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The Confusion Of Coaches

Let me be clear. You don’t need pace to be a great seam or swing bowler.

McGrath, Pollock, Anderson, Southee and 100s of others have shown that through dogged battering of the cricket ball into the same area of the pitch, time after time, that eventually you will have success. Hitting your ‘areas’, bowling in ‘the channel’ and ‘hitting the top of off stump’ are the only key phrases  you probably need as a coach to reinforce the fact that pace isn’t necessary to be successful.

Obviously, you have to move the ball in the air or off the pitch, too, but it is the incessant hammering of the same area of the pitch that will reap rewards. This is at least the message we all seek to portray.

At club level, the game is littered with ‘weekend warriors’ who ply their trade using this method. On slow, often soft, grassy pitches, it is a medium pacers’ whet dream to just land the ball on the seam and watch it dart about. It is hard to get the ball away. Pace here isn’t necessary, nor is it seen in abundance. 

However, this is the reservoir from which our next generation emerge. So the genuine quicks, those who have a passion for pace and a desire to rip through a batting line up, will often quickly realise they are in a minority. Coaches will tell them to slow down, bowl a line and length… and the prospect of producing pace bowlers ebbs away.

What’s wrong though, is that if you COULD hit your areas at 5-8 mph faster, you would definitely take that as a bowler. I have yet to meet a bowler who wouldn’t want an ‘extra yard’ of pace, meaning that speed does play a very big part of bowling development.

The problem stems from not understanding how to work with a bowler’s action to develop that speed, make it more efficient, less injury prone and ultimately a better machine. After all it is the PROCESS of fast bowling that creates the OUTCOME we seek. And the better your processes, the more accurate and faster you become. The confusion of coaches is only looking at the outcome therefore and not how that is achieved. That confusion is furthered by the fact they don’t now how to coach speed. And this comes from not being taught it in the first place as a coaches. So national boards don’t teach speed, the coaches don’t teach speed, and thus fast bowlers don’t maximise their speed. It’s a medium pacers mentality that’s great on ‘bowling friendly’ tracks, but falls apart in places where pitches are known to be batting friendly as can be seen by some of the poor track records of bowlers who go there.

Speed however, remains relevant in ALL situations and at all times. Particularly when the pitch offers the batsman an easy ride from seam. 95 mph deliveries unsettle the world’s best. Striving for pace is clearly highly desirable.

Bowlers can have actions riddled with inefficiencies yet they have learned to bowl with them, rather than improve them. Does this make physics and biomechanics irrelevant? No, of course not. It simply means they have worked out over time, to be different from the Saturday club bowlers who also have such inefficient actions. In spite of the action, not because of it, is usually how bowlers are successful.

I often ask attendees at my speed workshops “why don’t you see club cricketers with an action like Brett Lee?” To which most reply “because if you had that action, you wouldn’t be playing club cricket”. You gotta love an open mind that has been asked the right question.

So this is the nub of it. Bowlers have to focus on swing, seam, line, length etc because they do not spend much time working on their actions in the first place – actions, that if having a solid, repeatable and efficient machine are anything to go by, give you the consistency in the first place.

The brutal truth is, you HAVE to be accurate anyway as a bowler regardless of your speed. The slower you bowl, the less margin for error there is. You can get away with things at higher speeds that you cannot a lower speeds – fact. So I would like to see an encouragement for people to step up their speed rather than continually slow it down, which seems to be the populist view.

There is a coach education issue, a coaches’ mentality issue, and a bowler issue that simply gets perpetuated over and over. Comfort is often sought in statistics that ‘prove’ people are right, and things which are not understood are dismissed as crackpot, irrelevant or simply left field. But if you seek world class best practice, you look at all the possibilities and instead of thinking “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” you instead think “what can we do better to improve on what we have”.  Most mindsets are sadly stuck in the comfort of the first thought – until they HAVE to change.

Speed, for speed’s sake, is not what I advocate. It has to be accompanied with Accuracy. That’s what ABSAT coaching means and is all about and why UPF exists. 

But what I do believe is that you don’t slow anything down to be better. You speed it up to be more effective. It isn’t a ‘lack’ of anything – speed or control – we seek, but rather an increase in all our parts, that will make for far better cricketers.

Averageness starts by being complacent, and you only get progress when you challenge. With Dale Steyn at world number one for more than a decade, and no real fast bowling contender to his throne for that time other than Shoaib, Johnson & Lee… you have to question what in the world coaches are striving for. 

With the retirement of Shoaib Akthar, Mitchell Johnson and  Brett Lee, the world has far less to be excited about in pace terms. Steyn remained out on front, almost in a league of his own, able to uproot the batsman, but he is now coming to his own end of career. Rabada has recently burst through but here we are not talking about a 150 kph bowler. And the pacers going around do not have the blistering speed of the recent retirees.Ultimately, a lack of pace doesn’t make you a bad man, but the point is you don’t have to sacrifice speed for anything. Not even for your outcomes. So next time you watch the current crop of bowlers, just add 8 kph to their TV speeds and imagine how much more effective they would be.

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What IS Natural Talent?

It’s always a curious thing when coaches, players and commentators talk about “natural talent”. 

When someone does well they appear to have natural talent, according to experts and when they break records, do something exceptional or remain highly consistent, it is revered as natural ability.

But the truth is, if we do things over and over again this is what becomes natural. And that means you can change it.

Coaching (or teaching) can help you alter how you do things. If you are a batsman and continually get LBW for example, the way you bat can be improved. In some cases, a trigger, pre-delivery movement, would dramatically help. But this wouldn’t be natural for you to attempt without grooving it over and over – until it felt natural. At this point, we would say that you had a natural style of batting, even though you had learned it. Because even if you ‘worked out’ the best way for you to bat – you have learned it. It might be self-taught, but that is learning, too.

Brett Lee suffered a stress fracture due to his ‘natural’ bowling action when aged 18. So he changed it into what we saw . To us this looks natural and most commentators said this is a gift for him and ‘how he bowls’ even though he learned it.

There is a confusion over what is natural and the aptitude as humans we have to do something easily. Humans are pre-disposed with different assets that make running, throwing, jumping or hitting a ball, more likely. However, something is only natural if it has been nurtured, developed and learned. 

This is the most important thing to remember – apart from instinct we are all born with, all things in our life are learned experiences. It doesn’t mean that all humans can do the same things equally well. It simply means that we are a product of what we have been taught, shared and absorbed.

Those who do exceptionally well as a cricketer clearly perform the most important tasks better than others. Whether this is physical, mental or tactical, those world class performers all share a similar group of ‘assets’. There is a capacity to perform that others may not be able to show. 

Whether this is natural talent, for me, is highly unlikely. 

All tall people cannot be fast bowlers. All people with great reflexes and concentration cannot be great batsmen. So what is the ‘gift’ that people have that makes them exceptional?

Whatever you do more often than not, becomes natural, feels natural and looks natural. Being taught the right things is the main part of what appears to be natural, gifted talent. 

So is there a difference between what is natural and what is natural talent? It is just predisposition that differs, but the common denominator is always what has been learned. 

And that comes down to coaching in the end, appropriate to the person receiving it. 

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Do Coaches Make A Difference At the Higher Levels?

People say you always remember a great teacher. That’s because the influence they can have on you is immense. You probably remember a very bad one, too.

So just how important IS a coach when it comes to a team being successful?

The general feeling is always that the players are playing and the coach is…well… just a coach. A coach cannot play for you and a coach isn’t out there performing.

So what is a player? Is he/she an autonomous, free-thinking, self-developed and fully-independent cricketer? Can he/she work things out for himself/herself under pressure?

My first penny-dropping moment came at the 2007 World Cup as Assistant Coach to the Netherlands in the West Indies. At a team meeting I asked a simple question “How many of you know your role in the team?” If i recall, out of the 16 players sat around the table, only 2 hands went up.

The players were simply unsure of what they were doing or were clear of thought about how they should play.

In 2011, as Head Coach of the Dhaka Gladiators, I asked opening batsman Imran Nazir, what he thought his role was in the power play. He said “To get as many runs as fast as possible”.

What struck me about those two conversations is just how a player is completely influenced by coaching staff and understanding of role clarity. Something as simple (and important) as “what is my role?” wildly affected how collective individuals would be able to perform.

The ECB identified 5 key areas for making a world-class player: Technical, Tactical, Physical, Mental and Lifestyle. And so to develop that player we have coaches covering skill drills, strength & conditioning, sports psychologists, performance analysts, nutritionists, and a whole plethora of ‘back room’ staff.

We place massive importance of ‘team ethic’, plans, media interaction, communication, dressing room vibe and positive attitudes.

We spend hours in nets throwing balls with Sidearms, having player bowl at targets, hitting against bowling machines, learning power hitting, developing skills for different aspects of the game. Coaches work hours on fielding skills like catching, diving, throwing, positioning. It’s a coach’s job to make the players better.

Hours are spent by analysts developing weaknesses of opposition and own players.
Match day tactics are developed – team by team. Plans are discussed, worked on and fleshed out. Team meetings are designed to make the game as smooth as possible for the players.

Once the players cross that boundary line they are on their own. No coach can do it for them. But be under no illusion. You are watching the tip of the Iceberg with the vast majority of what has gone on up to then – under the surface unseen.

Success goes to players. Blame goes to coaches. That’s how fans see it and those outside of the game. Neither is accurate or true, but perception is reality.

My point is, when you see a successful team, just think about what has gone into making that happen and understand the players are never alone, nor is anything done in isolation.