Sir Donald Bradman said in his seminal book “ The Art of Cricket ” that he would rather tell a young batsman what to do than how to do it.
Batting in Test cricket is the most challenging occupation in world sport. Nothing is more demanding on the whole athlete than facing up to someone hurling missiles at 90 miles an hour, in a game that lasts for five days and innings that can go on for hours or be cut short in a matter of minutes.
The mental skills are tested as much as the physical skills while the fitness to bat for hours on end is underestimated.
In 137 years of Test cricket, the pantheon of batting champions is populated by the tens rather than the hundreds.
It takes time to develop top-class batsmen. There is no easy road to the top. Hours of patient, intelligent and persistent training is required to reach there.
The early exposure to the art is critical in the development process. Too much instruction in the formative stage can be deleterious to development.
It must be learnt. Contrary to popular opinion, it can’t be taught.
If batting is indeed an art, then Leonardo da Vinci was correct in saying that ‘simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’.
Confucius, also a clever fellow, said that ‘life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated’. He might well have been describing what has occurred to batting since the first coaching manual was thrust upon the game.
I have been watching the development of new generations of batsmen for some time with concern.
What I am seeing troubles me, particularly in relation to Test cricket.
When I learned the game, I was taught that footwork and top hand dominance were critical components of good batting.
Most of the young batsmen that I see coming through have dominant bottom hands and minimal footwork.
The more I understand batting, the more I realise that the first leads to the second. In other words, if one has a strong bottom hand grip, it has a negative effect on the ability to use ones legs.
How did this happen?
I believe that there are a number of reasons.
The first, and possibly the most impactful thing, is that coaches are more prevalent in junior cricket than ever before. By trying to be helpful, we have stunted the growth of generations of batsmen to the point that we are not seeing the rare talents reach the top in the numbers that they once did.
Secondly, bats have become bigger and heavier as manufacturing methods have improved and batsmen want to hit the ball further and harder. Learning to bat with an implement that is too long or too heavy for the individual is a sure-fire way to develop bad habits and stunt creativity.
Because the bat is unwieldy, the individual grips it tightly with the bottom hand creating habits that are not only limiting, but also hard to undo years later.
Next, was the introduction of the helmet which makes sense from a safety point of view, but it has had a negative effect on novice batsmen that is not appreciated. The weight of the helmet is considerable which has an impact on an individual’s balance that restricts the development of good footwork.
To support the extra weight on the head, the individual is forced to stand up straighter. This shifts the weight back on to the heels in the stance. A flat-footed stance is not an ideal base from which to produce nimble movement.
Finally, young cricketers grow up now seeing a lot of short-form cricket on the television. Test cricket has been trampled by the rush to the entertainment space in an age when player’s wages have exploded.
Every prospective batsman sees the ball hit in the air regularly and that is what they practice in the belief that it is what brings success.
Deft footwork designed to change the bowler’s length has taken a back seat to the desire to blast the bowler from a nagging length. They are high-risk tactics, especially for the ill-equipped.
What should be done to create a better environment for developing batsmen?
We must stop trying to teach batting and, instead, create learning environments that encourage thinking, decision-making and which achieve the outcome of giving the batsman a strong foundation to play on both sides of the wicket.
Competition should be restricted until batsmen can recognise length and have developed a battery of options to hit the ball into gaps. The best players are known to be the best decision-makers so we must include this aspect in these early sessions.
Limits on bat size, weights
Young players should have limits on the weight and size of bats and should be learning with softer balls so that they don’t need to wear helmets or at least wear something that is light enough not to impact their footwork negatively.
Coaches should be seen and not heard. Their role should be to set the environment and observe the action. If refinement to a player’s method is required, the parameters of the training session should be adjusted to encourage the desired outcome. This, in my view is what real coaching should look like. No other sport trains in an environment that is as far removed from the real game as cricket does. Good players don’t learn to play and compete in nets. They have to learn from playing and competing in environments that replicate the real thing or they will not develop sufficiently to be able to make a difference and to attract spectators to the longer game.
T20 cricket has found a niche and has added a dimension of excitement to the game, but if we don’t encourage batsmen to learn how to bat before they learn to bash, not only will Test cricket suffer, but T20 cricket will be found out as being too one-dimensional.
Bradman’s words were astute half a century ago; they are as sagacious today.
The early exposure to the art is critical in the development process, writes Greg Chappell