Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Cricket Kata

I'm trying to learn to play cricket. It's a very unnatural game, which is both quite dangerous, and quite difficult to practise.

The usual method is called a net, which involves say 6 people and a large, specially constructed pitch enclosed in strong netting.

If you do an hour's net, everyone gets an hour's bowling, but only ten minutes batting, and since most of the people there won't be bowlers, the batting is most unrealistic with a motley selection of full tosses and wides to play at. It's great for bowling, but doesn't seem to help as much for batting. In fact it teaches you some bad reflexes.

Catching practice is a separate thing, usually done with a proper cricket ball, which you either have to do at such low speeds that it's unrealistic, or you do at full speed by hitting the ball around with a bat or using a slip cradle, which is almost guaranteed to hurt someone, and seems mainly to teach the lesson that you don't want to get your hands anywhere near a fast-moving cricket ball.

Particularly, taking fifty or sixty catches leaves the hands bruised and damaged and makes catching painful and aversive. In a game you'd be lucky to get to take two catches.

There seems to be no way at all to practise running between the wickets.

Once upon a time I was quite good at Judo, a martial art. Judo, being a sanitized version of the extremely lethal Ju-Jitsu, can be practised 'full contact', without anyone getting hurt, so you just go at it like loonies until you get the hang of it.

Status in Judo is determined by the colour of your belt. You get a better colour belt if you can consistently win fights against people of your own colour. Eventually you get the coveted black belt, which means that you're good enough to be trusted to teach others.

I also tried, but was never very good at, Shotokan Karate, which, not being designed as a sport, can't be practised 'for real', since everyone would end up dead.

The solution that the Shotokan people have is not to practise fighting at all. Instead they have a set of ritualized dances, the Kata.

Kata are sequences of fighting moves that you have to learn to reproduce gracefully and in order. They get more complex as you get better.

In Shotokan Karate, the colour of your belt is to do with how many of the kata you can do, and how good you are at them. At the higher levels you also spar, but in a very ritualized and safe way, so that nobody dies.

The thing is, the high level Shotokan people are actually really good at fighting. In cross-disciplinary bouts they are quite competitive with adepts of other martial arts which involve a lot more actual practice fighting, and so a lot more injuries and pain.

The Shotokan people attribute this to a thing they call 'focus'. Focus is, apparently, a supernatural ability to react quickly and correctly that comes from learning all these (rather silly seeming) kata.

I've no idea whether this really works. Any studies anyone? But the Shotokan people must learn their fighting abilities somehow.

And it occurs to me that if this does work, then it would be a very good way to learn cricket.

So tonight I was trying to come up with batting kata.

My first try was to hold the ball under my chin, then drop it onto the ground and then hit it at the wall in the back garden. This got old quite quickly, although I did get better at it.

My second try was to put an old cricket ball in a pair of ladies stockings, and hang it from a tree branch so that it could swing freely and was a couple of inches off the ground at rest. You hit it with the bat, and then try to hit it again, returning always to stance, and then playing a correct drive every time.

The ball naturally swings around and bounces on the ground, so the point is to move from stance, into the line of the ball, and then play a correct drive, hitting the ball downwards just on the half volley.

At first, I found this quite difficult. The trick seems to be to get the eyes level and move both head and front foot simultaneously along the line of approach of the ball. It also makes it very obvious why the bat should be straight, since the bounce is much less predictable than the line.

If the ball goes very wide, then you can try to cut it instead. This requires watching the ball very carefully to see where it's going to bounce, and then hitting it square and always downwards. It never seemed to get into a good position to pull, which is a shame, because that's my favourite shot.

At one point some children turned up and wanted to try. I explained what to do, but none of them could hit the ball more than twice in a row.

After a couple of hours of this, I had got to the point where I could strike the ball reliably and hard one hundred times on the trot. I probably hit the ball something like 500 times in the two hours, which probably adds up to more times than I've hit it in our regular nets all season.

Of course, it's moving much more slowly than it would be when bowled. But if the Shotokan analogy holds, then learning to do it slowly should help when trying to do it at full speed.

Try three was the same set up, but trying to aim the ball. An on drive makes it loop away and come in from the other direction, so that you can off drive it. And vice versa, so that you can get in an alternating rhythm. After a bit, I tried hitting it towards the tree, in patterns like left of the trunk, right of the trunk, left, right .... You have to do this right, since if you hit it hard at the trunk it bounces nastily back at you. Makes you focus!

For fielding kata, we've been trying to learn to catch a real tennis ball, which is heavy like a cricket ball, but soft covered like a tennis ball, so that it doesn't hurt the hands. A few sessions of this seems to have improved my lamentable catching out of all recognition. I've taken three out of five in games this season, whereas previously my record in a season was two out of God knows how many.

Weirdly, I've taken the three difficult catches. The two I dropped were dollies that I had to take in front of me and that a schoolgirl should have had no trouble with.

We've worked out two drills for catching so far, one is to hit the ball way high over a group of people, who have to call for the catch and then get it. I can do this quite reliably now with the hands up, but I can't get the hang of it hands down. I don't know why.

The second is to all line up close to the guy with the racket and take slip catches, with the racket guy hitting it softly to each person in turn. This works a treat, and isn't at all scary.

Me and Joe came up with another one last week by accident. There were just two of us, and we were throwing a real cricket ball gently to each other. Then we tried throwing the ball hard at the ground between us, and catching it off the bounce, which is quite a bit more difficult since the bounce is random.

The revelation was when we decided to either throw it straight or bounce it at random. At first this was difficult, and we were using a real cricket ball, so it was actually quite dangerous.

But we simultaneously realised that the trick was to watch the ball carefully out of the other person's hand to see where it was going before it bounced, and we realised that previously, although we thought that we'd been watching it all the time, we hadn't been reacting until it had already bounced.

And suddenly I realised what batting coaches mean when they talk about 'watching the ball out of the bowler's hand', rather than 'picking it up off the pitch'. This had always seemed obvious before, but it's a completely different feeling when you're forced to do it because of this exercise, and actually feeling it happen and make a huge difference had a 'moment of enlightenment' feeling about it.


  1. As far as taking high catches with the hands down goes, three tips that have helped recently:

    Put your hands perpendicular to the line of the ball as it drops. This feels really weird, but seems to work better, as well as avoiding having the ball strike your fingers end on, which can cause dislocations even with a real tennis ball.

    Hold your hands close to the body as you run into place and try and catch the ball with them close in. Extend them at the last second only if you need to, but having your hands stuck way out in front of you makes it much harder. I think this is to do with having your eyes in the line of the falling ball, and is why I was better at doing it 'hands up'.

    As the ball lands in your hands, pull them in towards your stomach. This seems to make the catch easier to take, probably partly by reducing the impact speed, and partly by giving you the possibility of stopping the ball bouncing out by holding it against your stomach.

  2. This post reminded me of those summer days on Burgess park with me bowling at a chair in front of a derelict brick wall, and you batting (mainly to protect the ball!).

    That practice allowed me to take three wickets in a row in the Unilever vs. Felmersham cricket match.

  3. Keir?! Crikey, nice to hear from you again! Congratulations on the hat-trick.

  4. Well, it was a bunch of middle-aged desk-slaves playing against a bunch of middle-aged pub bores. But being a left-handed unorthodox bowler against an entirely right-handed team certainly helped.

    On the last match of the summer I managed to drop my own hat-trick (would have been the second of the summer), and it was a really easy catch, straight off the bat towards my chest at a slow pace, which kind of took the shine of the season for me. That was the last game I ever played. Also, I never got any good at batting, even with lots of net practice.

    Anyway, I shall continue to follow your blog with interest.