Saturday, 2 November 2013

The perfect shot

On 21 October, 2006, England and Australia met in a group game for the ICC Champions Trophy. It took place in Jaipur. England batted first and, after a good start from Strauss and Bell, struggled to accelerate and were bowled out for a paltry 169. Facing an early exit from the tournament, the Lancashire pair of Anderson and Mahmood tore into the Australian top order, nipping out the dangerous Gilchrist, Watson and Ponting.

The two Australian middle order batsman, Damien Martyn and Michael Hussey, began to consolidate the innings. At 75-3 the game was somewhat in the balance: the run rate wasn't an issue, but a couple more wickets would make it very interesting. Mahmood raced in to Martyn and delivered a quick ball, a shade under 85mph, on a perfect length, about four or five inches outside off stump. The batsman came half forward in defence and prodded it out into the covers.

And then the strangest thing happened.

The ball bounced a couple of yards away from the batsman. As it headed at around waist height towards the gap between cover and point, it seemed to accelerate. By the time point and cover had turned around to give chase, it was taking its second bounce a couple of metres away from them, and it was only getting quicker as it made its way towards the boundary. They began to give chase but in just over five seconds it had crossed the off side boundary, to be picked up by a ball boy.

Damien Martyn had just played the perfect cricket shot.

The bowler can be seen looking in desperation at the ball's progress. What is he thinking? He's bowled a perfect delivery. The batsman has just hit it for four, without taking any risk whatsoever.

What I love about this moment is what it tells you about the art of batting. The ball's gone for four because of timing. And timing is not just about making sure the ball hits the middle. And it's not just about making the bat connect with the ball at the right time. It's about making the bat connect with the ball at the right time and transferring weight up from the feet, through the hips, over the ball through the spine and head as you do so. And when we talk about the timing for all this, all at once, we're talking milliseconds.

For such an unlikely occurrence, everything must be perfect. The bowler must be the right pace (a delivery at 84mph is probably about perfect for a quality test player on a slow track), must come on to the bat nicely (Mahmood was always an unfortunate bowler - he had pace, but also had an action that I imagine was rather easier to pick up than, say, a Malinga or Tait, and he rarely moved the ball a great deal), and above all the stars have to be in their element.

That's how a shot like this happens: the cricket equivalent of Bruce Lee's one-inch punch. Martyn was one of the greatest timers the game has ever seen. He'd do similar on many occasions - here for example - but I'm not sure he ever played a better shot than he did that night in Jaipur.

Maybe we need to rethink the way we coach batsmen. We compartmentalise our front foot shots - the drive, the glance, the defence - but all this play is really based around various extensions of the same shot, played in different directions. Maybe we need to stress the importance of timing the front foot defence: most coaches will tell you you're playing it to keep out a good ball - not score off it.