How batsmen slow time down (and so can you)

Despite being a cricket fan during my childhood, I find myself baffled each time I watch batsmen step up to play fast bowlers.

Picture a projectile hurtling towards your face at 145 km/hr. The ball is harder than a karate black-belt’s clenched fist and it seems to have a mind of its own. Since it pitches on the ground on its way to you, it follows a three-dimensional trajectory. The bowler isn’t your friend either. He uses every trick he can, legitimate or otherwise, to get the ball to misbehave. And yet, armed with merely a piece of willow, professional batsmen are not just able to guard their cheekbones but dispatch the ball over a rope that is 70 m away.

A batsman’s ability to routinely wallop a ball that my eyes can barely register on HD video has often made me wonder about their mystical capabilities. Executing a hook shot requires them to judge the vertical position of the ball to within ± 3 cm and its time of arrival to within ± 3 ms. The time it takes for a ball released at 145 km/hr to reach a batsman is less than half a second. That is how long it takes for you to close your Facebook page when your boss sneaks up behind you. Apart from merely dragging a cursor, batsmen have to factor for the amount of moisture on the ball, the conditions of the pitch on the day, the movements of bowler’s fingers as he releases the ball, the position of the seam as it hits the ground and the amount of wear the ball has on either side. It appears as if batsmen operate in a different world at the crease – one where time moves slower.

Even as batting seems mystical, our brain routinely performs similar feats in other walks of our lives. When you step inside a car, take the steering and drive on a highway at speeds greater than 145 km/hr, you need to be mindful of several things – approaching speed breakers, faster vehicles in adjacent lanes, converging lanes, diverging intersections and overhead boards announcing the arrival of your exit. Yet, you are able to pull this off while having a conversation and, if you have good taste in music, with Porcupine Tree in the background. Yet, when something odd catches your attention, your mind snaps back into focus. Time slows down as you pump the brakes, swerve to avoid the pile up and roll to a halt.

These acts are a tribute to our unconscious mind’s ability to perform acts that seem like miracles. The reason a batsman is able to react in a split-second is due to most of his other actions being completely automatic. Years of practice help him lift his bat backward, transfer his weight to his back foot and swing the bat across his face to execute a textbook hook shot without eliciting any conscious effort. All he has to do at the crease is to observe the ball and decide which of his two dozen unconscious shots to execute to perfection. Every other decision is automatic.

When our conscious mind has an arsenal of unconscious routines, it is freed up to bring tremendous focus that can slow down our perception of time. For a seasoned driver, most routines such as switching gears, turning on the wipers, glancing at the rear view mirror and indicating before a turn are all unconscious. Yet, this isn’t the case when you are learning to drive. Most novices drive with both their hands firmly on the steering, with craned necks, furrowed brows and sweaty foreheads. Conversing with them or blasting heavy metal during these tense moments can put both your lives on the line.

This interplay between the conscious and the unconscious appears across several fields. Chess masters are able to play fundamentally sound blitz games because more than 90% of their moves are automatic and unconscious so that they can dedicate the 5 min on their clocks to create and fend off chaotic positions on the board. An expert programmer can identify a bug in seconds because most her unconscious mind digests most of the program’s logic so that she can direct all her focus towards the anomaly. A forest ranger can spot a horn-bill in the canopy with the corner of his eye, for his unconscious mind knows the subtle difference between the wind rustling the leaves and a bird’s movements. A pro-gamer can make even the act of dragging a mouse pointer across the screen an act of skill and extreme precision.

The key to master any field is to break it down into drills and practice them for thousands of hours so that its fundamental routines are unconscious. That way, our conscious minds are free to focus on the present, the particular and the peculiar to slow time down and respond in miraculous ways.

Inspiration: The Art of Learning

Information Source: From eye movements to actions: how batsmen hit the ball

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