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Sue de Groot

Is your cricketer a puppy?

And is cricket coaching more like dog training than the coaches on either side will let on?

Sue de Groot

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A spaniel in a pet competition
Cute, but what's his strike-rate? © Fotoarena
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Sometimes I write about topics other than cricket, and recently one of these topics was dog training. I have no personal experience - in the playing sense - of cricket, just as I have no personal experience of dog training (I live with cats; they train us), but one can still observe such phenomena from a distance. When it comes to dogs, the greater the distance the better, although I suppose that depends on the dog, and I suppose the same can be said of cricketers.

I was researching the conflict between various schools of dog training, some of which say that proper obedience only comes from positive reinforcement, mostly involving edible treats, while others hold steadfastly to the old ways of choking and beating and shouting. There are vastly differing views on the subject, and the same holds true in the field of cricket coaching.

Once the dogs had had their day, I turned back to cricket and found that there are almost as many cricket-coaching courses around as there are dog-training courses. The only reason there aren't exactly as many is that there are more people with problem dogs than there are people with problem cricketers, although given the coaching shuffle happening round the world, this may be changing.

When it comes to dogs, apart from actual people offering their services as trainers, dog psychologists and, on the more esoteric side, masseurs and whisperers, the global canine industry makes millions from aids such as collars, leads, clickers, food-based inducements and more arcane pieces of equipment, like choke chains, electric-shock devices and water sprayers. As far as I can tell, none of this punitive corrective equipment is used in cricket, but given the state of Kevin Pietersen's hair it's hard to be sure.

On the cricket side, as well as real human coaches offering their services in both physical and remote form, there are dozens of learning aids on sale, from books to videos to online manuals to pieces of white fabric that can be pinned to the sides of the net and which apparently will help a batsman target the gap. You'd think a torn-up sheet would do the trick, but no, apparently your technique will only improve if you purchase the patented shirt-shaped thing, at much greater cost, from a registered provider. The more expensive models may come with a stuffed animal meant to represent Kevin Pietersen's hair, but I can't swear to that.

 
 
Without any judgement, I think the laws of logic can be applied here: if puppies are like children, and if cricketers are also like children, it must necessarily follow that cricketers are like puppies
 

You see where I'm going with this, don't you? People will do anything to make sure their dog is better-behaved than the rest of the pack, and cricketers will do anything to beat the opposition. Of course there's national pride and all that at stake, but the principles remain the same.

In South Africa the recognised authority in the dog-training game is a vet who goes by the media pseudonym of "Dr Platzhund". He told me that puppies can be compared to children. A not-unknown cricket coach was quoted just last year as saying that being in charge of his team was like being in charge of a kindergarten. Without any judgement, I think the laws of logic can be applied here: if puppies are like children, and if cricketers are also like children, it must necessarily follow that cricketers are like puppies.

Platzhund says that puppy activities such as chewing, biting, digging, fighting and defecating are all normal - so our cricketers are all happily normal, then - but these behaviours can be exercised inappropriately, and that's when they become destructive. Chewing is a perfectly normal activity, but if your preoccupation with gum causes you to give insufficient attention to the batting order, or forget to move your fielders, you might suffer a defeat. Biting a ball is similarly harmless, if it's done in your own backyard, but when executed in front of an audience of spectators, not to mention an umpire, the opposing team and a few TV cameras, it could be seen as destructive. As for defecating inappropriately, well, it's been a while since the cricket world has seen this, so perhaps some coaching methods are working.

Training one dog is all very well; training a team of them to work together and not bite each other (or the ball) is something else entirely. When it comes to getting a pack to work together, the experts recommend socialisation classes from an early age, rewarding spontaneous acts of desired behaviour and gradually introducing commands. "Good boy, Biff!"

These are dogs we're talking about. Cricketers, of course, are an entirely different breed, although if a coach finds himself training a team of underdogs, he could always try bringing them to heel with some old-fashioned Pavlovian conditioning.

By the way, I know Dr Platzhund's real name, but I'm not giving it out in case he's inundated with requests to coach cricket.

RSS FeedSue de Groot is a Johannesburg-based journalist, columnist and television scriptwriter

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Sue de Groot is a Johannesburg-based journalist, columnist and television scriptwriter. Formerly managing editor of men's magazine Directions, features writer for Femina and assistant editor of Cosmopolitan, she is now features editor of Food & Home Entertaining. She wrote the "Wicket Maiden" column for the Wisden Cricketer SA until that magazine's sad demise, and tries to restrict herself to writing about life's six highest pleasures: food, gardening, books, films, cats and cricket.

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Sue de Groot Sue de Groot is a Johannesburg-based journalist, columnist and television scriptwriter. Formerly managing editor of men's magazine Directions, features writer for Femina and assistant editor of Cosmopolitan, she is now features editor of Food & Home Entertaining. She wrote the "Wicket Maiden" column for the Wisden Cricketer SA until that magazine's sad demise, and tries to restrict herself to writing about life's six highest pleasures: food, gardening, books, films, cats and cricket.
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