The cult of digging in: The almost impossible psychological trick the batsman must pull off when you want him to play a rearguard

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Do you know the only way you can successfully ‘dig in’ as a batsman? Completely and utterly mindlessly. Any other approach is far too much mental hard work and means you’ll make a bad decision sooner rather than later.

We wrote a long thing for the Nightwatchman, Wisden’s quarterly publication, about the psychology of digging in recently. It’s not out yet, but you can order it here.

Not many people wanted to speak to us about the subject, which was weird. Maybe it’s too abstract a subject for the experts to really hold forth on.

Fortunately, one person was willing to speak to us and that person was AB de Villiers.

Mr Rearguard

Now you might think that AB de Villiers is a terrible person to speak to about digging in because he’s Mr All-Of-The-Shots, isn’t he? He’s the guy who once made 149 runs off 44 balls against the West Indies in under an hour.

But AB de Villiers is actually the perfect person to speak to because he is the most aggressive batsman to have also played a pure out-and-out rearguard.

In November 2012, de Villiers made 33 off 220 balls so that South Africa could save a Test against Australia. In 2015 he made 43 off 297 balls in almost six hours of batting, attempting something similar against India. (South Africa lost that one.)

It’s one thing to be Shivnarine Chanderpaul and bat all day because that’s what Shivnarine Chanderpaul does. If you’re AB de Villiers and you take the decision to go shotless, that’s something very different.

An AB de Villiers rearguard probably tells us more about how a normal batsman might go about digging in, because adopting the Shiv approach would demand going back in time to spend six hours a day on the bowling machine and that’s not really an option.

So what did AB say?

AB de Villiers (via Sky Sports)

After a bit of guff about ‘motivation’ and ‘passion’ he said that those two rearguards were really just “an extreme version of my basics”.

He was talking technically primarily, but the point is that he saw those innings as being at one end of a continuum and not something ‘other’ – which is how batsmen often seem to approach the task of stonewalling.

AB does in fact practise this sort of thing. Every day.

“I just play 10 to 20 balls where I just do that: I literally let the ball almost hit me before I just block it dead. I feel it’s the best possible position I can get in as a batsman.”

You might be thinking that that was the kind of thing he did in the nets before a Test match and that he doesn’t bother any more. But no.

“I do these drills every single format, every single game I play in. It’s not about what shot I’m playing; it’s literally just seeing the ball and letting it come to me, almost allowing it to hit my stumps before I play it. Once I’ve done ten of those, I’m ready to play in any format, anywhere in the world.”

There are a lot of different clichés about just playing the ball and not overthinking things. ‘Watch the ball’ is the oldest. ‘Play each ball on its merits’ is another. ‘See ball, hit ball’ is a newer toddlerspeak one, but it’s based on the same principle.

All of these things say that conscious thought is your enemy.

The Nightwatchman piece has a lot more about the psychological explanation for this, but we’ll not get into that here. All we really need to know is that when it comes to reacting, conscious thought is only going to trip you up. Whatever your ability, whatever the sport, most people will recognise that they play best on autopilot.

We put this to de Villiers, who said: “Spot on. When I see the ball, I let it come to me and I just play it – that’s when I’m at my best. So I always try and remind myself [of that] with every innings, with every practice session, with every warm-up I have.”

For him, all good batting is based on that principle. “When I play T20s, I do a similar sort of thing. It’s just a lot more attacking,” he said.

In short, any batsman who thinks to himself, ‘Right. I’m going to make a really conscious effort to dig in,” is not likely to play a long innings. The extra thoughts tend to get in the way of what comes naturally and they’ll also rapidly drain their mental reserves. (Quick example to explain that last point: your first day in a new job is always exhausting because of how much conscious thought it demands.)

So how the hell can a batsman dig in?

It’s difficult – and that’s the thing people almost never properly acknowledge.

It’s not a matter of passion or pride or any of that bollocks. It’s a psychological skill; an ability to play in a manner appropriate to the situation in the most mentally efficient manner possible.

There are lots of ingredients: You have to believe you can do it, you have to believe it’s the best approach and you also have to be able to play that way without imposing too great a mental load on yourself.

That’s a really tricky thing to do and it means that digging in is best delivered by two types of batsmen: the ones who pretty much play that way anyway and the ones who’ve already experienced a wide range of situations and have learned to adapt their game almost effortlessly.

The one thing we really want to emphasise to the ‘dig in’ brigade; the ‘show some commitment’ crew (a group of people who seem to use words like ‘pathetic’ and ‘disgrace’ a hell of a lot more than the average person), is that this is not something you can switch on at will. It’s almost the opposite really.

Trying to dig in is like trying to see one of those Magic Eye pictures from back in the day. The more you force it, the further away you get.

First published in August 2019.


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  1. Related but a bit off topic:

    Whenever I find myself struggling in my virtual batting (i e. imagining batting because my actual skills are extremely poor)
    I do a similar sort of thing
    I imagine myself facing the bowler without any bat in hand

    This helps to calm me down, focus on ball, and have more productive sessions of virtual batting

  2. Interesting. Roy’s shot yesterday was the opposite of that. He decided before the ball was bowled that he was going to waltz down the pitch and bollock it over cow corner.

    1. We’d argue that he’d consciously reined himself in for 100 minutes and in so doing burned through his mental reserves.

    1. We’re happy to concede he’s your mate more than ours. While he was unfailingly polite, it felt a little like there was a stopwatch going. These aren’t our favourite kinds of interview to do, it has to be said.

  3. There has been a bit of a rumor that “overthinking” is something that de Villiers is unlikely to be guilty of, and perhaps that helps him in situations like digging in.

    1. Oof. To give him credit, he does seem to have worked out various methods to ensure it doesn’t happen; ways to ensure that each ball he gets to a point where, as he puts it, “your instinct takes over.”

  4. by the way your safety certificate expired yesterday so I got dire warnings that you might be impersonating your own website…
    Great article.
    On another topic who bowled Smith out for zip in those practice matches and have we got anyone like that?

    1. I am getting the same dire warnings as Jill.

      You are not safe, KC. My system says so.

      I always thought you might be a front for the Russians. All those Russian brides I was being offered on the right hand side of the screen. Fiendish.

    2. Likewise. I briefly feared that Surf Control had finally clamped down on my access to the Kingdom having categorised these pages as ‘Entertainment’. However, it would appear they have actually visited the website…

      Also, wasn’t ‘digin’ the #hashtag of choice for Official England Cricket not too many Ashes series ago? How that appears to have fallen by the wayside!

    3. The old SSL certificate expired yesterday. The (expensive) one we paid for last week has now, somewhat belatedly, been installed by our web hosts.

  5. Sehwag had a system that was the equal but opposite of this. He would play a few balls every innings where he would let the ball almost hit him before he hit it for six.

    1. See the comment above about how “your instinct takes over.” AB says smashing mad sixes and dropping it for none are the exact same thing.

  6. KC is now the sort of chap who the “only” person who would talk to him about batting was AB de Villiers. There must be some satisfaction in that!

    1. To be honest, when the whole piece of work you’re doing pretty much hinges on whether you can persuade AB de Villiers to talk to you or not, that’s not a hugely enjoyable place to be. Worked out okay in the end and safely grateful to him for speaking to us. Can’t see how he got anything at all out of it himself.

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