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In the last two editions of Wisden there has been considerable criticism of Public School cricket, and this criticism has given rise to much argument and perhaps heart-searching among school coaches. It is not my task to reply in full to these criticisms, but I shall attempt to present the problems of coaches in school cricket today.
E. M. Wellings has made two main points: the first was directed against faults in individual boys, and the second, a more general one, that coaches tend to produce boys who are good net players only. It is always easy to fault the technique of boys, but it must be remembered that August is not the best time to judge a school cricketer nor can a boy be fully or correctly assessed on one or two performances on a strange ground and in an atmosphere totally different from what he has experienced before. A school coach is always up against the time factor in improving technique, and particularly is this true with bowlers. It is not possible to alter faulty technique by intensive personal coaching, such as is available in Alf Gover's school. To do so would be to sacrifice the cricket of the school for the benefit of one individual. Therefore when criticising faults in boys one must always bear in mind that such faults are almost certainly some of a number of much bigger ones which have, in the course of time, been eradicated. One should remember, too, that the bat lift of most modern Australians, the delivery of Bill O'Reilly, and the action of Clarrie Grimmett would have come in for much harsh criticism if employed by boys in the representative matches at Lord's.
The second charge is the more serious one and requires most careful investigation. All will agree that nets are an essential preliminary in the life of a budding cricketer. There are a few great players whose natural genius precludes the necessity of nets, but for most, and particularly schoolboys, nets are of supreme importance. In them one learns the fundamentals on which one can build one's own style. I am certain that no school coach would stop a boy developing on his own lines once he was satisfied that the basic defence was there. Mr. Wellings maintains that there is too much concentration on correctness and defence. Does he seriously maintain that a boy with a successful cow-shot or a brilliant straight drive, but with no defence, will ever be really successful against bowlers who know how to bowl? In 1945 and 1946, Campbell, of Canford, created a minor sensation by his hitting powers, though his defence was always suspect. Last season, unfortunately, those hitting powers were rarely in evidence because his defence was not complete enough against first-class bowlers. Boys are so liable to bad patches that unless they have the ability to play straight in defence their chances of scoring many runs are small.
Let me make it quite plain that complete concentration on defence must be criminal, and at least half of any net period should be, and normally is, spent on hitting the long hop and half-volley, practising the cut, and generally getting that lovely feeling of bat hitting ball. Any boy who hits the half-volley will always be welcome in a school side, and all coaches long for such cricketers and try really hard to produce them.
This brings me to the problems of present-day school cricket. There have been teams as good or even better than those of the pre-war era, but in the main the standard is lower, and has not improved as quickly as was hoped.
What is not generally realised is the difference in ages of the school Xl's of to-day and the 'thirties. The average age of the Repton Xl's of 1937-8-9 was 17.10; the sides of 1947-8-9 averaged 17.4. This means three things. First, one no longer gets the leavening of boys of nearly nineteen; secondly, there is a much higher percentage of fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds in the side; and thirdly, the more youthful sides of to-day are not physically so strong, and cannot, therefore, hit the ball so hard or so far as their predecessors before the war. Thus, slower scoring and smaller scores have resulted, and there has been lacking that most vital of all qualities, experience. It is very rare to find a boy who can play a real innings until his third year in the side, and, unfortunately, he now has only two years, or if he has gained his colours when only fifteen he has that third year at an age when, though experienced, he has not the mental balance to play a long innings. Hence boys of to-day tend to get themselves out in the 20's even more often than they did before the war.
Perhaps two other points may be made. Boys are now coming from their preparatory schools well grounded in the fundamentals, but that has only been true of the last two years. What is on trial to-day, and is so often criticised, is still largely the product of the war years. When one is young one learns much from example and watching. Unfortunately, much of the first-class cricket which boys watch to-day is often of mediocre standard, containing too much safety-first batting, negative bowling and careless fielding.
The excuses have now been made, and may I suggest some ideas which may help to raise these lowered standards? Concrete wickets are part of the answer. They enable one to give individual coaching in the spring to a few, and this is not possible during the summer term. Perhaps one might consider whether one cannot organise each net better. So much of the bowling in nets is aimless and tends to give the batsman poor practice. Everyone can teach himself to bowl a length, and this should always be the aim of the non-bowler. The medium and fast bowler needs careful nursing. Too often when told to take things easily he is allowed to toss up anything and he may so easily damage the rhythm and delivery of his action. A batsman must never be allowed to get bored. However many his faults, he must be allowed for some time to let himself go. In a fifteen-minute period one might give five to his technique, five to batting as he would bat in the middle, with the bowlers trying to bowl him out, and for the last few moments make him come out and use his feet, hitting the ball orthodoxly or otherwise, but above all hitting it. One final word of warning: once net wickets become dangerous, nets should cease; they are little fun and boys can so easily lose their confidence.
A change from nets is often profitable and guards against staleness and boredom. A well-run practice game is definitely worth while, and in it batsmen bat for a fixed period and are given a target of runs to aim at. This practises all branches of the game, particularly running between the wickets, and is often the way to get a side out of a bad patch.
Finally, we come to the all-important business of fielding. There is no excuse for a bad school fielding side, and provided the practice is lively and amusing one cannot have too much of it. Above all, there must be the insistence on the highest standards at all times. A good school fielding side covers up many bowling lapses, and it is only when a boy is a member of such a side that he realises the great fun of fielding.
Coaches have many different methods of teaching; some are more successful than others, some have better facilities and materials. All must attempt to instil into those whom they teach sufficient skill and such a love of the game that they go on playing cricket afterwards, be it for their county, club or village.