Monday, 4 May 2015

The beast that is batting

Jon Hotten in Cricinfo

There was no crueller moment at the end of the Barbados Test than the few seconds that the camera spent on Jonathan Trott. In Bridgetown, the floodlights were on and the twilight was coming, followed by the dark. For Trott something more than a match was over, and it showed in his face. "Sadder still to watch it die, than never to have known it…" as someone once wrote.

A few summers ago I had the chance to talk to a man who had worked closely with England at Loughborough. The conversation got on to Trott and his debut against Australia in the final Ashes Test of 2009. There had been some debate over his selection. There was a last-minute swell of emotion behind a romantic recall for Mark Ramprakash, who was coming towards the end of his great sunburst of runs in the county game. Trott, averaging 97 for the season himself, won the call, and, "as he walked to bat," said the guy I was talking to, "I knew that there was no one that I'd rather see going out there."

Trott made 41 and 119. He had a habit of scoring runs on debut - 245 for Warwickshire 2nds, 134 for the 1st team - and by the summer of 2011, when he made a double-hundred against Sri Lanka in Cardiff, he was established at number three and his average was approaching 67. He was a curio, a gem, a rapidly emerging cult hero. Trott was a batsman whose idiosyncrasies showed. Along with a practice regime that was quickly becoming legendary, his batting had the ritualistic edge that externalised some of the mental processes required to score heavily against the world's best bowlers. Each delivery faced, even those with the most banal outcome - a leave, a defensive push - brought a long routine of walking and scratching and scraping at the crease. Here was a mind that sought to impose order and control on the unpredictability and ever-present danger of batting.

His game was similarly risk-averse, his scoring areas clearly defined and stuck to, his shot selection pragmatic and appropriate. Once set, he sought simply to carry on. His mental landscape appeared entirely different to those of players like Pietersen or Ponting, who needed the challenge to escalate as they batted, and who would escalate it themselves if the bowlers wouldn't, taking risks, provoking conflict that ratcheted up the stakes.

"I play cricket to be effective and I have my things I do to get myself ready for battle. Maybe it can mess with their over rate or whatever, but it's just what I do and I won't be changing it," Trott said in 2009 after the South Africans grew frustrated with the time he was taking between deliveries. 

The mental and physical sides of batting are two halves of a whole. It is a tenuous way to make a living and the stresses and scars can be incremental. They affect everyone differently. When batting defines your professional life, when it becomes a part of who you are, then its vulnerabilities are obvious. Trott's departure from the tour of Australia was never going to be easy to recover from, because the foundations of his batting, the toughness he had built up over a long period, were so savagely undermined, along with his sense of self.

As Trott tried to rebuild with Warwickshire and then the Lions, Alastair Cook also fought for his career. Yet there was always the sense with Cook that he was primarily battling a physical, technical issue, a flaw in his game that he could overcome. It had a psychological element, of course, and doubt must have played its role through his long drought, but it never seemed quite as hurtful as Trott's difficulties. At the same time Stuart Broad was struck a very painful and frightening blow that has put his batting into reverse. Broad is not dependent on the bat for a living, and yet the decline is ominous and clear.

All three are at different points on a spectrum that shows just how implacably hard batting can be. It is a brave occupation, and the brilliance of the very best sometimes obscures how difficult it is, even for those blessed with the greatest of gifts.

Jonathan Trott's difficulties have been associated with the short ball, and that strikes at the very heart of the psychology of batting. It is about many things, but failing courage isn't really one of them. Trott has never been more courageous than when he walked out for the second innings in Barbados, having been bounced out in the first. It was moving because, in all probability, he knew that it would be the last time that he did it. He went anyway, and he exits the battle with honour, taken out on his shield.

My favourite quote in cricket comes from Viv Richards, when he was asked how he'd like to be remembered. "With the bat, I was a soldier…" he said.

That's beautiful and true, and we must salute all of those who understand its meaning.

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