One of the trends so far in the ongoing Test series between India and England is a lot of batsmen have gotten off to starts but haven’t been able to build that into a long innings. In Hyderabad, Ollie Pope’s 196 was a class knock but only other player apart from him spent more than 100 minutes in the middle. In Vizag, while Yashasvi Jaiswal batted for more than a day on course to a double century, not a single other Indian batter spent more than 90 minutes in the middle.
Paddy Upton, former Indian men’s cricket team mental conditioning coach, spoke to The Indian Express about what it takes to bat long in Test cricket and the importance of recharging the batteries.
What does it take mentally to play long innings in Test matches?
There is a difference between attention focus in T20 Cricket and Test cricket. In T20 cricket the intensity of focus is high and it is a broad focus, they are taking in a lot of information from every fielder where the gaps are, and what the scoreboard pressure is. Trying to predict what the bowler is going to bowl according to the field set. In Test cricket, the intensity of focus is not as high and it needs to be a bit regulated. They need to attend to a lot less information, just to take key two or three fielders and one or two shots, looking to play beyond leaving the ball or defending. In T20 cricket, even between the balls, it is a high-intensity affair and a lot of information is passed.
During the recent England vs India Test series, we have seen a lot of players getting starts and whenever there is an interruption on either side of it wickets have fallen. What tends to go wrong in these situations?
So what is happening is players today are arriving at Test cricket with their mental and emotional fuel tanks on load. Meaning: It is like your cell phone battery is on 25% you cannot run a cellphone battery all day, it has to be fully charged to run it for the whole day. The same for the batters to bat for the whole day, they need to have their mental and emotional battery fully charged. But because of the cricket, travel, and T20 cricket, they are arriving with their batteries on load. So they don’t have that calm focus to keep the accuracy for long periods. That’s why I mentioned why T20 cricket takes so much out of the players and if they don’t have time to recover their mental and emotional tanks, that’s where they struggle.
But we have seen Jaiswal bat long and he too tends to bat a lot in T20 cricket.
Some players can switch between the formats and they can change their high-intensity focus to low. They can manage their mental energy. They can down-regulate and adjust the focus to play long Test innings. Some players can do it. Jaiswal is at the beginning of his career and has lots to prove, he is young and fresh compared to a player who has been playing for 7-9 years, they are not able to operate on low energy. A player that has youth and hunger makes up for that.
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There are players like David Warner and Virender Sehwag who have succeeded with their aggression, whereas Cheteshwar Pujara bats for a long time. Have you observed anything different that they do?
You see Pujara can bat for a longer period because he doesn’t play T20 cricket. So his mind is conditioned for the type of focus required for the red-ball game. So he doesn’t suffer, he doesn’t have to manage the dynamic other players do. If you play T20 cricket or ODI cricket you travel every two to three days. Packing your bag and going to the new hotel room disrupt players’ routines and energies.
(About Warner and Sehwag) There are always going to be people who are going to find a way and manage to do it. Sehwag is completely different from any other cricketer. He is someone who started his batting with a T20 mindset. Very aggressive, very attacking, unique to anyone and there is no other opener like that in the world. So once he is set and he is on 35 or 40 the whole pace of his innings would slow down. The pace of his mind would slow down, that’s when you knew he would change gears and that’s where Sehwag would hurt people. But he is an outlier and cannot be used as a general example. There is no one red-ball cricketer who starts so quickly and settles down into a long slow rhythm as Sehwag does.
How do players maintain that focus during breaks?
Players need to switch up to the right level of intensity when the bowler is running into bowl and they need to switch down the volume intensity between balls. If the player’s focus is switching too high in red-ball cricket you will get mentally tired. There is an optimal focus required when the bowler is running into the bowl and they need to stop focusing so intently and relax, tap at the wicket, look around and have a conversation so that the intensity of the mind decreases. The same thing during breaks in play, they need to keep their minds away from the innings and not play their knocks in the head, particularly overnight. The players who cannot keep their mind off the game arrive mentally exhausted and will make a mistake. That takes a lot of time and experience really to churn down the volume of focus while batting in red-ball cricket.
There is a belief that concentration levels of the younger generation are going down, do you think it is creeping into cricket?
See these guys are professional cricketers and know how to manage themselves. I think the decline in concentration is coming from the amount of cricket and the amount of games they play in T20 mode. Playing a lot of T20 cricket and spending time traveling is like scrolling social media and going to write a 3-hour exam. You will arrive with your mental and emotional battery depleted.
A lot of these players are young, do you think switching on social media in between days of play will drain their energy?
No, I would not say that. Going on the phone, there is some value in a short period to engage on social media as it takes players’ minds off batting. So there is a value in that but it gets to the point if they are spending too much time on it the dopamine hits can also drain their energy. Different people have different thresholds. A few of them are on social media, and some of them are on FIFA and video games, there is value in that. Up to a certain time, it does help. Banning social media is not a solution, finding an optimal middle time is important.