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Remembering how to Cricket

I've played this stupid sport on and off since I was five. I quit for most of my 30's however as we were living in North America and I wanted a break from the psychological punishment it had inflicted on me for nigh on a quarter century to that point. I traveled, I got married, life was good. Moving back to my wife's home town and working from home, it proved difficult to make new friends and meet people. I joined a team in 2018 for this reason and boy was I rusty. Father time had caught up to me and my body wasn't going to hold up to the rigors of the bowling all rounder style I had gravitated towards in my youth. After re-aggravating old back injuries and tearing the meniscus in my good knee I realized my value into my late 30's and early 40's would have to come as a batsman.

Even in my youth, I was never exceptionally gifted as a sportsman. I had natural hand-eye which was probably above average, but I relied on a lot of training to remain competitive. I did skill training twice a week with the cricket team in summer and the baseball team in winter, but never really focused on fitness training. Unfortunately, the 90's club cricket training method of 30-35 balls in the nets (bowled exclusively by whomever decided to show up that day) followed by maybe a fielding drill didn't really give you the reps to do anything meaningful, and I was too young and stupid to actually focus on fixing anything that was broken technique-wise away from those twice-weekly sessions. After a half decade away from the game, along with being on the wrong side of the aging curve, this fact has become exponentially more pronounced. The only thing going for me? I've discovered fitness training and quit drinking and am likely in the best shape of my life as a result. This is why, in the winter of 2022, I purchased an Oculus Quest 2 and IB Cricket, with the idea of actually being able to get some reps in in my garage over my lunch break. Here are some things I've learned about batting having spent up to an hour a day with the Quest and my jury-rigged bat, shaking off the rust of a decade and a half away from proper cricket.

Bat Grip

It sounds trite, but as Ben Hogan teaches in his golfing 5 lessons book, it all starts with the right grip. Many players use too much bottom hand, and I'd found myself getting out almost-exclusively caught in the first couple seasons in the VDCA. Part of that was a distinct lack of the pace I'd become accustomed to back in Australia, but part of it was absolutely technique. Adam Gilchrist famously put a squash ball in the glove of his bottom hand to redirect focus and strength towards his top hand controlling the shots. I've found that following this advice (sans squash ball) and only using thumb and forefinger on my bottom hand keeps the angle between the bat and ground at point of impact much more acute, resulting in more shots along the ground.

Playing in the V

Again, this is drilled into juniors from 5 years of age in Australian cricket, but basically amounts to looking to score runs between mid on and mid off, especially early in an innings. The theory goes that it trains you to play straight and minimizes the chance of nicking off or letting one through the gate. More reps in the sim has absolutely made me more disciplined about doing this, especially as it allows you to dial the bowling difficulty up to having it swing around corners. Very rarely get bowled now, unless it goes through the invisible front pad on the sim.

Defense Early

I was a middle-lower order batsman in my youth and a bit of a slogger. The sim has allowed me to get more comfortable playing each ball on it's merits and playing defense where appropriate. My forward defense has become exponentially more solid as a result, even against spin (more on that later). I've also become more disciplined in playing the leave, as the additional reps have given me a much better sense for where my off stump is and how to pick the length out of the hand.

Left Elbow Bent

I'm a righty, and another of the tweaks I've made in order to minimize the chance of getting caught has been to consciously bend my left elbow at the point of delivery. Between this and pre-empting my bat-lift a bit more, the bat is essentially horizontal or even pointing slightly up at the point of delivery. Maintaining this through the stroke can be challenging, especially when looking to be aggressive, but I've definitely found that it makes it easier to keep the ball on the ground, especially once the confidence has been built to play late and under the eyes.

Head over the ball

This is absolutely critical. Definitely found myself being dismissed when playing outside my eyeline, especially against balls outside off stump. Footwork is key here which comes with training your fast-twitch reflexes and picking up the line early. I try to focus on the space above the bowlers shoulder as they enter the delivery stride to get a jump on it. Head position over the ball helps with the next focus area as well, which is hitting for contact and watching the ball all the way onto the bat.

Hit for Contact

This could be rephrased as simply "watch the ball onto the bat", but that sounds too trite and patronizing. What I've found is that by focusing just on contact, even when playing aggressive strokes, I watch the ball more closely in those last few fractions of a second before impact. Typically that last-moment loss of focus is what results in miscues or false shots, especially at the level we play at where the pace is slower and the ball moves around less. Waiting for the ball and playing late I think falls into this category as well, as it took a lot of adjustment to get comfortable with the slower pace of the ball in this league (my sweet spot is still about 130kph I think).

Batting Stance and Guard

For the longest time I've taken a leg stump guard to minimize the chance of LBW, but I've actually been given out a couple times this season in that fashion (I suspect more an indictment of the VDCA umpiring than a flaw in my technique, but still). I've recently made a couple of adjustments here, as I'd found myself stepping across my stumps in the sim a little too often and having my invisible front pad blown off while trying to flick balls as far across as off stump through mid wicket. For over the wicket bowlers I'll take middle stump, but open my stance maybe 20-30 degrees so my front foot is slightly outside leg. This makes it more of a conscious effort to walk across my stumps with the tradeoff that I may be slightly less effective against genuine width outside off. For around the wicket I simply move this whole setup across to leg a stump guard, front foot now a full inter-stump distance outside leg. This has helped a little bit with getting caught in front of the stumps or playing too much towards leg, especially against the around-the-wicket line angled across to the right hander.

Psychology of Batting

This wasn't down to the sim per-se, but absolutely has been something I've thought about more recently, and not really at all in the past. You can't just go out there and bat; setting small goals and actively building an innings as a huge part of what makes a successful batsman. Apparently I'm now an opening batsman, so my first goal is simply to survive the first five overs. Once that's done we look to over 10. Once that's done I'll incorporate some run rate targets into the innings, usually in the 4-6 per over range unless conditions are especially tough. First drinks break (22 overs) or 50 runs is next. After that? I'll let you know when I get there in our next game!

Fucking Spinners

Seriously, the spinners are ludicrously overpowered in IB Cricket. Every single one is Shane Warne, turning their stock balls more than a foot and their wrong'uns/doosrahs the same distance the wrong way. The kicker? You can't pick anything out of the hand. I'm actually not sure that it's productive using the sim to train against spin, without dialing the difficulty down to Hard and even then it's a struggle. It's super satisfying to play a nice, smothering forward defense against them though.

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