Everything evolves, but so to does everything erode if we aren’t careful. If we don’t look after our bodies, our bodies will struggle to survive the test if time. As a cricket coach who specialises in batting, I see the same happening in the world of batting, or batsmanship. Obviously, the modern cricketer may well call me a dinosaur, although anyone that works with me will know that not to be true.
I am a big fan of Steffan Jones who is making waves as a bowling coach, particularly in his quest to unearth genuine fast bowlers to terrorise in the same manner as the 1970s/80s West Indians. Steffans approach is based around a physical strengthening and scientifically supported model. Build the physicality and structure of the person to achieve the outcome ie. 90mph plus bowlers.
My batting coaching is the same, without the science. My approach is based around engaging the players brain, as much as the players body. I access tools to support the development of a players awareness to themselves, their technique and their training. At times there is no need for instruction, simply ‘do’ and see what happens, with the player taking ownership of the journey. As General Patton once observed, “don’t tell them how to do it, tell them what needs to be done and let them show you how they do it”. With that in mind, as a coach, I can then use the information the player gives me.
People are different and think / learn in differing ways, so as a coach its my duty to learn about them and learn to relay messages to them that suit their way of thinking / learning. It’s not easy and takes time. The key is to engage the player mentally as well as physically. The key is to watch their behaviour, listen to their words and absorb their messages. I cannot compromise my principles wholeheartedly, but I do have to make compromises as to how I introduce training and its content.
So, back to the batting. I am concerned that there is too much ‘telling’ players what to do and how to do it. Every shape of player being forced into a square hole, irrespective of their own shape. For example, there is a great push to coach batters to move back and across before the ball is bowled. At a young age, I prefer to see young cricketers stand still and learn to keep their head still. I am keen that developing batters unclutter their mind, watch the ball closely and then hit it. The ‘back and across’ premise is based around batting against pace, which is fine, although limited in junior cricket. My other issue is that we don’t know where the ball is going to be bowled so why predict it to be short? I had my helmet smashed by Wasim Akram at Old Trafford in 1988. After a five-minute break to replace the helmet, remove the remnants of the previous one and check I was okay, we continued. I looked up to see Wasim Akram waiting to bowl again. Lovely. Did I predict what he would bowl next? Did I change my game because of what had just happened? No, of course not. I had to do what I always did and accept that was my game, irrespective of errors. Incidentally, the next ball was short again, but sailed harmlessly over my head (thankfully).
The other major coaching focus currently is encouraging batters to play with ‘high hands’ before the ball is bowled. This is a ‘hitting’ position as in baseball and commits the batter to the mindset of ‘hit’ before the ball is bowled. The old maxim of ‘see the ball early, play the ball late’ is hugely challenged as the batter is already committed early with high hands. You could argue that it worked for Graham Gooch, yet he grew up as a batsman so his high hands were still held in a ‘waiting’ position, allowing him to still adapt to the delivery offered him.
Has anyone studied baseball strike rate statistics whilst encouraging this approach? On average, a baseball player will be required to bat 500 times per season. Each time they bat, they may face up to a maximum of 6 pitches, depending on outcomes, so I will compromise and use 3 as an average. This
means the average baseball player has 1500 potential hits per season. The all time record home runs in a season is 67 by Roger Marris for the New York Yankees in 1961. Using this statistic, this means that Marris had a 1:22 home run record. One home run struck for every twenty-two pitches faced, which equates to a strike rate of less than 4.5%. That is the achievement of the record holder, so what is the average of the rest? This is acceptable in baseball. Is it acceptable in cricket? If batters are simply encouraged to try and hit every ball to the boundary and the strike rate is less than 4.5% in a sport where the ball doesn’t bounce, what is the likely outcome going to be in a sport where the variations are arguably infinitely greater?
I have studied much cricketing footage and will challenge high hands for power. Look at Viv Richards, as powerful a player as there has ever been. He held his hands low (hip height) until ball release. There was always a flow and a rhythm created, but his bat operated as an extension to his arms and body. They worked in sync to create great positioning, great timing and the outcome of great power. Look at Sachin Tendulkar and Steve Waugh too, both great run scorers with hands working from hip height. Counter this with Gordon Greenidge, Brian Lara and Graham Gooch who were more ready with higher hands. The point? Everyone is different, so I see danger in encouraging ‘everyone’ to adopt ‘high hands’ or early back and across movements.
Where the back and across is driven to playing against pace bowling, the high hands are geared to T20 and short form cricket and hitting the ball to the boundary. With every pro there is a con, but as is often the case, only the so-called sceptics see the con. Of course, we must encourage a desire to ‘hit’ the ball, but within this desire there must also be an attention to certain batting principles. For example, ‘you can’t score runs in the pavilion”. The higher the risk we apply to a skill, the greater the likelihood that we may fail. That’s fine and to be an accepted part of sport. However, in developing cricketers and developing people, the sense of failure can be highly damaging.
In the same way that Steffan constructs his bowlers, I aim to construct batters with common principles in learning to play straight, protect your stumps, learning about understanding lines and lengths, the importance of the head position and knowing where your off stump is. The attention to ‘hit’ challenges all of these principles from day one. The attention to ‘hit’ creates a rounded swing where the bat comes from behind the body, which makes playing straight, or defending stumps much more difficult. The attention to ‘hit’ moves the body early, so the batter waits less and pays less attention to an awareness to learning key strokes. The early movement will also move the head early and the ability to watch the ball closely is now also challenged.
Jos Buttler is one of the finest examples of the modern one day batsman and his skills are phenomenal. I have spoken at length to Dennis Breakwell, who coached Jos at Kings College. Dennis is always quick to point out that Jos did not start his cricket in the manner in which he now plays. The point being, Jos applied core principles and built around these later. Chris Gayle has a reputation for being a remarkable ball striker in the one day game and has committed his career to these formats. It should not be forgotten that he has also scored two test match triple hundreds, plus thirteen other centuries, which reinforces a simple fact that he has always had a desire to bat and must therefore possess a number of key batting principles.
In young cricketers there is a danger that foundation building is being overlooked with the effort being fast tracking players into a ‘hitting’ mindset. More and more junior county cricket is being pushed towards a twenty over focus, a format I grew up on as a kid, although we played it differently. We were brought up to read situations and apply ourselves to the challenge presented each game. This is less often the case now. From ball one the player is encouraged to score and take risks. Failure and humiliation has always only ever been one ball away, yet now we are encouraging this event far more readily. In essence we are almost driving players towards public humiliation because all players are asked to play the same way. How long will developing cricketers cope with being asked to do something one way and keep on experiencing bad days? Those successful young will be pigeon-holed as our future best. However, when challenged technically at higher levels, will they cope?
My view is that batting at its best must be capable of a range of skills. Joe Root, Kane Williamson, Steve Smith and Virat Kohli can play all forms of the game. None of them are identical technically. What they do is score runs and want to score runs. They read games and apply themselves to each situation. The best players always have.
So, I return to the young cricketer. If the approach is to ‘hit’ where does thinking and making clear judgements come in? And I’m not just talking about the player with elite potential. How many will just give up because cricket isn’t fun. Failing game after game isn’t fun, so why would you keep doing it? I see the pain in young players eyes when they have bad days and all they see is failure. I see a coaching programme inadvertently focusing on coaching failure. It may be a no fear approach, but players will always be aware of their performance and cricket deals in numbers. Runs, wickets, catches, byes etc…
We are seeing at the elite level of the game a one day surge and it’s highly impressive. The one day positivity is the pro. The test match game is seeing the con. It appears that red ball development as a focus is being overlooked and the outcome is players either unwilling to deal with difficult batting conditions, or an inability to cope. England have managed some incredibly low scores in recent years. There have been highs too, but the lows seem excessive. Batters have struggled against genuine pace in Australia, spin in India and swing in New Zealand. The back and across didn’t help in Australia, the high hands didn’t help in India and the back and across depth in the crease didn’t work too well against the swinging ball, as the bowlers could bowl as full as they liked to attack the stumps.
There appears to be a trend developing in that the professional game is producing tremendous ball strikers. How long before distance hitting becomes an Olympic field event? These players appear to be genuine number fives or number sixes. The production of numbers one, two, three and four are less obvious, so when the conditions are challenging, the number fives and sixes are struggling. The pro is that the depth of the batting goes lower as there are number fives and sixes coming in at seven, eight, nine and ten. This is generally fine in one day cricket, as everyone can apply a similar approach. Time isn’t an issue as overs are limited and more often than not, someone will have a good day. Having said that, if the conditions are challenging, who makes the decision to play a different role?
So, what is the future of batting? As a coach, I have to embrace the new skills. The reverse sweep, the switch hit, the ramp or frying pan. I even witnessed a lad play a reverse clip over mid-wicket. Or was it cover? Innovation and invention must be applauded and supported. The intention to score has to be paramount. However, as a batting coach, everything has to be geared to scoring runs. As a batter, that desire to score runs will be the over-riding factor. The, “it’s how I play” excuse is not the comment of a batter that wants to score huge quantities of runs and be the reason the team wins. The, “it’s how I play” batter is a bit part player and there is little future in it at the highest level. So, I won’t coach that.
Young players with ambition need structure. Young players need a foundation. Young players need certain skills they can trust. Once these principles are in place, we can start introducing relevant additions. Each player will still do things their own way, yet their principles should overlap.
The future of batting cannot be based around baseball. The baseball statistics show that a ‘hitting’ approach success rate of less than 4.5% suggests a flawed plan. By all means we must coach positivity, we must coach intent and we must pay attention to the evolution of our sport. However, whilst we are doing that, should we ignore history and common batting principles that the very best today, still adhere to?
Batsmanship is standing at the precipice and some may argue one foot is already over the edge while the game evolves around us and the ground erodes beneath us. What happens next?