April 7, 2013

Coaching kills the batting star

Young batsmen seem to be developing more slowly these days than in the past

Recently I stated that the Australian production line has slowed to a crawl, which begs the question: are there alternatives to developing young batsmen for an international career?

I was surprised last August when I attended the Under-19 World Cup to find that among the major nations, in all bar one case, the fast bowlers were way ahead of the batsmen in development. The exception was India. They had batsmen with uncomplicated footwork who also possessed the shots to take charge of an attack, with Unmukt Chand being the standout.

My mind went back to when I first saw Ricky Ponting as a 17-year-old at the cricket academy. After five minutes it was obvious that here was a young batsman who looked every inch an international player. Apart from Chand, I didn't see one batsman at the U-19 World Cup who displayed similar traits.

Ponting recently questioned the amount of short-form cricket now played by batsmen in their development stages. In an interesting observation about his junior days, he indicated he had to be removed by the bowler, not by a set of rules. "I was batting until someone got me out, and if that took them a week then that's how long it took them," he said.

In trying to devise a better method to produce batsmen for the modern game, is it worth delving into the past to improve the future? Along with the example of Ponting's upbringing, there's further compelling evidence from the background of both Garry Sobers and Javed Miandad - two champion batsmen with totally different styles, who played a lot of their youth cricket on the street.

When asked why he batted without a thigh pad, Sobers said he grew up using a picket off a fence, facing bowlers delivering a rock that was rounded into shape with tape, while playing on a rutted road. He explained it was in his best interests to hit the unpredictably deviating "ball", because if he missed, it was going to hurt.

Then there's the development of Sachin Tendulkar. He played in hundreds of matches on the Mumbai maidans, often moving from one game to another on the same day. Contrast this with the structured net sessions or long stints facing a bowling machine that a youth cricketer currently endures.

Having benefitted as a youngster from good coaching, I was appalled when I read former Australia legspinner Bill O'Reilly's sentiments on the breed. "If you see a coach coming," O'Reilly wrote, "run and hide behind a tree." However, I eventually came to the conclusion that if you don't receive good coaching when you're young then you're better off with none at all. Like O'Reilly, many of Australia's champions came from the bush and learned by practising their art in unusual ways for hours on end. Don Bradman, Stan McCabe and Doug Walters were three batsmen in this category. The conclusion to be drawn? They worked things out for themselves and eventually knew their own game inside out.

This accords with the 2013 TED talk on child learning delivered by Sugata Mitra. The eminent professor suggested it's best to pose a question to kids and let them unearth the solution for themselves. This is what Bradman, Sobers, Tendulkar and Miandad were doing in different ways. They also benefited from playing against men at a young age, which is one sure way to hasten the development process.

There are now more coaches in the game but there's less batting artistry. The modern methods are often devised to produce more power and better hitters, with a leaning to the agricultural rather than any pretence of artistry. Often, this is a case of mistaking change for improvement.

In his coaching book Sobers laments: "One of the tragedies of cricket coaching is that the greatness of the game's best players has been revered but never followed, praised but never preached." He has a point. The players with the best records succeed more often under all conditions than those with inferior statistics.

Tendulkar and Michael Hussey are good modern examples. They both developed a solid batting foundation complemented by a wide range of strokes and then adapted their game to the different forms. This is a better proposition than taking a hitter's approach to batting and then hoping it translates into success in the long form of the game.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator for Channel 9, and a columnist