The Temple of Apollo, where the Oracle of Delphi plied her trade, was renowned for having the maxim "know thyself" carved into its stone. This, along with Polonius' parting words to Laertes in Hamlet, "to thine own self be true", is perhaps the best advice that a cricketer can be given. For cricket, in all of its infinite variety, relies on judgement more than any other skill, and if there's one judgement that is absolutely vital, it is that of the self.
Geoffrey Boycott, for all his faults, knows a thing or two about the game. One of his mantras is "make your opponent do something they don't want to do". He says this because it's true.
If you're bowling to Alastair Cook, you don't pitch the ball short and wide, or on his hips, you pitch it outside off... and when he's struggling, when his footwork isn't just so, or he's overbalancing, he'll invariably have a nibble. When he's in form, however, his judgement is impeccable. Ignoring practically everything that isn't in his arc, he simply waits for the bad ball and puts it away, and his leave is a thing of frustrating beauty. He's not the most elegant, attractive or technically proficient member of the England set-up, but one look at the numbers show just how effective a cricketer he is. This is because he knows his own game.
In April 1997, an article appeared in the music press arguing that accurate self-assessment was vital for a musician to perform at their best, and described a psychological test that could quantify the gap between a player's self-belief and his or her actual ability. It was, as the month of publication suggests, a joke, though like all good jokes it was built around close observation and understanding. Two years later, in 1999, two psychologists at Cornell University came to a similar conclusion, noting that low-ability individuals consistently overestimate their skill levels, while the converse is true of high-ability individuals. They called it the Dunning-Kruger effect. I called it the Position of Attitudes.
We've all seen the results of extreme disparity between actual and perceived ability. The batsman who thinks he can hit every ball for six but is always oh-so-unlucky; the bowler who's convinced he's lightning fast and pitches it short and shorter still, but will get the batsman soon. Neither cricketer wins games.
Accurately gauging one's own ability relative to that of the other players on the field (whether they are on your side or not) is a vital part of playing at one's best.
As a wicketkeeper who sometimes keeps above himself, it's a constant battle to find the right place to stand, especially to spinners. Obviously, one ought to stand up to spin, but some bowlers are just too quick for me. I leak byes and am unlikely to take many nicks. Standing back even a yard or two may take stumpings out of the equation, but the byes dry up and I pouch the nicks.
"We must allow ourselves to play our own game. Yes, we adapt to the situation, and sometimes that means we must take greater risks, but in acknowledging those risks we may still make the best of it"
I know my own capabilities, and usually keep within them, but sometimes I give in to pressure and move to where someone else thinks I ought to stand. It rarely goes well. I'm pretty confident I know my keeping self.
When batting, the same is true. If you're aware of your limitations (and accept them), then you reduce the risk of failure. It's when you're tempted to overreach that things go badly. You decide to go for big shots when you're really a nudger and a nurdler.
On tour this summer, I played a vital innings batting at No. 5 (when I was probably the 12th best bat in the team) during which I watched partner after partner try too hard and perish accordingly. I simply waited for the ball to be well within my arc. It worked because I played to my strengths (such as they are) and made the bowlers come to me. Occasionally, I simply tee off. This doesn't go so well.
We must allow ourselves to play our own game and not be lured into playing someone else's. No matter what the wicketkeeper says. Yes, we adapt to the situation, and yes, sometimes that means we must take greater risks, but in acknowledging those risks we may still make the best of it. Try to hit the ball too hard, try to bowl it too fast, try too many variations and the percentages plummet. Ask not, as they say, what the ball is going to do to you, but what you can actually do with the ball.
The England Test side has left in its wake many who have struggled to succeed because they have tried to change their natural game. And by this I don't mean adapting to the new arena, fine-tuning technique, or working on shot selection.
Nick Compton, convinced he needed to impress, tried to change his natural game and was caught hooking. Alex Hales struggled as an opener because he couldn't decide who to be: had he played freely he may still have failed, but that's okay. Yes, James Vince, Gary Ballance and a few others have arguably failed to make their game work at Test level, but they were honest with themselves in the process. Fail on your own terms, not somebody else's.
When Ben Duckett and Haseeb Hameed opened together in the warm-up game in Bangladesh, they were in direct competition for the vacant opening berth. Both played their own game, neither trying to impress. The result? They both impressed. This can only be good for English cricket.
We should aim to do the same, learn from Duckett and Hameed and be our own role models.