Can you get your eye in before you get in?
Until quite recently I had only really struggled with half of the cardinal principle of batsmanship, "See ball, hit ball", but then my eyes started to go and the whole lot became impossible. Despondency set in after I was rendered crease-bound and shotless while facing someone bowling accurate yet filthy moon-ball offbreaks, each one soaring from the hand, then disappearing into the zebra-skin silhouette of branches looming darkly over the sightscreen. I may as well have been blindfolded. It is hard to get your eye in when you can't see the ball.
Getting your eye in has always been a thing of mystery. There are days when you don't really need a sighter - you feel in from the moment you walk out there; pitch, form and light are all good, and everything seems already somehow familiar - and others when you never feel as though your eye is quite in, no matter how many times you copy Ricky Ponting's "Watch the ball, watch the ball." Usually, however, it just happens at some barely discernible point in your innings, with everything up to then comprising the struggle to get in.
I always thought the optimal ball to receive first up was a shin-high full-toss on about seventh stump: a gift-wrapped boundary, almost impossible to drag on or slap dozily to point.
Getting your eye in is much more than a mere visual exercise. Neuroscience might describe it along the lines of synchronising your movements with the spatial or ballistic demands of your environment. It is motor-visual, calling on you to map new information against old memories. As such, it draws from the recentness with which you have rehearsed those same movements, thought processes and actions - experts call this "practice", I believe - even if they can never be precisely the ones you're called upon to execute under match conditions.
Golfers' and tennis players' warm-ups - both a physical and technical preparation - happen more or less immediately prior to commencing the round or match. And since these sports (like cricket) are long series of discrete events in which the stakes can be high at any given point of the game, a shanked tee shot on the first hole or dropped serve in the opening game could prove decisive. This is opposed to, say, football, rugby or hockey, where a few misplaced passes in the opening exchanges may carry no cost. You need to hit the ground running, as they say.
With cricket, however - or rather, with batting, a discipline that has an even more acute sense of continuous jeopardy - you do your "warming up" in the heat of battle. (Although, that being said, an old heckler at my home-town club used to occasionally step out of his car to bellow: "I say, practice is on a Wednesday night; what we need now is some runs.") And yet...
And yet, at cricket's cutting-edge, many of its cherished truisms are being eroded by adventurous, imaginative play, by technology and data mining, and by rivers of money sluicing through. As T20 continues to drag cricket into a hyper-specialised future, perhaps the notion of getting your eye in might be something else that is reconsidered, streamlined, buffed up.
Or maybe not. For it has become an axiom of T20 batting that "you always have more time than you think". There is scope for acclimatisation, for micro-consolidation. In the increasingly planned economy of a T20 run chase, you need to spend some time getting in, an investment that can then pay off down the line. But this isn't always the case. Sometimes you don't get a chance for a sighter. Take Hobart Hurricanes' penultimate round-robin game of this year's Big Bash.
When Stuart Broad, Hobart's No. 10, loped out to the Docklands Stadium square with four balls left of his team's attempt to pull off the highest ever BBL run chase, 14 runs were needed to overhaul Melbourne Renegades' 222. Failure meant elimination. Fair to say, there was no time to have a look. It was now or never for Australia's favourite Pom. (Broad later, incidentally, when assessing Ben McDermott's match-winning century, pointed out that he was on 28 off 20 balls, "which just shows you can take your time to settle down and then hit". Not always, Stuart.)
Also, fair to say, there wasn't too much confidence in the betting markets. Less than an over earlier the target had been 18 off nine balls, five wickets down. The non-striker, Sam Rainbird, had faced one ball. And on his last trip to Australia, Broad's batting had looked shakier than a palm tree in a monsoon. But then Thisara Perera (3.2-0-45-1 at the time) is no Mitchell Johnson.
As we know, Perera (and his team-mates) melted. First, he sent down a wide, off which a bye was hazardously run, resulting in an overthrow that got Broad back on strike: 11 off four. A mistimed slog over midwicket was followed by a couple of behind-square boundaries (bad tactics, bad execution), and the heist was completed with a streaky leading edge over mid-off from the final ball. It was fortuitous. At no stage did Broad resemble Graeme Pollock.
These do-or-die scenarios - batsman entering the fray in the final over, boundaries required immediately - occur fairly regularly in T20, which compresses the game, zeroes in on details, makes every ball an event, and allows an innings of ten balls or fewer (Carlos Brathwaite's 34 not out, say) to be regarded as genuinely great.
But what if the match situation into which you enter - several hours after those long-ago throwdowns, on a pitch changed from your earlier computations - deprives you of the luxury of getting your eye in? And what if it's the IPL final? Can the process be expedited? Everything we know about elite sport would suggest it can only be a matter of time before market-driven technological innovation and athletes' perpetual search for marginal gains addresses this problem.
While England Rugby employs vision coaches and some soccer academies have used neuroscientific principles in their training, the motor-visual component and decision-making in these sports is markedly different to batting and bowling. Cricket has innovated in this area, with state-of-the-art bowling machines incorporating a video screen that allows batsmen to synchronise movements with footage of specific bowlers running in, but this is of limited value to the precise problem outlined here, and not only because having futuristic bowling machines on the edge of the pitch is, clearly, entirely unworkable.
No, the most likely advance to batsmen's preparation will emerge from the fast-developing field of virtual reality, which could enable incoming batsmen to "experience" (phenomenologically, if not actually) a fully immersive 3-D simulation prior to entering clutch situations. Admittedly, this is a long way from chain-smoking a dozen cigarettes, doing the crossword, lifting two bats one-handed or even studying video.
Imagine Broad and his Hurricanes compadres in a similar situation. In just a couple of minutes they could "face" a quick VR medley of the Renegades' likely death bowlers' various deliveries, perhaps with the pace of the pitch fed into the now conditions-specific simulation. It isn't so much getting mentally ready, through visualisation, as getting neurologically ready.
"Fourteen off four, skip? I'm as ready as I've ever been."
Scott Oliver tweets here