HOW LETTING GO HELPED ME FIND MYSELF AS A PLAYER AND A PERSON

By CM Mentor, Blake Reed

For those that don’t know me, I’m a senior mentor and the Director of Coaching at Cricket Mentoring. Unlike Scolls (the founder of CM), I’m normally hiding behind the camera, because being in front of it makes me uncomfortable and quite frankly, a bit embarrassed. Embarrassed because I don’t feel like I’m good enough to broadcast myself and my ‘success.’

When Scolls asked me to share what’s behind the season I’ve had, I was hesitant. I mean, who am I to tell others how to play? I’m just a steady grade cricketer. It’s also something I’ve never done, so it’s completely out of my comfort zone. However, after giving it some thought, I realised it could be a good time for lesson number one – review your success. 

As I’m writing this article, I’m reviewing my last 6 months of a cricket, which is a first for me. It’s been a period of time containing some of the most enjoyable and proudest moments I’ve ever experienced on the field. So let me welcome you to the roller-coaster ride that is my mind…

I don’t use the word fun lightly. Over my 16 years of cricket, I can count on two hands the number of times I actually had “fun” while playing. I’d say 80% of the fun times were the result of my team winning premierships, which of course is why we play. There were very few times where I was happy with a personal achievement. Maybe because my expectations were too high or the self-doubt was just too overwhelming. I have always been someone that has had to deal with anxiety and continue to do so. At times, I’ve genuinely thought I was a fraud by standing on a First Grade ground surrounded by current and former First-Class cricketers. Was I just surviving off the fact that I had played U19’s for Western Australia? I’d often feel embarrassed and thought “what on earth am I doing here?” I regularly felt like I was letting my parents down, who were there watching every week without question and did so much for me. Not to mention the fact that I’d only scored one century in 100 games in First Grade cricket. The funny thing is, when someone would ask how I was going, I would always reply with “Good thanks mate” and maintain my ability to celebrate wins and other people’s success. Anxiety can be very consuming and it had put me in autopilot mode for so long that I didn’t really know any different. My performances reflected this for a long time.

This past season didn’t start off too differently. I had a decent pre-season, working closely with our senior players to see where I could get better. My captain Sean Terry (former county cricketer and Ireland International) was great in this aspect. He said to me that if I could work on being as sharp as I can for each ball and show intent in my actions, then I would be absolutely fine. I took this onboard as my only focus and it started to show. I was happy with how I was hitting the ball for the first month of the season, but couldn’t get the scores I wanted. After being rained off in Round One, I scored a positive 20 against Perth who had a really strong attack but must’ve had a brain fade as I played all around a straight one to get bowled. I was then caught down the leg side against Scarborough for not many before getting run out after another good start against Joondalup. Rain then meant I didn’t get a hit for another month! What a way to start the season…honestly this sport is something isn’t it!?

My team, Melville Cricket Club, started the season 0-7 with our only points gained being from two matches that were rained off. Around this time I began to question whether or not my time in the game would last much longer. We had won the T20 flag the year before but then lost some key players in the off season, so we had a very unsure change room and inexperienced group. Interestingly, we had a huge amount of debutants during these losses, which actually forced me to start looking within and taking responsibility. 

One thing that’s always been a trait of mine, is that I hate losing so much. I’ve been lucky enough to have been part of many successful teams from a young age who all held high standards of one another, which has firmly instilled this mentality in me. So to be competing hard and not getting the results we wanted as a team was pretty shattering. Cricket is hard to love at the best of times, but losing genuinely makes me feel empty and as if another Saturday has been wasted.

After 5 rounds, I had scores of 20, 15 and 33, with 2 matches washed out. This was typical of my career until this point. Steady, without being great. It was round 6, a 2-day match that we lost to Gosnells Cricket Club, that was a huge turning point in how I thought about myself as a player.

(Photo: Jeff Atkinson)

Finding Myself Again

As an opener in junior cricket, my strength had always been batting for long periods of time. However, somewhere along the line, I lost who I was as a player. I’ve always had a decent technique, but throughout my entire career I’ve had numerous coaches and people trying to get me to change, as it isn’t always suitable for white ball cricket. This led me to think that because I couldn’t clear the ropes like most others could, then I wouldn’t even be looked at anyway, so perhaps this where I lost motivation to develop myself as a player in other areas. I never thought I was good enough (I’m not sure I ever will) and played with such fear. I had basically resigned to the fact that I simply couldn’t do it.

In the round 6 match against Gosnells, we batted second and were chasing 243 to win. We got smashed and were bowled out for 133 – a really embarrassing defeat for the group. I opened and was the last man out for 76, having faced 167 balls and batted for a touch over 4 hours (248 minutes). 

This was the innings that reminded me of how I used to play. I said to myself, “if there’s anything I do this year, it’s that I’m going to play my way!” At times, my way can be ugly, but I have slowly worked out that when I’m patient and aim to bat for long periods, I’m at my best. 

I didn’t get any runs the following match (out for 2), but then came up against my former club South Perth, where I played a similar innings to the one against Gosnells, as I scored 77 from 178 balls in 258 minutes. We got our first win and I felt a great sense of assurance. I have made a number of scores like this before but, having recently celebrated my 25th birthday, these two innings were where I finally felt in control of my game, and myself.

The Christmas break (2 weeks without cricket) came along soon after and I completely put cricket into the back of my mind. I enjoyed the holiday season with my mates like I normally would, and before I knew it, it was Thursday before our first game back and I was in the training nets. As usual, the training decks heavily favoured the bowlers, so I didn’t hit many in the middle that night, so found myself having throw downs on Saturday morning trying to find even an ounce of form to help me get a score that day. I miss hit them so badly that a few of my teammates were pissing themselves at the back of the nets wondering if someone had mysteriously stolen my skill. On the surface I laughed with them, but inside I was genuinely concerned. So much so that I said to my brother before I went out to bat that, “I just hope I got all of the shit ones out of the way in warm ups!” In times gone by, having a bad hit before going out to bat would have escalated into a much bigger problem. However, because I had recently felt comfort in my game, I assured myself that I was in form based on my innings’ before Christmas, which gave me a certain calmness when I was walking out to bat. Looking back now, I think I almost felt as if I had nothing to lose anymore.

Fast forward four weeks and I had three centuries to my name, with a high score of 148* in that first match after Christmas. I still feel sick thinking about it. I genuinely thought I didn’t have it in me anymore, and doubted myself as a player so much that I would just accept being mediocre. To be honest, it hasn’t really sunk in yet and I’m sure it won’t for a while. I was at peace with my process and my instincts had taken over, which had been so long in the making. My scores after Christmas were 148*, 115*, 2, 112, 12, 64, 0 and 55 which meant I finished the home and away season with 731 runs at an average of 60.92. I mean…me? Surely not?!

(Photo: Jeff Atkinson)

I find it hard to talk about this, but I want to be able to help other young cricketers work things out much earlier than I have. For years, my mindset and emotions were so far down the rabbit hole that I couldn’t climb my way out of it. 

Being a mentor and coach at Cricket Mentoring has played a huge role in me discovering who I am as a player and person. 

I love seeing the looks on aspiring players’ faces when something clicks and get a lot of joy out of helping them figure out their games and themselves as people. I am reminded of a younger version of myself whenever I work with an aspiring young player. 

I’m fortunate to have Scolls to talk to about the art of batting. He regularly speaks to and learns from Chris ‘Bucky’ Rogers, and shares their discussions with me to then share with the players I work with. Implementing the batting philosophies that we have learned through coaching, has helped me dramatically in understanding my game too.

Upon reflection, I can narrow my improvement down to a few key areas which I will do my best to summarise for you…

Letting Go

Now this can refer to many things. In this sense, I’m talking about: 

Letting go of past experiences or past innings. 

Letting go of what might or might not happen. 

Letting go of the fear that weighs you down and impacts the way you play. 

Letting go of trying to be perfect in the nets at training.

Letting go of what other people think. 

A big reason I have been able to improve on all of this has been because I have been able to put the game into perspective. I have wasted too many weekends playing this game without enjoying it, that I realised it was about time I started enjoying it for what it is…a game! And it’s about time I start to really enjoy my mates’ company.

In a brilliant podcast I listened to recently, Ordineroli Speaking, Peter Siddle said that the game was put into perspective for him after the death of his best mate Phil Hughes. This was a huge tragedy and I hope it doesn’t take something like this, but Siddle said that the fact Hughes loved the game so much and had it taken away from him was reason enough to enjoy every single moment you have out there on the ground. It still hurts him every day, but he has been able to carry on playing, and with life, because he knows that’s what Hughes loved doing most. We are so lucky to live the life that we do!

Mental Over Technical

As I said before, when I am at my best I might look ugly, but I’m mentally ‘in the zone.’ I probably don’t have an exact routine or process yet, but I feel like it’s getting close. The main thing is that I’m not worried about my technique anymore, as I have trained that enough to trust it. I’m more focused on being sharp at the release of the ball (Note: At 25 years of age I’ve done thousands of hours of work on my technique. Technique is really important and any young batters reading this need to understand that I’m saying this at a point in my career where I’ve done the work on my technique). 

The most important part of my routine is using keywords like “be sharp” or “see it early,” just before the ball is released to make sure I’m completely focused on that ball. It’s a cliché, but the next ball is obviously the most important one. Adam Gilchrist was quoted on ‘The Test’ as saying, “the next ball is the only thing in your life that matters at that point in time.” So that’s what all of my energy needs to be focused on. If my mind is elsewhere, I’m at a much greater chance of making a bad decision and will be more likely to make a mistake. Simple.

Recently we had the privilege to chat to Mike Hussey, as his son plays in our junior system. His main message was to just stick to your routine for every single delivery. Funnily enough, he could reel off his 4-step routine straight away and give every single detail that he followed. He also acknowledged that this took him about 5 years to perfect, so it is crucial to be practicing it as much as possible, especially in the nets where we often just hit balls over and over without any process.

Technique

While I’ve mentioned that my mindset was my most important thing, I have focused on a few main things in my technique. My main focus is to make sure that my hips and front shoulder are lined up with the bowler. As a lefty, I have a tendency to square up too easily so keeping my hips and shoulders more side-on has helped to prevent this from happening…or at least delay it. I don’t have a trigger movement but instead stay as still as I can so that I give myself the best chance to see it. I try to be relatively loose in the arms and legs, so that I can react as well as I can. Having faith in all of this is the key. If you’ve had success with something, then stick to it as much as possible, even if it does fail sometimes.

Changing my game plan to spin! Getting Back is the Way Forward

You might have to bear with me on this one, but it is one of the main things that has helped me to rotate the strike against spin. I’ve always been horrid against spinners, especially half decent ones. I would just plonk my front foot down the wicket and hope for the best. I’d regularly get a decent start, and then find myself back in the sheds as soon as they made the change to any form of spin. I had no options and also never backed myself to take them down (I still don’t). 

That’s before Scolls started talking about, and coaching our athletes, to get back to spin at every opportunity. The theory again came out of conversations with Buck, plus how he’d heard the Indians talk about playing spin. They often talk about seeing it (the ball) go up which means it’s going to bounce, so they therefore go back. And when they see it’s flat, it means it’s going to skid on, so they go forward. Yet in Australia, we’re taught to lunge forward at every opportunity. And if it goes up, you can ‘get at it.’ We then often get stuck with all of our weight on the front foot, and therefore play from the crease and never really get back properly. If we do go back, it’s usually just to where we started and therefore feels rushed.

Upon hearing this and talking to Scolls regularly about it, I gave it a go and saw an instant change in how I played and felt against spin. When you get deep in your crease, you aim to hit the ball on the top of it’s bounce. This allows the ball to spin and bounce and gives you time to play it accordingly and often hit it into the square gaps for a single. I actually found that it even helped me to defend spin much easier. Once the bowler sees you doing this, they will naturally want to flight the ball up and go fuller, which then creates scoring opportunities on the front foot. I’m still limited against spin but have narrowed myself down to two or three scoring options and have gotten much better at executing those. If I don’t, then I’m still happy to be out there batting and giving myself another opportunity to score at a later time. It has meant that I don’t need to panic, which often in the past would result in me playing a poor shot and getting out.

(Photo: Jeff Atkinson)

Where I’m at Now

The best part of all of this is that I have finally found peace with where I’m at with my game and I’m more aware of my thoughts and emotions. And I finally have something to show for all of these years of grinding away aimlessly. Mentally, I still have my struggles each day, but at least now I can be proud of what I achieved this year and will aim to build on it for next season. As always, who knows what will happen. I could have a stinker! But I now know that I have the belief that I’m good enough.

I hope I’ve made my parents proud regardless of how many runs I’ve scored. My favourite part of the season was easily having them both there for my second century of the season. I owed them one, that’s for sure!

If you can relate to this story, I really hope that it helps you find yourself and helps you remember why you play the game. I have no doubt that if you can do this, you will have success of some sort and be able to smile about it.

About the Author

Blake Reed is the Director of Coaching at Cricket Mentoring. He formerly represented Western Australia at U19’s level and has now played over 100 First Grade games at both South Perth CC and Melville CC in WACA Premier Cricket. He works with a number of our aspiring athletes helping them develop their game to become the best they can be.

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Chris 'Bucky' Rogers batting for Somerset in one of his 554 First-class innings

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I once spoke to a former professional player who became a coach in the professional ranks and asked him whether he would change his technique during the season during his playing career. He responded in the negative.

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About the writer: Chris 'Bucky' Rogers isn't your typical cricketer. Having toiled away in First-class cricket for over 15 years, he was finally rewarded for years of dominance opening the batting in both Australia & England with selection in the Australian Test team for the 2013 Ashes in England. He went on to play 25 Test matches for Australia where he scored 2,015 runs @ 42.87 including 5 x 100s. With the amazing First-class record of 25,470 runs & 76 centuries, he has now retired from playing and transitioned into coaching, where he currently is the batting coach for Somerset CCC. 

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He said working on technique is for preseason and once he started playing, all that mattered was watching the ball.

That, I’ve discovered, is a very traditional response, handed down from father to son.

I had to stop myself from groaning out loud. “How short-sighted” I wanted to reply. I’m sure he’s not alone and these days, coaches are reluctant to challenge technical issues in young players, preferring the students to figure it out themselves. Perhaps they fear intervention will only create more problems.

NO PRE-SEASON?

What if a player never has a pre-season as, like me, he plays continuously on both sides of the world, where the seasons overlap?

Just once did I have a pre-season in Australia – and that I remember mostly for the agony of running the sand-hills at City Beach in Perth, rather than any working on technique.

Instead I was chasing an endless summer by playing 12 months of the year in England as well as home. “What is a pre-season?” was my standard jibe at teammates.

That meant technical experimentation had to be done on the job – so the standard answer to not work on your game for six months of the year seems like a waste of time and opportunity to me.

Often as a young batsman, you’ll have days when you pick up a bat and it feels like it is a natural extension of your body and other days when it feels like you’re hefting around a railway sleeper.

DAYS WHEN THINGS WEREN'T WORKING

Numerous days in grade cricket and even opening the batting for Western Australia, my swing would feel so awkward I would be trying to adjust almost every ball. I might try picking the bat up higher in my swing, other times move my hands forward in my stance and even change the width of my stance. These were just a very few of many.

In fact what would really confuse me is, somehow I’d last until the lunch break feeling like I couldn’t hit one off the square and then come out after a 40 minute sit down and feel like I was Brian Lara … well not quite but you get the drift.

What it taught me though was to keep trying to get better. I would often think to myself, and now sprout this to every kid possible, one step back to go two steps forward. Working with my dad who was my coach, I’d try all sorts of technical changes and usually, after a while, something would click and it would all fall into place. It would be like hitting at a brick wall and then all of a sudden one thing works and the rest fall over like dominoes.

PROBLEM SOLVING - DON'T GET OUT THE SAME WAY

One of the great advantages of playing in four innings matches is the chance to problem solve as a batsman between the first and second innings. I disliked … no, I hated getting out the same way or to the same bowler in the second innings as I did in the first.

After getting out I would sit down and figure out a way to combat the bowler who dismissed me first time around. It might not have just been a mental change but quite possibly a technical one.

Stuart Clark once dismissed me for a duck with a perfect ball that pitched on off stump line and nipped away but instead of just accepting he’d bowled me a jaffa, I checked out the footage and saw my hands were not coming down straight in my swing pattern and caused everything - my hands and bat - to go towards mid on. So my bat actually was inside the line, hence the ball found my outside edge.

Second innings, my focus was trying to get my hands to go towards mid-off while playing with the inside half of my bat to counter the away movement. Yes I know this is a bit more than ‘Batting 101’ but I only started to understand my own batting by constantly tinkering – even to the extent of working out what doesn’t work, to find out what does.

PLAYING TO COACHING

As I moved from player to become a coach, a surprise first-up piece of advice from other coaches was to be careful about the level of input you try to pass on. Yes, that makes sense and it would be ignorant to not listen to advice from people who have spent a long time coaching. However, it will need to be balanced against my long-held belief that the best players in the world never stop seeking improvement.

My first club-coaching role came via former Australian player and teammate Bob Quiney to help out at his beloved St Kilda Cricket Club, where the players have an average age younger than ever and a thirst for learning.

I was wary of saying too much early, but when one player said, “I’ll do whatever you tell me to do Buck”, my tinkering instincts took over.

“One step back to go two steps forward”, I reasoned.

The first player asked me how to play slow medium pace bowlers as he had nicked off to one the previous Saturday. I told him to be positive and proactive. Walk at the bowler or walk into his line … a la Steve Smith … and whip him through the leg side if the bowler went for the stumps. The next Saturday he was in the same position and ended up, he said, with too much going through his mind and being neither proactive nor defensive. He nicked off again. But he had learnt from his mistake and knew what he’d do the next time and since has had some success.

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 Bucky passing on some knowledge during a batting masterclass for Cricket Mentoring in Perth

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INDOOR NETS SYNDROME

Another had what I call ‘indoor nets syndrome’ and had developed a swing where he just jabbed at balls that would race off his bat on the true synthetic surface, but had difficulty with the natural variation of turf wickets. His hands would go towards the leg side in his swing but the ball would slice to cover or more likely the slips. I was wary of trying to reshape his whole swing but then thought “Why not?” I’ll show him what I think works and he can figure the end result out for himself”. He was quite difficult to adjust and we even experimented with grip changes, not something I’d usually recommend.

After an hour’s work he was starting to get the basic principles and enjoying it. He had a far better understanding of a swing after trying something new and that can only benefit him. He can always go back to what he was doing but at least he’d tinkered and thought about it. Afterwards he seemed genuinely excited at the change and the understanding.

Yet there have been plenty of times where my coaching hasn’t worked. I tried to help Peter Siddle with his batting but made it worse. Eventually he figured a few things out himself and is still getting better – so maybe my “one-step-backwards” theory helped!

CHANGE TAKES TIME

With most things, change takes time to feel natural and this principle needs to be stressed and I’m wary of trying to change players into playing like me but sometimes certain things need to be tried.  I’m amazed when I see any tall player stand with his feet close together in his stance when Kevin Pietersen is ‘Example A’ of how to succeed as a tall batsman.

I firmly believe all the best players in the world are tinkerers and never stop trying to improve. Just ask Marcus Trescothick, who at age 41 was still telling everyone how he’s trying to fix things. That and his saying that ‘form hides in mysterious places’ were my two favourite things I got from him.

At the moment the county season has just started and he’s still working on his game plan against different kind of bowling. You’d think he’d have it all sorted by now but no, he’s using every opportunity to improve as we all should.

SUCCEEDING AT THE AGE OF 38

When asking me to write this article, Scolls (Tom Scollay) asked that I write a little about my own journey and how I managed to play well in the 2015 Ashes at age 38.

Like Trescothick, I had a thirst for perfection. Grit and determination was only a part of it. So many years of 12-months-playing of four-day cricket meant I had a very good understanding of my own game, with all its strengths and weaknesses, and to have some success against James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Mark Wood and Steve Finn in bowler-friendly conditions was only possible with an in depth, intimate knowledge of my swing and my game.

For different bowlers and conditions, I would have different triggers. On the wickets that provided more bounce and seam I would have a back and across trigger while at other times, particularly against Anderson’s swing, I would push forward to try and cover the movement.

This skill only comes from trial and error and experimentation and willingness to learn. If every time I tried something, had initial failure and not persevered, my game would have been very one dimensional and limited.

Growing up I often watched in awe some of the bigger kids who seemed to make batting look easy but then fell away when they had to play against adults who matched them in size and strength. I believe it was because these kids had got it so easy early on, that they hadn’t learned to work at their game to try to understand it better.

ALL THE BEST ARE ALWAYS CHASING IMPROVEMENT

Of course, there are plenty of examples to disprove the mould but of all the best batsmen I have seen, the one consistent attribute they possess is a desire to never be satisfied and to chase improvement.

They tinker to learn … and then comes improvement.

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