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England cricket

February 10, 2014

Work and punishment

Rupert Williams

Training sessions seem to spend far too much time on strengthening drills that have nothing to do with cricketing skills © AFP

When I was growing up, there were wonderful quick bowlers everywhere; bowlers like John Dye, Mike Hendrick and the entire Middlesex attack. Even the less fashionable counties like Northants were blessed with the likes of Alan Hodgson. So where are those bowlers now? Well, the talent hasn't disappeared entirely. It's still there, but it's getting gradually coached out of the game.

From an early age, promising young cricketers are captured and nurtured by the county system, and sculpted into the players their highly-accredited coaches want them to become. They will have every facet of their game questioned, tweaked and counter-tweaked as various coaches all have their say. By the time they graduate into the professional game, they will likely not resemble their earlier self, and will have had not only their natural ability but also their ability to think for themselves coached out of them.

Even if they can still think for themselves, they won't be allowed to if they want to progress. Their whole lives will be structured by a battalion of experts for every eventuality, and should they speak up against it, they will be labelled "a divisive influence", "a rebellious individual", or most worryingly of all, "not a team player".

My son is one such young player. He is an opening bowler who can swing the ball both ways at pace, with a variety of slower balls in his armoury too. However, he hasn't come through the usual route: he has stayed out of the county system almost completely until he was unexpectedly called into a minor counties match. He earned this opportunity not by impressing a coach, but by working his way into the side on the weight of wickets. He has received little technical coaching, or formal fitness training; and yet he is perfectly able to play four consecutive days' worth of high-quality cricket without any ill-effects.

Recently, he trialled with a first-class county, and after a single session lasting less than three hours, he was left injured and demoralised for more than a week afterwards. The injuries were because the session seemed to be less about cricket and far more about physical punishment. If a bowler failed to hit the cone, hurdle or pole that was acting as a target in the drill in question, he faced punishment. If a batsman failed to hit the bowling machine ball back between the cones provided, he would face punishment. If a fielder failed to complete the drill faultlessly, he would go back to the queue, because for the second half of the session, fielding drills were the punishment.

Aside from the worrying aspect of fielding being used as a deterrent, it was by far the least damaging of the sentences on offer. In the first half of the session, the weapons of choice for the coaches were heavy medicine balls, which would be added to regular stretches and drills to make them that bit more punishing. Presumably, this was supposed to help to create a pressure situation, as well as to gauge "the non-negotiable fitness levels required". Instead, when added to a half-hour long "light" warm-up, it served to leave my son too tired to perform anywhere near his best and with much of his body in spasm.

Two players spoke out against the ritual punishment that was going on in the session, both of them regular county players. One of them was given a frankly humiliating dressing down in front of all present, while the other was told that he should "work harder to rise to the challenge" and "turn his anger into positive energy". My son, meanwhile, went through an entire session without bowling at a batsman or batting against a bowler. Quite how this gave the county in question any idea about his abilities, I have no idea. He left a county cricket session, something that should have been a superb experience, both emotionally and physically shattered.

If this is the way of the English game all the way to the highest level, it is little wonder that the national team has suffered its 12-1 drubbing in Australia. Indeed, you could say it's been on the cards for some time, and the signs have been there. Top-level cricket has been blighted in recent years by a semi-epidemic of stress-related illnesses and stress fractures. I cannot claim to be an expert on either, but if this county session was a microcosm of the life of a professional cricketer, then neither comes as a surprise, because it was a textbook example of physical and mental stress.

It cannot be healthy for your mind if you are constantly in fear of being critiqued and humiliated. And it cannot be healthy for your body to be worked so excessively before you even start on a high-impact activity like fast bowling. I'm not an expert in so far as I have no coaching qualifications, but as a concerned parent and cricket fan, I think there's something seriously wrong.

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Posted by pareshnv on (February 13, 2014, 23:46 GMT)

This is the same problem experienced by me.My son has been in the middlesex county since the age of 11.He is now 17 and is not selected in the academy programme.He has been an all rounder getting a fair number of runs and high wicket taker.He has also been in the emerging player programme and yet not been selected to the academy.My son has managed to save many games which would have been a disaster and yet the boys selected are the ones who did not perform.The boys selected normally get 30-40 runs in 30 overs in a 50 overs match which made them loose each and every match.So basically its who you know will take you forward in this selection.This is the only reason why england have not succeeded.It is the selection process that has let them down starting from the colts level.This has spoilt my sons career.Now all we can do is wait and see if he is recalled back to the county.

Posted by   on (February 12, 2014, 1:23 GMT)

The great such as Viv Richards and Alan Lamb all warn against over-coaching. I can see how the physical endurance regime from other sports is crossing over into cricket. The US college football players on NCAA scholarships train on a team of 85 for 4 years in which there is no guaranteed playing time . They're held captive be school scholarships. If you are going to enforce the cross-over discipline-which in college football is a minimum of 4 hours training a day-make sure you pay the players well if you want to apply that shake down routine.

Posted by   on (February 11, 2014, 6:38 GMT)

Just a bit of back yard cricket practice would do. Too much training no good for see ball and hit ball.

Posted by   on (February 11, 2014, 5:26 GMT)

This has been a problem for a long time, remember the 90s when promising cricketers would regularly get injured on tours because of excessive county cricket. Not much has changed in 20 years except of increased media attention on cricket, and players finally speaking out about poor coaching standards but sadly having their careers terminated for speaking their mind.

Posted by jkaussie on (February 11, 2014, 4:57 GMT)

I am a qualified coach, having done work at junior elite level in Australia and at club level too. In my experience too often an approach is taken that this is the recipe, follow it or leave. Whilst there is a need for some uniformity in regards to foundational skills where the correct foundation is likely to result in a lower injury risk, coaches must be prepared to allow for the unique - this is one of cricket's great joys! Jeff Thomson, Lasith Malinga, Viv Richards, KP, Saeed Ajmal, Murali, Colin Croft and many more would never have entertained the masses if they had been coached to so called "perfection". Yet, there is a need for balance. Strength and conditioning especially in relation to pelvic core stability has been proven to have major positive effects on player's performances, but there are so many ways to incorporate it into drills that also mimic cricket skills - and to make sessions varied and enjoyable! So coaches, research and plan accordingly!

Posted by timmyw on (February 11, 2014, 0:47 GMT)

@Paddy Lambton - Well, Mitchell Johnson is a really good example here. He WAS told to go sort his action, everyone messed with it and he ended up being awful. Then he just went back to doing what he knows how to do and look what happened. I reckon Fast Bowlers should take a leaf out of Bob Willis' text book. They should be doing a lot of running. Also a lot of bowling. And that's really about it. I think this is why cricket has become painful to watch sometimes. Professional sport seems a bit of a misnomer to me, surely you have to still play the thing? Surely you have to still enjoy it? I think there's a balance to be found and these days the balance is upended to the point where it's just not fun any more.

Posted by   on (February 11, 2014, 0:32 GMT)

Now I see how the 'coaching' system finished Ajit Agarkar, he was put up in a MRF academy to correct his bowling action - as if a machine needs realigning, but that should be a natural one and leave it as it is.. and he came back 'corrected' but lost his wicket taking abilities only the run giving remained with him despite all these 'techniques sorting out'. There are few more examples like Agarkar's..

Posted by   on (February 10, 2014, 19:33 GMT)

Is it any surprise that so many young fast bowlers who could be playing for England are injured? More support staff than players in the test squad in Oz. Hamstrung by too many theories means players cannot think for themselves. Christine Trueman was allegedly overcoached and a bright talent was extigiushed before it could blossom. COACHES coach what is there as long as it is safe.

Posted by inswing on (February 10, 2014, 19:29 GMT)

Too much emphasis on physical drills is a telltale sign of an incompetent coach. It is hard to assess and then provide precise, tailored technical advice to a bowler or a batsman. But it is easy to assign exercise and fielding drills in the name of fitness. It also makes you look like a tough guy with high standards.

Posted by   on (February 10, 2014, 18:43 GMT)

My Grandson is also being coached, i've not watch him, but is this the correct way? Are we saying that Mavericks like KP have no future in the game or that our Manager can not man manage?.............. It's true in most sport that we coach out natural ability.............. Let the Young in sport show us how they play............. The will be successful or fail.......... by their ability

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