Test cricket is such an interesting sport. One of its many interesting features is how so many people fail to appreciate just how interesting it is. I suspect that these people see simply exactly what is happening on the ground, and don’t delve that little bit deeper, because it is just beneath the surface where things get interesting.
You can look at a batsman blocking, or leaving, or playing and missing, and simply see absolutely nothing happening. Conversely, you can look at the exact same actions and see it for all the complexity that is involved. Firstly, there is the complexity of the game itself, which goes over five days, spanning four innings and is played on a deteriorating surface.
Yes, the structure of the game itself makes every one of the almost 3000 possible deliveries per match a potential game changer. This leads into the second interesting element of the sport: the personalities of the people playing it, in particular their decision making over the gruelling five days of play. Cricketers’ instincts, motivations, and intentions are all washed in together with the state of the game, and often the series.
Over the summer, I wrote an article called El Zurdo Diablo (The Left Handed Devil), which explored the complex nature of the left-handed cricketer, and expanded on this to suggest that one of the secrets of the Aussie run-machine Steve Smith’s successes was to do with his playing of cricket with a right-hander’s stance but with a left-hander’s technique. The thing that I failed to highlight when analysing the success of Smith is his unflappable temperament.
He has the ability to see the match clearly, and to respond to it appropriately, without the pressure of the moment becoming overwhelming. It is actually quite the opposite with him: he lifts to the occasion when the occasion needs him. This character trait is why it was so noteworthy to see him playing a predetermined attacking game to England’s Moeen Ali in the first Test of the Ashes. That it led to his demise was evidence, in my view, that his strength of playing each ball, and indeed the match, on its merits should be kept squarely in mind in his preparation.
Chris Rogers is another that seems to have worked out precisely what works for him and is able to determinedly stick to it. Whether he is struck on the head or facing up at the start of Test in the greatest cricket contest on the globe, Rogers seems perfectly within himself. He appears clear of doubts and ready to play his well-honed, beautifully refined game no matter the circumstances.
Both of these two cricketers are examples of batsmen with terrific temperaments, they are also examples of two batsmen in excellent form. Is the form to do with their temperaments, or do they appear to have good temperaments due to their excellent form? I would contend the former. Rogers is by no means an eye-catching player. In fact, if it wasn’t for the amount of runs he makes, you’d say his style of play is underwhelming. However, he does make that many runs. In his 17 years of First Class Cricket, he has played 293 matches, made 24,085 at an average of 49.65. For someone whose game is based on being risk free and efficient, that is an extremely good record.
A player like David Warner, on the other hand, has the shots at his disposal to make it difficult for bowlers to bowl to him. Their margin for error is so small. On top of that, he has the ability to blast his way out of trouble if things aren’t working for him. It is just as well for Warner that he has these at his disposal, as he is not naturally gifted with the temperament of either Smith or Rogers.
It is true that he has been able to significantly improve his shot selection and patience, but it must also be widely acknowledged that this has not come naturally to him. Certainly not as naturally as his ability to whack the ball. In the first innings of the Second Test of the series, Warner appeared desperate for a score. Reading his body language as a cricketer, he seemed anxious over the result, and not conscious of the process.
I have been this way more times than I’m particularly comfortable with in my time playing cricket, where the inner desire to score runs impacts the ability to think clearly in the moment and do what is needed to make the desired runs. I delved into that a while back in 50 Shades of Black, but if you want the abridged version, let me just say it’s not a pretty place. The difference in mindset compared to when not feeling the need for a score is immense. It is so much easier to make runs when you don’t feel the pressure to.
Warner managed to get himself out quite stupidly in that innings when seemingly on top. He, his coaches and his teammates would have been filthy at him. Fortunately for him, he is a great deal more talented than me. Most likely, he’s a lot more talented than most of the players he’s playing against. Impressively, he’s managed to put the poor dismissal behind as well as, more importantly, the poor mindset that led to the dismissal. He’s been able to go back out in the second innings and play with more certainty and conviction. This is, surely, a sign of his improved temperament.
The truth is that all players who make the level are terrific cricketers, all possessing significant mental desire and strength. Cricket is too hard a game for them to make the grade without it. It’s those that flourish, like Steve Waugh, Allan Border or Ricky Ponting, that have that extra edge their temperament allows them. It’s those that make it and then fall away, like Michael Slater or Jonathon Trott, that have lost it, been unable to maintain that clarity of thought.
It’s a fascinating game cricket; it’s much easier to watch it than play it. That said, it is still impossible to fully grasp or measure the various plotlines and intricacies at play. So while I can’t possibly comprehend the full spectrum of mental battles occurring on the field, I’m always drawn to trying. As the two Tests of this Ashes clearly showed, it is not just the skill, but the temperaments of the participants that determines the outcome of Test cricket.