture the skills they saw as underpinning batting expertise. The results were published recently in PLOS ONE.
While the sample was small, there are not many people who were both elite-level players and coaches, so the research provides a unique understanding of the skills needed to become an expert in their field.
Learn to adapt and know your limits
A key finding of our study is that cricket batting can be viewed, at least in the minds of expert batsmen, as a battle for a sense of control of the game.
To gain this sense of control, batsmen must possess the skills to assess all the key environmental conditions, such as the opposition bowler’s plan, the pace of the ball off the pitch, and whether the situation of the game requires scoring or surviving.
An expert batsman’s ability to read these conditions and then adapt their strategy and technique was grounded in an understanding of their own game. One said:
You have to be adaptable to change the momentum of the innings – whether that is by batting through an hour or whether it is counter-attacking during a period.
But it’s not just about knowledge of their own strengths, it’s also about their limitations. As another said:
So if you get on a tough wicket … you’ve got to have the decision-making and planning and discipline to say, right now I can’t do that today, or, I can’t do that for the first hour or two; until the balls a bit older, or the wicket’s a bit flatter, or the ball is a bit closer to me.
Being able to accurately assess the opposition’s plan and the pitch conditions, and adapt accordingly, is no easy feat, and it doesn’t always go to plan.
A batsman’s worst enemy, as any sportsperson knows, can sometimes be themselves. The high-stakes, high-pressure situation within a game can create anxiety, clouding the ability to read the conditions, and have a negative impact on decision-making.
So as cricketers we miss them all the time (a perceived scoring shot), and you have to just reset and refocus.
Routines and reflection
How expert batsmen continually assess the state of the game and keep their emotions in check comes down to what they do between deliveries.
A very important part of batting is … what you think about, and how you let the previous (ball) go, and then prepare (yourself) to be ready for the next one.
Expert batsmen highlighted these periods in between deliveries as crucial. They engaged in a process of reflection to update their knowledge of the key environmental conditions, such as the pitch or the way the opposition bowled.
A brief switch-off period between deliveries was also highlighted as crucial to help overcome mental and physical fatigue during performances that can stretch for hours or across days.
To help with that process, expert players develop routines.
Everybody has a routine. When I talk to people, particularly good players, their routines aren’t that dissimilar. There is a physical aspect to it, at the end of each ball they have a break so they might walk down the pitch and pat down imaginary things, or they might walk out towards square leg, just take a few steps away and walk back in again.
Now you know what’s happening next time you see a batsman walk about the pitch between play.
We can all learn from elite players
Traditionally in sport, expertise has been thought of as the attainment of near-flawless technical abilities. But at the professional level that’s what all players from both sides are hoping to achieve.
For those players to have the edge, our research shows technical ability is only part of the game. The ability to be flexible, learn and adapt to each environment is seen as critical, including the ability to learn from any mistakes.
Taking that time to reflect on what just happened is crucial. And what happens between each delivery can sometimes be just as important as how they play the delivery itself.
Incorporating these ideas within any coaching practices, be it sport or something else, could greatly benefit the development of any expertise.