Almanac Cricket: Cricketus Horibilis
I was watching Apollo 13 the other night. What an extraordinary movie about extraordinary events. It was the quintessential exercise in problem solving. The astronauts were confronted with some life-threatening situations, like the explosion of their oxygen tank for example, whilst floating in their tin can far above the world. They were forced to adapt, experiment, and resolve critical issues. They were required to think critically and clearly. In some cases, they were encouraged to throw out the rulebook to overcome what looked like being insurmountable difficulties. They were losing cabin heat and needed to invent a way to extract carbon dioxide from the cabin – or die. Their ingenuity and genius, not to mention the amazing work done by the ground crews, got them through. They returned safely to terra firma.
The movie got me thinking about my old mate Charlie Duke. I met Charlie a few years ago. I was lucky enough to have a short chat with him and got him to sign the inside cover of his book for me. He wrote, “Dear Damian – ad astra”.
Charlie landed on the moon in April, 1972. He was the tenth person to do so. As you might expect his story is incredible. A very good athlete, brilliant scientist (he attained a Master of Science degree) and engineer, and U.S. Air Force test pilot, Charlie was the backup lunar module pilot for the Apollo 13 mission, before becoming the lunar module pilot for Apollo 17.
Throughout the speech that I heard Charlie deliver there was a recurring theme; astronauts need to be adaptable. Despite the countless hours of study and training, and the extraordinary repetition that the astronauts had to undertake to perfect their designated tasks under pressure, they were, perhaps more than anything, consistently tested in their ability to adapt to changing conditions and circumstances. It was this skill set that got the Apollo 13 astronauts home safely from their debacle. Process was critical. Procedures were fundamental to the astronauts’ training. Training was laborious and, at times, tedious. But the instincts of the astronauts were never crushed. Adapt and survive.
I’ve been watching our cricketers fail dismally all summer. They are simply not good enough. That’s OK. We can’t always be on top of the world. But I have been struck by their enormous inability to adapt. If they were astronauts, they would all perish at the first unforeseen problem. They are ALL process and NO instinct. And this is how they are trained and coached. With all due respect, they are like performing lamp posts, devoid of life and of the necessary dexterity to cater for a shifting environment. The media has interpreted this as a lack of fight. I don’t think so. I believe they are simply unprepared.
The recent batting collapses have occurred when conditions altered quickly. Not necessarily the prevailing weather and winds, but the mental state of the game. A loss of quick wickets, an unexpected change of bowling, a brain fade run out. The new batsman comes to the crease and “plays his natural game”. I interpret that as meaning “he has no clue how to play any other way”. He might be fighting but he is not adjusting his stroke play or modifying his technique because he doesn’t have the proficiency to do so. When the oxygen tank explodes, he thrashes about and expires.
I remember when I was running on the professional athletics circuit around Victoria many years ago, my father, who was also my trainer, would say something like this before a race:
“I want you to run third in your heat today, in about 12.40 sec if possible.” Or,
“I want you to win your heat today in 12.25.” Or
“I want you to lead into the straight in the 400m but lose valiantly on the line.”
I often wondered what his strategy was, besides the obvious one of beating the handicapper. Adhering to these instructions was sometimes enormously difficult. But it dawned on me some years later. He couldn’t teach me how to run third in 12.40 sec or first in 12.25 sec, I had to “feel” it. And I had to feel it in race conditions. He was exposing me to a plethora circumstances and wildly varying tracks and asking me to achieve a predictable result. He was forcing me to understand my body, and to keep calm under the pressure of a race situation. He was, in other words, not just teaching me to run, but to understand competition and all the hurdles that it can throw up. It was brilliant.
I believe that our cricketers would be far better served if they adopted a similar approach. Rather than having batsmen spending hours in front of bowling machines that neither swing nor seam, get them back to State of Grade cricket and put them out in the middle. And rather than having our bowlers rested from lower grade bowling spells, put them on different pitches against batsmen of all sorts, and teach them to think them out. Get them to ”feel” the game again.
I wish the Aussie boys well in the Adelaide Test, especially the youngsters and debutants. They probably won’t all make the grade but I’m sure they will be trying to. If I could say just one thing to them it would be,