How do world-class cricket batsmen anticipate a bowler's intention?
According to folklore, cricket is 90% a mental game.
Independent studies by Alistair McRobert from Liverpool John Moores University in the UK, and Dr Sean Müller from RMIT University in Australia, have both concluded that the very best batsmen can predict the sort of ball they will receive even before the ball leaves the bowler’s hand.
The research programs were conducted in parallel without feeding into each other, suggesting that it is with such scientific studies that countries are looking to find the edge.
The programs, conducted for the ECB by McRobert and published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology by Müller, state that mediocre batsmen do not pick up on the subtle clues given off by a bowler, showing that perhaps the importance of psychology in cricket is even deeper than we might have first thought.
Whilst a lesser batsman will only make his decision about where the ball will land once it is in flight, or will perhaps make an early faulty call, an experienced player can start this decision-making process earlier, giving him more time for shot selection – very important if you’re facing Steve Harmison or Brett Lee.
McRobert’s study found that skilled batsmen pick up information from the bowlers “central body features (head-shoulders, trunk-hip)” and less skilled batsmen rely on clues in the bowler’s hand and ball position. The Australian study found that “highly skilled players demonstrated the …unique capability to pick up advance information from some specific early cues to which the less skilled players were not attuned.”
Both experiments were conducted on elite players – in Müller’s case, the Australian cricket team – and then repeated on intermediate and novice cricketers.
One test involved showing the participants a video of a bowler running in from the batsman’s perspective, and stopped the video at various points so that the batsman could make a prediction about what might happen next. McRobert’s tests also focused on the eye-movements of the batsmen using head mounted optics and high speed cameras to try and understand the subconscious decision making of the batsman.
The research has the potential to allow coaches to understand how body language is communicated. McRobert’s study suggests that experience against all types of bowlers is also important.
“Our research revealed that a batsman uses different search strategies when facing fast and spin bowlers… It is important that information relating to potential visual cues is specific to the type of bowler.”
The work also suggests that match context determines how a batsman makes his decisions, and so coaching sessions could be designed to focus on the aspects of the game that play with the mind, rather than aspects of a batsman’s technique.