In this instant digital age of the iPod, iPad, iPhone, SMS messaging, Twitter and Facebook, is it any wonder that people find it hard to stay focused? When one throws in television, I am not surprised that the attention span of young people today has supposedly dropped to around seven minutes; the average time between ad-breaks in most TV shows.
The common refrain that I hear from cricket coaches around the world is that young batsmen are so exposed to short-form cricket that they don’t know how to play a long innings. Many of these coaches have tried myriad ways to get their young charges to learn to bat for long periods.
If one wants to develop the skill of concentration, then one has to practice it as assiduously as their physical skills. We know that the human body reacts well to diet and exercise; so does the human brain. Our brain, like our body, is a product of its training.
Batting for long periods is about focusing on the process, rather than the outcome.
Michelangelo , for instance, did not think about the finished article when he painted the Sistine Chapel; it was about the subject, light, colours and personal flair. Each little process was conducted with great diligence, the end result is just that... an end result... but what a result!
Modern players such as Cook, Trott, Amla, Kallis, Jayawardena, Sangakkara, Clarke and Pujara have developed their mind-power to play long innings as did Dravid and Laxman before them.
Breaking it down
My own experience was that, to bat for long periods, I had to break my innings down and train myself to play one ball at a time. Once I acquired this skill, I found batting for long periods became easier.
Prior to this, I had tried to concentrate non-stop by forcing myself to focus fiercely from the time I walked in until I got out. During this period, I tried to follow the bowler and the ball for the whole over so that I didn’t lose concentration.
What I found during this phase, was that I tired very quickly and actually began to make mistakes after a relatively short period of time. If I did succeed using this method, I was usually so tired that I couldn’t relax easily afterwards and I was generally ‘flat’ for a few days.
On reflection, it dawned on me that this method was bound to fail and I had to find an alternative method. The alternative I chose was to train myself to concentrate for one ball at a time.
Concentration is the ability to focus on what is important at that moment.
From that point, my practice sessions became a contest with myself to see how well I could manage the conflicting messages in my head. Training was no longer an exercise in polishing my technique, but a mental exercise in engaging with the bowler at the appropriate time.
What I learnt to do was to switch-on to the bowler once he reached his bowling mark. The fiercest concentration was saved for the time that the bowler reached his delivery stride until that particular play was finished.
In between balls, I had a quick look into the crowd to give my mind a break before returning my attention to the field of play. I re-engaged with the bowler again once he got back to his mark.
The look into the crowd was an important part of my concentration routine. If I was playing at home, I would pick out someone whom I knew to look for. I astounded my family and friends when, at the end of the day, I could tell them what time they had arrived at the ground, who they had spoken to and what time they had a drink or something to eat.
Once I perfected this routine, I was never fatigued during play nor was I exhausted at the end of a long innings. Effectively, I had only concentrated at full intensity for a matter of minutes, even if I batted all day.
One of the challenges for me during net sessions with multiple bowlers was not to face up to the next ball until I was switched-on to the next bowler. It took me a while to get my routine down pat, but once I got into the flow of it, I found it easier to get into the ‘zone’.
Interestingly, I actually faced fewer balls in my allocated practice time once I started doing this, but actually felt that I was getting more out of my net sessions. Once I perfected my mental routine, I found it exciting to see how long I could bat before I made a mental mistake.
Mental training a must
At an elite level, the challenge for coaches is to understand that this mental training is the most important thing that a batsman has to learn. For a batsman to turn potential into consistent performance, he must first learn the ‘inner game’ of cricket, which is the ability to keep his mind from wandering from the key issues.
Most batsmen get themselves out long before the bowler does it. I learnt early in my career that I was getting myself out 90 per cent of the time. No doubt the bowler played his part by putting me under pressure, but, if I was to be honest with myself, it was invariably a mental mistake that brought me undone.
The other important insight that I had during my introspection was that I was unlikely to change those percentages. If I was to make enough runs to keep being selected, I had to learn how to delay the inevitable mistake.
It was after this epiphany that my career took an upward turn and only nose-dived during the periods that I got distracted from my routine.
In these periods of distraction (or inadvertent neglect), batting became more difficult to resolve than Fermat’s last theorem.
Eventually, I would come to my senses, revert to my routine and, hey presto, the runs would flow again!
It reminded me of what Yogi Berra, the former New York Yankees baseball player, coach and clever quip artist said of his sport: “Baseball is ninety per cent mental; the other half is physical.”
If today’s coaches want batsmen to occupy the crease for longer periods, they need to cure their attention deficit disorder first.