I SHOULD like to say that good batsmen are born, not made; but my long experience comes up before me, and tells me that it is not so. There are gifts of eye and wrist which nearly all good batsmen possess in a greater or lesser degree that enable them to play certain strokes with great effect; but, to acquire all-round proficiency, I am strongly convinced that constant practice and sound coaching have all to do with it. I try to remember the time when I first handled a bat, and I can recall nothing but the advice that was drilled into me—Stand well up to the wicket; keep your left shoulder well forward; practise constantly and put your whole heart into it.
Opinions vary as to the qualifications a player must possess to be classed as a first-class batsman, and I fear always will vary. Some of the players I have met possessed a beautifully free style, and gave the impression of being able to score largely; but somehow the runs never came. Some had a cramped and ungainly style, which provoked severe comments; but nevertheless the runs did come. Then there were others who kept up their wickets for hours for very small scores; while opposite them were free-hitters who made more runs in a tenth part of the time.
Now it will not do to say that all of them may not be described as first-class batsmen. To score 50 runs off one's own bat in an hour is a very fast rate of scoring, and if it be done in a free, hard - hitting style always commands our admiration. To score the same number in two or three hours by patient defence and quiet placing may not receive the same amount of praise, but under certain conditions it may be a more valuable innings to one's side. I do not sympathise with the batsman who plays only to keep up his wicket, and does not try to hit; but I do sympathise with those who, not possessing great hitting powers, keep adding quietly, though slowly, to the score as best they can.
I am now speaking to the young player, and will touch upon details that are too often neglected when he begins to play.
It may be safely laid down that the duty of a batsman is to make runs, and that he who can make them quickly or slowly as occasion requires belongs to the very highest class.
First let me urge upon him to practise in earnest from the outset, and if possible to get his first lesson from an experienced player. He need not have it from one who in his time made his hundreds against the finest bowling in England, and who talks about the glories of the past; a humbler individual, who has a real love for the game, will often be of more use, and will not be averse to showing how it is done. He has, in all likelihood, been through the mill himself, and knows that nothing short of patient practice will lead to success. That is the teacher worth listening to; but the pupil should not be content with his help alone. He should seek for every opportunity to witness the great players of the day, and watch their styles attentively, so that he may have both example and precept.
One of the first essentials to the making of a good batsman is a good wicket. There are very few schools of any importance now without a cricket-ground, and the pitch is generally well looked after; but there are hundreds of beginners living in the country who are not so favoured, and who have to look after the pitch themselves. Let me impress on them the great need of doing so. I have said elsewhere that I cannot remember when we had not a good pitch at home; but let me say also that its condition was entirely owing to our own efforts. Many an hour we spent rolling it; and we had our reward. Once you have played on a good wicket, you will never be satisfied with an indifferent one.
You will be singularly fortunate if you have a piece of ground of any size at your home; but it is not absolutely necessary that it should be very large. Thirty to forty yards long, by fifteen to twenty broad, with stop-nets, will serve your purpose; and it will not be a disadvantage at that stage of your progress to be told that, for other than cricket reasons, you must keep the ball down when you hit. And you need not worry if the whole of the ground is not turfed over. As long as you have ten yards in good condition, carefully rolled in front of the wicket you are batting at, you have all that is needed for satisfactory practice.
Always play with a bat suited to your strength and height. Every boy longs for a full-sized bat, and thinks it a reproach to practise with anything else. I can assure you that you are going the wrong way to acquire a correct style if your wish be gratified, and may get into faulty habits that will stick to you all your life. Youth is the impressionable time for both mental and physical training, and in the majority of cases it is more difficult to unlearn than learn.
You may not always be able to get a bat the weight you desire, and very little mischief may result from playing with one two or three ounces too heavy, for weight does not affect your playing straight or driving properly; but it is better to err on the side of having one too light, for with a heavy one you cannot cut or time the ball correctly. A full-sized bat in the hands of a boy who is not very tall is an unwieldy weapon, and destructive of a free, sound style; and it is impossible to play straight with it. Is there any need for me to say that playing with a straight bat is more likely to protect your wicket than playing with a cross bat? If you have any doubt about it, get some one to hold a bat both ways in front of a wicket, and see for yourself which style covers it most.
As a rule, you will find that a bat is about the proper length for your height when you can ground it properly, and play perfectly straight while holding it about the middle of the handle, which is considered the best place to grip both for defensive and offensive purposes. A few stone wall players and some others play with the right hand close to the shoulder; but this, while admittedly good for defence, will undoubtedly cramp your hitting. E. F. S. Tylecote was the best first-class player I ever met who held the bat in that way. Going to the other extreme of holding it at the top of the handle will admit of loftier and more vigorous hitting, but it will weaken your defence. I believe in holding it with the right hand about half-way up, and the left just above it. With the hands in that position you are able to defend your wicket against all kinds of bowling and still hit freely.
While you are waiting for the ball, make sure that the hands are in the right position; grip the handle firmly, and keep the left shoulder well forward, or you will never play with a straight bat. But try to get some one to show you how to hold the bat and place the hands, and you will in five minutes get a better idea of the right and wrong ways of doing it than you would get in an hour from the most elaborate treatise ever written on batting. Indeed, this advice might be applied to many other details, as it is difficult to give a clear idea without drawings.
The next point is a very important one where and how to stand at the wicket. It makes very little difference whether you take guard to cover middle stump or middle and leg; but the position of the feet cannot be too carefully studied and practised. Place the right foot just inside the crease, and make sure that the toes are clear of the wicket. The left foot should be outside the crease, clear of the wicket, at a distance to enable you to stand easily and move it backward or forward comfortably. Some players, and good players too, place the foot in front of the wicket; but that I am certain is a mistake, and with a bad umpire at the bowler's end may cause you to lose your wicket. The players themselves will be the first to tell you it is a bad habit; but it was one they acquired in their boyhood, and it has stuck to them since.
You must not go to the other extreme of standing too wide of the wicket, or you will give the bowler an opening to bowl you off your pads. I have always tried to keep my feet clear of the wicket, but so close that it was impossible for a ball to get past between the pads and the wicket. Sometimes I have drawn a line from the leg stump to the crease, so that I might see at a glance if my feet were clear, and it is not a bad habit for a young player to cultivate. Once he has got into the habit of standing correctly, he may drop doing it in a match, although I believe in taking every precaution whether practising or playing in a match.
Take your block a little more than a length of the bat from the wicket, and be sure to make a good mark so that you will not lose sight of it. If after playing for a little while it gets worn and dim, do not hesitate to ask the umpire to give it to you again.You are now ready to play the ball, and will ground your bat in the block hole when the bowler begins his
MR. W. G. GRACE.
(Batting position as the bowler starts, to bowl.)
Another mistake committed is twirling or flourishing the bat after you have raised it from the block hole, preparatory to hitting or playing the ball. It serves no practical purpose, unless it be to cover your nervousness, and it is decidedly bad form. You have all your work cut out to keep your eye on the bowler's arm, and flourishing the bat does not help you; besides, I very much question if you can come down so quickly on a shooter with the bat constantly on the move, as you can holding it quietly a few inches from the ground.
And now we come to the first and important stage in the art of batting how to keep up your wicket. That must be the aim of the beginner; for no one will ever score largely and consistently who cannot do it. It is better a thousand times to be able to keep your wicket up for an hour, even if you only score ten runs, than to make the same number of runs in the first over and be bowled the next. I admit that the addition to the total score is the same; but ten runs in an hour, if made by the first or fifth man of your side, are worth double that number made in a couple of overs; for in all probability you will have taken the sting out of the bowling, and paved the way for the batsmen who follow.
The art of defence may be summed up thus: the power to play both forward and back. It was not an uncommon thing years ago to hear it said of this and that player, "Oh, he plays everything back, and is wonderfully strong and patient in his defence." If you had asked, "Cannot he play forward also?" you would very likely have been told that he did not trouble about it, and that the wicket was too rough and bumpy to attempt it; besides, he had such a long reach that the balls he could not play back to he could invariably hit. Now if anyone were to make that statement to-day, he might escape ridicule, but believe me he would be very quickly classed as a second-rate batsman. The wickets are now too good to be used as an excuse, while so accurate has become the bowling, that a batsman who could only play back would very quickly get stuck up, and be caught at point or short-slip.
Both styles of play must be cultivated, and until the beginner has acquired proficiency in them his defence will be very imperfect. The grand essential is to keep the right foot firm and play with a straight bat. If you are compelled to play back, you will have to draw back the left foot; but on no account must you move the right. That you must keep as firm as if it were riveted to the ground, or you will very likely be driven on to your wicket. And do not forget to keep your left shoulder well forward and come down on the ball with firmness.
The great secret of good back play is a quick eye and watching the ball. Perhaps the bowler is bowling round the wicket, and you have taken guard for middle-stump. He may bowl on the off stump a ball not far enough up to play forward to, but with sufficient break to hit the leg stump; you will then have to change quickly to protect it. Or the ball may have break enough to hit the pads and cannon on to the wicket, if you are not quick enough with eye and wrist to meet it. Be sure to grip the bat firmly, and have the handle sloping slightly forward, and be on the look-out for an occasional shooter. They do not come so often as they used to, but that makes them all the more dangerous when they do come.
Whatever you do, do not get in front of the wicket when you play the ball. There is no need to give that bit of advice as long as you keep the right foot firm and in the position I have already advised you to place it when standing at the wicket; but unfortunately there are a few of our very finest batsmen to-day who step right in front to most balls, whose example you may be tempted to follow. You cannot be too much on your guard against it; for, sooner or later, a bowler with a good head on his shoulders will get a ball past your bat, and you will have to pay the penalty of l.b.w. There are others who get in front when the ball is pitched just outside the leg stump in trying to play it hard to square-leg. My experience has shown me that it is unnecessary even then, and that by keeping your right foot firmly in its place and drawing back the left until the heels are almost touching, you can resort to what is called the glide stroke and place the ball to leg.
To play forward, you must advance the left leg; but must take care not to over-reach yourself, or you will move the right foot. Keeping the right foot on the ground is even more important in playing forward than playing back; for you have to remember that it is just on the edge of the crease, and the slightest movement may cause you to lift it, and if you miss the ball a smart wicket-keeper will stump you before you can recover yourself. You can find out for yourself, by practising at a wicket without a bowler, how far you can reach with safety without dragging the right foot.
Another very important thing to remember in playing forward is, never to place the bat further forward than the level of the left foot, and to be sure to have the handle of it slanting, so that the top of it is nearer than the blade to the bowler. Upon that will depend whether you meet the ball firmly and correctly. Try to have the bat as close to the left leg as you can with safety, so that if the ball should break slightly back, it will not pass between the bat and the pads.
Forward and back play are the two strokes you must rely on to protect your wicket, and you must practise them diligently. Occasionally you will get a ball which puts you in two minds, and, for want of decision to play one way or the other, it may either beat you altogether, or cause you to play it in a half-hearted way and be caught. I have invariably found that when that occurred with me I had either been careless in watching the bowler's arm, or that he had deceived me by altering his pace without a change of action. Spofforth and Lohmann are good at that, and have taken in many batsmen the first time they bowled against them.
When that experience comes, you will have to be quick to get out of the difficulty; there is only one way that I know of, and that is, to meet it with the half-cock stroke. You have made up your mind to play forward, and taken the initial step; but at the last moment you find that the ball is going to pitch shorter than you at first thought. You must rely on your arms to extricate you from the difficulty by drawing back the bat until it is just over the popping-crease, a few inches from the ground. Drawing back the left foot alone will not help you; therefore concentrate upon a rapid use of the arms.
I shall now enumerate the wickets upon which I have found forward play and back play most effective.
A fast, dry and true wicket.
On a fast, dry and true wicket I never hesitate to play forward; for the bowler can get little or no work on the ball, and, what is more, the further it is pitched up and the faster it comes along the easier it is to play forward to it. My scores of 344 for M.C.C. i Kent, and 318 not out for Gloucestershire v. Yorkshire, in 1876, were made on wickets of that kind, and I played forward to nearly every good-length ball.
I carry out the same principle on a fast, good wet wicket; for the bowler has much difficulty in getting work on the ball, owing to its wet, slippery state: but I watch the ball more carefully, for I know it will occasionally keep low and travel faster after it pitches, while shooters occur more frequently than on a dry wicket.
On a slow, good wicket after rain the bowler can get more work on the ball than on a good, fast wicket; but the ball does not come so quickly off the pitch, and it rarely rises higher than the bails. You can play either back or forward on a wicket of that kind, according to the pitch of the ball; but in playing forward you must not play too quickly, as the ball sometimes hangs a bit, and you may play it back to the bowler. Turner beat me with his second ball in that way in the first innings of the England v. Australia match at Lord's on the 21st July, 1890; and I candidly confess I felt, and I daresay looked, particularly foolish over it. Playing a little too soon at the ball, which got up and hung, I met it on the shoulder of the bat, and an easy catch to Turner followed. In the second innings the wicket was much faster, and I felt quite at home and played forward with perfect confidence.
Back play is most effective on a drying sticky wicket. That is about the worst you can play on; for the ball not only gets up high, but the bowler can get a great amount of work on it, and you have no course but to watch it until the last moment and play back to it. Keep your eye on the bowler; watch how he holds the ball and runs up to the wicket before delivering it, and you may be able to detect any alteration in length and pace. And never get flurried whatever his action may be; for if you take your eyes off his arm or lose your head for a second, he has you at a disadvantage.
And now I come to a point which is fast becoming a characteristic of all good batsmen; and that is, playing the ball with the bat, and not allowing the ball to hit the bat. Your forward play and back play may be perfect; but if you can only stop the ball, you will never belong to the ranks of first-class batsmen. Make an effort to play the ball away from you with some force, and with practice you will do it as readily as merely stopping it and allowing it to roll a yard or two away. In Chapter III. I pointed out that it was years before I gained sufficient command of the bat to enable me to place the ball where I wished. At first I was content to be able to play it away anywhere; but with constant practice I gained the power of placing it between the fieldsmen.
I firmly believe most players can do the same if they only try hard enough. Eye and wrist will respond when the brain commands; but here and there you may find a batsman who seems to be able to do better than another. Timing the ball is the secret of all good play; and timing, as far as I can make out, means the harmonious working of eye, wrist, arms, legs, and shoulders, which can only be acquired by constant practice.
It may be said that keeping up one's wicket is all very well, but what about hitting and the making of runs? Well, let me tell you that if you can keep up your wicket and play the ball hard away from you, runs will come. There is a variety of hits that ought to be touched upon, such as the cut, the leg-hit, the drive, &c.; but they almost demand a treatise to themselves.
Of the cut, the most charming of all strokes, because it seems to be made with very little effort, I may say that it depends entirely on the perfect timing of the ball. The right foot should be moved to the front of the off stump, and the stroke should be made with the wrist when the ball is about a foot in front of the wicket. Half the secret of good cutting consists in hitting slightly over the ball, which will cause it to touch the ground at a short distance from the wicket without affecting its speed. The batsman should not be satisfied that it is a genuine cut unless the ball travels more in the direction of longslip than point; of course, I am speaking of a fast good-length ball, a little outside the off stump. A longhop should be hit hard between point and mid-off with a horizontal bat, and the batsman should advance the left leg in front of the wicket in doing it; or if the ball is not very wide, he should draw back the right foot: that is one of Mr. W. W. Read's best strokes.
There is very little leg-hitting now-a-days, owing to the wonderful accuracy of the bowling. The bowler, as a rule, has eight men on the off side of the wicket, and very seldom bowls to leg. Occasionally you may get a half-volley on the pads, or slightly inside of them; but that should be driven between short-leg and mid-on, instead of pulled to leg. When you get a good-length ball, or one a little over-pitched, just outside of the pads, the proper way to treat it is to throw out the left leg and hit as near to the pitch as possible with a horizontal bat, but be careful not to get under the ball; if it is a long-hop, then you should draw back the left leg and hit or play it to leg.
In driving, you should aim at getting well over the ball and playing with a straight bat, and not be satisfied unless you keep the ball well down. Of course you will notice if the fieldsmen are too close in, or if the boundaries are short, and may risk something in lofty hitting instead of driving. It used to be considered by some very good players bad cricket to hit a straight ball, whatever the length of it. On the faith of it, Wootton and Grundy, two of the very best bowlers of their time, placed all their fieldsmen, with the exception of long-leg, close in, and treated the batsmen to an occasional long-hop or half-volley with perfect complacence. I believe my brother E.M. was the first to upset that theory by hitting the ball as hard as he could over the bowler's head, or to longon, and not troubling about the flight of it. I considered the example a good one and followed in his footsteps, and I do the same thing to-day under similar circumstances; but you very seldom have the chance now, as all bowlers have one or two men in the long field.
The great thing in hitting is, not to be half-hearted about it; but when you make up your mind to hit, to do it as if the whole match depended upon that particular stroke. That applies especially to slow round-arm or lob bowling. The fear of being stumped has deterred many a man from running out far enough, and a weak hit, followed by a catch, is the result. You may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb; so go out with a will, hit hard, and forget there is a wicket-keeper or fieldsman within a mile of you.
It is a mistake to hit at the pitch of slow round or underhand bowling. There is generally sufficient twist on the ball to beat you, and if you do not miss it altogether, you will most likely get caught at coverpoint. And the same may be said of a mediumpace good-length ball on the off stump, breaking slightly away from you. In my younger days, when I was quicker of foot than now, I often ran out to slow round and underhand bowling, and hit the ball full pitch, or waited and got it long-hop. I still consider it good play, and there is no doubt it has a demoralising effect on some bowlers.
There are two or three other hits that I might allude to; but those I have touched on are the principal ones, and the beginner should practise them as often as he can. He should also make a point of watching every first-class batsman, and make a note of his characteristic strokes. Very rarely will he find two batsmen hit in the same way, and it is always of interest to note where they differ. I also think it useful in practice to indulge in an occasional burst of hard hitting, but always try to keep the ball well down.
Judgment as to how and when to run is one of the characteristics of a good batsman. You should always back up two or three yards, but not before the ball is delivered, or the bowler may put down the wicket and run you out. Remember that it is the striker's duty to call if the ball is hit in front of the wicket, and the non-striker's, as a rule, if hit behind the wicket. When you call for a run, shout in a decided manner. Run hard directly your partner calls you, if you intend to go; if not, stop him at once. The great thing is to make up your mind instantly, and you will then be seldom run out. Do not run up the centre of the pitch, as you will cut it up; and to avoid collisions you and your partner should each, if possible, run on his own side, and certainly not cross more than once.
"Always run for a catch" is an old adage, and very good advice if the run is an easy one; but if there is any chance of a run-out, you should never do so. Never fail to run your bat along the ground for a yard or two before you reach the popping-crease. Many a batsman would have saved his wicket had he taken this precaution; for want of it, many have been run out. The first run should always be at your top speed: but do not rush past the wicket as some do; turn quickly, and be ready for another. When a ball is hit to the long field, and both batsmen are on the "lookout," a second run can often be obtained if the fieldsman fumbles the ball or throws it in slowly. It is astonishing what a sharp run can be made with safety by two good men who understand each other; when it is repeated two or three times, the field often becomes demoralised, and by mistakes and reckless throwing-in adds many runs to the score. A good example of this was shown last year by S. M. J. Woods and G. McGregor, who, for Lord Londesborough's XI. v. Australians, almost played tip-and-run for a few overs, and put on 24 runs for the last wicket.
There are many other points to be considered, such as knowing when to play a slow, patient game, or a forcing game; but these are the growth of time, and an experienced captain considers it a part of his duties to point them out to you. Just let me say that the prominent characteristic of all first-class batsmen is consistency in scoring. They display the same carefulness after having made a hundred runs as they do after scoring ten. Try to follow in their footsteps; for that is the only way to score largely. And never grumble if you have a run of ill-luck and fail to score heavily for weeks in succession. It is an experience which comes to us all at some time or other, and he is made of sterling stuff, and a real lover of our grand old game, who accepts it cheerfully. And always be modest in the hour of success.
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I ought to have said something about the young; batsman's outfit. Too little attention is paid to that by fairly good coaches; but, believe me, bad-fitting boots, or boots without proper spikes, may make all the difference in your play. No good cricketer is careless on that point; for he knows well that he must feel at ease, if he hopes to be at all successful. Pads that do not fit comfortably will tire you as much as hard hitting, and you should make sure before you begin your innings that they are carefully strapped, and not likely to get loose.
Gloves are even more important, and if they do not fit nicely, will affect your hitting. No player of any eminence now bats without a right-hand glove at least; but I strongly advocate both right and left being used. And you cannot be too careful about the quality of the rubber; for a blow on the back of the hand or fingers when imperfectly covered, will play sad havoc with your scoring, and may stop your cricket for some time. Youshould also make sure that the fastenings are all right, as carelessness there will make the hands uncomfortable; and a loose, flapping glove may be the cause of your losing your wicket, as the ball is more likely to hit a glove of that description than one firmly fastened.
And a belt instead of a scarf is sometimes an element of danger. The handle of the bat may come in contact with the buckle, and the noise be mistaken by the umpire for a snick off the bat. In fact, I once saw a man given out in that way. The ball passed so close to the bat, that the umpire, hearing a snick, thought it must have touched it; and, on being appealed to, unhesitatingly gave him out.