Book Review: Who Wants to be a Batsman? By Simon Hughes (2015)

Of the three disciplines involved in playing cricket: batting, bowling and fielding, it is the first that perhaps offers the greatest potentiality between glorious success and abject failure. A splendid hundred could lead to national fame, a sponsored car and a feeling better than sex, whilst a series of ducks can cause emotions of personal and professional failure (into the red zone of insanity).

So Who Wants to be a Batsman? is a study of the requirements of batting and the necessary qualities required to succeed. Unlike the author of The Art of Cricket, Hughes’ qualifications for this duty do not result from his own batting prowess (a bowler throughout the 1980s for the successful Middlesex team, in that time he averaged an undistinguished 11 with a single fifty against Cambridge University).

Hughes’ investigative skills and insight comes from his later career as a journalist, with his television and radio work as the (seemingly self-styled) analyst: going through video footage and offering observations on all kinds of technical and behavioural elements of the game. His findings on the necessities of batting are refined from observing and interviewing a series of successful batsmen (he focuses on modern players such as Pietersen, Sangakkara, Bell and Strauss).

The gist of his findings (which are itemised in ten wanna be a batsman rules) is that the successful batsmen train hard in a very detailed manner, are able to keep their minds uncluttered and can concentrate in the moment one ball at a time (and know when to relax), know what their goal is (scoring runs for their team) and have a passion for it.

So, this book is mainly about the mental preparation required for the game and, apart from a few brief passages where this preparedness is linked to the execution of a stroke, isn’t a technical manual explaining how to play, it is more for the many jobbing batsmen and fewer sports psychologists out there.

The study is woven together with an autobiographical strand about Hughes’ experiences as a wannabe batsmen: from his nurturing by his cricket-mad father (who I was interested to learn is a retired actor that I’d seen in TV series like Jeeves and Wooster and The Professionals) and through his professional career, when his desire to develop into a batsman is stymied by a mixture of the negligent attitude to tailenders present thirty years ago and his own incompetence.

Hughes’ skill as a wry anecdotalist make these long-ago tales of the county cricket scene very funny, as well as offering practical evidence of how not to bat (in anticipatory disregard of his ten golden rules). The knockabout autobiographical tone becomes more serious as Hughes’ transfers his hopes onto a surrogate, his gifted team-mate Mark Ramprakash.

Ramprakash’s serially (and to his admirers tragically) underwhelming career in test cricket gives Hughes a more sombre area to discuss the mental demands of top class sport. This failure was put into focus when, years later, he completely mastered the environment of Strictly Come Dancing. Also Hughes reflects on Ian Bell, a later England player similar in style and personality to Ramprakash who benefitted from a vastly more stable and progressive team environment.

The final chapter brings the story full circle: Hughes in his turn has passed his passion for cricket onto his two sons and single daughter. He keenly observes and supervises their progress, but decides in the end to let them take their own course. And it turns out that it is his daughter, playing for Middlesex under-15s, is the most skilled batter in the family: her maiden century is narrated to us by her proud father, paying note to the attributes that he has previously outlined to us.

So, Who Wants to be a Batsman? is an entertaining and informative read. Its mixture of anecdote and investigation perhaps drags a little in the second half (where the overactive narrative slows down a little). It’s a very good cricket book, both as a study of the mental attributes needed for batting and as autobiography.

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