To be a successful batter, a coach will tell you, always keep your eye on the ball. But researchers have found that may not always be the best advice, at least in cricket. Instead, skilled cricket batters--who must often hit the ball after it has bounced on the turf--quickly shift their gaze from the ball to the spot on the ground where they predict it will bounce. The faster the player takes their eyes off the ball, the researchers say, the better the batter.
Michael Land, a neuroscientist at the University of Sussex, Brighton, used a head-mounted camera to observe the eye movements of three cricket batters of varying skill. An automatic pitching machine (or bowling machine, as it is called in cricket) threw balls at 80 kilometers per hour at the batters, while Land and his colleagues recorded how the batters' eyes moved and what each batter saw.
All three batters shifted their eyes to the ground after watching the initial release of the ball. "They're essentially lying in wait for the bounce," Land says. But although the general strategy was similar, the speed of a player's eye movements increased with batting skill. The least experienced batter, Land says, also had the slowest eye movements and wouldn't have been able to keep up with a faster bowler.
But ace batting requires more than just fast eye reflexes, says Mary Hayhoe, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester, New York. Being able to quickly predict where the ball will land "is a fairly high-level learning skill," she says, adding that this skill is acquired subconsciously. Indeed, the batters had no idea what their eyes were doing, Land says, and "were really quite surprised by what they did."