Surviving the slump: Of cricketers and the strange ways they rediscovered lost form
In the age of greater, gadget-driven scrutiny, batsmen's time under the microscope grows ever greater, but it is still hard to decipher why a skilled player with years of experience suddenly loses his ability to do a job
Form is a batsman's game. Or at least it's perceived as such. In cricket, we rarely hear of an elite bowler slipping out of form simply as a natural consequence of being a fallible sportsman. When the flow of wickets starts to dry up, the first port of call is normally technical or circumstantial; the fault is put down to unhelpful surfaces or a blip in the run-up or an action, to whatever degree, malfunctioning. Spinners are normally "found out", if only briefly in the case of Yasir Shah, rather than losing their revolutions or turn or dip mysteriously.
For the very best batsmen, however, while playing away from their body, falling over in the crease, or exhibiting increasingly leaden feet are all symptoms of a malaise, the root causes of a slump seem harder to identify.
Batsmen themselves are often at pains to deny there is any technical issue at play at all, the notorious claim of "hitting it well in the nets" and "just getting good balls" out in the middle both commonly heard.
The situation thus increases pressure on a batsman where a clear technical deficiency is identified, such as Gary Ballance's (now partially rectified) shuffle-back self-trap, whose exploitation for both wickets and column inches was understandably substantial.
In the age of greater, gadget-driven scrutiny, batsmen's time under the microscope grows ever greater, but it is still hard to decipher why a skilled player with years of experience suddenly loses his ability to do a job. Along with the Port of Spain weather, the most immediate reason for Pakistan taking the number one Test ranking was the reversal in fortunes for Younis Khan, his double hundred laying the ground for Misbah's troops to crucially level the series in England.
The veteran's performances in the first three Tests were an anomaly to how we have watched him play his entire career. His feet, normally so unthinkingly perfect, appeared under the control of some malevolent goblins. His hands and forearms, normally able to pacify even the most vicious of leather firearms, were a frenzy of uncertainty, jabbing and jutting as if their owner had simply forgotten who on earth he was.
It appeared almost an existential rather than technical issue, reminiscent of Matthew Hayden's final Test series in 2008-09, when the once omnipotent Brisbane bully boy was fighting himself rather than South Africa's bowlers.
As with Hayden in that series, Younis was conversely hanging around at the crease for long enough to prove he was out of form. Both could still bat time, but neither could bat. Well, certainly not in the sense to which we were accustomed. Both faced whispers and nudges about whether they should quit. Hayden did, but Younis endured.
And after his triumphant innings in the final Test, the Pakistan totem was asked about what he had done to bring about his resurgence, with his answer adding to the list of unexpected ways cricketers have managed to get back on track: "I received a call before the game from India, from Mohammad Azharuddin, and he talked about my batting, (told me to) stay in the crease," he told Michael Atherton during the presentation ceremony.
If you had "Chat with Azhar" at the top of your list of potential reasons for Younis' double hundred, congratulations on your foresight, but for most cricket fans the ex-Indian captain's intervention was near comically baffling. Given Azharuddin's rather checkered history, it may worry some people that he even has a hotline to present Test cricketers' hotel suites, but setting that aspect aside, that this particular batting overlord should be passing on nuggets of advice to another was a befuddling end to a brilliantly befuddling series.
In some respects, the intervention of India's former skipper to help a Pakistani batsman was a bit of a favour being returned. Ahead the 2015 World Cup, Mohammad Shami was struggling with his run-up and was down on pace, with none other than Shoaib Akhtar coming to his technical rescue. "I did have a chat with Shoaib bhai and he suggested that I reduce my big strides. So I shortened my stride and it has worked. It is smooth and comfortable and it has also increased my pace," the Indian pacer said.
Pakistan fans in particular will know that Shoaib is never short of advice for current players when he is seated in a television studio, but his pearls of wisdom were nonetheless rather out of the blue. Some might even consider this sort of cross-border collaboration between Indian and Pakistani players a bit unpatriotic, but the great melting pot of the IPL and other T20 franchise tournaments has ensured these technical tips now flow as freely across borders as clouds.
At times they can also drift between players and officials. While few would question Moeen Ali's place in the England side now, back before India's tour in 2014, the off-spinner was struggling for control — the few may suggest he still does — and was advised by Ian Bell to bowl faster and straighter, particularly at the start of Tests. Not wishing, like any good spinner, to forego his loop while doing so Ali turned imploringly to umpire Kumar Dharmasena, who happened to be in attendance during a net session. "Just grab your pocket as quickly as you can with your non-bowling arm," was the surprising reply.
Resisting the temptation to inform the ICC one of their elite panel had lost his marbles, Moeen successfully took the advice on board and went on to dominate the tourists during the series. Umpires passing on tips to players again raises a slight ethical query, but there are literally few better placed than officials to impart observations. Doubtless quite a lot of players would like to see the arrangement work vice versa.
As so often in cricket, we are left with Virender Sehwag to provide the most unconventional route to success. Back in the days when he terrorised bowlers on cricket pitches rather than on Twitter, even Viru suffered the odd dip in returns. A coach telling him to "get his feet moving" was obviously futile, so the cavalier opener allegedly turned to a numerologist. His traditional '44' ODI jersey not proving lucky, Sehwag was told to instead wear a blank jersey and his form improved.
Sadly for other batsmen, this tactic will only work in the shorter formats of the game. If you're a Test batsman wearing a numberless shirt, such as James Vince for instance, perhaps your only hope of surviving a slump is to forget numbers and form completely and just find yourself a good agent.
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