Edited on, October 25, 2005, 3:26 PM GMT, by Arnab.
Optimizing Batting Technique: Introduction
Dr. Rene Ferdinands - Department of Physics & Electronic Engineering, The University of Waikato
[ This article was produced in consultation with Owen Mottau - Batting Technical Specialist, Sri Lanka.]
Batting in cricket is a wonderful art, almost universal in appeal. People from very different parts of the world are often united in their appreciation of the flowing and rhythmical drives of a skilled batsman. Whether it is the majestic elegance of Sachin Tendulkar, the awesome power of Inzamam Ul-Haq, or the brilliance of Aravinda de Silva, there is a certain poetry that captivates an audience. And, great batsmanship is certainly not restricted to the present times! The past contains many more examples: the genius of Sir Donald Bradman, the brilliance of Sir Garfield Sobers, the technical perfection of Sunil Gavaskar, and the mystical artistry of K.S. Ranjitsinhji.
A question that naturally arises is: "Are great batsmen born or made?" Many are of the opinion that apart from teaching a few technical fundamentals, one's batting ability is determined early on in life: that it is therefore counterproductive to scientifically investigate the principles of batting technique as this would just overcomplicate the act of striking a ball. In this article we have completed a qualitative biomechanical analysis of many aspects of batting technique. Our approach has generated a new set of batting principles, which can be supported by the methods of great batsmen. We will show that many of the established techniques of batting cannot be supported biomechanically, and are not used by the elite players. Our objective is to present a solid technical framework that comes close to optimising the art of batting by making the act of striking a ball as simple as possible. Certainly, it is impossible to make every batsman a great one. However, through the wise use of qualitative biomechanical analysis, we believe that batting performance can be significantly improved, and that many good batsmen can be made into great ones.
What is it that makes a great batsman so different from a good one, or for that matter a poor one! Why did Sunil Gavaskar, that little master from India, have so much time to play the fastest bowlers in the world, when lesser batsmen were primarily concerned with their physical safety? How did the greatest of them all, Sir Donald Bradman, achieve the unimaginable average of 99.94 runs per wicket? How did Sir Garfield Sobers manage to totally dominate every bowling attack in the world with the most splendid array of shots, all executed with an ethereal elegance? And, what does the modern master, Sachin Tendulkar, possess, that makes him so much better than all the rest? Certainly, natural ability plays its part. However, we have found that the greatest batters share a common technical framework that makes it possible for them to optimise their ability (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Batting masters Aravinda de Silva (Sri Lanka) and Sunil Gavaskar (India). Both batsmen had near perfect techniques, and were true batting artists, scoring prodigiously against the best bowling attacks in the world. What were their batting secrets?
For those less well acquainted with the game of cricket, the technique of bating must seem exceedingly simple: just use a wooden bat to hit a ball that has been bowled from a distance of 22 yards, generally after it has bounced once off the ground. If so simple, how can certain batters hold the attention of millions of people for 3, 4 or 5 days at a stretch? And why are elite batters prepared to spend countless hours perfecting their art in the practice nets, when they may be dismissed first ball in a game, and have to wait days or sometimes weeks before they bat again? Conversely, what makes a batter bat for days on end when conditions may be excruciatingly difficult, and victory out of the question?
Those who know the game intimately are aware of the reasons for such rigorous practice. Batting is an art of infinite subtlety, not only in strategy, but also in its most basic mechanics. To be even moderately successful, a batter must have proficiency in a wide array of skills. On top of that, a batter has to know how to combat the almost unlimited variations concocted by the bowler - from variations in pace, length (the distance travelled before bouncing), and line of delivery, to swinging and swerving: motions dependent on the intricate combination of the seam angle and spin of the ball as it travels through the air (Figure 2). A further degree of complexity is introduced when the seam angle and spin are also used to change the line of the ball off the pitch.
Figure 2. Bowling geniuses: Wasim Akram (left) from Pakistan bowls left arm pace by running through the bowling crease, and can swing and cut the ball both ways at will; Muttiah Muralidharan (right) from Sri Lanka bowls big off-spinners and 'doosras' from a legal bent-arm action. To counter the quality and diversity of such bowlers, a batter must possess lightning reflexes, mental toughness, and a sound technique. Without developing a technique based on sound biomechanical principles, it is not possible to consistently score runs in cricket against quality bowling. For example, an inappropriate initial movement would give these bowlers a significant head start.
The art of batting is complex, and good batters are forever trying to master their craft. And for good reason - batting is probably the most complex sport to analyse biomechanically. There are so many levers involved - all of them acting interdependently in response to the trajectory of the ball, and subject to a changeable number of constraints. The dynamics to describe such a situation would require a detailed mathematical model. This is one of the reasons that previous attempts to use biomechanics to evaluate batting technique have been simplistic, and of very little use to the coach. It is the view of the authors that the accepted biomechanical principles of batting have been developed without considering the appropriate constraints. As such, the implementation of these principles is unlikely to improve batting performance.
Even past elite players find it difficult to prescribe correct batting technique. Though they knew how to bat proficiently, the execution of their skills was largely performed unconsciously. Therefore, it is often the case that an elite batsman's perception of what he is doing differs from what he is actually does. Unfortunately, this is when serious errors can be made in coaching.
In this article, we will discuss certain fundamental aspects of batting technique that are critical for elite performance. We will show that batting is a complex art, but that by using a qualitative biomechanical approach within the conceptual framework of optimisation, it is possible to develop a set of technical principles that would make the art of batting more efficient. We believe that this is the first time batting has been analysed from a scientific viewpoint, and the results of our study can substantiated by the experiences and methods of the world's greatest batters. It also demonstrates the value of qualitative biomechanics, particularly when a quantitative approach is not possible either to the lack of proper testing equipment and facilities, or to experimental limits determined by the state of technology. At other times, a quantitative approach may not even be useful. All this demonstrates the need for biomechanists to develop strong skills in the art of qualitative analysis. It is not an exact science, and the findings will evolve over time. But it is an indispensable tool to understand the biomechanical principles of complex human movement sequences. Batting falls under this category, and as a first step requires the development of a qualitative biomechanical model. Only then can we begin to unravel the hidden secrets of the master batters of the past and present!
Developing a Qualitative Optimisation Model
We developed a qualitative analysis model of batting based on the rules of a standard optimisation approach. Once the required output has been determined, then optimisation problems, in general, are defined by three quantities: cost function, design variables, and constraint functions (Nigg & Herzog, (1995). The aim of the optimisation is to minimise the cost function. We used this methodological approach to logically derive and present the qualitative mechanical principles that underlie elite batting technique. It is important to note that the process itself does not guarantee an accurate analysis. A different researcher may use the same methodological approach, and obtain a different qualitative analysis. The skill, therefore, lies in choosing the appropriate cost, design and constraint functions. This depends on the researcher's experience and mode of investigation. We based our choice of design constraints and variables from the exhaustive studies of elite players throughout the ages, and a consideration of rigid body dynamics principles.
An Introduction to the Initial Movement
In any analysis of batting technique, there is no better place to start than right at the beginning - just before the ball is released. The theoretical view that the batter remains perfectly balanced and completely uncommitted until ball release is virtually impossible to execute in practice. In fact, there is no reason to suggest that there is an advantage in attempting this. It seems that a preliminary (or initial) movement before the ball is bowled is a natural reflexive response that causes the batter to adopt a quasi-static configuration with a specific set of dynamically induced muscle tensions throughout the body. From this initial position, the batter can then make a final decisive movement, either forward or back dependent on the trajectory and speed of the ball. This may seem an unnecessarily complex description for such a small movement. However, it should soon become apparent why this is necessary when we make the first attempts to optimise the preliminary movement.
Further evidence of the importance of the preliminary movement is substantiated by the experiences of past elite cricketers. The greatest batsman in the history of the game, Sir Donald Bradman (1998), says
"I am all in favour of the batsman starting to lift his bat and making preliminary movement with his feet before the ball is delivered. It saves a precious fraction of a second and appears to serve the same purpose as the preliminary waggle before starting your swing in golf."
Sir Garfield Sobers, often considered the batsman second only to Bradman in terms of ability, also states that the preliminary movement is like the golf waggle. However, he goes further and believes that this natural reflex can be conditioned according to the type of bowling encountered. Against fast bowling, he suggests that the back foot should move 12-14 cm back and across towards the off-stump just before the ball is released. At the same time the bat should lift a corresponding distance. The theory behind this is to give the batter a little extra time to sight the ball, and prevent any large preliminary movement of the front foot, which would inhibit back foot play if the ball is pitched short. Against medium-pace and spin bowling Sir Garfield argues that the initial movement can be slightly forward as much of this bowling is played on the front foot, and the batter would have more time to play back if it is pitched short. This is a rational attempt to optimise the initial movement, and it shows that elite players recognise the value in doing this. It is not just an abstract ideal proposed by biomechanists! In fact, there are innumerable examples of Test players who believe in the necessity of optimising the initial movement - Sunil Gavaskar, Greg Chappell, Ian Chappell, Bob Woolmer, and Imran Khan - just to name a few.
Bob Woolmer (1995) has a slightly different perspective on the initial movement. He believes that the initial movement is used to establish a rhythm, which makes it easier to move the feet against fast bowling. He states that there are three main ways in which this rhythm is generated: a back foot movement, a front foot movement, or a double movement (i.e. when the back foot and front foot move wider before release). Unfortunately, there is no explanation as to what this rhythm initiates and why it enhances footwork.
It is apparent that the execution and timing of the initial movement is critical to batting performance. However, what are the mechanical principles behind the initial movement? Can they be optimised? The simple back and across initial movement is rarely used today in its pure form. From our experience as coaches, many cricketers have said that they feel out of balance when they use the simple back foot initial movement, and find it difficult to move forwards. Therefore they often combine this with a front foot movement, making it a double movement (Video 1). Unfortunately, this sometimes moves the batter's legs well in front of the wicket, increasing the susceptibility to an lbw decision. Also, in many cases this movement does not improve a player's ability to play back because the front foot moves last, having therefore the same consequences as a front foot initial movement. Many young cricketers today also use the 'pure' front foot movement. Apparently this is more natural, and they feel comfortable with it. However, it can seriously compromise their ability to play back against quality fast bowling.
The initial movement seems an unresolved issue in cricket technique. There are many schools of thought. However, none seem to be entirely satisfactory. This is to be expected. The initial movement is a largely unconscious movement that incorporates the synchronisation of many different muscles in a fraction of a second. So is there any point in inquiring any further? Should it be just considered a natural phenomenon? The problem with accepting this latter position is that the coach would be unable to improve any gifted young batter who has an inappropriate initial movement. What would happen if a batter with tremendous motor skills had a large front foot initial movement to fast bowling, seriously affecting the ability to negotiate a fast short-pitched delivery? Accept it or change it? And more significantly change it to what?