October 14, 2013

Practice makes perfect?

Does a technical, complex sport like cricket contain new tricks that can't be taught to old dogs?

Many, if not most, of cricket's skills can be improved as coaching systems evolve, regardless of players' age © Alexander Mackay

Sir Geoffrey Boycott, according to his wonderfully illustrated Book for Young Cricketers (1976), perfected his straight bat as a boy by tying a ball to a tree branch and hitting it again and again. Bradman trained his eye by knocking away golf balls with a stump, and West Indian legends Viv Richards and Brian Lara sought the wisdom of cricketing sage Alf Gover at his fabled school in Wandsworth.

This winter, with the learned help of batting and bowling coaches, along with whirring machines designed to fire swinging jaffas or replicate biting spinners like Shane Warne's "Ball of the Century", cricketers both professional and amateur will be working on their technique. Fellow team-mates have made vows - and pledged credit card details to coaches - to start next season as better players. And with the right advice, why wouldn't they enhance their powers? With no disrespect to my experienced comrades, I wonder if cricket, a technical, complex sport requiring an array of motor skills, contains new tricks that can't be taught to old dogs.

Not as reported in a paper published in Neurobiology of Aging (2003), in which researchers compared young (30-35 years) with elderly (63-71 years) in a reaction-time exercise where subjects tracked a moving asterisk across a screen. Veterans will be glad to learn that "age differences in motor skill learning, if any, are very subtle".

Of course, despite cricket's triumph of touch and timing over brute force, there must be a critical point - as Matthew Hoggard, Ricky Ponting and Steve Harmison have this year discovered - where the fading body can no longer compete with the physical trials of the modern game.

Writing in the Times Matthew Syed acknowledged that the constraints of biomechanics means we'll "never run faster than cheetahs", but that the skills of a Messi or a Federer are not limited by lung capacity or muscle strength. So too, one would argue, the timing and shot selection of a maestro batsman, or the guile and flight of a gifted spinner. Fast bowling, alas, must have a ceiling of human performance as it ultimately relies on power.

Syed offers that "if coaching systems continue to evolve... these skills will just keep improving", and turning the musty pages of Thomas Boxall's Rules and Instructions for Playing at the Game of Cricket(1801), the advancement is apparent. Bowlers are advised to hold the ball "with the seam across" and to perform their run-up in "six steps" and practice length bowling by placing a feather "5 Yds. And 3Qrs." from the stumps.

However quaint Boxall's coaching reads, including a batting stance with "both toes to face nearly straight to the bowler", some hints do chime with modern strategies: never bowl "faster than you can do with ease", and, as IPL stars with the ball know too well, "not to bowl always the same pace".

What would have happened if an overzealous coach had insisted that "Slinger" Malinga's nine o'clock arm came through at 12, or that Kevin Pietersen banish his front-foot tennis smash back past the bowler?

Two hundred and thirteen years on from these original cricketing essentials we have glossy manuals like the excellent Twenty20 Cricket: How to Play, Coach and Win. Chapter one is about executing the power hit - once upon a time the reviled slog - with following lessons on the Dilscoop and the paddle sweep. Photographic instruction, "Troubleshooting" sections and "Captain's Notes" add levity to the Wisden-sanctioned tutelage, along with the now-regulation drills to increase core strength, balance and fitness.

Comparing my youth sessions from the 1980s to current professional regimes, despite the fact that my coach was Peter Booth, a former Leicestershire professional who had cricket in his blood and ran our sessions with zest and inventiveness, they do seem rather basic. But we didn't have crash mats and trampets, key equipment in an Edgbaston workout where Warwickshire players Neil Carter and Darren Maddy put the Authors Cricket Club through our aged and amateur paces. After dying-swan callisthenics we honed delivery strides by vaulting into bowling actions and avoiding slalom poles.

Yet instruction can also be obtrusive and harmful. Maddy acknowledged that my fall-away follow-through might be central to my outswing and didn't try to correct - few bowlers have a perfect action. What would have happened if an overzealous coach had insisted that "Slinger" Malinga's nine o'clock arm came through at 12, or that Kevin Pietersen banish his front-foot tennis smash back past the bowler?

Then there are certain individuals who without coaching or instruction improve their skills simply by doing and learning. In the two seasons since I first met Authors skipper Charlie Campbell, then a keen hobbyist without a fifty or five-for to his name, his unbridled enthusiasm and forensic attention to the game have advanced him to an opening bowler and hard-hitting allrounder of real talent.

Successful players and coaches, a la the ancient Greeks, a people who thrived through contact with traders ferrying novel ideas from other societies, seek counsel and learn from other sporting cultures. British cycling supremo Sir Dave Brailsford consulted surgeons, the Royal Ballet, and prison psychologists in his quest for Olympic excellence.

After the Authors' tour of India last January - in which we played five and lost five - gone is the pre-innings throwdown, the gentle knock back to a team-mate who'd rather be finishing a cup of tea. Arriving at a game in Mumbai we were greeted by the drumming of balls thwacked against a sightscreen. Instead of our pointless dab returns to a fielder, the local players loosened arms and got their feet moving by planting ball after ball in the middle of the bat. Three cover drives followed by three square cuts, then a quick change and three hooks followed by three on-drives. Footwork and intensity rather than a leisurely impression of French cricket.

For the Authors Cricket Club, and any other team of keen and ageing amateurs, the evidence for continued improvement is good news, and with a winter of study ahead I already look forward to the examination of next season.

Nicholas Hogg is a co-founder of the Authors Cricket Club. His first novel, Show Me the Sky was nominated for the IMPAC literary award