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