December 14, 2015

Why didn't everyone copy Bradman?

Today unorthodox, self-taught techniques are celebrated and emulated, but the greatest batsman of all had few followers

Research indicates that uncoached players are more likely to gravitate towards Bradman's technique © Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Last summer, on assignment for Wisden's cricket quarterly, the Nightwatchman, I went to Birkenhead to meet Tony Shillinglaw, a man who has spent 20 years teaching himself to bat like Don Bradman. Tony is 78 years old now but still able to stage a convincing recreation of Bradman's technique, especially the Don's famous childhood game, played at home in Bowral, where he would use a cricket stump to strike a golf ball rebounding off a water tank from a distance of eight feet or so.

Shillinglaw taught himself Bradman's method by relearning the golf-ball game in his garage using a blue plastic bat and tennis ball. Now, having unravelled some of the details of the singularity of Bradman's batting, he has a question for the rest of cricket: why does no one else try to bat like the game's greatest genius?

He is not the only man asking, at least not anymore. Bob Woolmer's epic book The Art and Science of Cricket includes a section on Shillinglaw's analysis of Bradman, written by one of Woolmer's own analysts, the South African research scientist Tim Noakes. A week before Woolmer left for the 2007 World Cup, from which, sadly, he would not return, Noakes showed him pictures that he had collected of the greatest batsmen, "most of whom had elements of Bradman's technique". "We need to look at this as soon as I get back…" Woolmer had said.

In the eight years since Woolmer's death, Noakes has remained in touch with Shillinglaw and continued with his investigations. One of Noakes' PhD students is currently engaged in research aimed at demonstrating that Shillinglaw's theory is correct, and they are becoming convinced that it is.

At its heart is this: Bradman developed in childhood an unorthodox but entirely natural way of controlling the bouncing ball. As he made his way in the professional game, attempts were made to change his method, to "correct" his grip and his backlift, but he resisted them. Noakes' research with groups of young cricketers in Cape Town has confirmed that those who are uncoached tend towards Bradman's technique naturally. It is only when conventional coaching takes over that their methods become altered. Most excitingly, they are testing the theory that while a conventional technique will produce a good batting average up to and including first-class level, in international cricket, and particularly in white-ball cricket, the closer a technique matches Bradman's, the higher the average that will result.

Do try this at home © AFP

In the Ram Slam semi-final last week, Kevin Pietersen played a quite extraordinary shot. Wayne Parnell, bowling left arm around the wicket, sent down a high full toss - high enough to be called a no-ball - and wide of Pietersen's off stump, which he hit for six high over square leg with an iron-wristed cross-court forehand that concluded with a Dhoni-style rotor blade flourish. It was so extraordinary Pietersen ran a Twitter contest to name it, offering his Dolphins shirt to the winner (imagine Bradman doing that). It was duly christened the "Heli-Hook", and presuming it's repeatable, it joins the Flamingo and the switch hit as his contributions to the new age of batting.

What all three have in common is that they were produced as solutions to specific problems. The Flamingo was devised to knock Glenn McGrath off his metronomic length. The switch hit was played in response to defensive fields set for spin. Where the Heli-Hook differed was that its conception was instant and therefore more Bradman-like. It was an instinctive solution to the problem presented by the delivery. One of the lessons of Bradman's childhood game was the internalisation of these natural responses during the untold hours of hitting a golf ball rebounding erratically from the corrugated cladding of a water tank.

Pietersen is a freakish batsman in many ways. He grew up as an offspinner. He is 6ft 5in tall. He rarely, if ever, plays off the back foot. His guiding principle is the position of his head over the ball. Bradman was freakish too. He didn't play a single match on a grass pitch until he was in his late teens. He gave up cricket for a couple of years to play tennis. By the age of 21, he had scored 452 for New South Wales against Queensland at the SCG.

That was as freakish a display of batting for its day as those produced by AB de Villiers or Jos Buttler far more recently. Like Bradman, they come from multi-sport backgrounds: de Villiers is famously good at everything from tennis and golf to rugby and athletics. Buttler was a formidable tennis player, and got the idea for his off-side scoop shot after watching a ball rebound oddly from a stick during a hockey match. Eoin Morgan derives much of his technique from hurling, a game he played in Ireland as a younger man. Sam Billings credits his speed through the ball to rackets rather than any kind of cricket coaching.

Kevin Pietersen cooked up the switch hit as a counter to defensive fields set for spin © Getty Images

What is becoming apparent is that unorthodoxy is to be tended and prized in the players of the future (and not just in batting - almost every development in bowling has come the same way). It's worth asking where orthodoxy came from, and why we are beholden to it.

The first is easy to answer. Bradman himself railed against the MCC Coaching Manual in his own writings on batting, and its tenets remain central to the core method of play. It is in a way an important socialising force. The game is not just for the handful of elite players and geniuses who can expand its boundaries. It's for everyone who wants to play, and the existence of a basic, easily conveyed overall method of getting the ball to the other end or being able to hit it for runs benefits us all. It's like learning about the 12 notes in music, or the graspable bedrocks of grammar. Not everyone who does is going to be Miles Davis or Martin Amis.

Yet if Shillinglaw is right, the game might actually become easier to teach.

Bradman's technique, which Shillinglaw has christened the Rotary Method, appears to be more natural physiologically. It just requires a switch away from the restrictive notion of picking the bat up and bringing it down in straight lines.

One of Shillinglaw's favourite stories is that of Dick Fosbury, the American high jumper who was the first to travel backwards over the bar. Once he had won the gold medal at the Mexico Olympics in 1968, anyone wishing to beat him had to adopt his method. Bradman was cricket's Fosbury moment, except no one took any notice of what he was doing, swept away instead by the tsunami of statistics that trailed behind the way he played.

Batting and bowling are far more nuanced than jumping over a bar, but it's becoming clear that the future of coaching lies in embracing human variety rather than a one-size-fits-all standard. Pietersen, de Villiers, Buttler, Morgan, Gayle and the rest of those players blasting away in their own style at the apex of the game will be followed in a way that the Don never was.

Jon Hotten blogs here. @theoldbatsman

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