Watch The Ball. Play It Late. Don’t Be Scared.

Today new writer Cameron Ponsonby talks to Owais Shah, Michael Carberry, and Andrew Hall about facing genuine pace. What tips do they have for amateur cricketers? And is the usual advice a panacea? 

When I was about 14, my club ran sessions for “players of promise” at the Oval where they’d pair a batter and a bowler together, assign you a coach from Surrey, and watch you both flourish into outstanding cricketers.

That was the plan anyway. I was paired with a guy a couple of years older than me. He was a fast bowler … and far, far too fast for me.

The difference between the two of us was obvious: puberty. He probably wasn’t that quick, but he was miles faster than anyone I’d faced before. This made the sessions an almost never-ending nightmare. It was a sink or swim moment. And I was drowning.

The coach, a professional who was earning some cash on the side, kept telling me over and over again just watch the ball, play it late.

I remember thinking (a) how do I play something late when it’s hit me before I’ve blinked, and (b) surely I couldn’t help watching the ball more closely than I’d done before – because it kept hitting me in the face.

By the end of these sessions I had become more Terry Butcher than Mark Butcher – heading the ball clear at every opportunity. I might not have been ready to make the step up to men’s cricket but I could defend you a corner no problem.

Ultimately I was scared. I was scared of being hit; I was scared of being hurt; and I was scared of embarrassing myself. I think it’s a feeling reciprocated by club cricketers across the globe: the moment the speed goes up and your talent runs out.

The thing is, as far as I can make out, the advice remains the same regardless of whether you’re Joe Bloggs or Joe Root. Watch the ball. Play it late. Don’t be scared. But this guidance doesn’t make sense to me. Surely, those at the top of the game are playing by a different set of rules to the rest of us?

I decided to investigate by speaking to several professional cricketers, including Andrew Hall, Owais Shah and Michael Carberry. I asked them how they watch the ball, how they play it late, and if they are scared when doing it.

1. Watch the ball

Andrew Hall played over 100 times for South Africa. In his debut, a one-day game against the West Indies, he was drafted in at the last minute following an injury in the warm-up to Shaun Pollock. Before he knew it, Hall found himself staring out at the legendary Curtly Ambrose running in to bowl.

With a deep breath, Hall braced himself for his first ball of international cricket. Ambrose reached the crease and bowled a gentle half volley that Hall punched away for one. As Hall passed Ambrose mid-pitch, Ambrose smiled.

“That’s your one on debut young man.” The next ball flew past his nose.

According to Hall not all 90mph is equal. Players want to be able to watch the ball from the hand as it is delivered, meaning a smooth action where the ball is visible all the way through (think Brett Lee) is preferable to a slingy one where the ball appears from behind the bowler’s back (think Shoaib Akhtar).

The Lee vs Akhtar analogy was used in some way by every player I spoke to. Hall even presented what sounds like the ultimate oxymoron: that Lee was both one of the fastest he’d ever faced, but also one of the nicest.

The importance of a bowler’s action stems from the information a batter takes from a bowler’s release point – namely the length of the delivery. Hall said South Africa worked relentlessly on relating a bowler’s release point to the length of the delivery.

This concept, whilst at first appearing slightly bizarre, is essentially fairly basic trigonometry. The more acute the angle between the bowler’s arm and the ground, the shorter the delivery will be, and vice versa. A ball delivered at 12 o’clock would be full, 11 o’clock a good length, and 10 o’clock short. It wasn’t so much premeditation as poker at 90mph. The bowler will always give you a clue; you just had to be quick enough to see it.

South Africa would practice this constantly. A batter would face a delivery in the nets and then place a marker where he thought the ball had pitched. The coaches watching would then place another marker where the ball had actually landed, the aim being to create an automatic association between a bowler’s release point and the length of his delivery.

Hall said that whilst he was able to decipher three fairly rudimentary categories of length – short, good and full – the best players like Jacques Kallis could take the strategy several rungs further and generate an almost exact pitch map of where the ball landed.

This specific method of making a direct association between release point and length appears to be a unique plan. None of the other players I spoke to recognised it. Hall wasn’t surprised by this, saying that the method had stemmed from a boom of fast bowlers coming through in South Africa in the late 90s. This, combined with the trueness of the wickets in the country, meant there was a renewed emphasis on being able to leave on length as much as line. It wasn’t enough to know where your off-stump was; you had to know where the top of your bails were too.

Overall, it appears to me that trying to see the ball from the hand is the cricketing equivalent of whackamole. If you know where the mole is going to pop up then you’re ready to react with immediacy. However, if it could appear from anywhere then you first need to locate the mole before smashing it on the head. This crucial delay is key.

2. Play it late

Owais Shah played the ball as late as anyone. His cut shot, elegant and brutal in equal manner, was a candidate for permanent detention since it was never once on time. He was even late to our initial Zoom meeting, which would’ve annoyed me if it wasn’t so on brand.

Shah talks about cricket in the same way as someone who says you can’t be fluent in a language unless you live in the country. As I gawped at him, asking how he managed to hit the ball so late, he almost gawped back at me as if to say “because I do this every day”.

And he’s right. If there’s one thing you can’t exaggerate when talking about professional cricketers, it’s the sheer amount they play. Batters will hit as many balls over a week’s training as a club player is likely to in a whole season. And they do it year after year after year. Facing fast bowlers therefore becomes somewhat normal. It’s just what these guys do.

However, I’m not looking for long term approaches to improve. I want a quick fix

During our conversation I gained a real appreciation for the way Shah spoke about and understood the game. Something I found incredibly enjoyable when speaking to each of the players I interviewed, was that whilst they all spoke knowledgeably about the game, often beyond my own understanding, they would also regularly regress to the language and mannerisms that you can find on any boundary of any club game across the country: shadow batting as they described a particular shot, sound effects to mimic the ball flying past their nose, sweeping statements about how a bowler bowled ‘these ones’ and then occasionally ‘that one’. It was cricket at a level I could only imagine but was wholly comfortable with at the same time.

All that being said, it struck me how Shah managed to manufacture time for himself by maximising his strengths and minimising his weaknesses. It’s a sensible ploy. After all, if you’re playing shots you feel comfortable with then you’re bound to feel like you have more time.

Owais’ best shots were a punch down the ground and the cut. Therefore he designed his set up to make these shots easily accessible. His low, fast hands let him to drive down the ground with control whilst the speed of his hands let him cut through the ball as late as possible.

On the flip side, batting with low hands meant that we would always pull the ball in the air and risk being caught. So in the longer form of the game he just refrained from playing the shot. It wasn’t that he felt rushed on the pull; he just knew that he wouldn’t have time to adjust his hands in order to hit the ball along the floor.

As cliched as it may sound, all the players suggested that they let the ball and the game come to them. They were able to play the ball late as they weren’t looking to hit the ball outside of their strengths. And in some cases, they weren’t looking to hit the ball at all.

Michael Carberry, for example, said that when he opened he thought of his scoring V as being as much behind him as in front. With the ball swinging at the start of the innings, his method was simply to let the ball hit the bat. He’d put away the ego, keep his hands soft, and use the pace of the ball to deflect it off the bat (and hopefully it would run away for four).

Ultimately, the time all the batsmen had came from understanding their own game – something they developed from being completely immersed within cricket and truly learning the nuances of their own style.

Shah and Carberry spent 20 years playing professional cricket trying to perfect the language. And whilst it’s a realistic assessment of how one becomes accustomed to facing 90mph, it wasn’t the silver bullet I was looking for to launch my career at the age of twenty-four. Shame.

Don’t be scared

The first advice several players offered me was “you can’t afford to be scared”. You have to put fear to one side and embrace the challenge of facing someone who could cause you serious harm.

Now I don’t know about you, but to me, the fact this was the very first piece of advice couldn’t have given me a clearer indication that facing 90mph is truly terrifying. These men, excellent cricketers they may be, make terrible psychiatrists.

What I quickly learnt was that facing fast bowling in the nets is slightly different to facing it in a match. Each player I spoke to had a unique attitude towards net practice. For instance, Carberry never had a problem with it. During his career he would make sure he’d face the quickest bowlers in training so that he was best prepared for the game. In his words he wanted to, “feel the weight of the punch” before going out into the middle. If that meant taking some blows, or getting out a few times, then so be it. That was the preparation he felt was best.

On the complete other end of the scale, Shah hated netting against the quicks and would proactively avoid facing them wherever possible. The enclosed net made him feel claustrophobic, the bowling felt quicker, and the lack of real intensity meant that without his adrenaline pumping as it would in a match, he could be hit and injured.

That acknowledgement of risk is what makes the psychology of batting so fascinating. It’s hard for players to talk about this  very serious risk without sounding overly blase or grave. Yet it’s something they do all the time, and it’s a skill they possess that most people would find completely impossible.

However, whilst there’s the potential for arrogance within that, there’s also a constant awareness that they only have to misjudge one delivery to be seriously injured. It’s a contradiction that’s sometimes built into their anecdotes. Andrew Hall, for example, spoke about the South African dressing room as one where fear wasn’t allowed. But then he revealed that they employed a psychologist after Gary Kirsten was badly injured.

I found it particularly interesting speaking to Carberry about this. Right from the off he acknowledged the dangers inherent in batting. How quick bowling makes your mind do funny things and the potentially fatal ramifications that can have. And yet he embraced facing the quicks and spoke with genuine fondness about his experiences facing Mitchell Johnson in the disastrous 2013 Ashes.

Carberry told me a story about the Adelaide Test, which by his own account was the fastest Johnson bowled in the series. Having survived the first over he walked down the pitch to talk to Cook.

“What’s it doing?” asked Cook

“Pfff. Same as Brisbane really. He’s not really swinging it. But let me tell you … it is gas.”

Cook was bowled by Johnson in his following over.

Carberry laughed about the sheer pace he encountered on that tour. And whilst he was an anomaly in having no problems facing quicks in the nets, he wasn’t when it came to enjoying it in a match. Yes, some players spoke of times they had felt uncomfortable at the crease, but overall they spoke glowingly about the fastest spells they had faced: what ground it was at, who they were batting with, how they negotiated the spell.

All the players recognised the dangers of facing fast bowling but they all seemed to enjoy the challenge too. Maybe it’s for the same reason that people drive their car, bike, or boat fast. Speed is intoxicating, and it’s by operating on the very edge of what’s possible that makes batting fun for professionals. It’s also what makes batting extremely painful and frightening for the rest of us!

So is the advice above a recipe for success when facing genuine pace? It’s helpful but it’s not exactly a eureka moment. As an amateur, I wanted to believe the tools at my disposal were different to those of professionals, that they knew something I didn’t that would solve all my problems. However, having spoken to players and read numerous accounts, I came to the conclusion that, unfortunately, professionals just do the basics far better than the rest of us.

However, what other advice is there? I actually played against the coach I mentioned at the start of this piece last year. I didn’t face him (naturally he’s a fast bowler) but it did make me wonder what I’d do if the ‘opportunity’ arose.

Annoyingly, if not infuriatingly, I could only think of three things to do: watch the ball, play it late, don’t be scared. 

Cameron Ponsonby



  • An enjoyable read. It’s always been a source of fascination watching tail enders face quick bowling and wondering how they coped. Which from time to time they did and would score a useful 20-30 runs.
    For me I guess it in part comes down to practice. The more you face quicks the better your reaction time is.

  • I was scared just reading that report!

    Have always found indoor nets the most intimidating and claustrophobic experience, as well as being so much harder to see the occasional beamer (this being club cricket after all).

  • Facing a bowling machine is the trickiest imho. It always seems faster because there’s no arm to watch. The ball just seems to appear suddenly and skids on so fast. Reckon that’s worth 5 mph at least.

    • Totally agree James, always hated the machine. Never thought it helped much. Part of the confidence angle is seeing the bowler get frustrated when you middle a few.

      • Oh it helps a lot. Got my own one and it makes a hell of a difference

        • Yes Simon and it’s all about TV isn’t it. I wouldn’t have thought The Windies would even have enough money for the flight let alone 6 weeks hotel bills. The ECB are not interested in getting the County Championship started in the least . Perhaps this is the time the big counties should form a breakaway league. I see football are going to have a virtual audience. Wonderful, Can’t wait.

        • Guess it depends on the individual. I’ve heard county pro’s expressing some doubt about its virtues as a substitute for proper practice. It may have some use ironing out technical deficiencies in the nets but out in the middle You never get that predictability.

          • Who said it was better than genuinely good live wicket (a decent one) and decent bowling with a ball that moves (so no dog balls that go up and down).

            Machines do help a lot and volume of balls is always vital. As with everything, you need variations in trianing. I’m yet t see a club net of any genuine quality or worth considering as quality training. Usually astro, or crapwickets, bang average array of bowlers an dor using dog balls which don’t do anything

            With a competent user the bowler machine can be variable not grooving ..

    • Having said that Allen Lamb prepared for a Windues tour in the ’80s by setting the bowling machine to 85 mph and standing 17 yards in front of it. If memory serves he hit at least two tons…

  • Good article. As well as the ‘slingy v smooth’ action debate there is also a difference amongst the smoother bowlers. A very whippy action, which generates much of the pace from a fast arm, is harder to pick up (in my experience) compared with a more whole body action. But far and away the worst to face I came across was an England Schools opening bowler (who fortunately played for my school, but I had to face him in nets and house games). He was quick but had little variety and never made it beyond Birmingham League but ….. his one stock ball pitched back of a length and cut back (conditions allowing). It is amazing how black and blue a thigh can get, especially with 70s protection.

  • I truly sympathise with your predicament at Surrey James. I had a similar experience in the Birmingham League when I netted at Mitchell’s and Butlers, the home ground of my then coach Allan Townsend, whose 2 sons played for them. I’d faced Peter, his youngest in the nets at Edgbaston and done OK. When I got the ground Peter was nowhere to be seen but his older brother Allan Jr, the best part of a foot taller and 2 years older than me, at 17, proceeded to give me a real workover. Any pretentious to being a decent bat evaporated in that half hour and I left shell shocked, having hardly laid a bat on the ball.
    It stayed with me for years until I came across a quickie at my local club who took me under his wing believe it or not and showed me how to embrace the challenge rather than just try to survive it. There’s were no helmets then and apart from an thigh pad strapped to your chest no extra padding, so any negativity was likely to get you hurt, a bit like a footballer pulling out of a tackle. Play the same shots you would against a normal seamer was his advice. You always need a bit of luck at the start as you adjust your reflexes, but your body adapts pretty quickly and rather than just fending stuff you start to play normal shots and force the issue, looking for runs rather than getting up the other end. Once you’ve managed to middle a couple your whole demeanour changes and you settle to the task. I know it sounds simple, but at club level it worked for me as eventually I was promoted to open the innings.

  • Just saw the news about Andy Moles. Great to see he is recovering well and will be back coaching. A man who really knew how to handle fast bowling. I never understood why he never even got a sniff of an England chance, especially when players like Benson, Whitaker and Bailey got test caps. A FC batting average over 40 when opening surely deserved a lot more credit than the selectors gave it.

    • Moles always represented the possibility of a decent club cricketer graduating to the professional game, rather than being a forgotten man once you’ve not made the grade as a youngster. His partnerships with Andy Lloyd and for a time Paul Smith gave Warwickshire real solidity at the top of the order. Never thought about him as an England prospect as he never had that X factor about him. A good solid county pro with no pretensions to anything more. As a county supporter you always hoped the selectors would ignore your best players, as they seemed to disappear from the county scene for such long periods with central contracts in the offing, Bell and Trott being classic examples. I know it gives others a chance but you’d rather see your best players in action at county level.

  • James
    Thanks for keeping this interesting blog going when other things have stopped. I really enjoy both the articles and the reader comments. Much appreciated.

  • Interesting comment about Shah and the hook shot. I seem to remember Shah getting out hooking in his second test against WI in 2007. He was promptly dropped despite having out-batted everyone on both sides in his debut match. It seemed a clear case of his face not fitting and any excuse to drop him. (Not implying that anything to do with race by the way).

    Meanwhile, some interesting things have happened in the game’s administration. It turns out WI got a large loan from the ECB just before overcoming their previous reluctance to agree to tour. WI needed the money because the ICC weren’t coughing up and who controls finance at the ICC? It’s all extremely stinky. Secondly, it’s being reported that some of the poorer counties are holding out against a reduced, regionalised CC because they can’t afford to take staff off furlough. This is happening the year after the ECB trumpets its record revenues. Instead of supporting these poorer counties it seems from Dobell that this is being used as a wedge to split the counties and usher some into oblivion which is just where the ECB has wanted to send them for some time. Funny how things work out….

    • Re Shah–that seems unlikely to me: if I remember he played both his first two tests because someone was ill or injured. As those two players were Cook and Vaughan (who was captain at the time), I’m not surprised he was left out for the next match!

      Generally I wonder. It’s true he was dropped without having got a very long run in the test team, but he also seemed to have quite a knack of winding important people up (Angus Fraser had some fairly choice words about him if I recall when his Middx contract wasn’t renewed).

  • “Fear is not allowed.” What a load of macho cobblers. Fear isn’t something you allow or reject; it’s an emotion. You might deny it to yourself but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I don’t know how many Saffers faced Patrick Patterson at Sabina Park but Gooch did and he has freely admitted he was frightened.

  • A little tip I have read re getting ready to face the quicks is to use the journey to the ground to prepare the eye. Choose a catseye in the middle of the road and stare at it as it rushes towards you…
    This gets the eye and brain used to changing focal length.


copywriter copywriting