How does a visiting team prepare for what awaited England in Ahmedabad? What practice drills can batsmen do to combat a pitch such as that? Chris Silverwood could balance an Xbox on Ollie Pope’s stumps, perhaps, and allow him to keep it if he survives a net session without being bowled. But in truth England could have read a million helpful emails from Rahul Dravid and still probably have been left wanting in the Third Test.
One thing Greg Chappell, the ex albeit not exulted coach of India, talks about is “context training”. That training should mirror as accurately as possible the game situation for it to have value. In this regard, cricket in general seems quite neglectful of batsmen’s ears. What, if anything, is ever done to try and familiarise them with the particular sounds and voices they will hear out in the middle? “Great on the range, poor on the course”is the golfer’s psychological barrier, but in cricket the difference between the gentle clank and banter of the nets and what awaits in a real game situation is even greater. Yet to the best of my knowledge and with apologies to sports psychologists, this disparity is rarely addressed.
This difference is particularly so for non-Asian teams when they come up against a subcontinent side with a spinner on, when the batsman is smothered in a blanket of non-stop sound from the fielders. All teams chirp, and not not wishing to blunder too much further down stereotype alley, but for each spin delivery against an Asian side they create what Vitushan Ehantharajah on the excellent Two hacks, One Pro podcast called a “sense of occasion”. For England at present this involves hearing the relentless and maniacical giggling of Rishabh Pant, but he is just the lead vocalist backed by an orchestra of well-orchestrated chatter. For most England players, although they may have picked up the odd regional swear word such as “Ben Stokes”, they will also largely not understand what is being said about them and all around them. England seem increasingly, and at times not unreasonably, paranoid this series. The sense that opposition fielders know something you don’t can only add to it. It certainly cannot add to your ability to make clear-headed choices how to combat R Ashwin and Axar Patel. How do you practice for being in this situation?
None of this is in any way objectionable from India. To reiterate, every team in the world chats and burbles, and with every team in the world it subsides when the batting side gets a foothold. Yet it seems to take longer to dissipate when the band is led by Pant, Dickwella or Rizwan. People will speculate how much of a factor it actually is in a batsman’s decision-making, but England’s have made some odd judgements recently. Regardless of the pitch and double-bluff armball bowling, it is hard not to believe the sustained aural tasering India keeps up isn’t at least a factor in that. Kohli, after all his efforts to remould Indian cricket into his own piranha image, would be absolutely devastated to think it wasn’t.
There might be a little bit of mental disintegration in this suggestion, but shouldn’t England batsmen therefore be trying to replicate this atmosphere more in practice - netting with a Blutooth speaker behind them, or even ear pods in, hooked up to a loop of Pant and co’s wall of sound playing. It doesn’t have to be belting out, and you obviously can’t align post-delivery whoops accurately, but even a low level hum of what is encountered in a match would be closer to Chappell’s desired context than probably anything they do now. Stuart Broad pre-match likes to visualise a ground’s atmosphere and imagine the sounds he’ll hear when bowling. One of those laptops England hoick around must be able to come up with the real thing for the batsmen.
Some would, of course, say they can’t net properly because such an environment would be off-putting, but you might legitimately suggest that is the point. England might also say they know damn well what awaits them in the middle, but in truth some of them don’t get very long to acclimatise to it at present.
Any cricketer recognises the nets are a clinic to the middle’s colloseum, and there are numerous ways teams at all levels try to bridge this disparity via drills and artificial match situation set-ups. None, though, probably involve trying to replicate what a batsman might actually hear when they walk out to the crease. There’s doubtless many good reasons batsmen don’t practice with ear pods in, listening to the opposition’s recorded chuntering. There must be, because accustomising to and blocking out sound is a big part of batting, yet the game seems content having no simple, practical, technological way of helping batsmen practice doing so. Even the advanced bowling machine video simulators some teams are toying with are still largely all about the visual. At the very least, this seems a bit of an undiscussed aspect of coaching.
Granted this post is a bit full Warne, but he more than anyone knows that the way to a batsman’s scalp is through their ear.