My first reaction was that chopping wood is rather a different task to batting. Although when chopping you need to fixate the target to begin with, once you’ve made some incision into the wood you need to repeat the same action using muscle memory. When batting, however, you are not simply looking to repeat the previous action, as each delivery from the bowler is likely to be slightly different. Each shot must be tightly related to the path of the ball, although it’s not uncommon to see a beautiful looking drive that misses the ball by a considerable margin.
And then I recalled a match involving Old Tonbridgians that I umpired several years ago. Tonbridge were chasing a fairly modest total and, having lost an early wicket had a fruitful second wicket partnership. One player seemed full of confidence and talent, and was soon hitting seemingly decent deliveries all around the ground. By the time he was out, for about 40, the game was more than half won. The other player I recall as being older and taller and extremely courteous and polite. I thought he was a rather nervous player, as he was constantly asking for his guard to be checked (I know a few umpires who would have been very fed up with that). He really struggled at the start of his innings, being dropped off a sitter early on, and making numerous streaky shots. Once he got past about 40, he started making some nice drives, and took his side to victory with a score of about 60.
After the match, I was told that Tonbridge had an ex-England player, and I assumed it was the batsmen who had smashed the ball everywhere, but it turned out to be the other one. It certainly didn’t look the innings of a professional cricketer, let alone an international one. But maybe he hadn’t been playing very much and was quite rusty, so took a while to find his rhythm. And that’s really Ed’s point, that rhythm, both when batting or bowling, can be at least as important as watching the ball.
There are some good reasons why players are told to concentrate on watching the ball, apart from the obvious one that you need to know where the ball is in order to hit it. One is that players can pre-meditate a shot. A slow bowler floats the ball in the air and the batsman is looking towards the pavilion, where he expects the ball to go, head up as he players his shot. Soon he finds himself back in that pavilion.
The other reason is that players can easily be full of distracting thoughts and nerves, and that telling them to watch the ball gives them something to concentrate on that’s both essential and can block out the other distractions.
At the start of the innings, or when facing a new bowler, there are a lot of variables for the batsman to deal with. Batting is all about anticipation, so it’s essential to watch the bowler’s action and the release of the ball. Focus then jumps to where the ball pitches, and the speed and bounce off the pitch need to be noted as each cricket pitches are quite variable. It’s usually only once batsmen have been in for a while that they can accurately anticipate what the ball is going to do, and then get into a rhythm. At that point, they may say that they are “seeing it like a football”, which suggests that they are still concentrating on the ball. They are anticipating so effectively that the ball is exactly where they expect it to be at contact, and may even say they can see the maker’s name on the ball.
To bat effectively, you need both concentration and being relaxed in your movements. Some batsmen, and our “streaky” international may well be one of them, have great difficulty in getting relaxed and may actually find that the instruction to concentrate on the ball keeps them tense. And you can’t make smooth movements when you’re tense. So for those players, whilst they still need to watch the ball, it may be better to give them a word or phrase that stops their body from freezing up, and allows their subconscious brain to carry out the well-practised task of playing shots without the conscious brain trying to take over.
So whilst I would maintain that watching the ball is still essential to batting, there is never going to be one coaching instruction that will be the best for everyone. And, in case you’re wondering who that former England player was, it was indeed Ed Smith.