The moment had arrived. I walked out to bat on first-class debut and everything seemed to be happening quicker than I wanted it to.
Did I want to bat right now? Was I ‘ready’?
We had won the toss on a beautifully warm day at Comber on one of the best batting wickets in the country. It was everything you could ask for as a batsman. You would think I’d be feeling confident, right? Wrong.
My mind was full of doubt. Doubt as to whether I could cope with the quality of bowling. Doubt as to whether my instincts were in tune with what’s required in multi-day cricket. Doubt as to whether I could continue a strong run of scores that had got me here.
Why was I so fearful, you might ask? Especially when I’d just come off arguably the most destructive innings of my career – 97 off 46 balls (10 fours and five sixes) in a T20 Cup match against Waringstown, the best white ball team in the country, on their home track at The Lawn.
We were chasing 200 and while the mood in our changing room was a little sombre at the thought of having to go at 10-an-over against one of the more balanced bowling attacks in the land, I just thought ‘we’ve got to believe we can do this’. And, ‘who knows, if we play with freedom and enjoy ourselves, you never know what can happen’.
Well, we got there with seven wickets in hand and an over to spare. It was one of those days for me where I had some early luck, but otherwise, I felt I was in total control and hit the ball where I wanted to. It was great feeling so in control and noticing the panic in their body language as they searched for answers from their bowling and fielding unit. I’d played out of my skin. Completely fearless.
However, it was that fearlessness which had me so uncertain just two days later as I faced up to my first ball at Comber, from recent test debutant, Tyrone Kane. You see, playing fearlessly in a limited overs game with a white ball allows you to access some attacking instincts that don’t necessarily stand you in good stead when it comes to facing the swinging red duke ball.
I’d spent the winter honing my attacking instincts to give myself the best chance of success in club cricket so that I’d be a chance of gaining selection for the Knights. Now, I was finally here, I was questioning my preparation for red ball cricket and the longest form of the game. 22 balls into my innings I was out LBW to Irish international Peter Chase for two; trapped on the crease.
I couldn’t work out why I failed to move my feet like usual and lacked rhythm during my 29-minute stay at the crease. As I walked off, I felt embarrassed and disappointed. Oh well, there was always the second innings, right? We slumped to 60 for four before lunch and recovered to 241 for six before finishing 263 all out, thanks largely to James McCollum’s 87 and 70 from Shane Getkate. In reply, Leinster eked past our total and took a lead of five runs into the second innings.
Coincidentally, that’s all I was able to muster, myself. Peter Chase delivered me a back of a length ball on my hip which I was able to tuck around the corner to the short boundary at fine leg for four in the first over of the innings, but he had me nicking to the keeper in the next. I trudged off again. All kinds of emotional thoughts racing through my head. “I’m not good enough.” “What am I even doing here?” “Have I really waited this long to play first-class cricket only to produce a couple of performances like that!?”
I was angry at myself. But, realistically, how could I be angry? I hadn’t prepared thoroughly enough to face the swinging ball and the quality of bowling, so how could I be annoyed with failure? I hadn't given myself the best chance. As the match unfolded, we set Leinster 268 to win in 60 overs and they got there comfortably on the back of a wonderful unbeaten 123 from John Anderson.
It was a special innings and great to watch from the perspective of trying to learn what it takes to be successful at this level. Anderson plays the ball beautifully late under his eyes, has soft hands, leaves the ball well, knows his boundary options and rotates the strike with serious skill. Rarely does he look fazed or under pressure.
Over the following days and weeks, I set about mapping out a plan to move forward in the hope of being better prepared for the next match in five weeks’ time. What that meant was completely changing my approach to how I batted in the League for CSNI. I had had early season success by being proactive and putting the bowler under pressure, using my feet to walk down the wicket to manipulate length and then pouncing on anything short. However, I felt that this freedom wasn’t setting me up well when it came to three-day cricket.
Instead, I decided to be more passive in my approach to playing the new ball in the first 10-12 overs, be more patient and, rather than try to force the bowler into a mistake, simply wait for one. My strike rate dropped drastically, and I started nicking off more than I had in my first seven innings. My numbers in club cricket took a dive. Before the failures against Leinster, I had made 417 runs @ 83.4 and a strike rate of 100 in seven innings. In the seven innings after, I made 240 runs @ 34.29 at a strike rate of 79.
While I knew the change in approach was having a detrimental effect on my performances for my club, I also knew that practicing this different approach in training alone wasn’t going to be enough for me to nail it under pressure in a first-class game. So, I focused more intently than before on how hard my hands were gripping the bat.
In white ball cricket, harder (tighter) hands had been allowing me to strike the ball firmer. However, when the ball was seaming and swinging around, it meant I was playing the first line I saw (before the ball had swung) as well as following the movement of the ball with my hands, rather than being able to acknowledge the movement and let the ball go when it wasn’t hitting the stumps. A looser grip on the bat handle allowed my whole body to relax a bit more and therefore play the ball a little later (allowing the ball to swing before deciding what stroke to play).
The challenge here is to ensure that you don’t lose your decisive footwork both forward and back. I therefore went into my second match with more understanding of what it was going to take from a technical and tactical perspective to succeed. The question was, had the practice in training and matches allowed the changes to become engrained?
Well, the answer was rather conclusive; I made 8 and 0 in the next match for the Knights (against the North West Warriors on another good batting wicket at Comber). I’d been out LBW in the first innings (video suggested it was going well down leg) and then nicked off to second slip, to a ball I had no need to play at, for a 13-ball duck in the second innings.
It was clear. I hadn’t been able to make the necessary changes in time for them to be instinctive to the point where I could trust myself completely. I was lost. Was I capable of doing well at this level? Did the fact that I was managing a full-time job, taking care of my three children half of the week and being unable to train four or five times a week - like most of the other guys I was playing with and against - mean that I wasn’t going to be able to cut it with these guys?
I had two weeks until the next three-dayer (pending selection) and I decided I had no option but to keep training and playing in the same vain. I felt I needed to maintain a consistent mentality and continue trying to improve each day and each training session and, by doing that, I’d give myself the best chance of playing my best at Bready.
# Stay tuned for my next two pieces where I’ll talk about the actions I’ve taken off the pitch to enhance my chances of success, and the moment I finally realised I could succeed at this level.
**You can follow Marc Ellison on Twitter @marc_ellison for his latest blogs.**