August 14, 2014

What other sports can enhance the cricketer?

Baseball may be cricket's closest relative, but it's boxing that actually offers most to the cricketer

What does the sweet science have to do with the forward defensive? © AFP

One of the many great things about living in Japan is baseball. Not the sport itself, the endless full tosses and the leather mitts required to field a ball softer and lighter than a cricket ball, but the ubiquitous "batting centres" located in every city. More like a golf range than a cricket net. For a few yen, batters can stand on a plate facing a virtual pitcher - a bowling machine hidden behind a screen, often timed with video images of star players - and hammer two dozen full bungers into the roofing. With the touch of a button, pace can be upped to 160kph and pitches equipped with Mitchell Johnson afterburn. However, helmets, gloves and boxes are unnecessary. Precision Japanese engineering means that every missile zings along exactly the same course, and it doesn't take long to adapt and intercept, smiting it back to where it came from.

Writing in the Guardian earlier this year, Andy Bull reported on the progress of the South Korean T20 team, a squad of mostly ex-baseball players managed by British baseball player and specialist cricket fielding coach, Julien Fountain. "It's monstrous," says Fountain of his batters. "They just hit." While Bull is dubious about the transitional nature of baseball skills into cricket, Fountain is more sure. "Show me a beginner cricketer who can hit the ball 110 metres."

So what other sports can enhance the cricketer?

Watching the Cordon's very own Jonathan Wilson bat last week, one can see the remnants of his first love - hockey. Anything around off stump, whether short or full, is cut. That bottom hand, used to guiding hockey balls between sticks and legs, is a deft touch and his go-to run-getter. Claire Taylor, the former England Women batsman and hockey international, was encouraged by coaches to use her hockey-style shots to full effect.

A cricket player developing his skills through another sport involving a stick to whack a ball is no real surprise. From baseball to hockey to hurling, the muscle groups and hand-eye coordination needed to "see ball, hit ball" cross-pollinate. Walking across a park in Edinburgh a few years ago, I came across an Irish hurling team spanking passes to each other the width of a football pitch. When I asked if I could have a hit they laughed and said it was harder than it looked, before I tossed up the ball and slapped it directly to a player on the other side of the ground. The lads preferred to attribute my natural ability to a great-grandmother from Tipperary rather than years of playing that colonial pastime, cricket.

Beyond the obvious skill sets of batting, fielding and bowling, an athlete in any top sport must at least possess the mental toughness to excel in another. Speaking to Jonathan Agnew on Test Match Special, the former Manchester United footballer Phil Neville, who once captained England Schoolboys at cricket, compared the trial of facing West Indies fast bowler Ottis Gibson, aged 11, to stepping out before the chanting terraces at Anfield and Galatasaray.

Yet true technique, the angled elbow on a cover drive, or the finely tuned wrist position to swing a ball, are particular to cricket and can only be attained through cricket. Surely what does cross over from one sport to another is athleticism and fitness. Running fast, flexibility, stamina and strength can only boost the aspiring cricketer.

However, close attention to one sport may well pollute another. Squash will ruin your tennis stroke. And how many cricketers step onto a golf course and try and hit that little white sphere off the tee for six, only to whang it into the bunker. Muscles in the back and shoulders of fast bowlers would seem to suit a big tennis serve, that full extension of the latissimus dorsi, before the contraction and snap of fast- twitch fibres propel the ball off the racquet. But look closer, see the feet positioned side-on, the bent elbow and pronation of the wrist more akin to a throw than bowling.

Baseball, "the bastard son of our own, and much superior and more cerebral game of cricket", as described by Leo McKinstry when reviewing Ed Smith's Playing Hard Ball: County Cricket and Big League Baseball, may be our closest relative, but of all the sports I've practised it's boxing that actually offers most to the cricketer.

First, consider the fighter's stance: not quite side-on, knees slightly bent, feet light and ready to move. And eyes level, watching, waiting. Graham Gooch, with his side-on guard, might not resemble the next welterweight champion of the world, but watch a modern blaster like Glenn Maxwell or Chris Gayle and see that slugger ready to swing. Poise and head position are key, and a well-executed hook in boxing transfers directly to the wicket - torque generated in the hips, torso and limbs, while maintaining level sight. Although a traditional jab to the jaw might not resemble anything seen in a Test match, watch that same boxer duck and punch into the diaphragm, then picture a bend at the elbow and you have a solid forward defensive. Boxing, unlike pumping weights, builds strength with explosive speed. And anyone in doubt of the conditioning gained from sparring and bag work should compare the photos of Andrew Flintoff before and after training for his one and only "car crash TV" bout last year.

While most of the dual internationals playing cricket are footballers and rugby players, cricketer-boxers are few and far between. Ashes winner Johnny Douglas also claimed gold at the 1908 Olympics, and the umpire and Somerset player Bill Alley went 28 fights undefeated before a bouncer floored him in the nets and KO'ed his pugilist career.

Jesse Ryder has challenged Flintoff to a fight, but I'm hoping that most of us would prefer to see them transfer their boxing skills to a bout on the wicket.

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. @nicholas_hogg