When studying the elite players in any sport, there are always a series of common traits that bind them together. In the NFL, the greatest quarterbacks all have an incredibly ability to process large amounts of information quickly, the talent to throw the ball a long way down the field and great footwork to get themselves in position to throw. In football, the elite players all have amazing physicality, endurance and a will to win their own individual battles. They are also excellent readers of the game, so much so that it seems that they know exactly where they need to be at each point in a match.
Cricket is of course no different! When it comes to batting, there are certain traits or qualities that set you up for success more than others. The modern elite batsmen like Joe Root, Steve Smith, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson possess most (if not all) of these qualities, and that is also the case with the elite players of the past like Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting and Kumar Sangakkara!
In this post I’ll be sharing the main qualities that I believe all elite batsmen share, and I’ll also be explaining why they are relevant to the art of batting. A few of these will be relating to the technique of batsmen, and a few of them will be more cognitive/mental in nature. For each one, I’ll explain whether that particular quality is more suited to one form of cricket than another, and lastly, I’ll tell you who my favourite exponent of each quality was! If any of that sounds interesting to you, then please enjoy reading the rest of this post!
So, what are the qualities of an elite batsman in cricket?
The main qualities of elite batsmen are:
- They can pick line and length early
- They have good decision-making skills
- They have fast reaction times
- They display excellent head position & footwork
- They have a large range of shots available to them
- They have immense powers of concentration
- They play with ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ hands when required
- They have excellent hand-eye co-ordination
- They are driven, highly motivated individuals
- They have high levels of self-belief
I’ll now dive into each of these qualities individually so that I can explain them in more detail. Once I’m done, you’ll hopefully have a much clearer idea of what makes the elite batsmen so great! Let’s get started…
Picking Line & Length Early
Arguably the most important quality for a batsman to have is the ability to pick up line and length early. If you’re unsure of what this means, it basically means that once the ball leaves the bowler’s hand, the batsman is able to quickly determine where the ball is going to land and how high and wide the delivery is going to be by the time it reaches them.
When you’re watching an elite player bat, you’ll often hear commentators remark that that player seems to have a lot of time to play their shots. Now of course, this is untrue. When facing a certain bowler, these players have just as much time as everyone else. But, because they judge the line and length of the ball so early, they can get into position to play the ball much faster – meaning that they never look rushed. Everything about their game looks so calm and in rhythm that it seems as if they have more time to react. There have been times when I’ve watched Steve Smith batting and it looks like he knows where the ball is going to be before it has even left the bowler’s hand. At times it seemed like he could never be rushed because he was picking up line and length that early. This is the stage of batsmanship we should all be trying to reach in my opinion!
The earlier you can decipher the line and length of the ball, the more time you have to react to it and play your shot. Thankfully, there are ways to teach yourself to pick up line and length quicker, and I’ve talked about many of them in one of my other posts linked here! Feel free to check it out if you want to improve your skills in that area.
Good Decision-Making Skills
The most elite batsmen will also have great decision-making skills, making them less prone to get out in foolish, ill-advised ways.
For example, when the ball is swinging excessively, an elite batsman will probably know that they shouldn’t be attempting to play full blooded straight/cover drives, and as a result they will be able to refrain from playing this shot in order to preserve their wicket. If the bowling side has 4 fielders out on the leg side for the short ball, an elite batsman may not be tempted into playing the hook shot as they know this is exactly what the bowling side is aiming to get them to do. If a spin bowler is bowling and the fielding captain brings in a silly point fielder close to the bat, an elite batter may choose to use their feet immediately and try to hit through this zone. This is the last thing that a fielder standing at silly point wants to see, and if the batsman continues to use their feet that fielder often ends up being moved as a result.
In the scenarios I’ve mentioned above, a less experienced or less skilled batter may get suckered into the bowling team’s trap and make a bad decision that gets them out. Elite batsmen read the game situation well and understand what the bowlers are trying to achieve, making it easier for them to combat their method of attack.
Fast Reaction Times
When facing the fastest of fast bowlers, batsmen have around half a second from the ball leaving the bowlers hand to when it reaches them. This is an incredibly small amount of time in which they can react and respond. This means that in approximately half a second, they have to:
- Keep their eyes on the ball, gathering information about where it is going to land and how high/wide it will be when it reaches them
- Relay this information to the brain
- The brain interprets the information and selects an appropriate response. This could be a certain shot that the batsman will play, or a type of evasive action
- The brain sends a signal to the relevant muscle groups in order to put the response into action
Of course, all of these steps above occur in a fraction of a second and we barely notice them as we are in the process of batting. But the batsmen who can execute these steps in the smallest amount of time are probably going to have more success at the elite level. To put it simply, the faster your reactions are, the better equipped you will be to face the quickest bowlers – and there’s a lot of these at the elite international level of the game!
If you’d like to read more about reaction time in cricket, I wrote a detailed post on it that you can ready by clicking here!
Excellent Head Position & Footwork
One thing that all elite batsmen seem to possess is excellent head position and/or footwork whilst they are batting. If you want to judge and play the ball in the best possible way, it’s important to get your head in line with the ball if possible. If you get your head too far outside the line of the ball (as I’m demonstrating in the picture below), you can get yourself into awful, unbalanced positions and make it much harder for yourself to hit the ball. If your head is too far inside the line of the ball, you could be attacking a delivery that is far too far away from your body. These kinds of shots are much harder to control!
If a batsman has good head position when batting, it’s likely that they will have good footwork too. Especially against fast bowlers! This is because wherever the head goes, your feet tend to follow. For example, if you stand in your batting stance and lean your head forwards towards the off side, your feet will almost certainly want to move in that direction too to re-balance your body. So, moving your head towards the line of the ball will also get your front foot closer to the line of the ball, allowing you to stay nicely balanced and in control of your shots. This is why head position is so important!
Take a look at any of the elite players from the last 20 years when they’re in form, and you’ll notice that they mostly have immaculate head position. This is something that all youngsters and aspiring professionals should be thinking about and working on in practice as it’s a hugely beneficial aspect of a batting technique!
A Large Range Of Shots
An elite batsman (particularly one playing in short formats of cricket like T20 matches) is highly likely to have a large range of shots which they can use to put bowlers to the sword. If a batsman is adept at playing a huge range of cricket shots, they will be able to hit the ball into more areas of the field. This makes it a lot harder for fielding captains and bowlers to set fields and develop bowling plans for them.
Batters who can play every shot in the book are usually referred to as 360-degree players. Probably the most famous example of this was AB de Villiers – who is definitely one of the most skilled batters I’ve ever seen. He was a true modern great and was incredibly destructive in all formats of the game. If he received a ball on a good length just outside the off stump, he had so many different shots he could play against that delivery that the fielding captain never felt like he had enough fielders. He could clear the front leg and hit over mid-wicket, he could get down and reverse sweep it over third man, he could step outside the off stump and ramp it over fine leg, and he could also play a ton of conventional shots like straight drives and cover drives.
The only way to emulate players like AB de Villiers and start to build your own large range of shots is by practicing them a lot and getting comfortable being innovative against different types of bowling. If you’d like to view a detailed list of all the different cricket shots as well as tips on how to play each of them – click here to view my post on that!
Immense Powers Of Concentration
This quality is more applicable to long format cricket such as test matches, but it definitely has a part to play in shorter formats of the game too. Basically, in order to play game winning innings’ batsmen will have to remain at the crease for long periods of time. This is actually very hard to do and requires the batsman to maintain their concentration over many hours.
Keeping their concentration levels high before and during every delivery allows batsmen to watch the ball from the moment it leaves the bowler’s hand until it reaches their bat. This is one of the most important aspects of batting well as it allows them to judge the ball. Batsmen who lose concentration may not be completely focused on the ball as the bowler is running in, and as a result they may not keep their eyes on it all the way through the flight of the delivery. This is where mistakes can creep into your judgement, resulting in you getting out.
At the start of an innings, it’s pretty easy to stay focused on the ball and what you need to do to start your innings well. But once you’ve been at the crease an hour, or two hours, it’s incredible how often batters can lose that mental intensity and get out as a result. The most elite batsmen can maintain their concentration through full days of batting – which is an amazing skill in itself.
I’ve written a post intended for batsmen who are looking to improve the mental side of their game. It covers how to dispel nervous energy, and also how to maintain focus at the crease. If you’d like to read that and learn a few techniques that could help you out – click here!
Playing With ‘Soft’ & ‘Hard’ Hands When Required
There are times in cricket where batters need to play with ‘soft hands’, and when they need to play with ‘hard hands’. The most elite batsmen in the game know when to use both and are very skilled at doing so.
When the ball is swinging and seaming around and the batsman isn’t sure where the ball is going to be when it passes them, they should ideally be trying to play the ball with soft hands. Playing with soft hands means that they aren’t pushing/thrusting their hands towards the ball aggressively. Instead, they are allowing the ball to come to them and allowing it to hit the bat, rather than the other way around. When a batsman does this, any edges that they get on the ball are much less likely to carry to the keeper or the slip fielders, which can be vital when the ball is swinging and seaming a lot. Players like Kane Williamson are experts at this. I’ve lost count of the number of times that a bowler has found the edge of his bat and the ball has just died and gone straight into the ground!
When a batsman plays with ‘hard hands’, they are really thrusting their hands towards the ball aggressively. This is useful in short formats of cricket like T20’s when there isn’t as much value in preserving your wicket and it’s more important to play in an attacking way and score quick runs. You see this on full display when you watch a player like Jason Roy open the batting for England. He hits the ball well in front of his body and really follows through with his hands, which is one reason he is such a powerful batter.
To put it simply, having the ability to play with both soft and hard hands in different moments provides a batsman with a great advantage, and the elite players can regularly flick between the two.
Excellent Hand-Eye Co-Ordination
When the ball is travelling towards you at high speeds and spinning to varying degrees, it’s important to have excellent levels of hand-eye co-ordination to ensure that you can reliably hit the ball. Therefore it’s no surprise that the most elite batsmen excel in this area, as they have to deal with the fastest bowling and the highest degrees of spin.
Fortunately, this is something that can be improved over time! The longer you spend practicing in the nets, watching the ball and hitting it, the better the connection between your eyes and your hands will become.
Driven, Highly Motivated Individuals
To reach the highest level and become an elite player in any sport, you need to be highly motivated and driven to succeed. This motivation and inner drive will be the thing that ensures you practice as much as you can every week (yes, even during the winter!) and continue to do this year after year. The drive to succeed will help you get through testing periods such as when you are struggling to face a certain type of bowling, or when you’re recovering from injury.
I think one of the elite players that has demonstrated their driven nature beautifully over the years is Steve Smith. When he first entered the Australian team he was seen more as a leg spin prospect who could be a handy top order batsman. However, his famous relentlessness in practice and hunger to score runs have transformed him into one of the most effective test batsmen the cricketing world has ever seen. The transformation in his game has been nothing short of amazing – and I say that as an England fan who has been hurt by many of his innings – and I’m sure he attributes most of that transformation to the fact that he is always willing to put in the hard yards in order to succeed. He knew the type of player and batsman that he wanted to be, and he would not stop working until he achieved it. This is a mindset we all should try to adopt!
High Levels Of Self-Belief
There is a saying in sports that the true mark of an athlete’s character is how they deal with adversity and defeat, rather than victory. Whilst you are winning and performing well, it’s incredibly easy to remain upbeat about your performances and your abilities. However, it’s a lot harder to remain in that frame of mind when things aren’t going well, especially if this has been happening for a while.
At some point in their career, every batsman will go through a period where they get a series of low scores and things aren’t going well for them. During these moments, the batsmen who have high levels of self-belief are usually able to exit that poor run of form quicker than players who have very low self-confidence.
I remember so many great players that went through very challenging times. Recently Joe Root had a tough stretch after he accepted the captaincy, but by trusting in his skills he has got past that and scored thousands of runs since then. Alastair Cook was once at a point in his England career where another couple of bad innings’ could have ended his international career, but he was able to get himself a score and went on to open the batting for many more years for England. As I write this, Virat Kohli is going through a period of bad form by his standards for India, having not scored a century in the previous 3 years. Anyone who has watched Virat during his career knows that he has high levels of self-belief, and this is just one of the things that makes him elite. I wouldn’t bet against him to emerge from this bad run and score centuries consistently again until the end of his career!
I hope that this post has given you a bit more of an insight into what it takes to become an elite batsman. I’m a firm believer that all batsmen can work on the things I’ve mentioned above, and if they do so (and do it for long enough), they can massively improve their skill level. Here at Cricketer’s Hub I’ve written many blog posts that will help batters to improve their games – so feel free to check out my Batting Tips page if you’re interested in those!
I’ve also written a detailed Ebook that will teach you how to pick a spin bowler’s variations – and you can download that for free by clicking here! This is a valuable skill that is often overlooked by coaches and young players, so the Ebook will help you learn what to look for. I hope you enjoy!