December 19, 2011

In praise of the natural game

Injuries in cricket aren't only because of a heavy workload. There's also something wrong with how young players are being coached

For a while now, excessive cricket was offered and accepted as the reason for the growing number of injuries to players, but that doesn't hold up so well anymore. With injuries to blossoming talents like Varun Aaron, Pat Cummins, Shaun Marsh, players who have not even worked up a sweat at the international level, we have come to realise that heavy workload is not the cause of all injuries.

It may not be a bad idea for cricket boards to take another look at the training methods employed in the development of young cricketers as they graduate to the international level. Kapil Dev missed just one match in his Test career, and that was because he was dropped by the selectors for playing an indiscreet shot in a game India lost. My fellow studio panelist during the India-West Indies series recently, Courtney Walsh, was not much different. In fact, no fast bowler has bowled more balls in Test cricket than Walsh did, and he had a relatively negligible number of injuries.

Kapil and Walsh had one important common feature: they both had natural bowling actions; actions they stuck with right from the time they were kids to the veterans they became of over a hundred Test matches each.

We often disregard things that come naturally to us; we just don't seem to respect them or value them as much, but what surprises me is that most coaches too seem to be indifferent to nature's gifts when it comes to young cricketers.

In his crucial formative years Walsh grew up under the eye of Michael Holding, one of the most intelligent cricketers I have met, so it's no surprise he retained his natural bowling style. Ramakant Achrekar and AN Sharma, the coaches of Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag respectively, were able to mould such phenomenal talents because they did one critical thing right: they mostly kept their mouths shut and let nature take its course.

Modernisation can be wonderful, and I only have to look at my mobile phone to know that, but one of the concerns in cricket today is the number of "modern" coaches bringing in "modern" methods, often at the cost of cricketing common sense. I always regret that the really shrewd cricketing brains in the game, like Imran Khan and Mark Taylor, have not chosen to coach. The game is definitely poorer because of that.

I can't understand the state of affairs in West Indies cricket, where Ottis Gibson, who has played only two Tests, and David Williams (11 Tests), are the coaches who help the captain plan and prepare tactics needed to win Tests. Robert Haynes (eight ODIs), Clyde Butts (seven Tests) and Courtney Browne (20 Tests) are the selectors, men in charge of the destiny of West Indies cricket. And guess who are travelling with the team but not playing roles as influential? Richie Richardson (86 Tests) and Desmond Haynes (116 Tests). I know great cricketers do not necessarily make great coaches and selectors, but the experience of having played the game at the highest level for so long should count for something, shouldn't it?

Cricketers who have had long and successful careers have one thing in common: they always simplified the game for themselves. Isn't that a basic characteristic you desperately need in mentors - the ability to simplify the game for the young and the naïve?

A natural bowling action or a natural batting style is a motion that has the blessing of the individual's body. Over the years the individual develops a certain style because it's what the body's frame is most comfortable with

On a visit to a state academy in India, I saw a junior coach getting all his young fast bowlers to run in to bowl with golf balls in their armpits. This was to get them to run in one prescribed, copybook way. The coach, perhaps, was too absorbed in his coaching manual to realise that the top 10 great fast bowlers all had different styles of running in.

Another cricket academy method of today I am not a big fan of is video analysis, and I am glad a few current stalwarts of the game have felt just as strongly about it when I have brought it up with them. It has become common these days to show a young kid video evidence of where he is going wrong. Seems like a sound concept, but the problem is that any video evidence tends to exaggerate the flaw. There is a great danger of a sensitive, eager young mind getting affected by it and being consumed by the need to rid himself of the flaw, in turn, affecting the areas of his game that are fine.

I shudder to imagine what would have happened to 14-year-old Brian Lara had he been shown a video of how high his back-lift was. A 12-year-old Tendulkar shown a close-up of how his grip was wrong; a freeze-frame of Sehwag's still feet at the time of receiving a delivery. Or a young Kapil shown his extremely side-on bowling action and told how it would surely destroy his lower back in the future unless he changed his bowling action.

Thank god these incredible talents were mostly left alone by their junior coaches. For that the cricketing world shall be ever grateful to them. Let me also add that these players were very smart and would quickly have found the exit door of any academy that tried to make them to change their basic game. But not all young talents are as sharp.

When I watched Aaron the first time I saw so many things to like about him, like the obvious pace and the wrist position every time he delivered the ball, but his bowling action and run-up looked a little manufactured - as if somebody had got hold of him early and put golf balls in his armpits.

A natural bowling action or a natural batting style is a motion that has the blessing of the individual's body. Over the years the individual develops a certain style because it is what the body's frame is most comfortable with. If an unnatural movement is introduced, the body will eventually get somewhat used to it, but reluctantly, so it should come as no surprise when one day it starts to protest.

Coaches have to be mindful of this, and think a thousand times, if not a million, before they decide to change a player's natural style.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here

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