Yes, but can he play an off-drive?
There are just a few things that can quell the competitive drive of adults attending junior cricket matches. An injury quickly draws the antagonists together. A sharply taken catch will elicit applause before the mum, dad or coach has had time to process that one of their own batsmen has been dismissed.
And then there is the young batsman stretching forward, front-leg bent, and stroking a ball through the off-side, with bat not deviating from the vertical plane. That sight obliterates all partiality. We all love to see an off-drive. It represents the grace and elegance we want from cricket and when we see a young player manage to play the stroke, it elevates the contest for all (the adults) involved.
Last season, the under 16s team that I organised, chased down a total, thanks largely to our opener. A strong, sporty lad, he stood tall at the crease and swung powerfully through the line of the ball, sending it with a mighty crack hurtling away between long-off and mid-wicket. He reached his retirement score and was cheered off by his teammates and generously applauded by the opposition. Our middle-order then chipped away at the remainder of the target.
At the game’s conclusion, as I thanked the neutral umpire, this wise old observer of the game began to wax lyrical about ‘some of those shots’. I was about to comment about the lad’s strength, when I realised he was talking about our number four – a shorter, compact and very conventionally correct batsman. He had batted circumspectly, playing out a few maidens, pushing singles off his pads and also stroking three delightful cover drives. Those were the shots the old umpire meant, the images of the game that he was so keen to share at its conclusion.
The majority of volunteer club coaches, junior organisers, cricket savvy mums and dads are of a generation whose cricket education and experience was untouched by the fabulous crisis in coaching batting described by Rick Walton in his recent blog post. They may promote the more contemporary priorities of enjoyment and participation for all, but technically their bias is traditional. Can they be shifted? Should they be shifted?
Rick’s fabulous crisis refers to the success of unconventional players (for example, Pietersen and McCullum) and more than that, to the fast-evolving demands of short-form cricket for surprising and improvised shot-making. My contribution to the debate that Rick has prompted is to consider what the response should be at the entry level to the game – for both players and coaches.
Boys and girls starting their club cricket lives present with a wonderful variety of batting techniques. Some crouch over their bats; others would topple over if you removed the bat from their hands; a few hold the bat away from themselves with an apparent aversion to willow; many stand rigidly, elbows locked. Grips can be anywhere along the length of the often too long handle, even with fingers resting on the back of the bat’s blade. They stand at all points along a 90 degree arc of orientation towards the bowler. There is less diversity of foot movement – either none or clearing the front-leg to the on-side. Bat paths are also less varied: a swing across the line, or a poke forward without backswing.
Coaches, through the gentle tools of our trade, nudge towards a monoculture. But we live (for now) in liberal times and diversity persists. The girl who can reliably clear mid-wicket will be challenged to hit the ball straight between the cones either side of the coach, but we’re pretty pleased to see a ball hit cleanly in any direction.
A year-or-two on and natural selection will have eliminated some of the more extreme natural techniques and the unsubtle reinforcement of straight-hitting will have grooved many youngsters – certainly during those oft-repeated straight-hitting drills, but maintained by fewer in the wild moments of a ‘real game’ with its 360 degree hitting zone.
The coaches at this stage start to see opportunities to ‘improve’ a player’s technique. Take the example of a boy who is progressing keenly, but continues to show a vulnerability to the full, straight ball, which he carves at, bat arriving from the direction of fourth slip, often passing without intercepting the ball. “Play straight,” we could advise, demonstrate and drill in conventional fashion. If, on the other hand, we tried to base our coaching intervention on the ECB’s core batting principles, we might emphasise the need to present the full face of the bat.
In most cases, use of either of those examples of technical terminology is unlikely to engage the young lad (and I doubt the ECB’s coaching gurus would expect its principles to be applied so drily). In my (pre-core principles) ECB coaching education, an early lesson was to identify and then prioritise the objectives of the coach. With ‘safety’ a clear front-runner, well ahead of the rest of the pack was ‘motivate’.
The coach achieves most when able to understand what would motivate this particular lad, with this particular batting vulnerability, to improve. Does he know he’s been getting out that way? Does he care? If he does, why? To bat longer, to score faster? He might already have his sights set on opening the batting for the 1st XI at some point in the future. Some discussion of the value of ‘playing straight’ might then be relevant. If he wants an attacking response to that full, straight ball, then a chat about where he might hit it, and then how, would follow.
I need to pull myself back as I’m starting to present an ideal response. Situations are rarely so clear-cut in terms of a youngster expressing their requirement, the diagnosis and options for prognosis, particularly when you’re running a session for a dozen eleven year-olds, while a parent is trying to catch your eye with a question about getting a new club shirt, and you’re distracted by a nagging feeling that you can’t raise a team for next week’s game because the local school is running an outward bounds course.
The point I want to make from my idealised situation is simply that softer coaching skills precede the harder technical ones. If our young batsman tells you his preferred resolution to his weakness with full, straight balls would be to ramp them over the keeper’s head, then the coach should wrestle with Rick’s fabulous crisis, not because the ramp is a shot a la mode, but because the motivation of a young player is at stake.
Coaches should avoid imposing solutions – that’s not really coaching, after all – even if, to be frank, it’s what most of us try (unsuccessfully) to do most of the time. The erosion of the certainties of technique – their McCullumisation – demonstrates that insisting there is one way to bat is not merely poor coaching process, but is empirically, as shown on (subscription) TV by today’s professionals, wrong.
In practice, for the coach, saturated in years of a conventional appreciation of batting, who is rushing from a work meeting, through heavy traffic, to run a batting training session with a diverse group of pre-teens, none of whom made it to double-figures in last week’s match, we can only expect so much flexible thinking. Coaches of junior club players will continue to need a simple framework with which to assess their players, and to suggest and shape meaningful practice activities.
This reflection on Rick’s fabulous crisis – or, to repeat my coining, the McCullumisation – has prompted me to recognise I should be offering and talking options when coaching batting: options for playing particular deliveries, options to achieve identified objectives, options to manage situations during innings.
I also have a suggestion for the framers of the syllabus for coaching batting. It is relatively superficial and draws on something I have observed with my sons’ football. It addresses a separate concern that I have about cricket, which is that youngsters play the game without gaining any connection to its history and culture. In small sided football games across the land, primary school aged children know and attempt ‘Maradonas’ and ‘Cruyff turns’. Naming specific skills after the game’s greats can inspire curiosity, YouTube searches and an awareness of the sport outside of this weekend’s Super Sunday. Shouldn’t we be introducing the Sanga off-drive, the King Viv on-drive, the Ponting pull and, of course, the Boycott block?
Returning to my earlier description of the two junior batsmen. The tall, powerful striker of the ball has not played this season and may be lost to the sport. The shorter, conventionally correct batsman plays senior cricket every weekend his studies allow and will complete the ECB Level 1 coaching course this winter as preparation for helping run training for younger players next season. He will fit right in with the rest of the coaching team at our club with our preference, above all else, for the off-drive.
This post was written in response to Rick Walton’s ‘Coaching – A Fabulous Crisis’ found on his blog cricketmanwales, where Rick writes about community cricket coaching, the changing game of cricket and the amazing potential of sport to improve lives. He’s on twitter: @cricketmanwales