I needed time between “the incident” and deciding how to go about trying to explain why Australia threatened to snatch the record for lowest test innings away from New Zealand. I could have written something the next day; emotion ruling the words as I hammered out a piece denouncing one and all who took part on that god forsaken afternoon in Cape Town, but I just needed to ………… well forget. I’d sat through that whole 2nd day listening to the wickets fall and could not fully comprehend what was occurring. I was disgusted in the score line and refused to listen the next night; some kind of silent protest at the worst performance I have ever seen from an Australian cricket team.
It was only today, 3 days after the fact, that I felt free from the constraints that emotion brings to analysis; and began attempting to make some sense of the collapse that took place. Australia were bowled out for 47, that is, even by U/10s level, atrocious. How did this happen? Why were a group of professional athletes unable to execute skills that they have spent half their life practising? The technical abilities are in place but the skills are only one piece of the puzzle when at the crease, the mind, plays just as important role and amidst a collapse, such as the one witnessed in Cape Town, normal patterns of thought can go by the wayside.
Cricket, at its very core, is about pure reactions, you see the ball and you hit the ball. From a young age cricketers are taught the fundamentals, decisive move forward or back, getting your head over the ball, which delivery to leave, which shot to play; pure muscle memory reflex, actions that enables a test match cricketer to process all the aforementioned decisions within half second or so it takes for a cricket ball to travel, at 140kmph, the length of a pitch. But when a player lets their head prevail over pure reflexes, momentary pauses in reaction occur, leading to the inevitability of a false stroke; that perfect cover drive in the nets through the week becomes an edge in to the slip cordon as feet, head and hands fail to operate in synch with one another; a split second of self doubt usurping the muscle memory learnt from 100s of training hours.
The stop start nature of cricket ensures that negativity is given ample time to build in between deliveries; fielders, who outnumber the batsman 11 to 2, prey on any uncertainty and weak willed individuals get found out very quickly. Insecurity sweeps through a dressing room like some medieval contagion, enveloping everyone involved as thigh pads, gloves and protectors get mixed in with others, heightening the tensions of those who are yet to bat while conjuring up those horrible cricket dreams of not finding your gear and being dismissed for not being at the crease in time.
It’s this sort of mania that manifests itself in shots like Haddin’s crazed T20 style hack. At 5 for 18 the time had come for level heads, the Australian keeper walks out to bat; South African fielders, to a man, full of chat; no doubt reminding Haddin that his spot in the team is far from secure. It was within this vacuum that he begins to feel the need to make something happen…… and quick.
“If I can just get off the mark, I’ll be away and feel more relaxed”
“There’s space behind the cover fielder, I’ll just give myself a bit of room”
“I’m an attacking player, not going to change my style now!”
Now this is all just pure supposition on my behalf but I am just attempting to come to grips with what would possess an experienced cricketer, like Brad Haddin, to charge down the pitch like that. It was schoolboy stuff and illustrates why cricket is a test of the players ability to trust their own instinct and to block out extraneous thoughts. How many times do you think Haddin would have charged down the pitch like that, 3rd ball he faced, in the nets?
I’d also assume that 99 times out of 100 Mike Hussey would have shouldered arms to the same ball he received first up. Outside off and posing no threat; his reactions would be to allow the ball to pass safely, gauging the pace and bounce of the wicket and giving himself an idea of how to deal with a delivery when he was forced to play. Instead the thought process becomes clouded; there was a sense of tentativeness in the stroke, almost a need to feel the ball on bat; Hussey failed to move his feet correctly, stuck to the crease with no weight transference, his head too far from both bat and ball resulting in a thickish edge into the cordon.
It’s all about execution; we get too mired in abstract words such as resilience, grit or courage. The best batsman compartmentalise the game down to the individual ball being faced; not the delivery before, not the one to come but simply what is being offered to them in terms of length and line in that moment. Australia needs to get back to this way; the old saying, “play each ball on its merit” still has a ton of substance and is the key to any successful batsmen. It is also the hardest skill to perfect.
If Australia are to exorcise the demons of Cape Town they will have get back to breaking the game down to individual deliveries and forget about the past; a past that the opposition will be eager to remind them of at every opportunity.