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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