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New Year Resolutions (2001)

opy for Cricketer Magazine from Ted Dexter

New Year's day at Sunningdale Golf Club resounded to the hum of good resolutions. No drink for a month ( with occasional lapses allowed ) was a popular choice. Then there was my own determination to keep the head steadier and more behind the ball in the downswing.

Top of the bill was the ageing scratch player who ordered his usual large tot before a twinge of guilt made him switch to mineral water. Only the night before he had embarked on the most stringent of remedies for recent poor form which involved a stone of weight loss, a two month course of lessons in the art of Seniors golf and a commitment to intensive physiotherapy for a stiff neck. In the cold light of day the immediate future looked a trifle bleak!

I found myself wondering whether cricketers are prone to the same kind of good intentions at this time of year. And, if so, what general lines of self-improvement would be the most useful. Obviously there is the whole fitness issue which is mighty important whatever the level of play, but setting yourself more technical goals is no simple matter.

I suppose it would be possible for a batsman to learn a particular stroke like an on-drive if that shot is not in an existing repertoire. Or a course in letting the ball go outside the off-stump would be a good exercise for anyone. The trouble is that serious work on such skills almost certainly needs a bowling machine for some of the time and a couple of competent bowlers to provide variety thereafter. Not everyone has access to such facilities.

Perhaps the first resolution should be to genuinely earmark rather more time for practice than normal during the rest of the winter, stepping it up a gear once the Spring comes round. When the summer is in full swing, then only the most dedicated have the drive and inclination to add practice time to what may be an already arduous day's play. At the highest level, it was Geoffrey Boycott above anyone else I can think of, who regularly found the extra hour or two in every day to bat against all-comers in the nets whether it was early in the morning or late into the evening.

By comparison the golfer has a far easier task. As a much more repetitive game with a still ball to boot, it is merely a question of defining your problems and then working hard to eliminate them. Hitting hundreds of balls is almost essential to reach a high standard even if the amazing Colin Montgomerie is a current exception.

Because of the cricketers difficulties in defining specific problems plus often inadequate practice facilities, I am going to suggest a couple of more general points to consider where some hard concentration in an armchair may be worth many actual hours of hands on activity.

We all know that the best batsmen appear to have more time to play the ball and that the best bowlers have plenty of rhythm, but when did you last hear of cricketers working exclusively on those two key factors. Brian Statham worked at nothing other than his rhythm, for a short time before each day's play and then again the moment he had the new ball in his hand.

When lucky enough to be captaining this wonderful bowler, he would give me bulletins on whether it was feeling right or not quite right or whatever. Unlike some who would be fretting about lack of swing or spin or bounce, all results of their efforts rather than the root cause. It may be that a few home sessions with eyes shut imagining your best bowling action in perfect rhythm would prove more productive than repetitive slogging in the indoor nets.

To find extra time as a batsman may be a little harder, but time spent in studying the problem objectively will not go amiss. It is mostly a matter of believing that there is extra time available and being prepared to take a leap of faith when the actual equations of feet per second and hundredths of seconds tend to disprove any such notion.

One of the most commonly asked questions by young batsmen is how on earth it is possible to play the fastest bowlers when at 90 miles per hour there is only a quarter of a second to actually play the stroke after an even shorter slice of reaction time. It seems impossible until you put it another way. If you say that you have 35 hundredths of a second to play the ball it seems just that bit longer.

There are two essentials in finding extra time. One is to wait for the ball to come to you rather than rushing around trying to get to it. And the other is to have a pre-determined reaction to the kind of ball you most expect. Some of the greatest players may have played each individual ball strictly on merit but for the rest of us, a certain amount of pre-planning is essential.
So shut your eyes and imagine the ball leaving the bowler's hand while you, the batsman, are still simply relaxed and ready. Take that leap of faith which is to believe in your natural reactions and that there will be time enough for them to put you in good position to play the ball when it arrives. If Gary Sobers can stand stock still against Dennis Lillee until the ball is nearly half way down the pitch, then it must be possible for most of us to play the majority of bowlers with time to spare.