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Pete Langman

Why the wrong technique is sometimes right

Orthodoxy is all well and good, but sometimes you need to dump it in the interests of the spirit of play

Pete Langman
Pete Langman
A batsman drives in a match in Sidmouth, Devon

It's not all about the follow-through and the foot position  •  Getty Images

Many cricketers play better when on tour than when they are knee-deep in the grind of another season, and part of it is because the games are less important, the scores kept are purely for club fines and forfeits rather than league position and points. When you add in the cameraderie built up by late-night drinking sessions, hangovers and lazy days getting to know new clubs and grounds, the game simply becomes fun again, and with the pressure off, your game can simply flow. The dodgy B&Bs can take off some of the glitz, but things could be worse. You could be in ancient Greece, where the dodgy B&B was raised to an art form: if it isn't Circe turning your team into a herd of pigs, then it's Polyphemus deciding to eat his guests. Poor form, I think you'd agree. It is perhaps Procrustes who, in his desire to have everything "just so", was the most unpleasant of the lot. He would adjust his guests so that they fitted his beds perfectly: too tall and he'd lop off your feet; too small, and he'd put you on the rack and stretch you until you were the perfect height.
In the same way, orthodox technique is often applied as a "one size fits all" method of coaching. But sometimes the heterodox approach can also lead to great success, especially when allied with that mysterious element called "play". In a previous life I was a musician and teacher, and spent hours with both individuals and bands, helping them sound better. I was a stickler for correct technique, within the boundaries of individual ability, but every so often I would simply ignore what a player was doing "wrong" because the noise they made simply worked. The same principle applied when working with bands, and while judgements as to which bands or players aren't technically adept but make great noise is a wildly subjective art - perhaps a few suggestions in the comments might help the debate - the point is, some people do things simply wrong, but get it oh, so right.
We are, in England at least, at that time when cricketers across the land are viewing the new season with a mix of trepidation and anticipation. Gymnasia resonate with the thud of ball upon shin, the metallic clatter of rebound stumps, and warning cries of "Heads!" as the five bowlers waiting their turn catch up on gossip, having forgotten about the batsman, who has decided the lofted straight drive is the shot of the day. Breakfast tables groan as those muscles that seem strangely cricket-specific take umbrage against their sudden and unprepared for re-deployment. But these nets are next to useless technically, the traditional "bowlers, form a disorderly queue; batter, kill the ball" approach doing nobody any favours, and they're hardly ideal preparation for an uncovered pitch in late April. They are fun, however, if you let them be.
No one has ever simply said, "Hit the ball over there" before. Freed from the need to do it how it's meant to be done, I suddenly found I could do it after all
Cricket can be stressful at whatever level you play, and for me it shows: the natural nervousness at the start of an innings is amplified by Parkinson's, as adrenaline makes my tremor go into overdrive. I don't really enjoy those first few balls, and this shows in my stats: in 24 innings last season I recorded four ducks and nine single-figure scores, but if I made it to double figures, I averaged 41. There are many possible explanations, but I think the most important is that after the first ten runs I simply started to enjoy myself. When this happened (and I started to "play" in the true sense), I forgot about my technique and just tried to make the ball do something. I didn't enjoy my last club net, as I was so intent on batting well. I also batted abysmally.
And so I decided on a one-to-one coaching session, where I suggested some work on my front-foot game, because it's the orthodoxy, and I'm really no good at it: while I'm happy to step back, my front foot gives a whole new slant to the word "recalcitrant". My coach hummed and hawed (he has seen me bat before) and suggested we try a different approach.
My technique would give Sir Geoffrey apoplexy. With low backlift and minimal foot movement, I take a middle-stump guard and stand outside leg, and play so late, the bowler is often celebrating my demise just as my bat appears from nowhere. I'm vulnerable to the late inswinger, though lbw is not a problem, neither is hitting the ball in the air. Run-outs? Just the one last season - ironically a direct hit from the boundary at the bowler's end; that'll be the exception that proves the rule, right?
I am beyond mere tinkering, and it's too late for a technical rebuild, but is either approach always wise? The professional game is littered with talent snuffed out by over-enthusiastic application of the orthodox. Both Jimmy Anderson and Steven Finn were almost ruined by attempts to make their natural "way" fit the cookie-cutter "bowler" page of the modern coaching manual: we live in a "see box, tick box" world. For me, technical work simply makes me think too much and stop enjoying the game.
So I was given a field empty between point and mid-off, and told to hit the gap. The bowling was variable in length but either full and straight or just outside off stump. With my inability to get forward, and a weak top hand, you would expect me to struggle. What I did (and this, I'd like to point out, was not due to any great plan on my part) was definitely unorthodox. And rather fun.
Instead of moving forward and to the off side, meeting the ball and clattering it through the vacant covers, I instinctively moved back and across, waited for the ball, and, well, clattered it through the vacant covers. The thing was, I moved my back foot further towards the leg side, thus ending up in the same position as I would have with orthodox movement, only with my front foot just outside the leg stump instead of the off stump, except that it allowed me to play later to a straighter ball. Oh, and instead of fretting about my play, my foot position, my swing, my grip, I actually enjoyed myself. In the 100-plus balls I faced, I was bowled twice: once my own fault, the second a 70mph left-arm-over yorker. That's compared to nine bowled dismissals out of 13 last season.
I've heard the words "Get forward" more times than I care to remember, both in the nets and in the middle. It's never going to happen. But no one has ever simply said, "Hit the ball over there" before. Freed from the need to do it how it's meant to be done, I suddenly found I could do it after all. That is, I forgot about the bat and thought about the ball. It's not playing without fear so much as playing without a care, though not carelessly. It's how Botham played at Headingley in 1981.
There is a right way and there are other ways, and while Sir Geoffrey picks up on the minutest aspect of a batter's technique, he is also the first to say that what really counts are runs. While it's true that orthodox technique is a good thing, it is also true that some of the greatest players have found another way. Muralitharan, Malinga, Trescothick, Chanderpaul, KP, de Villiers... the list is illustrious. While I have no idea whether my average will improve this year, I do feel unshackled from the need to conform.
Coaching, like playing, is about identifying how an individual can get the most out of themselves, not how the coach can make them conform to a template. And cricket is a game. Let's enjoy it.

Pete Langman is the author of The Country House Cricketer and Slender Threads: a young person's guide to Parkinson's Disease. @elegantfowl