Part of the joy of cricket is that it is a game of the mind, the weather and the soil, as well as the body. On the face of it, it’s a lot of time for a sometimes indeterminate result. Many find it dull.
Even as a player, there were times when as I stood out on the boundary rope, I yearned for it to all be over. As a spectator, I infamously slept through one of the great days of English cricket at The Oval when Devon Malcolm improbably ripped through the South African batting line-up having been earlier smacked on the helmet by a bouncer. Sweet revenge, but I snored through it. Shame on me.
As any cricket lover knows though, the interplay between clouds, sun, wind, rain and pitch can transform a game in a matter of minutes. Batsmen steadily accumulating; then some swing, the ball hitting a crack in the pitch, a hot-headed heave or a lazy defence and it’s game on.
But perhaps more interesting are the mind games. Sometimes people play the reputation, not the player. A reputedly hard-hitting batsmen comes out and fielders are pre-emptively pushed to the ropes. The opening bowler returns and batsmen get fidgety. A ‘joke bowler’ comes on and a batsman doesn’t know whether to slog or block and oops they’re out.
Some great cricketers – notably bowlers – continued to master the minds of batsmen, even when their bowling lost its rip. Ian Botham was the best example I’ve seen – just the sight of his shaggy mane in his twilight years got good batsmen playing bad shots.
Many good cricketers are only good in certain circumstances. On certain pitches against certain players. Some good players were destroyed by a nemesis – Andrew Hilditch hooking and holing out to Ian Botham again and again is the most memorable example for me. The difference between good and great is getting results in all conditions against all types of player.
As a spin bowler myself, there were days when I knew I was evenly matched with a batsman. The pitch, ball and match situation meant I couldn’t get him out unless he did something rash. And, if I deviated from line and length, he’d soon knock me out of the attack. Precision and mind games are what’s left.
Four ‘dot balls’ in an over and you know on number five he’ll try to hit you over your head. Do you float it to tempt him – and risk a boundary if he connects? Or squirt an ugly ball low and flat and work for a maiden so the other bowler gets a go at the other increasingly frustrated batsman? Two consecutive raps on the pads and the embarrassment and physical smarting mean he’ll surely try to smack you. Do you pitch right up to try and york him – risking overpitching and gifting a free hit. It’s 90% in the mind 10% in the execution when you’re evenly matched.
But there are times also when the pitch is doing nothing, the ball is dead, your fielders are dropping catches and runs are ticking along. On those days you just need to stick at it, keep putting it up there, don’t lose your head and trust to luck that something will happen. Cricket is often as much endurance and luck as mental chess.
And so it is with life. All too often we take a view whether to attack or defend based on the person we face. We decide if they are fiery, defensive, tricky or predictable and choose a posture accordingly. This can be a big mistake.
Even the most unpredictable bowler can produce a surprise good ball, and the most reliable the odd bad one. Playing the ball – comment, question, proposal or decision – on it’s merits, not based on who says it, is the great player’s art.