Note: To really understand this post, I’m going to assume you have a good understanding of cricket’s rules. However if you don’t know cricket well, you should still read this to understand how subtle the game really is. It’ll be interesting.
Having played cricket since I was 5 years old and having watched the game my entire life, I have always been interested in the subtleties of the sport. Cricket – like every great sport – is relatively easy to learn but extremely hard to master.
Batting technique in particular has always interested me (maybe because I am a batsman myself). It’s a skill where the smallest technical adjustments can lead to massive change in results (in this case, scoring runs).
As any batsman who has faced genuine pace will tell you, when the ball is coming at 135kph+ batting becomes completely instinctive. A batsman has less than 0.5 seconds to pick up the line and length of the ball, figure out what shot to play, and then execute the shot. You just don’t have time to think.
Yet – thanks to the help of Youtube – it’s amazing to see the small technical improvements that batsmen make to deal with pace. Naturally, I can’t look at every player, so I’ve started by analyzing the technique of arguably the most popular batsman of all time – Sachin Tendulkar.
If you guys like this post, I’ll do another one with another batsman. Let me know what you think in the comments or tweet to me @tilomitra.
I picked Tendulkar because he is widely recognized as a technical master so he’s a good candidate to look at. He’s also played for 20 years so there’s a good deal of videos of watch. I’ve only been able to see Tendulkar live once but I’ve watched 100s of his innings online (no really, I have a weird obsession with this guy), and I’ve noticed a few things over the years.
There’s a lot to talk about but today I’m going to mention three aspects of batting that an average viewer probably doesn’t pay much attention to: stance, batlift, and triggers.
Every batsman has a unique stance. There’s no right or wrong stance, but it’s important for a batsman to be balanced and stay side-on to the ball. This lets you play off either foot and all around the wicket. Tendulkar in his latter years was known to have a simple, classical, and uncomplicated stance, but how did he get there?
For someone who played for over 20 years, it’s amazing to see how little Tendulkar’s stance changed post-1998.
In 1992 when he was only a 19-year old, he seems to lean on his bat and takes his guard on leg stump (or even a bit outside). His head also falls over towards the off stump. Why is this important? Take a look at some of his innings around this time period (like this one against Pakistan), and you’ll notice he actually falls over and gets closed off while playing shots towards mid-wicket. Luckily, his hand-eye coordination saves him from LBWs.
In 1996, Tendulkar officially came to the World Stage in ODIs with a tremendous showing in the World Cup, and in 1998 he was regarded as the best batsman in the world. I consider 1996-2003 to be Tendulkar’s golden years. One of the major differences during this time period is a more upright stance, which enabled him to have better balance when the ball was on the stumps.
Going forward from 1998 towards 2013 (the last picture is during his last test match), we see his bat getting closer to his back leg, and a gradual movement of his guard towards middle stump. Why did he do this? There are a few reasons that come to my mind.
The primary reason batsmen move from leg to middle is because they trust their leg-side play, specifically the flick shot and the on drive. Tendulkar was so comfortable off his pads throughout the latter half of his career that he trusted himself to not miss. When you stand on middle stump, you can flick or drive balls on off-and-middle through square leg or midwicket. If you miss, you’ll be LBW, but it opens up more run-scoring opportunities on the leg side. It also puts your head (specifically your right eye) on off-stump, so you can leave any delivery that is outside your eye-line. Most contemporary batsmen actually play on middle stump nowadays (Virat Kohli and AB De Villiers are 2 examples).
Batlifts are interesting because they are entirely subconscious. There are three aspects to a batlift:
- How high the wrist is compared to the rest of the body: The higher the wrist is, the easier it is to play cross-batted shots, but the more time it takes for the bat to come down to full deliveries.
- How high the bat rises due to the wrist cocking: A larger wrist cock enables the bat to come down with more power.
- The direction of the bat face: Usually “open” (when the bat face is towards point), or “closed” (when the bat face is towards the slips). The bat face is a good way to tell how a batsman is gripping his bat.
Changing a batlift requires hundreds of hours of practice. Take a look at Tendulkar’s batlift throughout his career.
These pictures tell a good story. First, let’s look at the dates. Tendulkar was in his prime in 1998 (as I mentioned already). In 2011 he was experiencing a renaissance with terrific series returns in Australia, NZ, culminating in the World Cup win. In comparison in 2005, he was coming back from his tennis elbow injury and this was probably his worst season.
Tendulkar was known to have a low batlift with a high wrist-cock. This is true for most sub-continental players as they grow up on pitches which have low bounce so they keep their hands low. This lets them play drives and flicks well, but they aren’t able to get their hands high enough in time to play the pull or hook. Looking at these images, Tendulkar’s wrists go up to his waist. If you compare this with someone like Ricky Ponting or Brian Lara, you’ll notice they get their hands up to their midriff or higher.
Noticeably, Tendulkar’s wrist-cock is much lower in his 2005 shot, when he was returning from his tennis elbow injury. Look at how low the bat is there compared to 1998. The smaller wrist-cock means that he wasn’t able to generate as much power through his shots. This is true of 1992 as well, where he has a relatively small batlift and wrist-cock. My guess is since scores were much lower in those days in ODIs, he did not feel the necessity to play as many big shots (this is also a test match, so maybe he’s just playing defensively).
Finally, notice the similarity in his batlift was between 1998 and 2011, which were also his two most productive run-scoring seasons as a batsman.
Trigger movements are small feet movements that batsmen make before a bowler has released the ball. Because the ball comes down at such high speeds, triggers get the body moving and helps keep the batsman on the balls of his feet so he can react to the delivery in time.
The golden rule of batting is “stay still at the precise moment that the ball is being delivered”. So a trigger has to happen at just the right time. Too early, and you’re standing still too long and the effect of the trigger is lost. Too late, and your trigger is incomplete while the ball has left the bowler’s hand making you late on your shot. On top of this, the trigger has to be completely subconscious. In other words, you shouldn’t think about having a trigger. Your feet have to move automatically, because batting is instinctive.
I’m fascinated by triggers because they are notoriously difficult to learn and master. I know this because I’ve tried many times to introduce a trigger to my batting without much success.
Tendulkar was famously known for not having a trigger movement. This is part of what makes him good to look at. He stays still, and just reacts to the ball. But is that really true? Take a look at these pictures.
Here’s Tendulkar batting in the same innings (vs England in 2003 World Cup). What do these pictures tell us?
Part of Tendulkar’s genius is his ability to change his trigger on demand based on the bowler he is facing. This is extremely hard to do, I don’t really know how he did it.
- In the first over (0.2), he’s facing Caddick and has no trigger.
- Then, something happens between Over 1 and Over 4, because in Over 4.1, he makes a big forward press trigger towards Caddick. Caddick hasn’t let the ball go yet but Tendulkar has made a decent stride towards the off stump (he ends up playing this shot off the back-foot, which is ridiculous considering he has committed to the front-foot already).
- We see the forward press trigger again. He keeps using it against Caddick who is bowling at decent pace (84mph+).
- When Flintoff comes on to bowl, the trigger goes away and he’s back to reacting to the ball.
Here’s another interesting one against Shoaib Akhtar, the fastest bowler of his generation. I’m a big fan of Akhtar’s bowling.
Akhtar was bowling at 90mph+ in both of these games, which is as fast as you can get in cricket. However, for some reason, Tendulkar completely changed his trigger movement while facing him. In 2004, he had a backward press before the ball is released. In 2003, he has a large forward press. And there are videos where he faces Akhtar without any trigger at all.
I’m not sure how to explain this. Sourav Ganguly – who opened with Tendulkar in 136 ODIs – once said that Tendulkar would sometimes change his trigger during the middle of the innings, which Ganguly found incredible.
What I do know is that it takes a long time to coordinate trigger movements with the rest of your batting movements, so it’s a measure of Tendulkar’s genius that he’s able to switch up his movements on the fly in this manner against one of the best bowlers in the world.
Cricket is a game of inches and millimetres, as I hope I’ve demonstrated in this post. There’s a lot more to analyze about the game and it’s a shame that no commentator or analyst really interviews players about these things. Let me know what you guys think, and if you guys want me to write up another post on your favourite batsman.