The maestro’s maestro Mr Kumar Sangakkara unpicks some of the eternal mysteries of batsmanship.
I want to start with how to play spin bowling. What are the particular traits that mark out good players of the turning ball?
There are a few things. Number one, they have a very solid defence, so they play the ball with the bat rather than the pad. And they judge length very well. Forward when they’re forward, and right back when they go back, which is an important thing on wickets that turn, to be able to judge the length, judge it quickly, and then commit. Most of them also sweep very well, which is a very important shot against spin, and now with the reverse sweep, it’s even better.
In the olden days there was not much of the reverse sweep. You’ll find that even great players of spin in the past – Arjuna [Ranatunga] was one of the best players I’ve seen, Salim Malik from Pakistan, Rahul Dravid, Laxman and Sachin of course – you’d find them stretching out a lot, perhaps using their front pad a bit more because the umpire would be reluctant to give you out, but that’s gone out of the game now. Even if you’re at full stretch, if you get hit in line on the front pad you’ll get given out.
Do you defend with your bat out in front of your pad or alongside it?
Well, it depends on the amount of turn, but you will find that a lot of players will have their bat slightly out in front of their pad, so they don’t have the opportunity of the ball hitting their pad. Only if the wicket’s ragging and the bowler’s bowling a wide line outside off stump will you have your bat and your pad slightly together, which negates the lbw if it does turn and hits you on the pad.
When we were growing up we were told to defend with your bat and pad together, but no longer…
The game’s evolved. These days a lot of batsmen have a slightly wider stance when they play spin than when they play pace, so they spread themselves, their centre of gravity is lower, the head’s slightly lower so they can judge the flight and the dip, and therefore make it easier to judge the length. Some great players of spin use their feet a lot, some very good players of spin don’t use their feet much.
If you take Laxman, a lot of the time he plays from the crease. But when the need does call for it, then they will step out and use their feet and be very committed, and they don’t worry about getting stumped because they will back themselves to be able to get to the pitch of the ball.
The other thing is, they rotate strike very well with their wrists, they are able to manoeuvre the ball into gaps so they’re not on strike for long periods of time, you’ll find them playing with the turn into the leg-side, and sometimes the best players of spin are able to hit against the turning ball very well. Even if an off-spinner is turning it sharply into the right-hander, when it’s over-pitched you’ll still find him hitting that extra-cover gap that’s left open for them, with a lot of conviction and commitment.
All of these are important traits, but they all start with a fearless defence. When a player can play a back-foot or a forward defence with absolute authority, there’s no more demoralising sight for a good spinner who’s turning the ball.
It’s a statement of intent…
Exactly. You can see all this in the modern batsman. Virat Kohli’s a good example. Mahela Jaywardene is a great example of a modern-era spin player. When Laxman and Dravid made that stand against Australia [at Kolkata in 2001], when Warne was turning it out of the footholes, and you would see the amount of times they hit against the spin by using their feet to get to the pitch of the ball. That really opened up scoring areas that were left vacant to tempt them to hit there, but these guys, they take the challenge. I remember Brian Lara playing against Murali…
Who Murali said was the best he bowled to…
Yeah, because of the simple fact that at that time to left-handers he would sometimes bowl without a mid-on because they couldn’t hit him through there, and here you had Brian Lara hitting him to mid-wicket against the turn, and that really demoralised him. Very few players can do that.
I want to come back to the sweep shot in particular. Do you pre-meditate? And do you play predominantly on length or line?
I’ve seen Younis Khan play the sweep a lot in the subcontinent. You can see the immediate change in stance with the front leg going forward, just before the ball’s released, so it’s almost pre-meditated, but the key is that once you’ve committed to the shot, it doesn’t matter what the length is, you have to sweep it. If you try and pull out of it, that’s when you get into trouble. Younis Khan, his head’s right over the ball, his head’s right over his front knee, so even if it’s overpitched he still sweeps it with authority. He doesn’t worry about length, or line, because he backs himself to hit the ball.
I’m terrible at sweeping! I usually sweep leg-spinners and left-arm spinners. Anything outside off stump I’ll either slog sweep, or sweep flat and hard, and if there’s no fine-leg I’ll be paddle sweeping. To off-spinners I try and wait until they stray in line outside off-stump, which allows me a slog sweep or a flat sweep, or if it’s off-line down leg, a fine sweep.
Are you taking an off-stump guard, to further eliminate the lbw threat?
It depends on where they bowl from. If the wicket’s not turning I’ll bat on middle stump, because I will look to play him with the turn, more towards mid-wicket, but if he does overpitch I’ll be going through extra-cover, that’s usually a promising scoring area.
So, against the spin…
Yes, because you can smother the spin if you get to the pitch. If he’s bowling round the wicket I might bat slightly more on middle-and-off stump. And I will take mid-on on, so as to clear him, and then they’re under pressure to take the mid-on back, and then I can work my singles to mid-on.
Do the best players just have that ability to pick up length better than others?
A lot of the great players of spin are naturally good at it. They’re great at sweeping, they have very supple wrists. But you can learn it. It’s a case of learning how to leave the crease, and when, being in sync with that delivery so you leave your crease at the right time, and also being unafraid to get stumped once in a while trying to do that. Fear is something that you need to avoid at all times. The fear of getting out, the fear of making a mistake. If you have fear in your mind it’s very difficult to learn and grow.
Before you’ve even taken guard do you have areas where you’re already thinking: they’re my boundary options. Are you thinking of that from ball one, or do the first few balls belong entirely to the bowler?
It depends. I may think it’s a good time to reverse the pressure. It may happen within the first six balls I face. But more often than not I’ll be trying to rotate the strike, picking up my singles by playing with the turn – playing a defensive shot with the turn will allow the ball to run off the face into an area where I can pick up a single. If it’s a left-arm spinner or a leg-spinner I’ll use my feet; if it’s an off-spinner I’ll wait to see how the wicket is playing before I settle in. I remember facing Saeed Ajmal, and because he has that pause in his delivery, which means he’s able to look at the batsman and change his delivery accordingly, I would very rarely leave my crease. Because I trusted my defence against him I’d cut and drive him a lot. Immediately upon seeing a bowler, you know, subconsciously almost, what your boundary options are.
You’d have faced Murali a million times in the nets but not so much in a competitive game, and so we naturally move to Warne. How did you personally get along with him on the pitch? Not so much physically, practically, technically – but mentally?
It was very challenging. There were a couple of times when I came out on top and a few times he got me out, but the thing with Warnie was that he does play a lot of mind games. He’d talk loudly about the fields he sets, what he thinks your weaknesses are, it’s almost like setting down a challenge to your ego and trying to get you thinking about everything other than what he’s really trying to do to you. Or sometimes he wants you to know exactly what he’s trying to do to you!
But the greatest challenge of playing Warnie is his control of turn. He’s able to spin leg-breaks really big, or a little bit less, or a lot less, and he’ll vary his line depending on the situation of the game.
If you’re a right-hander and you haven’t played him before, most of the time the first ball will be a slider, one that looks like a leg-break which just slides on straight. And if you have played him before, and you’re playing well, the first two or three balls will be ripping leg-breaks that turn massively, so that he drags you across the crease to cover that line, and after that he will find the one that pitches middle and goes straight on. His control of line and flight and turn, his field settings and his intelligence on the field, was outstanding.
From the turning ball to the bullet that’s flying past your face at 90mph. It’s 11:20am on a chilly Thursday morning and Wasim’s pushing off the sightscreen, or it’s Donald or Waqar, and you’re in at No.3, you’ve got an arm guard on, a chest guard, a helmet, the full works, and you’re about to deal with it. What the hell’s going on internally?
There is apprehension, but not too much about the pace, more about whether there’s movement, whether they’re bowling really well, what the wicket’s doing. The point is, whatever apprehension you have, all of that settles down when you cross the line. Then it’s about being completely mindless. Emptying your mind and just watching the ball, as all those hours of practice start coming into play. Just watch the ball and react to it. And once you’re out there, your main target is to be off strike for as long as possible, pushing singles hard and rotating the strike with your partner. It is intimidating at times to face Brett Lee, Waqar Younis, Akram, Donald, Shoaib Akhtar, Mitchell Johnson, who have extra pace. But at the same time it’s hugely challenging.
And then you come to England and face Jimmy Anderson: not so much when it comes to pace, but skill. In different parts of the world you face different challenges. It’s about looking at that challenge and being able to relish it, still having those butterflies in the stomach and being able to go out, take guard, fall into a rhythm and get your timing right. Even now, having retired, and now playing county cricket, I still have those butterflies, as I sit there watching the openers bat.
You used the word ‘mindless’. Brilliant word. And both the easiest and the hardest thing for a batsman to master.
You’ve been a professional cricketer for 20 years and more. Are you now able to offload all those extraneous thoughts?
It takes a while when you walk in. Before you go in, you may be thinking that he bowls more outswing, but it just depends on how he lets it go! So you just need to watch that ball and not try and pre-empt or pre-meditate anything, and just to fall into that zone of watching the ball, staying balanced and you’ll suddenly find yourself reacting really quickly.
Do you have any particular processes?
I remember when I first came into the side, Dav Whatmore was coach and he used to say to us, ‘Just think about your centre of gravity. Think about your navel, your belly button, centre your thoughts, centre yourself, and then watch the ball’.
Do you still use it?
I haven’t thought about the belly button in a while! My simple process is that I tell myself: ‘Watch the ball and be balanced, watch the ball’. And you know, the first two to three overs you are struggling with yourself to empty your mind. There are days when you walk in and you are there. Other days it takes a while. That’s probably why they call it ‘giving yourself some time’. But you do get there.
So it happens gradually?
It varies almost every innings you play. You will have players coming off the back of a magnificent hundred, and see them scratching about for half an hour, because they might be spending their first two overs still thinking about the last innings, or still trying to fall into that zone that they remember from last time, not understanding that it’s a different day, with different feelings. The key is being able to allow your mind to absorb all of that and get into that rhythm that allows you to just react.
That’s the only reason we practise. There’s nothing else other than to get in that zone. Because once you’ve trained your body to play a drive or a cut or a pull, let your body just take over without slowing it down by thinking. That’s when you’re at your best as a batsman.
How much is batting an extension of character?
Only when you know yourself can you know how to bat. A high level of talent does not ensure success, nor does a high level of skill – it needs to be applied in a manner that allows you to be out there long enough to score runs for your side. That’s the real key, to be able to convert that talent or potential into actual, measurable runs. Everyone does it differently. The best players are able to have a method they can replicate it day in, day out, and then to fine-tune it, making slight changes here and there which allow them to be more and more successful.
Consistency is an upwardly mobile benchmark. You can’t keep doing the same things over and over again, because you’ll lag behind. And even if you are successful today, you need to be adding something. It might not be technical, it may be your temperament. Anything that helps. Consistency is about moving upwards and forwards. The best players are able to do that continuously.