Tony Shillinglaw has spent a large part of his life researching just how Bradman scored so many more runs, and at a dramatically higher average, than any other batsman in the history of the game. It’s still not too late to make full use of his legacy… here’s the fascinating tale of Don Bradman’s technique.
In researching Bradman over the years, Tony Shillinglaw became increasingly bemused as to why the Don’s batting methods went almost undiscussed. Everybody accepted that the Don’s success was down to a combination of mental and physical factors but tended to leave it there, believing him to be a one-off, a freak, whose genius we would never see the like of again.
Shillinglaw says: “All great batsmen must have enjoyed varying combinations of mental and physical strengths. It is difficult to see how they could have attained their status without. But I could not accept that Bradman could be so advanced in this area that this alone could explain his huge statistical superiority.”
When Shillinglaw found that the 5ft 8in, relatively slight Bradman’s eyesight was below average and that he was prone to illness, he knew he needed to focus on the method Bradman used to score his runs and to see what secrets that held.
“Bradman was no superman. He had none of the attributes we often associate with elite athletes,” he said. “Where he was so different from everyone else was in his style and approach. Technically, from the moment he adopted his closed-face grip and stance, and commenced lifting the bat, it was self-evident the batting mechanism would differ from the orthodox. After years of research, I have concluded that his method, which evolved from his boyhood game using a golf ball and stump, should be accepted and made available for the benefit of future generations of batsmen.”
Shillinglaw, brought up in wartime Britain on Merseyside, was a schoolboy player of some standing and it was after opening the batting for the North of England under 15s that a coach told him to change his stance. He was told that his bat should not rest, closed face, between the feet but should be placed behind the feet. This dismissal of unorthodoxy was, unsurprisingly, accepted by the young batsman and it was only a full career later that Shillinglaw realised the similarities between his natural, uncoached stance and Bradman’s.
Looking at the five Wisden Cricketers of the Century, who is to say that unorthodoxy should not be encouraged? Of the four batsmen in the list (Warne made up the five) – Bradman, Hobbs, Richards, Sobers – all were self-taught, totally natural. Shillinglaw’s concern was that youngsters tend to be taught, and play in the same restrictive way, whether in attack or defence.
His view, backed up by Bradman himself, was that the ‘orthodox’ stance was severely limiting. Bradman said: “It is regarded as more orthodox to teach a pupil to rest his bat just behind the right toe. This position encourages a straighter backlift, is perhaps sounder for defensive play, but I feel it has greater limitations in versatile strokemaking.”
When asked why others didn’t play like him, Bradman answered: “I think it’s because they are coached not to do it. It’s a different technique.” Indeed, the immediate and sustained manner of Bradman’s prolific run-making throughout a 30-year career played on uncovered wickets reveals that the fundamentals of what Shillinglaw terms Bradman’s ‘rotary’ mode of play were already in place as an 11-year-old, when he scored 55 not out on a plain dirt pitch.
The following year, this time on a concrete pitch covered in coir matting, he scored 115 not out from a total of 156. At the age of 17, and with no coaching or structured cricket and just eight innings behind him, Bradman embarked upon a first full season playing for Bowral, making 1,318 runs at 101.30, including 234 against an emerging Bill ‘Tiger’ O’Reilly who in Bradman’s view became Australia’s greatest bowler of the time. O’Reilly said: “I could not assimilate the knowledge that a pock-sized schoolboy could give me such a complete lacing.”
In light of these findings, Shillinglaw asked professor Adrian Lees from Liverpool John Moores University to conduct a preliminary investigation into the ‘orthodox’ and ‘Bradman’ batting techniques. Lees found that: “The Bradman technique had two advantages. Firstly, it allowed the player to delay the moment he decided which shot to play and secondly, its forward motion automatically put him on his toes.”
Further experimentation revealed that the continuous flow of Bradman’s bat using his rotary method automatically induces both the lifting of the rear foot and freeing of the whole body, as the prelude to subconsciously getting into position to play strokes all round the wicket.
Soon Shillinglaw found an ally in the co-writer of Bob Woolmer’s Art and Science of Cricket, professor Timothy Noakes of Cape Town University, who said: “Biological factors alone cannot explain this significant a difference – they do not differ by such an amount between the very best and the next best human in any particular activity. In fact, a fundamental teaching in science is that it is dangerous to presume a cause unless it has been proven.
“Since we have no evidence that Bradman was biologically superior,” he continued, “we must entertain the possibility that his brilliance might have been the result of his superior and unorthodox batting technique. All I can say is that as a scientist, I have observed the evidence and it is overwhelming – you are absolutely correct in all your conclusions and it will only be a matter of time before it is proven absolutely.”
HOW IT’S DONE
Bradman said: “In general I think many coaches stifle the natural abilities of young players by rigidly insisting that they do not move until the ball is delivered and that they adhere to a perpendicular bat with top-hand control.
“Movie strips of me batting indicate that I started my backlift before the ball was delivered and that the bottom of my bat was approximately level with tops of the stumps at the instant of delivery. My backlift was rather towards second slip – not point as some suggest. I was never conscious that either hand was playing any special part in the initial movement. It was just a natural process.”
The format and sequence for playing in Bradman’s rotary style is as follows:
1. Bat placed closed-face between the feet with the hands working in unison. The inverted V formed by the thumb and forefinger of the bottom hand is straight in line with the injection of the handle down the back of the blade, an inch or two above the shoulder of the bat. (It is the kind of natural grip one would adopt if picking up a bat two-handed which had been placed on the ground between the feet.)
With head and body still and the bowler in the delivery stride, the bat and shoulders commence rotating in neutral with balance uncommitted but tilting evenly towards the toes of each foot and therefore the off-side where correct footwork predominantly takes place.
2. Spontaneous judgment and reaction to the sight of the ball determines shot selection as the batting action continues in direct relation to an appropriate stroke, there being no pre-judged movement or counterbalancing to hinder the flow. (Bradman said: “The sight of the ball seems to trigger off a corresponding reaction so that movement becomes almost a habit.”)
When played with purpose this rotary action has the crucial effect of automatically lifting the rear foot and freeing the whole body as a preliminary towards the playing of all strokes – off the back and, more surprisingly, the front foot. The speed of reaction and the ability to move quickly into line and close to the ball becomes a subconscious and unconscious habit.
Central to these actions are two special features:
(a) The timing of shot selection coincides with the instant in the batting process when shoulder rotation causes the legs, feet and body to respond to the movement of the arms in synchronised fashion just as when walking and running.
(b) When attacking, the bat’s rotation takes the form of a figure of 8 through two continuous loops:
Loop 1 – Following a neutral backlift the flow passes through shot selection while fashioning each stroke in the form of an upwards loop before the body uncoils in a closing motion as the bat strikes through the ball in the direction of the hit.
Loop 2 – The wrists automatically turn over as the bat continues to form a second loop and completion of a distinctive ‘Bradman-like’ free and full follow-through.
Shillinglaw adds: Experience and practice reveal that aggressive intent is a necessary ingredient when activating the process to best advantage. The following points are worth noting:
- The correct timing and motion of the bat and shoulder rotation induces the automatic freeing of mind, bat and body while formulating the flow of each stroke.
- The closing nature of the mechanism automatically plays the ball to ground, contrasting favourably with the modern practice of maintaining an open face of the bat following contact so increasing vulnerability to any lack of judgement, deviation or change of pace.
- The wrists rotate in unison so facilitating the touch, power and controlled placement necessary for scoring runs all round the wicket.
- Being spontaneous and naturally co-ordinated makes this seamless batting process less prone to breaking down so more likely to stand up to pressure.
- A light bat is a necessity because the heavier it is the more co-ordination and quickness are impaired. Any undue tension in the grip transfers through the wrists, arms, shoulders and whole body so restricting both footwork and overall control over the ball. (Compton used a bat of 2lb 2oz and Bradman’s would have been no heavier.)
Shilllinglaw gathered research from extensive experimentation and practice, during which two crucial and combined aspects of Bradman’s play began to emerge:
1. The development of an exceptional eye for a fast-moving ball. A study carried out by neuroscientists at the Universities of Oxford and Sussex found that the best batsmen would follow the ball as it left the bowler’s hand, then quickly shift their gaze to the predicted bounce point. Co-researcher professor Michael Land said: “I think batsmen will be horrified to hear they take their eyes off the ball. It certainly surprised us.” The batsman would fixate again on the ball as it bounced and follow its curve for a short time afterwards. The best of them had the shortest delay between the ball’s release and moving his eyes to where he calculated it would bounce, so enabling him to prepare for his shot. This fits perfectly with Bradman’s countless hours of purposeful practice when playing his stump and golf ball game.
2. The realisation that in order to promote and co-ordinate the faculties required to play and enjoy those boyhood games, Bradman discovered the rotation of the shoulders can induce the quick, synchronised and flexible means of doing so. Experimentation suggests it is not possible to gain the control necessary to perform such games when employing the more restrictive ‘orthodox’ sideways shoulder movement.
When Dick Fosbury pushed forward the barriers of high jumping with his now universally followed Fosbury Flop, he made a telling statement: “My mind wanted me to get over the bar and intuitively it figured out what was the most efficient way.” In the same way, Bradman’s instincts led him to discover ‘rotation’ as a means of playing and enjoying his imaginary Test matches in a way similar to learning to walk and run.
Having adapted this skill to ‘proper’ cricket, it appears nature itself had unwittingly provided Bradman with the most effective formula yet devised for scoring runs and he immediately proceeded and continued to do so in relentless fashion. Shillinglaw cites Greg Chappell as the man who has put it best: “The brain is a better cricketer than you will ever be.”