It was a league match and we had just taken a wicket. A kid of about 15 came out looking nervous, as they often do. I reckon it was one of his first senior cricket games because he looked like a fish out of water.
He was small for his age anyway, and this was exacerbated by the wide framed men that stood around the bat. Our spinner was on. They were sharks circling their prey waiting for the slightest mistake.
He scratched around for a while and we soon came to the conclusion he was not going to last long. That was until he got a half volley on leg stump. He unleashed one of the finest on drives I have seen. The ball raced to the long boundary in a blur.
It's a scene that you can see at every level of cricket all over the world.
Why it is that seemingly 'weak' players like that kid can hit the ball so hard?
The paradox of timing
We all know that timing is the key, but that's not as simple as it sounds. We use the term often, meaning something simple: a shot that appears effortless but flies off the bat. Yet understanding the myriad of factors that go into it is more difficult.
This complexity comes with dealing with the paradox of batting: Timing is about the production of power yet the harder we try and hit the ball, the less timing we have.
How can we make the whole thing simpler?
A simple guide to timing the cricket ball
The first step is to think of timing as a result of other factors rather than a factor in itself. The good news is all of these factors are in your control.
Geoff Boycott is right. Good technique is important when it comes to timing. When I think of technical discussion I remember old players moaning about a loss of the "proper" way to do things. In fact, correct technique is based in both physics and personal style.
Take Newton's third law of motion. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction
- Leaning into the shot makes the ground push back generating force through your body, into the bat and finally the ball.
- A high backlift allows a longer downswing which produces more force.
- Rotating your shoulders (vertically for straight bat and horizontally for cross bat) with your arms extended creates a longer lever and more force.
Bob Woolmer and Tim Noakes take these biomechanical facts a little further, saying it is the hands working together in a straight line that generate timing:
- The top hand controls the backswing (which is why a light bottom hand grip is coached).
- Both hands work together in the 'strike zone'.
- The bottom hand takes control at the moment of impact and during the follow-through to generate power.
If you bring the bottom hand in too strongly, too early or at a different angle from the top hand your timing will be upset.However, if you make sure both hands work together as long and as straight as possible, all your shots will be better timed. Ed Smith talks about this as "snapping the wrists" at the point of impact: Transferring power between top and bottom hand as they work.
However, these days we know that pure physics and biomechanics are useless in the hands of imperfect and oddly shaped humans. Everyone has differing methods ad often the secret of timing for one person is frustratingly useless for another. Personality and physical build can throw a spanner in the works, meaning often you need to get in the nets and use trial and error to find how to get your timing. Coaches know how to make this work. Find yourself a good coach who can develop you with a technique that is effective.
Besides, all the technique in the world is irrelevant if you can't use it. This is where other factors come in.
2. Tension, relaxation and the zone
Call it confidence, concentration or relaxation, your mental state is directly related to your timing. Roy Palmer, an Alexander Technique practitioner and cricket coach, has researched and written a book outlining how your tension and effort is a limiting factor.
It makes sense on a practical level. The harder you try the less you time the ball.
This could be because your shoulders are too tense or you are lifting your head as you throw yourself into the shot. All movements like this are unnecessary and act as a 'leak' to the amount of power you can impart on the ball, and they come from what is happening in your head rather than what your technique is like. Or to put it another way, the more you can focus on the ball and forget everythign else, the better your timing becomes.
Learning to relax at the crease is a simple way to improve your timing. It can be as simple a trick as checking where you have tensed up as the bowler is running in and to let that tension go. Being able to do this, according to Roy, puts you in "the zone" where you are relaxed and playing each ball on its merits.
This is easier said than done but here is a good place to start. Tricks are all well and good, but mental preparation takes practice. As long as you buy into the principle, I believe it's worth it. I have seen a direct effect on many player's games. Have you used any techniques to improve your own batting? Let me know.
Decision making and shot selection
Pakistani great Inzamam-ul-Haq was a fine example of a batsman with a lot of time. Better analysts than me have put it down to his rapid ability to detect the line and length of the ball. This has been backed by recent research. Scientists looked at the differences between elite players and club players. The top batsmen picked up the line and length of the ball at a much earlier point.
Interestingly, their reaction times and eyesight were not different. However, the earlier detection gave the top players more time to decide what shot to play, and time the ball better. The researchers have speculated that a great deal of the difference is down to the 10,000 hour effect: The rough rule about how much practice time it takes to become expert at something. Professionals simply practice and play more. The amateurs had not reached that level of expertise.
Based on this, the simple answer is to practice more.
The more bowling you face, especially in practice, the better you will get at picking up the clues a bowler gives as they run in to bowl. Practice needs to be directed in the right way. I categorise useful practice in the following ways, all of which have equal contribution:
I say "useful" because often I see players messing around in the nets having a bit of a bat and a gentle bowl. This is a poor way to develop your game. And with a tiny bit more structure, can be removed from net sessions easily.
4. Muscles and movements
Here is something shocking: You need your muscles to play cricket.
Maybe that's not so shocking, but we do often disconnect the physical side of batting with the mental side because it's mainly about technique and tactics. Additionally, the faster those muscles move (with the most efficient technique) the more force you can produce and the better your timing.
Traditionally cricket has never made the association between these facts. I think this is because we see players with excellent timing and batting skills without giant muscles. This is reinforced by the fact we often try really hard to smash the ball only to see it trickle away. Batting, we conclude, is a matter of style rather than brute strength.
I don't agree.
Trying to hit the ball too hard reduces efficiency and technique. I don't think it has anything to do with brute strength. Also, weaker players can still have fast swings by recruiting a lot more fast muscle fibres, something which doesn't need large looking muscles.
All muscles are made up of bundles of tiny fibres. Some act quickly and some slowly. The higher ratio of fast fibres you have the faster you can move that muscle. The faster the muscles move the faster the bat moves and the better you time the ball. Good batsmen strive for a higher ratio of fast muscle fibres rather than simply having larger muscles overall.
You can increase the ratio through specific training.
According to Glamorgan's former strength coach, Rob Ahmun, cricket sits somewhere between power and speed (the green and blue dots). This is called speed-strength. This speed strength, as we have discussed, requires a high ratio of fast to slow muscle fibres. It also works better with good basic movement skills (and a relatively low amount of body fat also helps).
What it doesn't require is a large amount of muscle mass. In sports like rugby, muscle size comes into play but for cricket, fitness is more about how fast you are than size. SO when doing fitness work emphasise this by,
It is this combination of efficient, mobile movements performed at speed that must give the greatest crossover to batting.
To have fast hands you must train fast, to be able to train fast you must have a good base of strength and mobility. For me, everything links back to the basics.
I figure this combination of opinion, experience and science is enough for now. Add fitness, deliberate practice and concentration to any player and their batting timing will improve. I do feel there is more to come in this field though. The role of hand-eye coordination is important for example, but how do you improve it and can you measure it? I would also like to know what exactly 'natural talent' is and if enough work, especially at an early age, can compensate for it.
What are your thoughts on timing?